This Week in Sex: New York Takes on Condoms-as-Evidence, and the FDA Approves New Use for HPV Test


This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

An End to New York’s Condoms-as-Evidence Policy?

As RH Reality Check has reported in the past, New York City police officers have historically used possession of condoms—especially a large number of condoms—as proof of prostitution, as is the case in some other cities as well. Officers would even confiscate condoms from people suspected of selling sex. From a public health perspective, this policy makes no sense; it discourages sex workers from carrying condoms and, in some instances, takes them away, thereby preventing sex workers from protecting themselves. Thankfully, a new law working its way through the state legislature would get rid of this policy once and for all.

Since the practice made headlines, in part because of reports written by the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center, some law enforcement officials have tried to back away from it. Last June, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes sent a letter to then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly explaining that his office would no longer use the possession of condoms as evidence of prostitution or “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.” He asked that police in Brooklyn stop confiscating condoms. Prosecutors in Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx did not go that far but did tell the New York Times last year that they rarely use condoms as evidence of prostitution.

Efforts to abolish the practice through state law, however, have been unsuccessful, in part because the New York City Police Department, which makes about 2,500 arrests for prostitution each year, has been opposed to such legislation. But this time the bill has some traction. It was passed by the assembly last year, and advocates hope it will be passed by the state senate when that body reconvenes this month. The current version of the bill is sponsored by Assembly member Barbara Clark (D-Queens Village) and Sen. Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn). A spokesperson for Sen. Montgomery was optimistic about the bill’s chances, saying it “has buzz.” She told BuzzFeed, “The bill has been introduced now for probably over 15 years. Little by little by little, the momentum picked up on this through education. Most people are astounded that this practice is even occurring.”

According the Associated Press, the New York City Police Department announced last Friday that it would review the proposed law as well as its own condoms-as-evidence policy.

China Contemplates Condom Availability in High School

Here in the United States, making condoms available in high school remains controversial, despite years of research that suggests access to condoms does not increase sexual activity among students but does increase condom use. Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out strongly in favor of making condoms available to young people, including in schools. As RH Reality Check has reported, however, even with such professional support, condoms in schools can be a tough sell with parents.

It turns out that this is something parents in the United States share with some parents in China, who are concerned about a move to sell condoms in middle and high schools in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province. The plan, which was approved by provincial officials in February and city officials in April, will allow students in middle schools, which start at age 12, and high schools, which start at age 15, to buy condoms either from the school store or from vending machines that the school would have to install. A city health official who was not named told the local paper, “We’re not going distribute condoms at schools, but we want them to be sold on the premises.”

The official went on to say that the measure was designed to prevent the spread of HIV. The rates of HIV in Xi’an have gone up dramatically in the last few years, with more than 1,100 infections reported between January and October 2013 alone. The local newspaper says that most infections are in young people and manual laborers, and 90 percent of transmission is through sexual behavior.

According to the New York Times, reaction to the proposal has been mixed, with some fearing that having condoms for sale in school will lead to promiscuity. It is unclear, however, if anyone is objecting to the fact that the condoms are only available to students who buy them. This seems to be an unnecessary obstacle, especially if some students can’t afford them or have to ask their parents for spending money. Thankfully, in all of the debate over whether condoms should be available in high schools in the United States, the idea of selling them, as opposed to giving them away, seems to have never come up.

FDA Approves Alternative to Pap Test

As RH Reality Check recently reported, at the beginning of April a committee of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) voted unanimously to change the recommendations around testing for cervical cancer. Though the Pap test had long reigned as the best screening tool, clinicians have been relying more and more on human papillomavirus (HPV) tests—either in conjunction with the Pap or after an abnormal Pap result. The test in question, called the cobas test, uses samples of cervical cells to detect DNA from 14 high-risk strains of HPV, including types 16 and 18, which are known to cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers.

This week, the FDA voted to accept the panel’s recommendations. According to an FDA press release, the approval expands the use of the cobas test so that clinicians can use it along with the Pap test or on its own as a primary screening tool for cervical cancer. The announcement does not, however, change the guidelines for testing, which are produced by groups other than the FDA.

May Is Masturbation Month!

Finally, here at This Week in Sex, we want to remind you that May is Masturbation Month. We believe that masturbation is one of the best sexual behaviors because it feels good and relieves stress, and can’t get you pregnant or get a sexually transmitted disease. Even better, you don’t have to think about anyone but yourself—as long as you’re having fun, all is good. We hope everyone enjoys this month-long celebration!

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Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner