A new study from Asia Catalyst shows that law enforcement policies sometimes viewing condoms as evidence of prostitution are discouraging their use among sex workers, and negatively impacting HIV prevention efforts in China. At The New York Times, Carolyn Zhang reports on the study:
The report, published on Tuesday by Asia Catalyst, a nonprofit organization based in New York, surveyed or interviewed more than 500 male, female and transgender prostitutes in three major Chinese cities, and it found that they were significantly less likely to carry or use condoms if the police had questioned them in the past.
Sex work is illegal in China, and condoms have been categorized as a “tool of offense” in the Ministry of Public Security’s guidelines for prostitution cases. Condoms can be a deciding factor in whether to arrest prostitutes or hand down penalties, the report said, discouraging many from carrying them because of fear of prosecution.
“Law enforcement actions are having a profound effect on sex workers’ health and safety, including on condom use and behaviors,” said Karyn Kaplan, the executive director of Asia Catalyst. “Sex workers are more likely to agree to client demands to not use condoms, reduce the number of condoms they carry or try various methods to hide condoms in concealed places.”
[…] The police could even use unopened condoms to trap prostitutes into confessing and to keep them in custody, said Jing Wang, who runs an organization in Beijing focused on the welfare of migrant women, some of whom turn to prostitution. But if condoms are not used, she added, they “might get a disease.”[…] “Not only is this increasing H.I.V. vulnerability,” Ms. Kaplan said, “but it is making a mockery of a parallel government condom distribution effort among this highly marginalized group.” [Source]
Condoms have come to play a central role in police activity around sex work. According to the participants in our survey, police officers stop sex workers on the street, open their bags, and search for condoms; they burst into rooms to look for condoms in wastebaskets, beds, and quilts; and they even remove the trousers of clients in order to find condoms. Police raid rooms rented by sex workers, as well as bars and massage parlors. Many of the people we surveyed told us that finding condoms was the deciding factor in whether or not authorities detained them.
[…] Among the subjects of our survey, while 67.8 percent of sex workers who had not been interrogated by police reported carrying and consistently using condoms, only 47.7 percent of those whom police had interrogated continued regular condom use. Sex workers who had had brushes with law enforcement told us that they are more likely to agree to clients’ demands to not use condoms, reduce the numbers of condoms they carry, not carry at all, or try various methods to hide condoms in concealed places.This is the opposite outcome of the one China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission has tried to achieve. The country has well-intentioned HIV prevention programs targeting key populations including sex workers. A highly effective health tool, correct (male) condom use can reduce HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by up to 94 percent. Condoms play a central role in China’s HIV strategy; the government allocates funding every year for the purchase and free distribution of condoms to key populations, including sex workers. In many provinces, entertainment venues are required to display condoms publicly. The implementation of these strategies is critical, as HIV and other STIs are still a major public health concern in China. Globally, sex workers are 12 times more likely to acquire HIV than the general population. In China, the HIV epidemic is primarily sexually transmitted: of 103,500 new cases diagnosed in 2014, 92.2 percent were through sexual contact. The STI epidemic in general is increasing; in 2015, syphilis and gonorrhea were among the top five reported cases of transmitted infections in China. […] [Source]
Reuters’ Pulse News quotes the UNAIDS director for the Asia Pacific on how this trend extends beyond China, and outlines some of the policy recommendations offered to China in the Asia Catalyst report:
“Unfortunately it’s a common problem in just about every country in the world,” said Steve Kraus, UNAIDS director for the Asia Pacific.
“When you confiscate condoms, studies again and again show that condoms are less likely to be used. Commercial sex is going to take place in more risky venues, where the women selling sex are more vulnerable to violence, extortion, robbery, assault, gang rape.“
Asia Catalyst urged China’s public security ministry to eliminate search and confiscation of condoms, and their use as evidence of prostitution.
It also called for China to move towards decriminalisation of sex work, and for police cooperation with the sex work community to be a central part of HIV prevention. [Source]
Read more about sex workers, condoms, and HIV/AIDS in China, via CDT.