Condoms Are a Vital Public Health Tool, So Must We Still Freak Out About Them?

A number of cities across the United States in recent years have cracked down on condoms. Their logic is that anyone caught carrying a large number of condoms must be a sex worker, and sex work is illegal, so not allowing people to carry large numbers of condoms will eradicate sex work. Apparently they believe that one of the world’s oldest professions can be easily and casually stamped out with a municipal ordinance, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Except, of course, that such ordinances are really just a massive public health threat, so much so that public health advocates have spoken out about the issue. Just like bans on needle exchanges and safe injection sites, these ordinances approach a perceived social problem from the wrong angle. Rather than evaluating the roots of a given social behaviour and providing support, they criminalise the people who engage in it. This doesn’t reduce the behaviour, but it does increase the risks people take, and that creates a very real and serious ripple effect.

Condom ordinances like these make a number of root assumptions, starting with the thought that the only people who carry lots of condoms are sex workers. Sex educators, activists, and even highly sexually active people carry condoms with them. Heck, Lady Gaga hands them out at concerts. The second assumption is that someone who is a sex worker won’t work without condoms, and therefore the ban will succeed in forcing people to pursue other professions. And, of course, it’s rooted in the idea that sex work is an undesirable social behaviour that should be eliminated, at any cost.

This makes it harder for sex workers to work, and it also makes them a lot less safe. When sex work is criminalised and people are forced to work under the radar, they take more risks. Operating in stealth makes it extremely difficult to maintain physical safety or file reports for assault, rape, and other crimes; not only are sex workers rarely taken seriously when they file such reports, but they’re at risk of being charged with legal violations of their own. Creating a disincentive to report makes sex workers even more vulnerable to assault and exploitation, but the people so concerned about the evils of sex work don’t really seem interested in addressing that concern because they’re too busy saving fallen women.

When you deprive sex workers of condoms, you’re endangering their lives. There’s a reason many like to work with condoms and it’s a pretty obvious one; a condom can radically reduce your risk of contracting STIs as well as preventing pregnancy. People want to protect themselves and their clients. Without condoms, they can contract as well as spread diseases, and they’re going to require potentially costly treatment. Despite popular beliefs about the big money to be made in sex work, many have trouble making ends meet and may end up having to rely on government benefits to pay for HIV medications and other treatments. A cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and human lives, all because they couldn’t carry condoms on the job.

Condoms should be considered a value-neutral public health tool. They’re incredibly useful for preventing STIs and pregnancy, and when they’re used reliably across a population, they can dramatically cut STI rates. This means less people depending on public health clinics and government benefits, as well as a happier and healthier population, which equals intrinsic economic savings as well as the less tangible benefit of a safe and healthy population.

They’re like gloves, which are a routine part of first aid kits everywhere thanks to their ability to protect against disease. As a barrier, gloves protect both the wearer and the person the wearer is tending. Deliverers of first aid and medical care wouldn’t dream of offering treatment without gloves, and no one’s proposing a ban on gloves, with legislation targeting people caught carrying boxes of 100. Even though gloves, too, are used in sex work; evidently concerntrolls are wise enough to know that they shouldn’t shoot themselves in the foot with this one.

Cities truly concerned about the impacts of sex work within their borders should not be approaching it from a prudish Victorian standpoint aimed at making it stop. Instead, they should actually be doing outreach in the population to find out who is working in the sex industry and why, and how business is conducted. If you have a large population of transgender sex workers in the industry because they can’t find work elsewhere, that’s an indicator a specific issue, just as high numbers of runaway teens in sex work is indicative of a larger problem.

There are a lot of reasons why people turn to sex work, and given that there is always going to be a demand for the industry, people are always going to be ready to fulfill that demand. Creating an environment where sex work is normalised and safe protects sex workers and members of the general public, and one step along that path should be a drop of condom bans.

They’re a waste of resources, and they’re a public health threat. Rather than treating sex workers as a problem that must be solved, it’s up to municipal governments to address specific social issues that are involved in the business of sex work in their areas. If they’re concerned about public safety, for example, maybe forcing sex workers to work in secret isn’t the most productive approach. If they want to address an uptick in STIs, they might want to find out where they are actually coming from and reach out to the communities involved. If they don’t like the way sex workers advertise their services because it’s ‘unsightly,’ maybe they should consider why sex workers are forced to advertise the way they do. If they are concerned about the exploitation of children, criminalising sex work won’t prevent child sex work, but it will drive it further underground.

And if regional government don’t like the fact that some people carry condoms around with them, well, they’re just gonna have to learn to deal.