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The Boston Phoenix Street smarts

Why we should legalize prostitution

By Sarah McNaught

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  It's 3:30 A.M., and "Charlotte" [names have been changed] emerges from a trash-strewn alley behind the whitewashed Summerfields Self-Storage building, on the edge of Chinatown. A breeze carries the stench of urine, and there is an eerie silence broken only by the occasional car buzzing along the expressway overhead. The surrounding streets are deserted except for a homeless man pushing a shopping cart of bulging black garbage bags toward the Pine Street Inn, on the next block.

"Fuckin' guy pulled my hair the whole time," barks Charlotte, spitting and coughing between words. She's 33 and not much to look at. Her face is haggard, with deeply sunken hazel eyes; her hair shows signs of too much bleach; her breasts, braless, sag beneath a skintight black body suit.

Charlotte has been working the streets since she was 16, when her mother's boyfriend suggested pimping her to make some drug money. "When I was 19 I tried to get out, but they got me hooked on smack to keep me working," she says matter-of-factly.

This -- a pathetic woman emerging from an alleyway after servicing some sweaty middle-aged man -- is precisely the sort of scene people conjure up when they argue for stricter laws against prostitution. It's the kind of situation they want to pretend doesn't even exist.

"I wish they'd just fall through the cracks they crawled out of," a South End resident told me as we watched a slightly overweight, middle-aged prostitute climb into the passenger side of a gray van one afternoon.

And that is exactly how most of American society views these women. In cities big and small, across the country, police and politicians wage a low-grade war on prostitutes. There are neighborhood watches, street sweeps, and even undercover sting operations. Inevitably, though, most of the women end up back on the street -- undeterred and unhelped. If one part of town gets too hot, they simply move to another.

Here in Boston, the story is much the same as it is elsewhere. The Boston Police Department has just launched its sixth encore of Operation Squeeze. The procedure is simple: groups of police officers, male and female, assume the roles of prostitutes and johns in areas where prostitution is rampant. Once the undercover streetwalker is solicited, backup officers move in and make the arrest. Police release the names and residences of the arrested johns to the press, which sometimes publishes them. Punishment ranges from fines and mandatory AIDS education to hours of community service, including sweeping and cleaning the very streets those men cruised in search of sex.

But there are reasons why prostitution is the oldest profession. There will always be men who will pay for sex; there will always be women who are willing to have sex for money. Despite genuine commitment on the part of law enforcement agencies, women like Charlotte will continue to walk the streets.

Indeed, the criminalization of prostitution -- the fines, the street sweeps, the sting operations -- has made the problem worse for all concerned. By making the act of prostitution -- a consensual exchange of sex for money -- illegal, society has enabled an ugly and dangerous black market that disrupts neighborhoods, allows women to be abused, spreads disease, and breeds an entire class of criminals -- pimps -- who flourish off proceeds that could be used to help the women.

Many people have moral objections to legalizing prostitution. (See "Prostitution Theory 101.") "I don't pretend to know a lot about how legal prostitution works in other states," says Ralph Martin, district attorney for Suffolk County. "But I do have a visceral reaction that it exploits women, and I don't see it as a healthy option for Massachusetts."

But the more time you spend on the street, the more one thing becomes clear: if society really wants to end the spread of disease and the violence, the only solution is to give prostitutes clean, safe places to work, well away from residential neighborhoods. Make prostitution a strictly regulated, but completely legal, proposition.

At the beginning of this century, moral concerns were the driving force behind the temperance movement. Alcohol was seen as an evil substance, a destroyer of lives and families. In 1919, the manufacture and sale of alcohol became illegal under the 18th Amendment.

But the solution soon became worse than the problem. A massive black market opened up to meet the demand for alcohol. The brisk trade fueled the spread of organized crime, and with this development came police corruption, smuggling, and an increase in street violence as turf wars escalated. Meanwhile, people continued to drink. Finally, in 1933, Prohibition was repealed.

The situation with prostitution is similar. Because prostitution is illegal in America, there is a huge black market to meet the demand, along with the attendant corruption, crime, violence, and disease.

"Gina" knows what the black market can do. The 33-year-old single mother of two sits in her modest one-bedroom apartment in Roslindale. Her jaw seems slightly off, jutting just a little too far to the right. Her left eyeball wavers -- almost as if it isn't properly attached -- and rolls uncontrollably in its socket. These disfigurements represent eight years on the streets of Boston with abusive pimps, violent johns, and nowhere to turn.

Gina pulls down the collar of her green-and-white striped polo shirt to reveal numerous small, round marks from what appear to be cigarettes. "I have been beaten with shovels, kicked in the head, set on fire, raped, and then raped again with things like car jacks, crowbars, and even beer bottles," she says.

