First, the decision to search a woman is made solely based on her appearance. Is she wearing tight or revealing clothing? Is she of a targeted ethnic background? Is she walking in a certain part of town? If any of these cues lead the officer to believe this woman may be a sex worker, then she may be searched. If a condom is found, then she can be arrested for prostitution and detained for three days.
There are many, many issues with this method of conducting arrests. First of all, they clearly target marginalized groups. Racism is a common issue in police work, many of the women searched identify as transgender, and if you haven't noticed already, these searchings are only directed at women. If a man is carrying a condom, he is not showered with stigma. He is simply viewed as prepared for any potential sexual encounter, he is being safe. Why is it problematic for a woman to exert autonomy over her own sexual encounters? With a condom, she holds the power in her hands over whether or not one is used. This is sexually liberating for some women. There are also severe potential ramifications for a person who is arrested for prostitution (legitimately or not). A three-day stay in a holding cell is long enough to get most people fired from one or more jobs. For many, this kind of loss is unmanagable. Additionally, if convicted (sometimes with only the condom present as evidence against them) a person can become ineligible for food stamps and get kicked out of Section 8 housing.
Let's look at the flip side. Instead of a woman being wrongly accused, let us assume that the searches are indeed locating sex workers. As stated before, an arrest is incredibly inconvenient and frankly, enough to unravel a life. Many people would do just about anything to avoid one. So when a condom is enough to incriminate you, what is the unavoidable response to these searches? Some, if not many, sex workers stop carrying condoms. They are caught in a double bind--do they carry condoms and risk arrest instead of just a warning, or do they stop carrying condoms and risk their health and the health of their clients? This is a lose-lose situation.
To top it all off, strangely enough, New York City has one of the most widely used programs for condom distribution. They hand out over 40 million condoms per year, even utilizing an iPhone app for greater accessibility and awareness. The program specifically targets sex workers as a specialty group who are focused on when condoms are distributed. So "while one arm of the local government is encouraging condom use, another arm is penalizing condom possession." There is no question that some inter-department communication is extremely necessary in this, and other, cases. Like I said earlier, I am not using this particular blog post to take a stance on the issue of the legality of sex work, but I am absolutely making a big noise about the methodology the police force is using in their searches. This technique stigmatizes and criminalizes condom use, jeopardizes womens' health, lives and careers, and strips women of their sexual autonomy when safety is concerned.