By CAITLIN ESCH
Condoms may prevent disease, but some sex workers say prophylactics cause more problems with the law than they’re worth.
“Police look for condoms on sex workers, and use that as probable cause for arrest,” said Patricia West, a 22-year-old sex worker and outreach volunteer for St. James Infirmary, a health and social service center on Mission Street.
As a result, she said, prostitutes are “afraid to take condoms from us and risk incriminating themselves.”
Capt. Albert Pardini, head of the city’s narcotics and vice unit, said condoms alone are not cause for arrest.
“When we investigate for prostitution, one of the things we’ll note is how many condoms they have in their possession,” Pardini said. “But a pocket full of condoms alone is not a basis for arrest.”
Using condoms as evidence has become one of the major reasons proponents give for supporting Proposition K, an initiative to decriminalize prostitution that is on the November ballot.
While police said condoms alone are insufficient evidence, sex workers said that even making them part of a case, discourages prostitutes from using them.
West said this is especially true for sex workers who are single mothers. They often either rely on clients to provide protection, or do without, she said.
“The risk of catching something is better than being arrested,” she said. “A prostitution arrest could bring up problems with child protective services.”
During an investigation, Pardini said, police officers look for potential sex workers traveling back and forth between locations in defined corridors.
“Behavior is very inconsistent with someone just coming and going from their house,” Pardini noted.
In 2007, San Francisco police arrested 835 prostitutes and 888 johns. The Capp Street corridor remains a main artery for prostitution, Pardini said.
While police said they don’t make arrests based solely on possession of condoms, the perception by prostitutes that condoms could incriminate them is enough to prevent more frequent use of rubbers.
A recent UCSF study found only 44 percent of sex workers surveyed use condoms with regular clients, while 53 percent use condoms with new clients. STI and STD rates remain relatively high, with 82 percent of sex workers testing positive for Herpes Simplex II exposure, 51.5 percent for Hepatitis C, 4 percent for chlamydia and HIV.
The study, co-authored by Alexandra Lutnick and Deborah Cohen, is based on interviews with 247 female sex workers citywide.
Local infectious disease expert Dr. Jeffrey Klausner said fear prohibits some sex workers from carrying condoms.
“Because [sex work] is criminalized, and law enforcement uses the presence of condoms as evidence of prostitution, sex workers are less likely to have condoms at their place of work,” Klausner said.
Klausner said he has seen cases where condoms are mentioned in police reports and court affidavits.
“Law enforcement is indeed using condoms against sex workers,” he said. “It’s morally shameful and outrageous.”
Erica Terry Derryck, a spokesperson for District Attorney Kamala Harris, said most prostitution cases are handled outside of court so evidence surrounding condoms isn’t heard.
“The vast majority of prostitution cases come as misdemeanor offenses,” she said. “Most of those don’t make it to trial.”
Those arrested on charge of prostitution are usually referred to the First Offender Prostitution Program, a one-day class for sex workers and clients, commonly called “john school.”
“Our goal is to make sure the johns understand the risks of their behavior, and that the prostituted girls get help,” said Derryck. “About 95 percent of prostitution cases are settled outside of court. The actual number of prostitution-related trials is small.”
Still, West said she sees street based sex workers refusing prophylactics, believing acceptance would put them at risk with the law.
“Condoms can be used against them,” concluded Violet, a sex worker and St. James volunteer. “And the consequences of being arrested are huge when sex workers have kids or immigration issues.”