Criminalizing Condoms

How Policing Practices Put Sex Workers and HIV Services at Risk in Kenya, Namibia, Russia, South Africa, the United States, and Zimbabwe

In countries around the world, police are actively engaged in stopping and searching sex workers and confiscating or destroying condoms found in their possession. In many cases, possession of condoms has been used by prosecutors as evidence of prostitution. This treatment of condoms as contraband forces sex workers to make a choice between safeguarding their health and staying safe from police harassment or arrest. Criminalizing Condoms documents these practices in six countries and identifies their consequences on sex workers' lives, including their vulnerability to HIV.

Among the report’s key findings are:

  • In South Africa, 80 percent of sex workers said they had been intimidated or harassed by police for being a sex worker or doing sex work.
  • In Zimbabwe, 85 percent of sex workers said they had been extorted by police.
  • In Russia, 80 percent of sex workers said police had taken their condoms.
  • In Namibia, 50 percent of sex workers said police destroyed their condoms and 75 percent of those who then did sex work had unprotected sex.
  • In Russia, 60 percent of sex workers said police had used condoms as evidence against them.
  • In the United States, 52 percent of sex workers said there had been times when they opted not to carry condoms because they were afraid it would mean problems with the police.
  • In Kenya, 50 percent of outreach workers said that police had harassed them during the course of their outreach work.

Officially sanctioned and unsanctioned police practices work in concert to compromise sex workers’ health and safety. The criminalization of sex work and use of condoms as evidence make sex workers particularly vulnerable to police abuse. This report documents that police in all six countries harass and physically and sexually abuse sex workers who carry condoms and use the threat of arrest on the grounds of condom possession to extort and exploit them.

Criminalizing Condoms offers several recommendations for national and local government agencies, as well as public health and HIV/AIDS researchers and agencies.