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Over 1,200 people have signed a petition to demand the right to carry three condoms in the District of Columbia without fear of arrest. Why do 1,200 people think that carrying more than two condoms is against the law?

Widespread media reports of a “three-condom rule” in D.C. began with an item on RH Reality Check investigating the District’s anti-prostitution provisions. The item, written by researchers Aziza Ahmed and Brook Kelly, claimed that in the District of Columbia, “Anecdotal evidence suggests that having three or more condoms is considered a proxy for being a sex worker.”

When that piece of intel migrated over to the Women’s Rights blog at Change.org, Alex Dibranco phrased Ahmed and Kelly’s anecdotal evidence this way: “Think you might get lucky tonight? Well, if you’re in D.C., don’t bring more than two condoms in your purse, or you could be arrested as a prostitute.”

Last week, the three-condom rule hit Jezebel, where it received 4,426 page-views—-and inspired dozens of comments from women concerned that a late-night prophylactic run could send them behind bars. “Don’t many brands sell in 3-packs? Anyone who carries around a new package is automatically carrying 3,” one wrote. “so people in long term relationships that decide to stock up are really screwed,” wrote another. Feministing also picked up the three-condom rule. On Amplify, Jaclyn Friedman worried that her new “cute red vinyl condom case” designed to hold three Trojans could be grounds for arrest. “I once used over a dozen [condoms] in a particularly memorable weekend,” Friedman writes. “And I still wasn’t a sex worker.” Meanwhile, Dibranco’s post has been viewed over 40,000 times.

Where did this “three-condom rule” originate?

It’s not a legal standard. In D.C., police can set up temporary “Prostitution Free Zones” where officers who suspect you of loitering with the intent to commit prostitution can force you to leave the area. If you don’t leave, they can arrest you. The zone can remain in place for up to 10 days. According to the Prostitution Free Zone Law, “prostitution-related offenses” include “repeatedly beckoning to, stopping, attempting to stop, or attempting to engage passers-by in conversation for the purpose of prostitution,” “stopping or attempting to stop motor vehicles for the purpose of prostitution,” or “repeatedly interfering with the free passage of other persons for the purpose of prostitution.” Cops can also ask you to disperse if they recognize you from previous incidents as a gang member or a sex worker, or if a “reliable source” informs the police that they have observed you engaging in prostitution. The law contains plenty of objectionable procedures—-they can make me leave my neighborhood if someone “reliable” tells them I’m a sex worker?—-but no mention of contraceptives.

According to D.C. police spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump, carrying condoms can lead an officer to suspect prostitution—-but there’s no three-condom arrest rule. “Although the possession of multiple condoms may be a factor that leads an officer to suspect (reasonable suspicion) that a person is engaged in prostitution, it is not enough to establish probable cause for any crime,” Crump writes. “Depending on the circumstances, factors such as this may justify an investigative stop—-but not an arrest.” She adds: “Essentially, if police cannot arrest someone for having two or more condoms outside a [Prostitution Free Zone], police cannot arrest them for it within a PFZ.” [Update: DCist also reported on this statement from Crump].

Of course, it’s possible that some D.C. police officers don’t always follow the letter of the law. Is there any evidence that D.C. police have an internal three-condom rule?

Both RH Reality Check and Change.org cite a 2008 “Move Along Report” on the Prostitution-Free Zones as evidence of the cops’ condom counting. The report cites plenty of evidence of police officers confiscating or destroying sex workers’ contraception. According to the report, 8.6 percent of sex workers interviewed claimed that officers had taken “safe sex supplies” from them during their interactions with police; the report also cites evidence of police officers seizing or destroying condoms in Las Vegas and San Francisco. Again, the report’s findings reveal police conduct that can be extraordinarily harmful for D.C.’s sex workers. However, the report includes no magic number of condoms required to ignite suspicion—-and it doesn’t provide any evidence that condoms alone are enough to get you locked up.

Cyndee Clay, Executive Director of HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive), says her organization has heard from “many, many” sex workers in D.C. who attest to police targeting them over condom possession. “People will come in and tell us they’re afraid to carry too many condoms, because they’re afraid of drawing attention from the police,” says Clay. Still, no specific number has emerged as a red flag.

Brook Kelly, who co-wrote the original RH Reality Check item, wrote in an e-mail that the three-condom tidbit emerged during the course of her research. Kelly’s work included “interviews with sex workers’ organizations, sex workers, or individuals who do not identify as sex workers but who seek support from DC based sex worker organizations, organizations that worked with drug use in the DC area, lawyers working on issues of HIV/AIDS, homelessness and poverty, and law enforcement.” But even though Kelly’s anecdotal evidence suggests that “having three or more condoms is considered a proxy for being a sex worker”—-at least according to one source she interviewed—-her report didn’t mention anything about three condoms leading to arrest.

D.C.’s anti-prostitution laws and internal practices are dangerous to sex workers. Frightening sex workers into being unsafe—-or physically removing their protection from them—-is an extremely harmful practice, whether it’s reinforced in the law or not. But the blogs and petitions that extend the harm of these practices to any girl who runs over to CVS for a three-pack of condoms are misleading. “Did you know you can be charged with prostitution in Washington D.C. if the police catch you carrying three or more condoms on the street?” the petition reads, in an attempt to rally all of D.C.’s condom users against the Prostitution Free Zones. Really, condom possession is only going to present a problem if you’re a sex worker. And that should be enough for all of us to get angry about.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery