Making history for sex workers’ health and rights

Grassroots, long-term, coalition work gets the job done — the New York State General Assembly passed the No Condoms as Evidence bill yesterday. Here’s the press release from the coalition:


Anti-Trafficking Advocates, Women’s Groups, LGBTQ Organizations, Public Health Advocates And Civil Rights Groups Hail Passage of Critical Public Health Measure and Urge Senate to Take Action.

FRIDAY, June 20, 2013 (NEW YORK) – Today the New York State Assembly passed A2736, known as the “No Condoms as Evidence” bill, sponsored by Queens Assembly Member Barbara Clark.

“Today’s action by the New York State Assembly brings us one step closer to making history as the first state in the country to enact legislation that prohibits police and prosecutors from confiscating and introducing condoms as evidence of intent to engage in prostitution-related offenses,” said Andrea Ritchie on behalf of the No Condoms as Evidence Coalition, made up of over 70 organizations advocating for the bill’s passage. “We want to extend our sincere thanks to Assembly Member Barbara Clark and Speaker Sheldon Silver for showing leadership in putting public health first. We call on New York State Senators who care about public health, sex trafficking, stop and frisk, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and human and civil rights to follow suit after the session break.”

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Striking Anti-Prostitution Pledge is an Important, but Only Partial, Victory

Ending a ten year saga, the US Supreme Court today struck down a section of the Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act that restricts government HIV/AIDS funding from groups that do not take an explicit stance in opposition to prostitution. The so-called “anti-prostitution loyalty oath” was challenged by non-governmental organizations based in the United States soon after the passage of the Leadership Act in 2003 – and the Court’s finding that the oath violated those groups’ First Amendment rights is welcome. But it is not enough, because the decision does nothing for groups that are not based in the US, including those best-positioned to fight the epidemic because of their local and grassroots nature. The First Amendment does not extend to them, meaning they are still subject to the oath’s requirements. The Leadership Act – which created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief or PEPFAR – is up for re-authorization this year and the Obama administration should work with Congress to remove the oath once and for all.

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Supporting Brazilian sex workers

Sex workers in Brazil are challenging the Brazilian government’s decision in early June 2013 to first veto and then drastically alter an HIV prevention campaign that had been developed by the Department of STD/AIDS/Ministry of Health in partnership with sex workers earlier this year. After abruptly ordering the rights based materials to be taken offline the government relaunched the campaign with sanitized and adulterated materials several days later. The government  removed slogans about rights, citizenship, and positive affirmations of the profession from all campaign materials replacing them with fear based messages such as, “AIDS still has no cure.”

Sex workers in Brazil have released statements critisizing the government’s actions both as separate NGOs and in a powerful joint statement from the Brazilian Network of Prostitutes. Davida’s newspaper, Beijo da Rua, has reported that the sex workers that appeared in the campaign are sending cease and desist letters to the Ministry of Health revoking their releases for using their images and demanding the immediate suspension of the campaign materials in which they appear. The Ministry has now taken the campaign offline, and the fight continues to request that the Minister be forced to resign, and demand that prostitutes’ voices be heard and respected.

International pressure is incredibly important and effective in swaying political decisions. Activists and allies around the world can help support Brazilian sex workers actions:

Equal rights for all professions!

Equal rights for all professions!

New York is finally considering saying “no” to using condoms as evidence

“I’m damned if I do, I’m damned if I don’t.  I don’t want to get any disease but I do want to make my money… Why do they take your condoms, do they want us to die, do they want us to get something?”
– New York-based Sex Worker (Public Health Crisis: The Impact of Using Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in New York City, April 2012 Report).

It may have taken over ten years, but a New York State Assembly bill to prohibit condoms as evidence in prostitution cases is finally catching the attention of District Attorneys and the New York State legislature.  Last week, New York State Assembly and Council Members, the Kings County (Brooklyn) and Nassau County District Attorney’s office, along with human rights groups and legal advocates – Red Umbrella Project, Human Rights Watch, the Sex Workers Project, Make the Road New York, Streetwise and Safe, and the New York Civil Liberties Union- gathered on the steps of New York City Hall for the “No Condoms As Evidence” press rally.  Organized by the No Condoms as Evidence Coalition, these groups gathered to urge the passage of NY State bill S1379/A2736, also known as the No Condoms as Evidence bill. This is an inclusive bill that would prevent prosecutors from introducing condoms as evidence in prostitution cases, including cases involving victims of trafficking. New York has a history of police confiscating condoms from people perceived to be engaged in sex work, particularly targeting transgender and gender non-conforming persons.

The Urban Justice Center and the PROS Network released a report in April 2012 on the impact of using condoms as evidence finding that over 50 percent of the NY-based respondents interviewed had condoms confiscated based on police profiling them as a sex worker.  Seventy-five percent of transgender women and gender non-conforming people interviewed reported that they did not carry condoms on them for fear of being arrested by the police.

Seeing District Attorneys and sex workers’ rights groups together addressing sex workers’ right to carry condoms without the fear of being arrested demonstrated important progress for sex workers and allies.  This, of course, does not mean that all D.A.s are fully committed to ending the use of condoms as evidence.  A recent New York Times article revealed that some of the City’s D.A.s stated that they would still continue to allow condoms as evidence of human trafficking, despite adopting a policy that would not allow condoms in prostitution cases.

The press rally also spotlighted the problem of police profiling of members of the LGBTQ community—especially transgender women—as sex workers.  Queens Councilmember, Jimmy Van Bramer spoke on the City Hall steps stating, “No assumptions should ever be made about anyone who carries condoms.”  Yhatzine LaFountain, a member of immigrant rights group, Make the Road New York stated, “I have experienced firsthand how the police profile transgender women like me, confiscate our condoms and arrest us for walking the street as ‘trans’… Condoms are supposed to protect us, not turn us into criminals.”

Supporters of the bill are working to have the bill passed by the NY State Assembly by the end of the June session.


Guest blogger Kat Thomas attended the June 6, 2013 rally and press conference on the steps of NYC Hall organized by the No Condoms as Evidence Coalition and provided the Best Practices Policy Project with the above post.