'Our Bodies Are Not a Sacrifice': Prostitution, Criminalization and Incarceration of Women
prostitution racism sexual-violence
Becoming a prostitute at age 14 felt almost natural to Brenda Myers.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, she used to see prostitutes outside her window all the time. Often, they looked glamorous and mysterious. When she found out what they were doing, it didn’t sound any worse to her than experiences that were being forced upon her already.
“I asked my grandmother what those women were doing,” she said. “She said, ‘They take their panties off for money.’ At the age of nine I was thinking, well they’re already taking my panties off, and I wasn’t getting any money. So I’ll make them pay for it. As a young kid I grew up to think that my body was how I’d get by. It was a decision I made in order to deal with my molestation.”
Like Myers, a large percent of women who work as prostitutes were sexually abused as children. This starts a cycle of confused feelings about sexuality, as well as causing emotional trauma that often leads a woman to seek solace in drugs or alcohol and unhealthy relationships. These things, in turn, may further encourage a woman to engage in prostitution; at the urging of a lover, maybe to feed her drug habit or his, even to gain fleeting feelings of approval and closeness from her customers.
“Even when I’d try to stop I’d want to just hold on to the lifestyle,” said Louise Lofton, another former prostitute. “I’d say, ‘I’ll just do a few dates and get a few dollars in my pocket.’ But it doesn’t work that way. You want more and more, they’re building your self esteem.”
Most women who work in prostitution have also spent time in jail.
Despite the fact that it is pervasive in our society—that businessmen, politicians and other “respectable” pillars of society make visits to prostitutes a regular part of their schedule—prostitution is a crime. And it is the women, not the male johns and pimps, who pay. They pay with jail sentences, which while relatively short have a deteriorating effect on their overall quality of life and prospects. They pay with rape and beatings at the hands of johns, men leaving them bloody and emotionally battered as well as unpaid, and unable to go to the police for help. And they pay every day living in a society where they are viewed as “whores” and “sluts,” as eyesores and nuisances by the public including the very men who hire them.
A Hard Life
Hollywood tales like Pretty Woman aside, being a prostitute is not an easy life. Women working in prostitution don’t want to be viewed as victims, as worthy of pity or shame. They choose their lifestyle and they control their sexuality, and they do it with dignity. Nonetheless, the life of an average woman in prostitution is filled with pain, mistreatment, abuse and fear.
And this is a huge number of women we’re talking about. In the Chicago metropolitan area, a 2001 study by the Center for Impact Research notes that 1,800 to 4,000 girls and women are involved in on- or off- street prostitution activities in any given year. Then add to that the staggering figure of how many women have traded sex for drugs: about 11,500.
The majority of women in prostitution (62 percent) enter the profession when they are under 18, according to a study by the Center for Impact Research (CIR), which was released this fall at the second Prostitution Alternatives Round Table (PART), a Chicago-area coalition working for legal reform and social support for women working in prostitution.
As noted earlier, these women are likely to be victims of childhood sexual abuse and are also likely to have grown up in homes surrounded by combinations of neglect, abusive behavior and substance abuse. A 2002 study by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless found that 41 percent of the women they interviewed at Cook County Jail on prostitution charges had been sexually abused as children. The Center for Impact Research noted that it is common for adults to force children into prostitution to pay the rent or buy drugs. This is backed up by a 1995 study by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS), which found that people who were sexually abused as children are a whopping 27.7 times as likely as others to be arrested for prostitution.
“My mother’s ex-husband used to have me up in the middle of the night giving him head,” said Lofton. “One time she came in unexpectedly and he started beating her because he knew he was in the wrong, he wanted to cover up for himself. I ran into him once when I was in prostitution - I had this leopard print skirt on—I said, ‘This is because of you.’ He said, ‘I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘Fuck you.’”
The majority of women are introduced to the work by someone they know and trust, a friend, lover, sister, or other male or female relative. And during the course of their sex work, the vast majority of women have suffered wide-ranging and ongoing physical, sexual and emotional abuse, including rape, battery, threats and psychological degradation.
