I'm an advocate for victims of human trafficking, and I've witnessed a lot of pain and suffering. But I'll never forget the day I met two teenage girls at a District Attorney's office the day after they escaped a brothel. As the girls sat there clutching the teddy bears that are usually given to children, they told me they had been forced to have sex with multiple men without condoms. One of the girls described a painful, burning vaginal infection that became so severe that the trafficker took her to the clinic. While she was there, she and her friend made an escape plan. When they returned the following day for follow up they ran out of the building and asked for help from a passer-by, who took them to the police.
Thankfully, this girl had a treatable infection. But many sex trafficking victims are not so lucky.
That's why New York lawmakers should ban condoms as evidence of all prostitution-related crimes, including trafficking, in the 2013 legislative session.
As a founder and coordinator of the Freedom Network, a national network of more than 30 anti-trafficking organizations, I know that it is not uncommon for traffickers to restrict or deny their victims access to condoms and basic reproductive health services as a form of manipulation and control.
However, in New York and other parts of the United States, traffickers have an additional reason to deny their victims access to condoms. Condoms found at a location where people have been coerced into the sex trade may be used by prosecutors as evidence to support felony trafficking charges. This means that traffickers may have an especially strong incentive to forbid their victims from carrying condoms, to ban them from locations where exploitation is occurring, and to make it nearly impossible to use them. The consequences for those forced into the sex trade are severe--unwanted pregnancy often followed by forced abortion, and irreparable damage to their reproductive health from HIV and sexually transmitted infections.
A bill in the New York legislature, S1379/A2736, could help change this situation. This bill should prohibit prosecutors from using possession of condoms as evidence to support prostitution-related charges, including trafficking.
Some may argue that prosecutors need every tool at their disposal to find traffickers and hold them accountable.
But allowing condoms to continue to be used as evidence in trafficking cases would be detrimental to the health of the very people we are trying to help.
Much of the media spotlight on the bill has focused on the use of condoms as evidence for street-based prostitution and loitering charges. Clearly these practices fly in the face of common sense, turning an effective public health measure to prevent HIV into contraband, and leaving New Yorkers wondering if there is a "legal limit" to the number of condoms a person may carry.
But this bill would also protect the health and the lives of trafficking victims. In situations in which women and girls, as well as men and boys, are coerced into the sex trade, ending the use of condoms as evidence could give them some ability to negotiate for their own sexual safety. In reality, a condom may be the one protection a victim of trafficking has from a trafficker's assault on her or his human rights, autonomy, and body.
Research by Human Rights Watch in San Francisco demonstrated how trafficking enforcement efforts targeted at brothels and massage parlors made business owners reluctant to keep condoms on the premises. Even legal businesses--bars and nightclubs--refused to accept condoms from outreach workers for fear of being shut down as houses of prostitution. Those who continued to accept condoms concealed them in ways that made them useless or dangerous. An outreach worker in San Francisco, for example, reported seeing unwrapped condoms stored in an empty bleach container at a massage parlor.
Whether the evidence is two condoms found in the purse of a woman walking in Coney Island or a box of condoms recovered from a massage parlor during a raid, the public health consequences are the same. When condoms are considered evidence of intent to engage in a criminal act, those who need them most, whether they are involved in the sex trade by choice or by coercion, or merely profiled as being engaged in prostitution, will fear carrying them. Even more disturbing, they may be denied access to them by those who control their work.
As an outspoken anti-trafficking advocate for nearly two decades, I support the toughest prosecution of traffickers. But prosecutors can and should make their cases without using condoms as evidence. And policymakers shouldn't leave trafficking victims out of the solution. Their lives depend on it.
Florrie Burke is the Chair Emeritus of the Freedom Network and serves as an expert witness in human trafficking prosecutions. In 2013, she received the inaugural Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Trafficking in Persons.