How's this for a kick in the shorts? New York City has a program for distributing free condoms in an effort to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STI transmission. The thing is, police are also arresting women for carrying condoms. This remarkable example of governmental split personality disorder illustrates the chasm between opposing philosophies. On the one side, law enforcement is trying to "crack down" on prostitution by essentially profiling women who look "slutty" enough to be working girls. On the other, the Department of Health’s AIDS Institute is trying to reduce the transmission of STIs, especially HIV, and prevent unwanted pregnancies.
The Condom Program is relatively uncontroversial where evidence is concerned. When anyone, sex worker or not, uses condoms, STI transmission goes down. There are fewer unwanted pregnancies. Additionally, costs to the public and private healthcare sector go down: Prevention is orders of magnitude less costly than ongoing treatment of STIs, and unwanted babies send a ripple of escalating costs through the medical, social service, and criminal sectors. Perhaps even more importantly, the "intangible cost savings" associated with not having a disease and not dealing with unwanted pregnancy or parenthood are a big part of the equation.
To say that arresting women for carrying condoms is controversial almost comically understates the situation. To begin with, carrying condoms is not a crime in any sense of the word. Plain and simple. Arresting someone for a non-crime is one of the worst violations of personal freedom imaginable. It calls up images of the worst fascist, communist, and totalitarian societies in collective memory. It reeks of police profiling. It entails immense consequences for those arrested: trauma from time spent in jail, loss of work, social stigma, and possibly being registered as a sex offender, regardless of whether it's true or not. How do we even begin talking about "false arrest" for something that isn't even a crime in the first place?
There is a bill making its way through the New York legislature that would put an end to this practice by declaring that condoms are not evidence of anything criminal. It's been kicked back and forth since 2011, and still lives in policy limbo. The powers that be (read: Republicans) oppose the bill for a variety of reasons that don't stand up to scrutiny. The real reason, of course, is that it would take away the power for the government to harass women and dictate their sexual choices by force. And the refutation is disturbingly simple. Even if a woman is a prostitute, and even if the condoms she's carrying are intended for use with customers, there's still absolutely no justification for arresting her based on condom possession.
It's easy -- a little too easy, actually -- to write this off as bad police policy. It certainly is that, but it's a lot more than that. It's a window into the conservative mind, and the conservative vision of America. Let us not make the mistake of believing these officials incompetent or uninformed. Instead, let's assume that regardless of what they say, they have crafted policy to accomplish what they want to do. Assuming vigorous enforcement, what is the logical conclusion of this practice? Quite simply, women will stop carrying condoms for fear of arrest. Alternatively, women who wish to dress provocatively for whatever reason will instead dress conservatively to avoid the attention of the police.
We can stop here for a moment and make a pointed observation. This isn't about reducing prostitution. It is about trying to force women to adhere to a conservative model of how women "should be" -- sexually chaste, demure, non-threatening. It is about imposing negative sanctions on women for engaging in sex outside of marriage. It is about increasing the consequences of sex. It is about trying to create a fantasy universe based on a conservative Christian model of womanhood.
In reality, prostitutes will still have sex for money, and some will do it without condoms. This will increase the spread of disease, and will lead to unwanted pregnancies. It will result in the arrest of many women who are not prostitutes. It will increase the prison population. It will burden the healthcare system. It will increase the workload for social workers. It will break homes. And most notably, it will not reduce the rate of prostitution.
The good news is that New York has strong programs in place for sex education and condom distribution. In fact, they have made great strides in reducing teen STI transmission and pregnancy, and there's every reason to believe that these teens will grow up to become sexually responsible adults. That's the nature of education. New York is doing a lot of things right when it comes to addressing issues of sex. However, the practice of arresting women for condom possession violates almost every principle of both American law and humanitarianism. It threatens to undo all the good being accomplished by reasonable programs, and it must end.