“We did a random sample of rap sheets of johns, and about 50 percent had arrests for domestic violence and battery,” said Gayle Gamauf McCoy, executive director of Genesis House, a residential recovery center in Chicago which serves as the city’s only form of alternative sentencing. “A lot of them have a problem with violence against women. Our women experience lots of beatings, attempted murders, slit throats.”
The CIR study showed that 21.4 percent of women working as escorts been raped 10 times or more, with comparable rates for other types of sex work. While confronting and prosecuting rapists is hard enough, legally and emotionally, for any woman, for a prostitute it is 100 times harder, if not impossible. Her lifestyle will be exposed and slandered in front of a courtroom, and she will face prevailing social attitudes that by working as a prostitute, she has given up her right to not be raped or sexually abused. It is not surprising then that prostitutes very rarely report rapes or other abuse they suffer.
The study by the CIR covers not only prostitution as commonly defined - women on street corner “strolls” or in “higher class” escort services - but a wide range of sex work including peepshows, stripping, exotic dancing, phone sex, film and internet pornography and massage. While women of different ethnic groups are more likely to do certain kinds of work, there is wide crossover between all the different types. Most women have done various types of sex work, all at one time or one leading to another.
And significantly, while on-street prostitution may be viewed as the most “extreme” and risky of the types, women in every category reported almost equally high levels of rape and physical assault. Not surprisingly, prostitutes are also at high risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) that can have permanent effects on their health. The CIR study found that 22 percent of the women were HIV positive, and over half reported having a STI.
Use or abuse of drugs and alcohol were also found to be heavy for women in all the categories. The vast majority of women who were already using drugs or alcohol stepped up their usage to help deal with the emotional and physical stress and trauma of sex work, and many of those who weren’t already using substances started. In the case of drugs, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, this continues a vicious cycle. Many women originally start sex work to pay for their drug habits or those of their partners, then their dependence on drugs becomes even worse as a result of prostitution. The study looked specifically at women who trade sex for drugs, defining that as a category in itself. “When I would get out of jail, I was homeless,” said Myers, who now works for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and along with Lofton is a founding member of Exodus, a grassroots group helping women leave prostitution. “So the first thing I would do is turn a trick for some money. And I’d say I’m going to take that money and get a hotel room and a big meal. But all I’ve known is drugs, so I get drugs and the cycle starts all over again. You think you’ve gotten rid of me because I haven’t been in front of your door for a few weeks, but I’ll be back.”
Racism in the Sex Trade
As in every American industry, racism is also rampant in the sex industry. Women of color are paid much less than white women prostitutes. And whether because of the type of sex work they are engaging in or out and out racial profiling or both, women of color are much more likely to be arrested.
The area with the most arrests in the city of Chicago in 2001 was the King Drive/ 47th to 51st Street area on the city’s south side, while the area with the third highest number that year was right near by from 39th Street to 43rd Street near the Dan Ryan expressway. Two other adjacent areas also made the top 10. (In 2002, this area was surpassed by the more upscale Wicker Park area for most arrests).
The King Drive stroll is known as the roughest, least desirable area for prostitutes, the area where they get paid the least and are the most likely to suffer beatings and other abuse. It is also an area worked almost exclusively by Black prostitutes, serving mostly Black and some Latino customers.
“My pimp wouldn’t let me work [on King Drive],” said Lofton, who worked mostly in the suburbs and wealthier areas of the city, including through an ad in The Reader, the city’s weekly free paper. “He didn’t want me to go with Black guys because they would take too long and wouldn’t pay as much.”
Meanwhile the city’s higher paid prostitution venues, downtown and on the North Avenue stroll and others near the Wicker Park neighborhood, are worked by many white prostitutes. Many of the women and girls working here, in fact, are actually from Milwaukee or other Midwestern towns and cities, and were trafficked to Chicago. The more “successful” women of color also work this stroll, but even on the same stroll they are likely to be paid much less than white, blonde women.
