The Biggest Pimp of All

The oldest profession predates history, and laws designed to subdue it have rarely proved effective. At worst, uneven justice—hitting prostitutes with criminal fines with one hand, tolerating or encouraging them with the other—makes the state "the biggest pimp of all," in the words of New York City's vice squad chief. After on-the-spot studies, the authors compare the prevailing approach to prostitution in American cities with decriminalization as practiced in several European cities and the legalization of brothels in rural Nevada.
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Amsterdam is a port city of tiny islands interlaced with canals. For centuries sailors have come off the boats and looked for girls, and for centuries the girls have been there. Today the Amsterdam harbor red-light district is much as it has always been: small family homes, shops, churches, and restaurants side by side with three- or four-story buildings which rent furnished rooms to prostitutes. In the large windows on the street floors prostitutes sit and wait for customers.

Interspersed on almost every block within the district are theaters featuring "live shows" and shops selling pornographic materials. The Tourist Sex Map and Plan features something for everyone—erotic stores, porno films, hotel hostess services, private clubs, all with telephone numbers and addresses carefully numbered and marked on the map. Yet the neighborhood does not give off the honky-tonk air of a comparable corner of an American city; the town hall, the royal palace, and the best hotels are within a few blocks' walk. The stock exchange and railroad station are even closer.

In addition to the harbor area, several smaller spots around Amsterdam have been designated by city officials as red-light districts. Although the law authorizes prosecuting prostitutes in any part of the city, government officials have chosen to control prostitution by confining it to these tolerated areas. T. J. Platenkamp, chief of the city's vice squad, says, "It's the best system because there's a lot of history in it. The city has always been an important port and sailors want women. The people who live there are used to it." Outside the designated areas women are warned against streetwalking and about fifty to one hundred women a month are picked up. For first arrests, they are fined. Even within the harbor district active soliciting is prohibited and the women must sit in the windows or stand quietly outside their doors.

Policemen on foot patrol the red-lighted harbor neighborhood, but have little to do except help with traffic as tourist buses unload passengers, most of whom have come to gape at the windows. No registration or medical checkups are required by law, but even without these controls, the police know most of the prostitutes, where they work, and, if they have pimps, who they are.

Informal controls limit the number of working prostitutes. For example, existing residences cannot convert to business use within the red-light districts. Women working as prostitutes must be twenty-one or married, and women from other countries are not allowed to work. The authorities try to pressure "hippie prostitutes"—girls fifteen to seventeen from America, Germany, Belgium, and France—to leave the country.

Even at the Salvation Army's Amsterdam headquarters, adjacent to the red-lighted windows, the women and their work are accepted as a fact of life. Lt. Col. A. M. Bosshardt, the Army's chief social worker, is not agitating to close prostitution down, but counsels the women and estimates that she helps about fifty a year who want to leave the profession. To her the proximity of families and brothels in the same neighborhood is not shocking: "No children from this district go into prostitution. They see all the bad parts." A psychiatrist who has studied young prostitutes gives his opinion about the effect on children living in the area: "Cigarette smoking is more dangerous."

Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Hamburg: here also prostitution is tolerated.

In Copenhagen porno film theaters and sex shops exist side by side with the Royal Copenhagen porcelain shop and Georg Jensen silver. Prostitutes can be found in certain restaurants and massage parlors, and, in small numbers, on the streets just west of the railroad station, a block or two from the Tivoli Gardens. The police or prosecutors show no concern about prostitution, and inquiries about it amused officials, although some appeared embarrassed by Copenhagen's freewheeling image. "We think we can keep prostitution at a stable level simply by letting it be there," said one ministry official.

In Sweden neither prostitution nor solicitation is a crime and, although police have authority to pick up women on charges of disorderly or indecent conduct, very little attention is given to prostitution in general. One reason, says Chief Public Prosecutor Holger Romander, is that there simply isn't much of it: "We have no slums and no poor people, so women are not forced to do it for economic reasons. Also there's an open view of sexual relations. You go to a restaurant or dance, meet a girl, go home with her. It's not necessary to pay."

