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.

Pimp. The word itself is unpleasant and the man it describes is seen as combining the ugliest and most predatory aspects of prostitution. The popular view of him—and all too often the reality—is that he recruits runaway youngsters at a bus station, offers them a bit of affection and support—perhaps some drugs—and induces them to become whores; that he practices or threatens violence to keep his women working and sharing their earnings with him; and that he uses strong-arm methods or deception to steal from their customers.

Concern about pimps has led to a simplistic assumption that every man with whom a prostitute has a relationship is imposing on her. Police estimates of how many women have pimps range from 40 percent in Israel to 70 percent in Paris to 90 percent in New York. The figure is meaningless since there is no way of determining how many are exploiters, how many are lovers, and how many are somewhere in between. In Nevada, for many women the decision to support a man often reflects the woman's desire to have him available when she wants him.

Israel's Commander Carthy points out that some pimps in his country are husbands: "He is the housekeeper, she goes out working." Lt. Col. Bosshardt of the Dutch Salvation Army observes, "Many prostitutes have a man who walks the dog and cleans the house. The cheapest housekeeper you can have, but he doesn't say what to do with the money."

French prostitutes complain that the police do not take account of different kinds of relationships the prostitutes may have with men. The French word "proxénétisme," roughly translated, means "living off the earnings of prostitution," and includes owners of hotels where prostitutes work, anyone who rents a room to a prostitute, and "souteneurs" (pimps). The common complaint of French prostitutes is that "it is forbidden to have a boyfriend." They cite instances of male friends who earn plenty of money as truck drivers or hairdressers being jailed for proxénétisme. "Our boyfriends hide themselves all the time."

Proxénétisme is one of two crimes relating to prostitution which have been the focus of the government's enforcement efforts. The other is solicitation.

The legality of prostitution as a profession has deep roots in French history. Until 1946, brothels were legal in France and individual prostitutes were subject to police regulation and medical inspection. In that year "maisons de tolérance" were outlawed, as was solicitation, although the right to work as a prostitute was reaffirmed. For reasons that are now unclear to officials, the government thought this approach would help eliminate prostitution. On the contrary, prostitution increased. In 1958 the Brigade du Proxénétisme was created and, according to Andre Solères, its present director, the theory this time was that "if you could close hotels and arrest pimps, you could suppress prostitution because the girls would have nowhere to go." In 1975 the government proposed to increase the penalties for proxénétisme.

As a result, thousands of prostitutes went on strike, occupying churches throughout the country to call attention to their grievances. They contended that police harassment combined with the closing of hotels and rooming houses deprived them of their legitimate means of earning a living. Public sympathy was aroused. Although no official government policy has yet been changed, the police seem to have let up.

Mlle. Grisélidis Réal, a prostitute in her late thirties who participated in the Paris strike, still feels the situation in Paris is difficult:

The girls have no place to go. The police have closed the hotels. If a girl buys a studio, the police take it away. Also her car—any place where she can do business. Only the girls who pay the police can work.

According to Solères, girls who are caught soliciting ("calling or stopping" or "walking back and forth for at least one half-hour") can be fined but not held more than one hour. And, Solères says, "The police are told to apply this law with moderation."

But, says Mlle. Réal,

You have to pay to walk on the street, even if you're not looking for a customer. You don't have time to make the money before you have to pay the fine. Sometimes you are picked up by the police five times in one night. If you cannot pay the fines, of course you go to jail. The real pimp is the state—they want part of the money.

The 1975 demonstration has had an impact in France like that of COYOTE in America, but in both countries there are few members, and unionization has little appeal for most of the women who work at the trade. Mlle. Réal is pessimistic about maintaining an effective organization: "A few women are strong, but others say, 'What's the use?' Our leaders are like children. You give them candy, they want it all." Referring to Sonia, the leader of the Paris strike: "Now she acts like the queen of England. She writes a book, and we have nothing. These women are not educated to be leaders."

Another leader of the strike was Mme. Constance, a fifty-seven-year-old prostitute who still works afternoons in her neighborhood, the famous St. Denis area, where, starting at 11:00 in the morning, at least a dozen women stand outside doorways on the narrow streets off the Boulevard de Sebastopol and smile or murmur a quiet greeting to passing men. In the evenings there are many more.

Perfectly groomed, tanned, well-dressed, Mme. Constance carries a large handbag on one arm and a tiny dachshund in the other. She feels the government is still harassing prostitutes and puts much of the blame on Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, president of the Republic. Last year she joined other prostitutes in demonstrating in front of the president's home. Generally warm and cheerful, she becomes angry when she talks about the president: "He treats us like animals."