“In the lower income neighborhoods the women are more local,” said Jody Raphael of CIR. “On North Avenue, it’s a higher priced stroll with women not from the neighborhood. If you’re paying $200 or $300, you want a young white blonde woman who is infection free.” The Double Standard
There are at least 33 prostitution-related offenses on which women can be arrested in Chicago, including city and state ordinances and laws. These include the outright charge of prostitution, which is actually one of the less-common charges since it is harder to prove, along with a slew of related charges including loitering, trespassing, soliciting a ride on a roadway, pandering and “lewdness.” That’s not to mention the high number of women who are arrested on drug charges or other charges like trespassing while out on the streets working.
In 2002, the Chicago police department made 4,486 arrests for prostitution-related offenses. That included 953 john-related arrests and 67 arrests for pimping/pandering, meaning with the exception of some men arrested for male prostitution, women were arrested at about four times the rate men were.
For the prostitution-related charges, women will usually spend anywhere from a few days to a few months in jail. On their third or fourth charge, the misdemeanor can legally be bumped up to a felony, meaning they could be transferred to prison and will be labeled a convicted felon for life. “When a woman decides she’s going to change her life, how is she going to do that with a felony on her record?” Myers asked. “If I had had any felonies, when I got clean I wouldn’t be in the boat I am now. And even misdemeanors show up if you’re fingerprinted, so some jobs are out for you. If the boss sees that you’re a prostitute, what’s he going to think of you? He’ll think you’re somewhere in the office turning tricks.”
Johns, meanwhile, rarely end up with so much as a misdemeanor charge on their record. If they are arrested at all, johns are normally charged under the city code, wherein they accrue a $100 processing fee along with having their car impounded to the tune of $600. They pay up, and then in the vast majority of the cases the charges are dropped. Essentially, then, this amounts to legalized, albeit expensive, prostitution for one participant, and illegality for the other.
Reports vary on how widely pimps are currently involved in the sex trade; some women report that most work with a pimp on some level, while others report that pimps are a thing of the past. Regardless, as with most capitalist enterprises, it is the women rather than their “bosses” who take the legal fall. During 1999 only 13 men (nine of them Black) were arrested for pimping in Chicago.
Advocates and lawyers for prostitutes note that just like the johns’ cases, prostitutes’ cases would often be dropped - if they fought the charges. Proving prostitution or related charges like soliciting and trespassing is difficult, and in most cases the evidence is fairly flimsy. But women charged with prostitution rarely fight the charges. They are expected to show up in cattle-call fashion before the judge, plead guilty and go off with a relatively light sentence of time served or a brief stint in jail. Never mind that many of these “light” sentences add up to a long and stigmatizing rap sheet that will haunt the woman for the rest of her life. Plus a home life constantly interrupted by jail sentences and the ripple effect that will have on her children, finances and other employment or goals.
After being put through the ringer a few times and learning how to play the game of serving their time and getting out with as little confrontation as possible, most women don’t even consider that fighting their charges is an option. And for those who do want to, it is hard to find a willing and affordable lawyer. Public defenders almost automatically plead guilty for their clients, and few lawyers, even those who regularly do pro bono social justice work, are willing or able to take on prostitutes’ cases for little or no pay.
“The police are getting away with murder—a lot of times they don’t even have a case,” said Lofton. “Maybe she was just trying to go to the store. Sometimes you’re trying to leave to go somewhere but you know if you go down this street they’ll get you.”
Not In My Backyard
If any proof is needed that prostitutes are arrested because of political motives rather than any inherent concern about morality or the women’s well being, one need only look at the geographic and demographic statistics of arrests.
In many areas of the city at any given time, prostitution is allowed to go on freely. Police officers may tell women to move on from a certain corner, or they may turn a blind eye altogether. While officers are often brutal, abusive and condescending to prostitutes, other times they are indifferent or even sympathetic. Louise noted that when she was pregnant and on the streets, several female officers would regularly bring her food, words of encouragement and even baby clothes.
