New York's Condom Bait-and-Switch

Department of Health hands them out, NYPD arrests people for carrying them. Is this about improving public health—or arrest numbers?

“Politicians don’t want to appear to be supporting prostitution,” says Audacia Ray, a former sex worker and founder of the Red Umbrella Project, a support and advocacy group for sex workers in New York City. “But it’s a common-sense issue,” she says. “Vulnerable people are at risk.”

Some New York-area jurisdictions aren’t waiting for the bill to pass to direct their law enforcement and prosecution. Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice read a Human Rights Watch report published last summer that looked at the issue at a national level and decided to take the matter into her own hands. In October, she prohibited the nearly 200 prosecutors in her office from using condoms as evidence of prostitution in court.

“There were a number of findings in that report that were very troubling, documenting that prostitutes were not using condoms because prosecutors were using them as evidence in cases against them,” Rice says. “Our decisions as prosecutors very often make us balance competing factors. In this instance, that equation for me involved the public health on one side and value of evidence against those charged on the other.” In July, Rice will replace Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance as president of the New York State District Attorneys Association, and she says she is confident that she can convince her colleagues to institute policies “that would obviate the need for any legislation,” which she believes will take too long to take effect. “This is very much a life-and-death policy decision,” she says. “I felt that time was of the essence.”

The New York City Department of Health's free condoms.
Kelly Schott
The New York City Department of Health's free condoms.
Emily Gogolak

Jennifer Gonzalez-Hermides now tries to avoid walking alone on Surf Avenue. She uses Internet escort websites to arrange her sex work. But she is still determined to get the free condoms that the city distributes and that she knows she has every right to obtain. “I only came here,” she says, “because I knew the van was here, and I have a ride.” She points out the door to a man, whom she calls her “new trick,” waiting for her outside. “Females will die doing this work,” says Gonzalez-Hermides, “but not me.” She starts to cry. “I will not be another statistic.” She steps out of the van, stops at the big bucket of free NYC Condoms, takes a couple of handfuls, and quickly leaves to catch her ride.

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