Mme. Constance, once ran a hotel used by prostitutes and served time in prison after the police shut it down. Now she has a studio where she takes clients. As we climbed the stairs at her invitation, she pointed out other doorways—all studios for prostitutes. Like Mme. Constance herself, the Studio is immaculate and charming—pink chintz curtains and bedspread on the double bed, a small bar—what one could call "old-fashioned comfort."

Mme. Constance thinks the situation in her quartier is better since the strike, but arrests are still made. "What do the girls want? They want social security and state-paid medical care, what other people have. They don't want their boyfriends arrested. And of course they don't want to be harassed."

Prostitutes are available in several parts of Paris—different services and prices in different places. Many female and male prostitutes work the Bois de Boulogne. Cruising cars containing clients and spectators are bumper-to-bumper on the broad allées each evening while the prostitutes stand along the road, ready to take customers into the woods. Just outside the Bois at the Place Dauphine, cars circulate looking for those interested in group sex ("partouze") and male homosexuals wait for a pickup.

In St. Denis and the Bois de Boulogne, standard rates are 100 francs ($22) a trick. Higher-priced prostitutes stand on both sides of the elegant Avenue Foch or walk on the small streets around the Place de la Madeleine. Some sit in cars and are available for oral sex. Place Pigalle is another focus—honky-tonk streets where many of the prostitutes work as bar girls.

At the bottom of the ladder is Barbès, the womanless Algerian and Moroccan quarter where prostitutes work in small hotels and rooming houses, servicing as many as eighty men a day, at fifty francs each. It is hard work and the girls keep only half the money. Proxénétisme? By definition, at its very worst. But, says Solères: "If I closed these hotels, there would be another revolution."

Except for some residents of the expensive apartments at the edge of the Bois de Boulogne who object to the evening noise and the condoms their children find in the park during the day, Parisians do not seem very concerned about the large number of visible prostitutes. It is hard to know how extensive or effective the campaign against proxénétisme is and whether the other charges of police harassment are warranted. Since the French police worry less about the legality of arrests than do their counterparts in most American cities, the level of harassment is whatever the government decides it wants. On the other hand, French police officers do not pose as customers, so a French prostitute does not have to start each negotiation by trying to find out if she is being trapped.

In general, the prostitution scene in Paris is less ugly and tense than in New York and surely Commissioner Solères sounds more relaxed on the subject than Inspector Dillon, his counterpart in New York. Solères concluded:

There is no ideal solution. There will always be prostitutes as long as there are clients and it's foolish to think legislation will change that. But I am absolutely against houses of tolerance such as they have in Germany. Why? If you have an institution of this kind, you encourage all sorts of perversion. The girl is shut in and exploited by the owner. If houses are legalized again in Paris, I would quit. It's an immoral system. All the police can do is see that it's working and I would not like to see my agents participate in houses of toleration.

The best solution is to accept a certain number of prostitutes in certain quartiers. But it is not possible to do that in France at the moment. We can do it in Barbès because few people from outside go there. In other parts of the city we have to show we are doing something.

What can be learned from looking at the ways different countries and cities handle prostitution?

A starting point is an evaluation of the policy of sporadic offensives presently waged in most American cities. The system is flexible. When the public gets upset about prostitution the police make more arrests and harass the streetwalkers more. Some of the women move from areas where complaints have been made, and for a time prostitution is less visible. When the public opinion calms down, police activity subsides also and business resumes as before.

The best that can be said for this policy is that the government is not acquiescing or participating in what many people regard as sin. That its efforts are likely to fail produces less discomfort than if it were not trying at all. We are used to the notion that pollution, corruption, traffic deaths, and other social evils may resist such efforts. Marie, the Kit Kat's madam, may be right when she says that legalization in Nevada did not encourage new recruits, but elsewhere the fact that prostitution is a crime may discourage some women whose need or inclination to participate is marginal and who may not feel it is worth committing a crime and being hassled by the police.

Would increasing the likelihood of arrest and conviction and lengthening sentences help eliminate prostitution? The record offers little encouragement. Even before New York's new Convention Law, judges could have imposed ninety-day sentences but rarely did. Proposals have been made for mandatory minimum sentences that would prevent prosecutors or judges from being lenient, but long sentences would produce results their advocates may not envision. Although they complain about it, prostitutes now accept as a cost of doing business a system in which—in Boston legislator Barney Frank's words—"the prostitutes and cops are chasing each other in and out of courtrooms like a Mack Sennett movie."

