Risk of Criminalization Among Sex Workers Carrying Condoms

May 2023

California Senate Bill 233 ensures that the possession of condoms or HIV prophylactics cannot be used as evidence to arrest or prosecute a person for sex work. This study provides findings on the sex work experiences of 25 adults in Los Angeles, including interactions with law enforcement, sexual risk behaviors, and condom-carrying practices.

  • Ayako Miyashita Ochoa
    Co-Director, Southern California HIV/AIDS Policy Research Center
  • Bianca D.M. Wilson
    Senior Scholar of Public Policy, Former
  • Kimberly Fuentes
    Director of Services, SWOPLA
  • Rae Jones
    Research Associate, UCLA Hub for Health Intervention, Policy and Practice
  • Katherine Lee
    Co-Director, SWOPLA
  • Moriah L. Macklin
    Research Data Analyst, Former
Most of the sample weren't aware that carrying condoms can no longer be used as evidence of sex work in California.
The majority still carried condoms as a way to resist police control and for public health reasons.
Much of the knowledge they have about the risks of carrying condoms came from members of their community.
Data Points
of the sex workers interviewed were unaware of CA SB233

Executive Summary

People who engage in sex work (PESW) are particularly vulnerable to criminalization even when seeking to report experiencing victimization. The health and safety of those engaged in sex work is further jeopardized as condoms have been historically used as evidence of sex work. California Senate Bill (SB) 233, taking effect on January 1, 2020, was meant to ensure that condoms cannot be used as probable cause for arrest nor used as evidence to prosecute a person for sex work. Nearly two years after its passage, we conducted interviews with twenty-five diverse individuals with experience engaging in sex work in Los Angeles County, a known locus for enforcement of a prior HIV felony solicitation. We sought to explore respondents’ interactions with law enforcement, their knowledge, beliefs, and experiences with the use of condoms as evidence of sex work, and their beliefs about criminalization risk and how that might impact condom possession and condom use in the context of their work. Through a group thematic review and individual coding (or categorizing) process, we identified the below key findings:

  • Respondents shared their perceptions about the risks of criminalization related to condoms in several ways. Some had detailed knowledge about rules and policies related to condom carrying and others had a general awareness of the possible risk of carrying condoms.
  • Respondents discussed that the information they received about criminalization regarding condom possession came primarily from other PESW.
  • Respondents discussed approaches to mitigating risk of police surveillance by either not carrying condoms at all and/or managing condom carrying through concealing techniques.
  • Some respondents who carried condoms, whether they tried to conceal them or not, discussed reasons for doing so, including resisting police control and reducing risk to protect their health, the health of their clients, and/or the health of their community and colleagues in sex work.
  • Generally, most respondents (80%) had not heard of any new law that restricted the use of condoms as evidence (SB 233). Further, reflecting the lack of awareness of the new law, condom-carrying behaviors seemed relatively unchanged.
  • Notably, most respondents carried condoms regardless of the risk of criminalization.

Findings point to future opportunities to support the resilience demonstrated by PESW themselves, including their determination to carry condoms and protect their health and the health of others. While evaluating the implementation and adherence to SB233 among law enforcement remains critical post-passage of SB 233, aligning future implementation efforts with advocacy efforts led by PESW might yield greater impact—as respondents largely reported receiving information from other members of their community, including other PESW.

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Risk of Criminalization Among Sex Workers Carrying Condoms