"How moral is it to allow disenfranchised citizens to be beaten, abused, diseased, and uncared for?" asks James Geffert, a Wisconsin economist who recently conducted a study on public health and prostitution. "Legalizing prostitution means facing the reality that morality-based laws don't work."

Legalization is an idea that has been tried in the real world. In Nevada, 13 of 16 counties have permitted prostitution since 1986. The government oversees privately-run brothels, but they must be far away from residential areas, and streetwalking is still illegal. (Most of the counties that currently allow prostitution are rural.) The government regulates contraceptive use, medical testing, advertising, revenue, and licensing.

It seems to be working. Since HIV testing began in 1986, there has not been one positive test among the state's prostitutes, according to Randall Todd, chief of the Nevada State Health Division's Bureau of Disease Control and Intervention Services. The number of syphilis cases among sex workers has dropped to between 20 and 25, from 400 to 500 prior to 1986.

Sheriff Robert Del Carlo of Nevada's Story County says very few working women fall victim to violence in the brothels. Each house has its own security force, and there is an on-site manager at each brothel to screen customers and teach prostitutes how to examine a client for disease.

The secret of Nevada's success is regulation: although prostitution is legal, it is controlled. That makes the situation very different from the one in a countery like Thailand, where prostitution is legal but has not been regulated carefully enough. Many of the prostitutes there are underage, some as young as 12. And the pimping system in Thailand is considerably more brutal than in the US. Some women are forced into prostitution against their will -- sometimes after being kidnapped, or being sold by their families. And the government has also done a bad job of making sure that men use condoms. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the rate of HIV infection is 50 percent or higher among female sex workers in Northern Thailand. On top of that, many Thai prostitutes, under the orders of their very visible pimps, commit crimes to bring in more revenue.

But those are not reasons why legalization could not work; they are reasons why it needs to be done carefully.

Some of prostitution's most spirited opponents are people who live where the streetwalkers hawk their wares.

Thirty-seven-year-old Mary Chen has lived in Chinatown, not far from the former Combat Zone, for 19 years. Chen says that she and her daughter encounter at least one prostitute every afternoon as they walk home from her daughter's school.

The impact, she says, is more than fleeting annoyance. One evening while Chen was preparing dinner, she heard a ruckus outside. "I heard my daughter offering her body to the boys in the neighborhood in exchange for candy," Chen recalls. "When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was 'playing hooker.' "

Over time, episodes like these reach critical mass, and neighborhood rage mushrooms. At that point, the story becomes a political set piece. When neighborhood residents shout loudly enough and become organized enough, the city responds with a crackdown. A new initiative is announced; the streets are swept; the evening news features shaky women being dragged into a police van. But old hands know the exercise is futile.

"I get a call every night before I go out, telling me what streets to work," says "Cheri," a 26-year-old brunette with ruby-red lips and electric-blue liquid eyeliner. "[My pimp] scouts out certain areas, finds out where the cops are putting the most heat, and sends me somewhere else."

Cheri, whose pimp is a former boyfriend and who treats her quite well -- in comparison to other pimps -- says it's not uncommon for a prostitute to go all the way to Worcester or Brockton if her pimp feels the heat in the Boston is too much.

But even those who do get arrested quickly find their way back to the street.

Jim Borghesani, of DA Ralph Martin's office, says Mondays and Tuesdays are swamped with weekend prostitution cases; the majority of the time, officers issue fines, order drug or alcohol counseling, and then release the women, who return to the streets.

The Boston Police Department is disgruntled at a recidivism rate that persists despite repeated crackdowns.

"There is no question that many of the women who work the streets have arrest records but have served little or no time," says spokesperson Detective Sergeant Margot Hill.

Boston's Combat Zone has been a textbook example in the war on prostitution. In the mid-'70s, when the demand for prostitution increased in Boston and adult entertainment venues were obtaining city licenses, then-mayor Kevin White established Washington Street, in Chinatown, as the city's official red-light district. The district was zoned for peep shows, adult entertainment bars, and adult book and video stores. But prostitutes began to call the strip their home as well.

Toward the end of the decade, as Boston began to experience an economic boom, Asian immigrants tried to open more family stores in the Combat Zone and establish the area as a hub of Asian culture. Community concerns about prostitution escalated. In the early 1980s, with a growing number of residents complaining to city officials and to the police, a crackdown began on all illegal activity in the Combat Zone.

Clearly, fewer prostitutes are visible there now. Hill says that the groups of streetwalkers once seen standing on the corners are gone. But the prostitution problem has not been solved; it has simply relocated.

