The 112-page report, “Sex Workers at Risk: Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in Four US Cities,” documented in each city how police and prosecutors use condoms to support prostitution charges. The practice makes sex workers and transgender women reluctant to carry condoms for fear of arrest, causes them to engage in sex without protection, and puts them at risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The report was released prior to the 19th International AIDS Conference, in Washington, DC, starting on July 22, 2012. The US response to the epidemic will be in the spotlight before 20,000 delegates gathered from around the world. The four cities investigated are among the hardest-hit in the US, with over 200,000 people living with HIV among them.
“Sex workers in each city asked us how many condoms it was legal to carry,” said Megan McLemore, senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch. “One woman in Los Angeles told us she was afraid to carry condoms with her and sometimes had to use a plastic bag instead of a condom with clients to try to protect herself from HIV.”
The report includes testimony from sex workers and transgender women who said that police harass, threaten, and arrest them for carrying condoms. In New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, prosecutors introduce condoms into evidence at trial, asking courts to consider them indicators of criminal activity. For immigrants, arrest for prostitution can mean detention or removal from the United States. Some women told Human Rights Watch that they continued to carry condoms despite the potentially harsh consequences, but many did not.
One sex worker in Washington, DC, said, “Police always ask ‘why do you have so many condoms?’ No one walks around with a lot of condoms because of it.”
New York, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and San Francisco have reported high rates of HIV among sex workers and transgender women, and targeted HIV prevention among these groups as an urgent priority. The US government provides millions of dollars to each of these cities to prevent HIV among groups at high risk, including sex workers and transgender women. Yetsex workers told Human Rights Watch that they turned down offers of condoms from outreach workers.
In New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, many people, particularly members of the transgender community, told Human Rights Watch they had been stopped and searched for condoms while walking home from school, going to the grocery store, or waiting for the bus. Broad loitering laws in these cities invite profiling and discrimination and should be reformed or repealed, Human Rights Watch said.
Sex workers in New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles also described abusive and unlawful police behavior. Police sometimes subjected transgender women to vulgar insults, mockery, and disrespect. Transgender women described being “defaced” by police who removed their wigs and other clothing, in one case throwing it to the ground and stepping on it. In New York and Los Angeles, women reported that some police had demanded sex in exchange for dropping charges. Few of these women filed complaints, both for fear of further abuse and because they had no faith that police would respond with fairness and integrity. The US Department of Justice should investigate police treatment of sex workers and transgender people in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, Human Rights Watch said.