If, instead of the brief inconvenience of an arrest and moderate fine, the women face loss of income and liberty for months, they or their pimps will hire good lawyers to defend their cases. Just as the Massachusetts gun law which mandates one-year sentences for illegal possessors of handguns clogged the courts with appeals and delays, prostitutes lawyers will raise factual and legal issues that will tie up court time while the women continue to walk the streets. To have any impact at all, vast resources—police, prosecutorial, and judicial—would have to be diverted toward processing these cases, resources which the public surely wants directed toward preventing more serious crime.

The examples of Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Lyon County, Nevada, suggest that Americans pay a heavy price for pitting the police against the prostitutes. Many women, needing protection against the law enforcement system and illegal violence, turn to pimps. The police can permit prostitutes to do business in return for bribes of money or sexual services. Since the sexual transaction is outlawed, the customer is also without police protection and rarely will report theft or extortion. The police are given an assignment at which they must fail; thus they become the objects of contempt and hostility from the community that are matched only by what the prostitutes themselves feel.

Where government is not engaged in a holy war of abolition, it can, by controlling how and where prostitution may be carried on, protect those who may be affected. That is not to argue for a simplistic transplantation everywhere of an approach that happens to work in one setting. It would be a mistake, for instance, to underestimate the significance of a century or more of amicable relations between prostitutes and their neighbors in rural Nevada, or an even longer history of acceptance of the women in the windows of Amsterdam by their neighbors in the center of the city. Changes in law and law enforcement usually must be preceded by changes in public attitudes.

Only in recent years have the houses in Nevada become legal and the women who work there licensed. But those same houses have been part of the landscape for as long as anyone who lives there can remember. To license brothels and prostitutes in American cities without such a history would be a visible and shocking renunciation of presumably shared moral values. Before government becomes that affirmatively involved in the business of prostitution, there probably must be a first stage of open toleration.

There are also practical problems in the application of Nevada's approach to more populous areas—as presumably was recognized when that state's legislature excluded the counties with Reno and Las Vegas from its licensing law. It is one thing for Sheriff Allen to keep an eye on the four small Lyon County brothels, and for his secretary to fill out license forms for ten or twenty women a month. It is quite different to envision the kind of bureaucracy that would administer such a system for thousands of prostitutes in Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York.

Further, if rules like those in Nevada excluding minors and those with felony arrests and drug records were strictly applied, probably most streetwalkers in big cities would be ineligible for work in licensed houses. Thus, even adopting Nevada's approach would leave many street prostitutes at work. Finally, in view of how easy it is for prospective employers to obtain arrest records, one cannot help sharing COYOTE's concern that licensing labels women and would make it hard for them to leave the profession and find other work.

Houses and apartments, clubs and call-girl operations, all providing sex for sale in some form, exist in many cities in the United States. Although illegal, they are usually left alone by the police as long as their visibility is low. Occasionally, however, a department decides to crack down: for instance, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, five police officers were recently assigned to telephone "masseuses" advertising in an underground newspaper. They followed up by making appointments and arrested eight women. It seems doubtful that this is how a small police force in a high-crime city should be spending its time. Discreet advertising is permitted in England as a way of cutting down on streetwalking. Decriminalizing off-street solicitation is an obvious first step toward ending the confrontation between the prostitutes and the police.

But toleration of off-street prostitution will not end street solicitation, as the experience of London and other cities demonstrates. Confining solicitation on the streets to certain areas is an approach that can and does work in major cities in Europe. There is a long history in this country of using zoning restrictions for isolating noisy, traffic-producing, or otherwise offensive businesses within a particular area, and prostitution is such a business.

The Dutch and German approach suggests that if solicitation is permitted in designated areas, prostitutes and their customers can largely be confined there. Solicitation within the zones would no longer be a crime; outside them, it would still be punishable. It would take much less police effort to deal with those women who violate the zoning requirement by soliciting outside the designated areas than to prevent solicitation everywhere. This would enable the police to provide intensive patrol within the zones, where they could prevent disorder and deal with theft or assaults.

To propose that our government stop making war on prostitution may seem quixotic. But American attitudes toward sex have been changing rapidly. The notion of a young couple openly living together or college clinics routinely providing birth-control devices would have been as shocking to most Americans a generation ago as toleration or regulation of prostitution is today. Furthermore, legislatures and the public in some states have begun to recognize how costly it is to use criminal sanctions against consensual behavior—evidenced by softening or removal of criminal penalties for public drunkenness, smoking marijuana, gambling, and abortions.

It does not depreciate the depth of concern about prostitution itself to recognize that the police are not about to eliminate the oldest profession. Indeed, its durability suggests it is time to take note that there are ways to provide sex for money that are acceptable to prostitutes, law enforcement officials, and the surrounding communities; and to speculate about the form decriminalization or legalization might take in American cities.

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