NYC has a law prohibiting "loitering for the purposes of engaging in a prostitution offense" which lets cops arrest whomever they feel like, on the strength of their conviction that the person is probably a sex-worker, on the basis of flimsy circumstantial evidence like carrying a condom, talking to men, or wearing tight clothes. Like stop-and-frisk, it's part of a pattern of laws that assume that the police have infallible intuition about who the "bad guys" are and lets them use their discretion to harass and bust whomever they feel like. And like stop-and-frisk laws, the "condom" law shows that the much-vaunted cop intuition is really just bias, a dowsing rod that leads officers to poor women, genderqueer people, and trans people.
Like most laughably cruel tricks of the justice system, you probably wouldn't know that you could be arrested for carrying condoms until it happened to you. Monica Gonzalez is a nurse and a grandmother. In 2008, Officer Sean Spencer arrested her for prostitution while she was on the way to the ER with an asthma attack. The condom he found on her turned out to be imaginary. Gonzalez sued the city after the charges were dropped. But if the condom were real, why should she have even been arrested at all?
Arrest is always violent. The NYPD may or may not break your ribs, but the process of arrest in America is still a man tying your hands behind your back at gunpoint and locking you in a cage. Holding cells are shit-encrusted boxes, often too crowded to sit down. Police can leave you there for three days; long enough to lose your job. If this seems obvious, I say it because the polite middle classes trivialize arrest. They talk about "keeping people off the streets." They don't realize that the constant threat of arrest is traumatic, unless it happens to them or their kids.
Prostitution is only a misdemeanor in New York, but a conviction will knock you off food stamps and out of subsidized housing. While society feigns wanting sex workers to change their profession, it does everything it can to keep them where they are. Most prostitution defendants plea bargain. Too broke and scared to fight, men and women agree to charges that will follow them for life.
There are two types of prostitution arrests. For "prostitution," the officer has to witness you making an offer, but "loitering for the purposes of engaging in a prostitution offense" requires only circumstantial evidence. On the supporting depositions, officers answer a checklist. Were you standing in an area known for prostitution? According to Karina Claudio, a lead organizer at the community group Make the Road, these areas can be anywhere. Were you dressed provocatively? Did you speak to a guy? Were you standing next to someone who has been arrested for prostitution? Were you carrying condoms?
(Image: Molly Crabapple)