When mass prostitution stings and arrests are carried out, it is usually because of community pressure. For example in Wicker Park, a neighborhood that has gentrified from working class Latino and Polish to expensive and hip in the last 10 years, police have been carrying out a massive campaign against prostitution over the past few years. This area ranked second behind the 47th Street/King Drive stroll in 1999 arrests and topped the list by 2002. This campaign includes arresting johns who solicit undercover officers. But for the most part, it is women who are being arrested. North Avenue, the heart of the Wicker Park stroll, has been a hot spot for prostitution for many years.
The arrests started happening not because the business had greatly increased or because of abuses against the women there. They started because new wealthier residents were moving in, proclaiming that if they were paying $350,000 for a condo they didn’t want to have to see prostitutes and used condoms on their street.
“We used to be hopping in and out of cabs and limos all the time and the police didn’t care,” Myers said. “Then the yuppies came and decided we weren’t part of their curriculum.”
Myers said police first started getting a lot of calls about the stroll when a huge Home Depot was built in the area. Some time later a local TV station aired a sensational segment on prostitution in the area after a reporter who lived there received unwanted attention from a would-be john. Soon, groups of angry residents were turning out in force for the regular Community Alternative Policing (CAPs) meetings, demanding officers put a stop to the prostitution. They have also been showing up at women’s sentencing, making “impact statements” that they hope will urge the judge to give felony upgrades.
“The focus is just getting them off my block, they don’t care what happens to the women,” said Samir Goswami of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “At the same time there are web sites for business and convention people saying go to North Avenue for a girl.”
The Chicago Coalition For the Homeless and PART have been spearheading a community-outreach campaign in the North Avenue area to try to get homeowners to empathize with the women and deal with the problem in a different way. One early Saturday morning in fall 2001, a group of PART members and homeowners more sympathetic to the women staged a “Doggin’ Out the Johns” event, where residents and their dogs hit the streets with the intention of focusing the attention on the johns who come to the area rather than the women.
“These women who are so angry at us need to take a look inside their own families,” said Lofton “Why are they so angry at us? Is it because they’re afraid their husband is going to us? Then they should retaliate against him.”
To Legalize or Not to Legalize
As with the battle to legalize marijuana, there are many who feel that prostitution and other forms of sex work should be totally decriminalized. Then, they say, women could freely organize unions and file government complaints to protect their labor rights and the industry could be regulated with wage, health, safety and other standards. In Holland and various other countries, for example, the sex industry is legal and highly regulated. On a smaller scale sex worker organizing has been carried out in Nevada and in the liberal Bay Area, where laws are looser and exotic dancing is a big industry.
But this libertarian approach, advocated by clients of sex workers as much or more than the workers themselves, leaves a lot to be desired. While few sex workers would argue with the need for decriminalization, full legalization and the attendant regulation that would follow are a different story. As with many industries, women don’t necessarily want to adhere to rules about what they can and cannot do and how much they can charge.
And with sex work, they are afraid they would be subject to regular health examinations and be required to carry paperwork noting their HIV or other health status - a situation that would be vastly invasive and humiliating as well as unequal, since customers would likely not be required to provide proof of their health. And as has happened in other countries, if prostitution is legalized a “black market” would probably develop to subvert various restrictions.
“The evidence of what happened in countries where prostitution was legalized is terrible,” said Raphael. “In Australia they legalized prostitution and it went from 40 to 94 brothels. They are supposed to be licensed, but now there are unlicensed brothels for tourists. Asian girls are being trafficked into these brothels, girls from Thailand who are 10 or 15 years old are being brought to Sydney.”
Even if women weren’t thrown in jail for doing sex work, the fact would remain that they would suffer physical abuse and health risks, as well as emotional trauma, on a daily basis from their jobs.
“The experience of prostitution is much more detrimental than the experience of incarceration,” said Raphael. “Incarceration is not the major problem. But jails are filled with women who will go right back to the lifestyle. If it was decriminalized, it would probably decrease or continue. People say it’s between two consenting adults, but then most start as teens. And just because somebody consents to something doesn’t mean it should be legal.”
While women want to carry out their work free from criminalization and social stigma, many do wish for a way out of sex work and the cycle of drug dependency and prostitution.