Hamburg resembles Amsterdam in some ways. Its principal red-light area, the Reeperbahn or St. Pauli district, near the harbor, is more than a hundred years old. Women may sit in lighted windows or walk certain designated streets between 8:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M. One long block, Herbertstrasse, has iron barriers at either end with signs prohibiting entry to those under eighteen years old. Prostitutes register with police and public funds pay for a weekly medical examination.

But Hamburg has something Amsterdam does not—Eros Centers. These are apartment-like buildings with private rooms, electronically controlled entrances, and closed-circuit TV in the corridors. Customers choose women from those circulating in an enclosed, covered area below the building.

The furnishings in each room include two candelabra—one on the dressing table, one on a table next to the bed—which the women can knock over to signal an attendant if a customer is abusive in any way. Often the dispute is mild—about the price or the termination of the twenty-minute limit. If the attendant cannot mediate or handle the situation, he will call the police who will make an arrest if a customer is violent.

The police seem to be helpful, almost benevolent, with the women in all the areas in Hamburg designated for prostitution. The prostitutes ask the police for help in renewing their registrations, in pursuing a threatening landlord, or for advice when they have forgotten their checkups. The police are satisfied that the laws and regulations now in effect in Hamburg work well.

By contrast, consider the state of the oldest profession in the United States. In every state except Nevada a prostitute carrying on her business is committing one or more crimes—performing sexual acts for payment, solicitation, or, in six states, just being a prostitute. Nonetheless, probably more than half a million women work as prostitutes in America—some regularly, some from time to time. (They have male counterparts, but too few to make male prostitution a comparable problem.)

The law enforcement resources committed to arresting prostitutes and employing our criminal justice system against them are enormous. There are about 100,000 arrests a year for prostitution and related crimes. Professor Jennifer James of the University of Washington estimates that at least 30 percent of the population of most women's jails are convicted prostitutes; in New York they exceed 50 percent. A San Francisco study commission found that it cost San Francisco $375,000 to arrest 2000 prostitutes and transport the women to the stationhouse. It also found that most were back working the streets soon after they were released.

Does any of this make sense? "No," says Joe Freitas, San Francisco's new district attorney, who campaigned on a pledge that he would not waste his office's resources on prostitution cases. "No," says Charles Gain, San Francisco's new police chief; "I wouldn't waste the taxpayers' money trying to eliminate prostitution." "No," says Margo St. James, who heads the three-year-old organization of prostitutes, COYOTE.

No public relations expert could do more for prostitutes than ex-prostitute Margo St. James has done with COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), formed on Mother's Day in 1973. COYOTE now has affiliates in more than a dozen cities, including PONY (Prostitutes of New York), Honolulu's DOLPHIN (Dump Obsolete Laws; Prove Hypocrisy Isn't Necessary), and CAT (California Association of Trollops). Its principal goals are public education and legal assistance, but its best publicized activities are the Annual Hookers' Convention (where in 1974 a giant keyhole was awarded to the "Vice Cop of the Year") and the Annual Hookers' Ball, a West Coast radical-chic event (song of the evening: "Everybody Needs a Hooker Once in a While"). COYOTE's goals are similar—in part, at least to those of the National Organization for Women and other feminist groups: decriminalization of prostitution as an interim measure, followed by eventual removal of all prostitution laws.

Margo St. James has a loft office on Pier 40 in San Francisco. COYOTE's headquarters, it is a combination of packing cases and unpainted furniture with a few soft, low, overstuffed pieces reminiscent of a 1920s bordello. She has sharp words for the way major American cities, as well as Lyon County, Nevada, officials, deal with prostitution:

The whorehouses in Nevada are lousy. They're good for the owner but the women are totally dependent. The houses are supermarkets, there's no leisure time, the women are not allowed out. Decriminalization is the only way to go. Most whores do it for the money—99 percent. Others for adventure—breaking the law, excitement, the whore–cop relationship, getting back at men by giving them a lousy screw. Cops are whore-haters and nigger-haters. In San Francisco the cops work with the hotels and arrest or move the prostitutes when the hotels tell them to. I don't know a cop who doesn't get a free ... job.

