Sacramento sex workers are too scared to use condoms

But are their fears of arrest justified?

Fear of arrest and law enforcement harassment are driving sex workers to forgo condoms, say activists.

Fear of arrest and law enforcement harassment are driving sex workers to forgo condoms, say activists.


In a trend bristling with public-health implications, Sacramento sex workers are forgoing condoms because they fear they can be arrested for possessing them, say activists and clinic workers.

“We have a huge epidemic of sex workers who are not using protection because of the police activity,” said Kristen DiAngelo, who heads up a local branch of the Sex Workers Outreach Project.

According to DiAngelo, multiple street workers relayed similar tales of intimidation: cops emptying their purses and photographing condoms as evidence, and even poking holes in their rubbers before handing them back while laughing.

DiAngelo and her partners recently published a report that surveyed 44 local sex workers and depicted high levels of victimization in the community. She said the pattern of condom-harassment started to emerge when the survey was already underway. SWOP will need to conduct additional interviews before it can quantify to what extent workers in the area experience such behavior, she explained.

Thanks to a concerted crackdown on escort-friendly websites, SWOP believes that Sacramento’s streets are being flooded by a new generation of sex workers that is more vulnerable to violence, trafficking and disease.

Others who provide health and outreach services to sex workers have heard the same condom stories, and say it’s having a bottom-line effect: sex workers are reluctant to accept free prophylactics, increasing their exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.

“I can’t wrap my mind around it,” said Oak Park Outreach Services Executive Director Hurley Merical, a longtime liaison to the area’s sex worker community. “Instead of a ripple effect of prevention, we’re doing a ripple effect of harm.”

In recent years, Human Rights Watch documented condom-criminalization in several major cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and, in a more recent report, New Orleans.

According to the organization, hundreds of sex workers claimed officers threatened them with arrest for simply possessing condoms and, sometimes, confiscated their rubbers. That resulted in more sex workers abdicating protection, Human Rights Watch contended, which correlated with spikes in HIV/AIDS rates in New Orleans.

Clinic and outreach workers fear a similar wave here in Sacramento.

“If you want to make sure more people get infected, then do that,” said Rachel Anderson, who runs a needle exchange program in Oak Park called SANE, for Safer Alternatives thru Networking & Education.

Last year, 165 county residents were diagnosed with HIV, the most in at least eight years, and also representing a 40.6 percent increase in new cases since 2010, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. The local rate of chlamydia infection continued its decline from 2011, though gonorrhea and syphilis in Sacramento County held some of their highest rates in four years, new data from the California Department of Public Health shows.

On Monday, the department reported that syphilis cases more than doubled across the state between 2012 and 2014, and that congenital syphilis, where a mother transmits the disease to her unborn child, more than tripled.

Anderson, who has a background in epidemiology, said it’s possible that one factor driving Sacramento’s high STD rates is sex workers’ fear of being detained with multiple condoms.

“That wouldn’t surprise me,” she said.

In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that makes it marginally tougher to use condoms to incriminate sex workers. Under last year’s Assembly Bill 336, prosecutors now have to seek written permission from the court before they can cite condoms as evidence of prostitution.

An earlier version of the bill would have completely banned condoms from being used as evidence of prostitution, but it failed to garner the necessary political support.

Upon its signing, health and sex-worker advocates slow-clapped the extra paper hurdle that A.B. 336 introduced to the process. But those who provide direct outreach to sex workers say the workers remain too afraid to protect themselves.

SANE is one of several nonprofits operating inside of a converted, two-story residential structure in Oak Park. Oak Park Outreach, Priorities Clinic and the Joan Viteri Memorial Clinic, which is run by UC Davis students, also hang shingles in the same building. Together, they provide basic care, clean syringes and free condoms to homeless individuals, drug users and sex workers—populations where there is much overlap.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a glass bowl perched near the clinic’s main entrance brimmed with colorfully-wrapped prophylactics, free for the taking, but appearing untouched.

“There is a reluctance among sex workers to take condoms,” Anderson acknowledged.

She and a small staff of employees and volunteers explain the benefits of condoms against disease and pregnancy, but don’t push them on their clients, who are already well-versed in sex ed.

“They know their lives. They know what the risks are,” she said of sex workers in particular. “They know what level of protection they’re going to take for which threat.”

By that, she and others contend that sex workers are more concerned with being locked up than they are of possibly contracting a disease in the future.

“Jail, that happens tonight,” said DiAngelo, a former sex worker.

In the days that DiAngelo worked the circuit, she remembers the cops had to have a price and an act before they could make an arrest. “Then they went from that to you don’t even have to commit the crime, you just have to be a known sex worker on the stroll and have three condoms on you and we can take you in,” she said.

California’s penal code is somewhat vague on the condoms question.

The section that defines loitering for the purpose of prostitution doesn’t specifically mention prophylactics. But it also provides wiggle room for interpretation: “[N]o one circumstance or combination of circumstances is in itself determinative of intent. Intent must be determined based on an evaluation of the particular circumstances of each case.”

In effect, that means that condoms can be one of the circumstances that is used to construe intent, along with other factors, like criminal history and the location where someone is detained. The frequency with which condoms are actually cited is purely a matter of officer discretion.

Both the Sacramento Police Department and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department downplayed their use of rubbers to determine illegal activity.

“There’s a finite threshold of criteria for law enforcement to meet [in making a prostitution arrest],” said sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Ramos, “and there’s a number of ways for us to articulate that.”

“Being in possession of condoms is not illegal,” said police Sgt. Doug Morse.

Public defender Joseph Cress said his office does sometimes see condoms “mentioned in reports as some evidence of sexual intent,” but not as probable cause for an arrest.

That’s not to say authorities haven’t heard the stories about how they supposedly target condoms.

“They’re like urban legends, and it’s just amazing how it proliferates,” said Detective John Sydow, who investigates human trafficking cases for the sheriff’s department.

Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Durenberger suspects pimps and traffickers of fanning these rumors because their workers can make more money if they perform without protection. He said his first trafficking case, in the early 1990s, involved a 13-year-old girl who was forced by her exploiters to perform sexual acts without protection. When she was finally recovered, the young girl had syphilis of the mouth and gonorrhea in her lower cavities.

“That’s a real problem,” Durenberger said.

Of the women DiAngelo interviewed for SWOP, some admitted they didn’t use condoms because they could charge higher rates without them, or because their pimps wouldn’t let them. But fear of arrest was the more common answer, she said. And that fear overrode all others.

“It takes the sex workers’ power of negotiation away,” Merical explained.

In 2013, following the Human Rights Watch report, San Francisco completely banned the use of condoms as evidence against sex workers.

The St. James Infirmary in San Francisco is currently assessing a year’s worth of surveys to determine whether this has made sex workers safer, said programs director Cyd Nova.

Kate D’Adamo, the national policy advocate of the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, is hopeful the approach can work, as long as sex workers are informed about it. In Washington, D.C., for instance, cops handed out cards to to let sex workers know they wouldn’t be hassled for having prophylactics.

“It seems like it has been a positive shift,” D’Adamo said of San Francisco. “The other piece of that is people have to know these changes have been made.”

Local health and sex worker activists want to see a similar strategy employed in Sacramento, where D’Adamo says policing practices have been raised as a concern.

If the reports of law enforcement’s condoms-crackdown are overblown, then cops and prosecutors wouldn’t even notice the ban, activists say. But it would make a difference to those who need that protection the most.