Saturday, March 31, 2012

When safe sex isn’t

According to Cambodia Daily reports of recent prostitution busts in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian police are using the presence/possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution and as a basis for arresting the people involved.* For example, in ‘Police Raid Parlor Alleged to Provide Sex Services’ (Cambodia Daily, March 14, 2012,) police reportedly stated that, in addition to other evidence, “…used condoms showed the massage place is 100% providing sex services.” The women from that bust were taken by the police for “education” (i.e. possibly sent to one of Cambodia’s notorious ‘rehabilitation centers’) and the parlor owners were arrested.

While I understand, from a law enforcement perspective, why the police would want to use condoms as evidence, this practice clearly runs contrary to this interests of community health and the health and safety of individuals involved in the sex trade. It creates a situation in which sex workers and brothel owners must choose between possessing condoms/risking arrest and eschewing condoms/risking sexual disease. It makes safe sex unsafe (at least legally) and incentivizes sex workers to forgo condoms.

This is particularly frustrating in light of Cambodia’s hard-fought battle against high HIV infection rates. Due in part to efforts by NGOs and government to encourage condom use amongst sex workers, the country’s comparatively high HIV rates have been significantly reduced over the last decade. While the recent crackdown on brothels has negatively impacted this effort in several ways, it has been largely indirect, e.g. forcing prostitutes out of brothels and onto the streets has made them less accessible to the NGOs that provide condoms and safe sex education, and also made them more vulnerable to customer pressure not use condoms.

The practice of using condoms as criminal evidence represents a much more present and direct threat to condom use and safe sex. It amounts to the de facto criminalization of condoms, actively discouraging condom use amongst sex workers. In terms of community health, it is a step backwards, working to undo efforts to reduce the spread of HIV and STDs. And in so far as the anti-trafficking/prostitution laws are intended to protect the women involved, it acts to the contrary, putting their health and safety at greater risk.

Time to end this practice.


(* Cambodia is not alone in this practice. 'The Policy That Keeps Prostitutes From Carrying and Using Condoms' addresses a similar policy in New York.)

See also:
Cambodia: Sex workers, 100% condom use and human rights
Off the Streets: Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses against Sex Workers in Cambodia 
Cambodia HIV and Aids treatment programmes threatened
AIDS on Stamps


  1. They are right that this is a good basis for charging someone as a prostitute, but they are terrible wrong if they think it will lower the amount of prostitution happening in Phnom Penh. Almost certainly this will lead to a rise in sexually transmitted diseases and a more unsafe environment for these women.

    The NYT just reported yesterday that this type of dragnet are a failure.

  2. Although extreme poverty and the lack of law enforcement are mainly to blame for child sex trafficking in Cambodia, I think the Cambodian people's casual attitudes toward sexual predation also contribute to the problem. Cambodians generally look up to foreigners, especially Westerners, as wealthy and benevolent. It's unfortunate that some foreigners are in the country to take advantage of children.