Margo St. James believes that if prostitutes were allowed in bars and hotels like any other single women, they wouldn't walk the streets, the source of' most public opposition to prostitution. Some San Francisco bars tolerate white prostitutes; almost all exclude blacks. She would like to see her organization rather than a public agency regulate prostitutes: "Licensing," she points out, "labels us and then we can't get other jobs." Acknowledging that COYOTE is not yet a strong, cohesive union (its literature describes it as "a loose organization for women"), she proposes a labor union for prostitutes who would police themselves: "We know the hotels don't want girls standing around in hot-pants and big Afros." As for taxes, "We won't pay until the churches do. Why let the government be the pimp?"

The publicity given the San Francisco district attorney's campaign pledge not to prosecute brought many additional prostitutes to San Francisco in the winter of 1976. For a few weeks the sidewalks in front of the St. Francis and other big hotels were crowded with women aggressively soliciting passersby. Opponents of decriminalization cite this influx of prostitutes as proof that criminal penalties are needed. But the law of supply and demand eased the problem. When competition for business got too intense, some of the women returned to their old beats in other cities, or tried elsewhere around San Francisco.

San Francisco's Chief Gain would like to see the state legislature allow counties to have local option to decriminalize prostitution, or zone a designated area for it. He finds existing arrangements futile:

Don't think about the morality of it. There's no way we can eliminate prostitution with the resources we have. We can move it around, make it uncomfortable for the girls. My undercover officers make themselves available for solicitation, but this is not very effective. My uniformed officers make it uncomfortable for the customers. We have to react to complaints, but it's only street cosmetics. People have a constitutional right to be on the sidewalk. Free sex for cops? I wouldn't doubt that a bit.

Few police chiefs are as outspoken as Charles Gain, who is nearing retirement age. But most of them would agree privately that under present laws, responding to specific complaints from the community and moving the girls around is probably the best the police can do.

Inspector Richard Dillon, head of New York City's vice squad, is one officer who disagrees with Gain. He wants stricter enforcement, and the New York state legislature tried to help him out with what is known as the Convention Law, effective July 11, 1976, the day the Democratic convention opened in Manhattan. The law permits prosecution for "repeatedly" beckoning to, stopping, or attempting to have conversation with passersby, for the purpose of prostitution. The police have issued guidelines defining "repeatedly" as two or more incidents.

Prior to the new law the police arrested prostitutes either for soliciting, which required officers to pose as customers, or for disorderly conduct, a ground which was successfully challenged in the courts. The Legal Aid Society has already filed a suit challenging the new law's constitutionality and the Civil Liberties Union, which supports legalized prostitution, has distributed pamphlets along Eighth Avenue entitled "How Not to Get Hooked by the New Prostitution Law."

No one knows yet whether the Convention Law will make a difference, but for Inspector Dillon the issue is not how the crime is defined in the statute, but the judges' willingness to impose tough sentences:

We made 190 arrests in January and February of 1976 but only 10 percent of the girls were jailed. I think ninety-day sentences would be more effective. The girls would be more careful and stay off the streets. It would cut down on supply and demand.

Ninety-nine percent of the massage parlors are whorehouses, but it's hard to make an arrest there. Before they'll do anything, the girls make the customers take off their clothes. The Department refuses to let its men strip, so we get no basis for an arrest. Anyway, what's the use? The girls know they won't get time.

Some judges give heavy sentences to first offenders, thinking they'll be discouraged; others give fines. The D.A. thinks he's got a good case but the judge dismisses it. The cops are demoralized because they don't know whether to make arrests or not, and each week it's a different story. And when a judge gives a high fine but gives the girl time to pay it, New York City is "the biggest pimp of all."

Solicitation in New York City is not confined to a single area as it is in Amsterdam. Along several blocks of Eighth Avenue and Broadway, and around the best East Side hotels, women approach pedestrians and drivers of cars when they stop at lights. Ironically, the proliferation of massage parlors has increased the number and aggressiveness of prostitutes working the streets—they have to work longer and harder to make a living because of the competition.