“No little girl actually wakes up every morning thinking I want to be a prostitute,” said Lofton, who is studying to be a social worker or counselor. “I go to conferences and a cop or probation officer stands up and says it should be legalized. Well I don’t think it should be. These are young lives we’re talking about, people who are being hurt and exploited.”
Jail actually offers one of their few breaks from the trade, Louise notes. While the criminal justice system as it is does a poor job of helping women who want to get out of the business, many current and former sex workers advocate some sort of intervention by the justice system or otherwise. This intervention could be particularly important for girls who are arrested. While most young arrestees lie and say they are over 18, and are treated as such, a bulk of prostitution arrests are actually young girls.
“You have that 12, 13, 14 year old, once you get their attention they’re just saying, ‘tell me what to do,’” Louise said. “They want to see that there’s another way.”
Alternatives to Incarceration
The value to all-concerned of alternatives to incarceration for women arrested on prostitution-related charges seems obvious. As with drug offenses and other nonviolent charges, the cost to taxpayers of offering rehabilitation in the form of counseling and substance abuse treatment is far less than it costs to incarcerate a woman—about $24,000 a year compared to $16,000.
And as with other nonviolent crimes, the women keep coming back to jail. The Coalition for the Homeless found that 42 percent of women interviewed in Cook County Jail had been arrested for prostitution at least six times.
The women will obviously be better served by court-mandated programs that help them take control of their lives and access other economic opportunities than by spending time in jail, only to come out more in need of money than ever.
“Jails are just babysitters,” Myers said. “They give you too much time to sit there and feel hopeless.”
There seems to be no viable argument against mass alternative programs, except the fact that as with other facets of the criminal justice system, punishment rather than rehabilitation is the name of the game.
“The people don’t care what happens to the prostitute, they just want her out,” said Myers. “One woman [at a CAPS meeting] said, ‘I looked at her face and I didn’t see any hope.’ Well of course you don’t see any hope because she’s high. Wait until this women’s been in jail a few days and the drugs have worn off and she’s scared and thinking maybe I should change my life.’ But the judge is saying either I’m going to give you time or let you out. He’s not saying here’s this program to help you change your life.”
Currently, the Cook County system does offer one, and only one alternative to incarceration. Judges can refer women to the Genesis House residential treatment center instead of jail or probation, if they are willing to comply with the Genesis House program which includes a mandatory in-patient drug rehab stint first and then an ongoing commitment to staying clean. Genesis House currently has eight beds in a house on the north side of the city, and is in the process of opening about 20 more beds at a south side location. There is a mobile outreach unit, housed in an RV, as well as another west side outreach site. The north side house is also open to women who aren’t coming from jail, on a first-come first-served basis. And it offers unlimited follow-up services and resources like food, clothing and case management to former residents and anyone who drops in.
“We have a 70 to 80 percent success rate, which is more than you can say for jail,” said McCoy. “I think because of the economy the government is finally realizing that we are spending too much money on incarcerating people. I think we will find more openness to alternative programs like this.”
But according to Lofton and some other women, Genesis House is far from the ideal solution for everyone. While some swear by it, others say they are disillusioned with the rigid structure at Genesis, including the mandatory drug rehab and the stipulation that women aren’t allowed to work for their first six months there, a rule meant to give them more time to focus on themselves and recover.
The merits or faults of Genesis House aside, the true problem is that there is only one institution accredited to serve as an alternative to incarceration in Cook County. One institution can never meet the needs of a wide range of women, not to mention that the available space would be inadequate for a large-scale alternative sentencing program. Ideally, women say, there should be a wide range of residential facilities which could serve as alternatives to incarceration and meet the various needs of women.
Reform must also focus on how johns are treated. San Francisco and some other municipalities are currently experimenting with alternative punishment for johns, such as a “John School” similar to Traffic School wherein men would be sensitized to the feelings and predicament of prostitutes as well as learning about the health risks. And the fines that johns currently pay should go directly to developing resources for women, many say.
“The other night they arrested 27 johns,” said Myers, referring to a sting that made the news and included a professional basketball player. “Do you know how many women they arrest every night? That doesn’t even come close. But do you know what they could do if they diverted all that money the men will pay into programs for the women?”
