From a scientific standpoint, the evidence of the effectiveness of condoms in preventing transmission of multiple types of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV, as well as pregnancy, when they are used consistently and properly, is indisputable. As such, they will remain a critical tool in HIV prevention.
The key challenge lies in the phrase “when they are used consistently and properly.” Condoms cannot and should not be regarded as the only reliable HIV prevention tool besides abstinence, and one need only look at the disparity between their theoretical effectiveness and their actual effectiveness to see why. Simply put, condoms aren’t always used properly or consistently, and even when used, they do occasionally break. For this reason, condoms have an effectiveness rate of 97% in theory, but their actual effectiveness in practice based on usage is about 90%. Housing Works can and will continue to promote condom use, but the studies of actual human behavior suggest that achievement of 100% consistent, proper condom use is highly unlikely, and the incorporation of additional prevention tools, ideally in combination with condoms, are equally critical.
Since 1999, a New York State bill has existed which would ban the police practice of confiscating unopened condoms and using them as evidence of solicitation or prostitution-related crimes. Currently, police around the state are confiscating condoms from those suspected of engaging in sex work and using them as evidence to arrest those individuals. This practice flies directly in the face of public health. Each year the New York City Health Department gives away some 40 million free condoms a year through its NYC Condom Program, and the state runs a similar initiative via the Department of Health’s AIDSInstitute. The long-standing practice of confiscating “condoms as evidence” in prostitution cases forces sex workers to choose between practicing protected sex to avoid contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and getting arrested. A direct result of this practice is that many sex workers carry few or no condoms with them and often engage in unprotected sex. Learn more about this campaign by visiting nocondomsasevidence.org.
In May 2014, the New York Police Department issued a new policy that limits the circumstances in which police can confiscate condoms to be used as arrest evidence in cases involving prostitution, prostitution in a school zone, and loitering for the purposes of prostitution. This policy revision is an exciting first step in changing the attitudes of law enforcement officials to respect the sexual health rights of New York City residents.
As a member of the Access to Condoms Coalition, Housing Works has long supported a statewide measure that would ban the use of condoms as evidence in all cases, thereby preventing police from confiscating condoms in all instances. The new NYPD policy is a step in the right direction for New York City, but a statewide comprehensive policy is the ultimate goal.