Prostitutes have set up shop just outside the Boston Herald's front door, on Traveler Street; on the outskirts of the Theater District; at the southernmost corner of the Public Garden, on Arlington Street; and throughout the South End.

"You hear guys screaming out the cars, asking them how much," says one elderly South End tenant who used to enjoy an after-dinner chat with neighbors on her front stoop. "And if these guys say anything to the hookers, you should hear the piles of trash these women shout back at them."

For the prostitutes, it's a matter of making a living. "Cindy," a 32-year-old seasoned pro, has walked the streets of Bay Village for almost a decade. She says she feels a pang of guilt whenever she sees the wide eyes of a neighborhood child staring up at her. But, adds the buxom, brown-haired Italian, she can't give up her earnings. This is where the men, many of them from the suburbs, know to come.

"These people live here," she says with a laugh, "but I work here."

One of the biggest problems with prostitution is the role it plays in spreading disease.

Take "Candy." The 22-year-old heroin-addicted streetwalker is painfully thin, her collarbone protruding from beneath her meager flesh. AIDS has left her riddled with health problems, apparent as she nearly coughs up a lung and spits into the weeds growing by the chain-link fence behind her.

Her wide eyes darting, Candy says that she was raped by several family members before the age of 12. A guidance counselor at her junior high school started to catch on that something was wrong, but Candy was afraid that the counselor would approach her family. For the next four years, she hid not only from the men who molested her but also from people who could have helped her. Finally, terrified that someone would find out her secret, she ran away. No one came looking for her.

"I am the toxic avenger," she explains in a cold, calculating tone. "I am going to get revenge for what happened to me."

Candy is a creature of the system society has created. She left home troubled and desperate, and was pushed further and further underground. And in the black market where she makes a living, there are no rules. Outside a brothel, there is no way to insist that the men use condoms. Now Candy has AIDS (and, she says, syphilis and gonorrhea), and is intent on spreading it. Her only comfort is the thought of revenge.

"This doesn't surprise me," says "Annmarie," a 36-year-old school crossing guard who solicited sex for money during high school. "Of the over 50 prostitutes that I knew, a good 90 percent of them were infected with at least one disease, and many of them had more than one."

Many prostitutes do not seek treatment because, for whatever reason, they fear imprisonment. "I have some friends who know a doctor who can help," says "Josie," a former resident of Atlanta. "But I know too many girls who were 'getting help,' and they ended up in jail," she insists. "I'd rather just deal with it than be turned in."

Even carrying condoms can get women into trouble. According to a 1996 study James Geffert presented at the 1996 Nevada HIV/AIDS Surveillance Conference in Mesquite, Nevada, it is common practice in most states for police to use condoms as the basis for making an arrest. This is what happens in Boston.

"It's like showing a cop a gun," one streetwalker says. "He's going to take it from you and use it against you -- so you don't carry the gun. I don't carry condoms for that same reason."

In Australia, where prostitution is legal in some areas, preventing prostitutes from spreading disease is simple. The government provides free condoms, free needles and syringes, free HIV/AIDS testing, and free AIDS-related counseling. No licensed female sex worker is known to have transmitted HIV during commercial sex activities, and among resident Australian female sex workers, only a small number have been identified as HIV-positive. Those few were probably infected by unclean needles.

"Right now you have a situation where there is no real health monitoring of STDs, pregnancies, or family health care," says Gerry Cheney, a former outreach worker in central Massachusetts who now works with prostitutes in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Izzy is a good case in point. Standing on a corner with midday traffic whizzing by, her very stance practically screams that she has given up -- on society and on herself.

"Disease?" she jeers. "You name it, I got it -- herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis. Or at least that's what I've been told. I can't go to a real doctor."

Prostitution, Izzy points out, doesn't come with health care. "In fact, care doesn't have anything to do with what I do," she says as she walks over to a blue hatchback, leans in the window, and climbs into the passenger's seat.

Patty stares blankly down the road as the red Mitsubishi GT3000 speeds away. Her wide green eyes and shoulder-length, curly brown hair give her an almost angelic appearance.

She's just worked a nine-hour shift during which she had sex with some 15 men, stole two car radios, and picked the pockets of four johns. What does she have to show for it? Twenty dollars, a bloody lip, and long red finger marks on her arms. The fat lip and bruises come courtesy of the driver of the sports car, a man named Harrad, who is her pimp.

"He thinks I'm not doing enough," she explains, shakily pulling out a small compact. "How am I supposed to attract anyone like this?"

Patty has been working for Harrad for six years. She says she ran away from an abusive father and alcoholic mother in Greensboro, North Carolina, when she was 17 years old. She came to Boston to find a life; instead, she found a man who offered her the world for "a few favors."

