Having existed in nearly every culture, every continent and every century for which we have a historical understanding, women who perform sex acts in exchange for money have alternately endured scorn, stigma, intolerance and indifference, while being almost universally viewed as having “fallen” from decent society.
Here in America, our legal and moral responses to “the great social evil” have remained relatively unchanged for more than a hundred years, and these fallen women have remained on the margins of nearly every community.
At the beginning of the 21st century, however a combination of sexual liberty and modern technology is democratizing prostitution without waiting for it to be decriminalized.
Looking for a prostitute?
Go to any large American city, or any number of small ones. Find the poorest of neighborhoods. The one where drugs are easy to come by and gun violence is impossible to get rid of. Look for women who appear to have few, if any, options. Odds are you can get a blowjob for just a bit more than you can a Big Mac.
But if you want to ensure a successful night, you might consult a local Web site before you go:
“Cruised both East and West 10th Street this afternoon and saw a couple very heavy BSW [black streetwalkers] on the Eastside but nothing worth picking up. Think the heat was a little high for them today.”
“Was out early Thursday morning 1-3 a.m. Picked up a WSW [white streetwalker]. Jenny, blonde, looked to have a nice body, in her 20s, pretty girl, OK [oral sex] skills.”
“Sunday 6:30ish I saw a tall, slim blonde standing on East Washington. Not sure what intersection but it was a few blocks west of Euclid. I made a second pass and this girl was pretty cute. Almost too good to be true.”
“Just this past Saturday saw a long haired blonde in daisy dukes and a bright pink top, age unknown, only saw her from behind, on Sherman south of New York, but a guy in a grey pickup got to her before I did.”
You don’t have to know about the Web site to know where to find streetwalkers in Indianapolis, but it certainly helps. At least that’s what one local cabdriver named Mike believes. He frequently procures the services of prostitutes and he is one of the most frequent posters on the site.
Thirty-two, divorced and the father of three boys under 11, Mike drives a cab at night and works at a restaurant during the day. He’s been posting on the site since he found out about it from another cab driver two years ago. Even though he’s rather non-committal about whether or not prostitution should be a crime, he’s adamant that the social networking aspect of the Web site is a good thing.
“I think it’s really helpful for us and the girls,” he says as we cruise East Washington Street on a recent Saturday night.
“Lots of times we put good stuff on there: who has the best body, the best skill or the best price — and that increases business for the girls who deserve it.
“Other times,” he says after a pause and a smile, “other times, we don’t say such nice stuff and their business might go down. It’s all about customer service, right?”
Mike, and the other men who use the site, presume that police are monitoring their comments. As a result, they are very careful to hide their identities; there is also a complicated system of rules about what types of comments can be posted (no postings regarding anyone under 18; no giving out phone numbers or addresses of women; no typing in all lower case).
They also know that some of the women read the site and that most of them don’t like it.
“A couple of the girls are telling us that the cops are using our comments and photos to arrest them, or at least track them down. And that’s not cool,” Mike says. “Most of the guys, the regulars, try to be careful with what they say. We aren’t trying to get the girls arrested. It sucks for us, actually, when they do.”
There are no census records, tax returns or shareholder reports to indicate the number of women whose main source of income is through sex work. And while all speculations as to the actual number are, indeed, speculations, experts estimate that between 1 million and 2 million women in America will accept money in exchange for sex at some point in their adult lives.
Most studies and statistics concerning prostitutes are based on arrest records. Between 75,000 and 90,000 prostitution arrests typically occur in the United States each year; less than 1,500 of those involve women under the age of 18; less than 150 involve girls under the age of 15.
Because 85 percent of these arrests are associated with streetwalkers, extrapolating results of these studies provides irrefutable evidence that the majority of women earning money with this type of prostitution are living lives of desperation.
Streetwalkers are typically younger than “indoor” prostitutes; the average age is 24 and the average career span is less than five years. And while there are male prostitutes, 80 percent of all those arrested for being a prostitute in America are women.
Streetwalkers in Indianapolis, like most American cities, are women who frequently live in poverty (80-90 percent), are frequently involved in drug use (60-80 percent) and are 18 times more likely to die “on the job” than women in any other occupation.
These are women who typically have no high school diploma (80 percent), have little or no other work experience (60 percent) and have lived at or below poverty their entire lives (75 percent).
These are also women who experience violence and abuse regularly, on an average of once a month, at the hands of clients (70 percent), police (20 percent) or domestic partners (10 percent).
Dahlia is one of these women; she works various corners on East Washington Street most nights of the week and a fair number of afternoons, too.
Mike and many of his cyber buddies have all done business with Dahlia. Most of their postings where she’s concerned comment on how quickly she’s losing her looks and her teeth. The same posts also boast of “deals” on her services in exchange for beer, cigarettes or a ride across town.
We pull into a parking lot near where Dahlia is trying to drum up some business. Recognizing Mike, she comes towards the cab and leans into his window.
In between a constant stream of requests for a cigarette and cash (“Come on, Mikey, give me 10, you know I’m good for it. I just need to get a bump so I can work through the night. You can come back and pick me up when you’re done with your shift and I’ll pay you back.”), Dahlia tells me bits and pieces of her history.
To paraphrase: The no good SOB she was married to took off and left her with all the bills, but not before beating the shit out of her every time he drank too much, which was just about every goddamn night. She worked at CVS for a while but got fired even though it wasn’t her fault. She doesn’t read that great. So fuck ’em. Now she gets food stamps. But she still needs money to live. And support her bad habits. So she’s working the streets. But only for a little bit. She’s going to rehab soon.
Here, she begins singing the Amy Winehouse song. Mike joins in, and they repeat the chorus several times, loudly, before high-fiving one another and ending with a “damn straight” from Dahlia.