New York's troubles with prostitution are typical of those faced by most large cities in the United States—and some that are not so large—although like everything else in New York, numbers aggravate the problem. In many cities residential and business areas are interspersed with hotels, bars, and tourist attractions that are the natural focus for street prostitutes; but unlike Amsterdam, there is no history in American cities of peaceful co-existence of prostitutes with businesses and residents. The prostitution "scene" is inherently predatory and the fact that a large proportion of the women are black, while their customers and most of the other people in the area where most streetwalkers operate are white, has added tension and bitterness on both sides. Many black prostitutes and their pimps are particularly hostile to white customers and seek to get as much money and give as little pleasure as they can.

In contrast to places where prostitution is accepted, there is little the police in American cities can do to make the scene safer or more civilized for the women, their customers, or anyone else in red-light districts, since their energies are directed at putting the prostitutes out of business.

From time to time, legislators in New York and other cities have proposed that prostitution be permitted in certain areas or buildings. In Boston, for example, Barney Frank, a state legislator from the residential district where street prostitutes congregate, introduced a bill to create an adult entertainment zone where prostitution, pornography, and gambling would be open.

Frank is not worried about issues of public morality or street cosmetics, but he had hoped his plan would deal with legitimate nuisance complaints connected with prostitution—noise late at night and heavy traffic on residential streets, for, example:

First of all, let's recognize that adults have the right to engage in sex without first getting the state's permission. And I don't much care if people don't like to see the streetwalkers. Who's to determine what looks good? There are people in South Boston who find a black–white couple walking arm-in-arm more offensive than a prostitute soliciting customers.

>But I do think people have a right to peace and quiet. That's what zoning regulations are all about.

Frank would implement his proposal for an entertainment zone by allowing prostitution in Boston's Combat Zone, already well-known for its streetwalkers and adult movie theaters, and in streets surrounding South Station and the bus terminals during evening hours when trains and buses run infrequently.

Frank, whose proposal was defeated, thinks it will be a long time before the Massachusetts legislature is willing to accept even a limited change: "We're dealing with a lot of history here also. This is a state where it's still a crime for two unmarried people to have sexual relations."

The New York chapter of the ACLU believes that there should be an authorized red-light district. But, argues New York Vice Squad Chief Dillon, about the only place in the city where neighbors would not object would be alongside the piers.

But the johns aren't going to go down there. They want the whole Times Square scene. Anyway, the public doesn't want to face up to prostitution—they'll never go for legal zones. It makes them feel good to think we're out fighting to keep the city clean. They don't know what they want.

People's uncertainty about what they want reflects the conflict between traditional religious and moral teachings and acceptance of the inevitable. Nowhere is this more sharply presented than in Israel.

Until 1967 there were almost no Jewish prostitutes. Strict Arab rules of honor kept most Arab girls from the profession because Arab family law requires the oldest brother to kill a sister who becomes a prostitute.

After the 1967 war, Jewish families from Asia and North Africa emigrated in large numbers to Israel and from these families, on the bottom of the nation's economic ladder, come Israel's prostitutes. At the same time, because of the annexation of territories on the West Bank of the Jordan, Arabs began moving freely throughout the country, and Arab men became the customers of the new Jewish prostitutes.

Nonetheless, most Israelis would rank prostitution low among problems the nation is facing and would prefer to see police resources used elsewhere. But Jewish religious law complicates the issue, as it does many aspects of Israeli political life. Relying on Talmudic prohibitions, the Orthodox religious parties which are part of the coalition government demand that prostitution be made a crime and press the police to use existing laws against solicitation and public nuisance to stamp it out.

The reactions of Ezekiel Carthy, Israel's deputy commander of criminal investigation, are familiar:

We have been assigned Mission Impossible ... Personally, I am for more liberal laws, provided the girls are not forced or coerced, or unreasonably or inhumanly treated. If a woman is fully aware of what she is doing, she has a right to use her body as she wants. But as a police officer, I am obliged to intervene when laws are infringed.
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