Now she is hooked on cocaine, and she justifies his brutality. "He's gotten me out of jail and given me clothes to wear. I owe him," she says.

Certainly drugs help pimps maintain their hold. According to Thomas Clark, a research associate at the Boston-based Health and Addictions Research, Inc., prostitution and drugs are virtually inseparable. Indeed, according to the San Francisco-based Delancey Street Foundation, more than 85 percent of the nation's prostitutes are addicted to crack, heroin, prescription drugs, or alcohol.

Pimps use drugs, money, or physical abuse -- or all three -- to bring young women under their control. They manipulate them with threats or promises in order to get the prostitutes to steal, sell drugs, and have sex for money. They abuse the women and then live off their earnings.

And pimps owe their existence to the law: if prostitution were not a criminal activity, they would wither away, but with a black market, they thrive.

"They have a quota," says Peter, a burly six-foot-seven-inch man with black wavy hair and an array of gold jewelry on his neck and fingers. "If [the prostitutes] don't meet that quota, they better make up for it by bringing me merchandise."

Of the more than 30 prostitutes interviewed by the Phoenix, almost every one of them said that she has been physically and verbally abused by her pimp. More than half the women said that their pimps got them hooked on drugs. And all of them said that their pimps order them to commit other crimes.

"We have the worst of all worlds right now," says Katharine Silbaugh, an associate professor of law at Boston University. "The current system victimizes prostitutes. For example, there are numerous rapes and beatings of prostitutes that are never prosecuted. Legalizing [prostitution] would mean enforcing and prosecuting crimes against victims. The criminals are the johns and the pimps -- not the prostitutes."

It is hard to imagine how the business of prostitution could be any more exploitative in America than it is right now. The women work long hours under life-threatening conditions, and large portions of the money they earn go to men who reward them with abuse. Society then responds with law enforcement efforts that reduce the activity modestly at best, and make the women's lives even worse.

And law enforcement is expensive. According to the FBI, there were 88,819 prostitution arrests in the US in 1995, the most recent year for which figures are available. In Boston, 803 prostitutes were arrested in 1996. Though Massachusetts does not track precise figures for money spent in the state courts, John Connors, deputy court administrator for the state's district courts, says that "a lot of money and administrative time is spent on a crime that is usually disposed of through plea bargains."

In California, the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution has estimated annual statewide prostitution-related costs -- judicial salaries, clerks, bailiffs, and courtroom overhead -- at approximately $2.5 million.

Imagine if instead the state were to license brothels that would be accessible yet distant from residential areas. In Boston, near Logan Airport, or down by the piers bordering South Boston, are some remote spots currently zoned for industrial use where brothels could be built and maintained. Traffic could be rerouted around any residential neighborhoods en route.

And instead of spending millions of dollars on revolving-door prosecutions, money raised by a commercial-property tax on the brothels could be used to help the women. It could be spent on health care, health education, and counseling.

There are some women who are so tightly bound to their pimps, or who are underage, or who are so dependent on drugs that they may not leave the underworld. For them, a portion of the money could be used for outreach, sending educators and doctors into the streets to reach those who do not fit into the legalized community. Drug rehabilitation could be funded as well.

Additional funds could be used on more effective methods of birth control, such as the Pill. And for prostitutes with children, money could be used to send the kids to daycare and the mothers to school.

Practically speaking, it is extremely unlikely that Massachusetts or the nation will take these steps. Most people just want prostitution to go away. Politicians know that even suggesting the idea could be political suicide. It's a question that is not even open for genuine debate.

But why?

One night on the streets, I encounter a young woman named Thea. An auburn-haired natural beauty, Thea is a high school graduate, barely 18, and she wants to be a businesswoman.

"I don't want to hurt anyone, but I think there is a real business in the sex industry," Thea says softly. "I've asked a few girls to join in with me to start our own service, but they're too scared. They say they may as well sign their own death certificates if they ever tried to leave their pimps."

Thea shakes her head.

She tells me that her mother left when she was a toddler, and her father kicked her out because she interfered with a seemingly endless string of sleazy women in his life.

Thea doesn't understand yet. Very new to the scene, she's not yet tainted by drugs or crime. She has no diseases and no oppressive pimp. Her face is unscarred.

But the road laid out for her is clear: she is probably only months -- perhaps weeks -- away from becoming a drug-addicted criminal, beaten down by a pimp, abused by johns, and written off by society.

If Thea understood what lies ahead, she might have a question: are your morals there to comfort me -- or you?

Sarah McNaught can be reached at smcnaught@phx.com.

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