“But seriously,” she says, lightening the cigarette Mike has finally given her, “I’m going to get my shit together soon. Hell, I’m only 28.”
A cop pulls up alongside us. The looks-like-she’s-40-if-she’s-a-day Dahlia turns and starts what must be a semi-regular routine with the officers in which she holds her arms out to her sides and yells, “What?” over and over again, regardless of the question. Relieved that they aren’t interested in us, Mike slowly pulls away.
“She’s a mess,” he says, looking in his rearview mirror. “It’s too bad, too. [Pause] She gives great head.”
The presence of women like Dahlia and men like Mike in this part of town isn’t news to Indianapolis police. Just last October, more than 80 people were arrested and charged with prostitution in a two-day sting centered around East Washington Street.
The battle to rid Indianapolis of prostitution has a long history in this part of the city. At the beginning of the last century, Irvington’s Julian-Clarke house at 1550 S. Audubon Road, just a few blocks from where Dahlia plies her trade, was the home of Grace Clarke, daughter of the honorable George Julian (Indiana congressman from 1861-1871), prominent local journalist and suffragist in her own right.
Mrs. Clarke was the editor and a columnist for the “Woman’s Page” of The Indianapolis Star for nearly two decades and president of the Legislative Council of Indiana Women, which by 1910 was actively and effectively advocating the Indiana General Assembly for the right of women to vote.
By all accounts, Clarke was one of the most socially respected women in Indianapolis at the beginning of the last century. As a result, she was also one of five prominent female civic leaders named in 1912 as the city’s “Vice Problem Committee.”
Prostitution was widely tolerated throughout the United States until this point. Whether they offered their services in winehouses (yes, winehouses), saloons, bawdy houses or brothels, prostitutes existed and worked without fear of criminal penalty in every large American city, including Indianapolis.
It wasn’t until women’s religious and civic groups joined forces in the early 1900s to combat vice — gambling, intemperance and prostitution — however, that laws in the U.S. systematically changed to punish prostitutes and their clients with harsher criminal penalties.
Politicians in Indianapolis had been under constant attack for permitting prostitution to run rampant in the city since the release of the Vice Commission of Chicago’s 1911 report entitled “The Social Evil in Chicago.” Armed with the 300-page document, those seeking social reform had all the evidence they needed to put an end to prostitution.
“From the mass of evidence we learn that the path which leads down to disease and death is constantly filled with young recruits who go stumbling on, blinded by the want of necessities of life, by a desire for some simple luxuries, by ignorance, by vain hopes, by broken promises, by the deceit and lust of men.”
Their recommendation for ridding the city of prostitution? Better moral education and a living wage.
“Reformers, socialists, extreme individuals and a growing number of earnest men and women of all schools of thought believe the cause of the social evil is poverty and the remedy is education in right living and relief from economic injustice.”
Clarke and Vice Committee members were adamant that the only way to save society from prostitution was to save the women who were its victims.
“[Prostitutes] are human beings still, for a time stumbling in the depths of sin and shame, but not withstanding how low they have sunken in the social scale they can be rescued, if by some method they can be made to feel the touch of divine sympathy and human love.”
Nearly a century later, many American feminists, the daughters and granddaughters of the suffragists, maintain that prostitution is one of the most dangerous and degrading ways in which a woman can earn a living.
In her 2004 commencement address at Cornell Law School, Virada Somswasdi, president of the Foundation for Women, Law and Rural Development (FORWARD), articulated the on-going argument for the continued criminalization of prostitution from a contemporary feminist point of view: “Prostitution is not about women enjoying rights over their own bodies,” Somswasdi said. “On the contrary, it is an expression of men’s control over women’s sexuality. It is the hiring out of one’s body for the purposes of sexual intercourse, abuse and manifestations of undifferentiated male lust.”
“Prostitution degrades women and degrades what is supposed to be one of the most sacred and special acts of love between two human beings,” says Lauren Davis, a counselor at a local agency that helps women convicted of prostitution connect with social services. A graduate student as well, with an emphasis in women’s studies, Davis acknowledges that sex and love aren’t always one and the same.
“Even if it’s not about love, it should be about respect,” she continues. “When money enters the equation, a woman’s dignity, her worth, goes out the window.”
While streetwalkers make up 85 percent of all prostitution arrests, they constitute less than 20 percent of all prostitutes working in urban areas like Indianapolis; the majority works from private homes and hotel rooms in nearly every neighborhood of the city.
On a typical Saturday, there might be a dozen or so women walking East Washington Street, while as many as 100 women will have posted their free ads on Craig’s List that day offering men in Indianapolis everything from the GFE (Girlfriend Experience) to all manner of fetishes as escorts.
Escorts are not necessarily committing any criminal act in advertising such services. Most ads clearly state the legal distinction necessary to keep the women out of jail: “Any money that is exchanged is for companionship purposes and services only. Anything else that might occur while on our date is a matter of choice between two consenting adults of legal age.”
It’s a small, but important, distinction. Basically, a man can pay for a date. And he can have sex with his paid date. But he can not pay to have sex with his date, paid or unpaid.
Arranging “dates” with escorts over the Internet eliminates a lot of the risks associated with cruising the streets looking for a prostitute. Like Mike the cab driver, Jerry is another Indianapolis man who uses a local Web site to post reports of his successes and failures in his business dealings with escorts.
“I’m very careful,” he says over lunch in Broad Ripple. “I’m clean, and I expect the women I deal with to be clean also. I’m not just looking for sex. I’m looking — and willing to pay for — an experience.”
In his mid-40s, Jerry is divorced and the father of two teenagers. He owns his business
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