Both Myers and Lofton tried to quit prostitution numerous times, but as with a substance addiction, the lifestyle kept luring them back. And since both were also dealing with drug addictions, it was impossible to quit one and not the other.
“I’ve been in drug rehab but it never worked because I was also addicted to turning tricks, and I needed something to address that,” said Myers.
For her, the turning point came when she hit “rock bottom,” as the cliche goes.
“I got beat up real bad by this trick and almost lost my eye,” she said. “I remember getting up off the ground and a bunch of little kids on bikes were there. I asked them, ‘Am I alright?’ and they shook their heads no. One little girl, the cutest one, said, ‘Lady, we saw everything.’ She saw me having sex with a man in a car in the middle of the day. All of a sudden I felt so shameful, so embarrassed, because my life had led me to embarrassing myself and disrespecting little kids. Then I said, ‘God, I have to change.’”
A woman in jail referred her to Genesis House, and there she found what she needed to turn her life around.
“They knew the lifestyle I led and they knew how to help me recover,” she said.
Lofton went through a similar situation.
While she was staying at a motel and turning tricks in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the city’s north side, one of her friends died from health complications from her lifestyle.
“I was so tore up at her funeral,” Lofton said. “But still after the funeral I partied at her house, until they evicted us. I was drinking so much and using so much [drugs]. I went to Illinois Masonic Hospital and they told me my lungs were full of fluid and my heart was working only 18 percent. It didn’t hit me right away. I had already had a little to drink, I was flirting with the doctors. Then the next morning they brought the interns in and it just hit me, this is for real. I said, ‘God, just help me.’ My whole life was flashing before my eyes. But at the same time I was saying, ‘Can I really give all this up? What else would I do?’”
She did indeed give it up, for good this time, with the help of Genesis House and the support of friends. She managed to beat her drug habit and begin to build relationships with her four daughters.
“I wanted them to know who I was,” she said. “After I left Genesis House I was like a puppet on a string, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Edwina, Nikki, Olivia, they were all right there for me. It’s still an ongoing journey, but I don’t ever want to go back to that lifestyle. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Bigger Picture
Many women point out that while questions of legality, resources and alternatives to incarceration are necessary to address on a day to day level, there is a bigger question at stake. Why is prostitution, of various types, so prevalent in our society? Why will men pay hundreds of dollars for sexual acts…only to stigmatize, condescend to and abuse the women they pay to live out their most intimate fantasies? What does this say about sexual and ethical norms, sexism and exploitation in our society, and will this ever change?
In the NCJRS study mentioned earlier, prostitution is referred to as a “sex crime” and statistically tallied as such. That in itself is telling - an act where the “victim” is fully willing and in fact pays for the experience is considered in the same category as rape and molestation.
This concept harks back to archaic or religious fundamentalist views of sexuality - all the way back to Adam and Eve—wherein women are temptresses who maliciously flaunt their irresistible sexuality to ensnare helpless men. This explanation allows the good husband to spend a night having sex with and even abusing a woman, then as long as he pays her when it’s over, he can sneer contemptuously when he happens to walk by her with his family the next day.
This is only one of many ways women are treated as sexual objects and second-class citizens, the logical extreme of a culture of sexual objectification and exploitation.
“Kids see a young woman on MTV shaking her behind and getting paid for it,” said Lofton. “Well she’s prostituting herself. On Elimidate they’re getting in hot tubs and showing their breasts—what is that? They’re being exploited. MTV, Elimidate, Jenny Jones, these shows should all be giving money to programs addressing prostitution.”
When it comes down to it, many women say, all the jail sentences or support programs in the world won’t put a dent in prostitution as long as there is a market for it.
“If it wasn’t for men you wouldn’t have prostitution,” said Myers. “They think it’s a joke, she’s having a ball. No she isn’t! They think they didn’t do anything wrong—‘My wife is pregnant and I deserve to have my needs taken care of.’ Well fuck your needs! And fuck the things you do to us, things that would have you arrested if you tried to do them to a date. Women need to be taught that their body isn’t an offering or a sacrifice.”