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.
Lyon County, Nevada. The sign reads "Kit Kat Ranch—Men Only." But it is hardly a ranch. Five trailers painted pink, linked by a corrugated metal roof, are surrounded by a six-foot fence topped with barbed wire. It is three o'clock in the afternoon and inside a dozen girls, young, mostly bikini-clad, lounge in the parlor or in their small rooms. A buzzer sounds. The maid in a white uniform calls "Company!" The girls assemble for the "lineup" and the client makes his choice. The sheriff plays pinochle at the kitchen table with some of the girls who aren't working. The taxi driver who brought the last customer waits in the parlor to drive him back to Carson City, ten miles away.
Amsterdam, Holland. Zeedijk Street, flanking a small canal in the port district. At dusk the porno film theater flashes its lights, a child plays outside his house, a sex-shop window offers its display of magazines and erotic gadgets. It is an odd melange—an Indo-Chinese restaurant, a vending machine dispensing condoms, a bistro-like restaurant with an American Express card sign, an occasional police officer, and the windows ... Lit by a red bulb and framed with lace-edged curtains, each ground-floor window reveals a neat room—bed, sink, a chair, and a young woman. No more than a few inches from passersby, the women are reading, knitting, brushing their hair, or just looking. When a customer comes in, the clean, starched curtains are pulled.
Paris, France. Saturday, payday, around nine o'clock in the evening. There is still daylight because it is June, and on the small streets off the Boulevard Barbès the men line up outside the doorways. Almost all are Algerians, neatly dressed. One holds a bouquet. They stand quietly, orderly, except when the door opens and they strain to see the half-dressed woman who lets a customer out. The police station is a few yards away, but the officers on patrol show no interest in the line of customers. It is like other poor neighborhoods in Paris—drab houses, small shops, and cafés—but something is different. After a few moments, the observer realizes there are no women in the streets. They have been left behind in Algeria while their husbands earn a living at the lowest-paying jobs in Paris.
Far apart both geographically and culturally, these three scenes have one significant common ingredient: sex is bought and sold with, if not the approval, at least the tolerance of both the police and the community.
The picture in most American cities is very different. The prevailing policy toward prostitution is "get rid of it." No one, including the state legislatures which mandate this policy, believes this is possible. But the consensus that official recognition of sex as a business would be immoral prevents thinking about prostitution in any other way.
The burden of enforcing the policy, of course, falls on the police. And they are attacked from all sides. Required by law to be enemies of the prostitutes, the police are also harassed by the public they are trying to protect. If the crime rate goes up in a city, the police are criticized for using scarce resources to chase whores. If, in order to make an arrest, a cop disguises himself as a customer, civil libertarians charge "entrapment."
Lawmakers bold enough to propose licensing prostitution or zoning for it make few friends. Neighborhood groups and business associations say, "Sure, an entertainment zone is a great idea, but not here." Feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women oppose licensing and support decriminalization of prostitution, insisting that women have a right to do what they want with their bodies. They also argue that it is unfair to arrest the prostitutes and not their customers.
In 1971, the Nevada legislature authorized any county with less than 200,000 inhabitants (thus excluding the counties in which Reno and Las Vegas are located) to license brothels. No state has legalized prostitution. So far four Nevada counties have exercised this local option. Almost all of the licensed houses were in operation before the law passed, but now each house pays the county a business tax of $1000 per month ($500 if there are less than seven prostitutes at work in a house).
Lyon County received $42,000 in taxes last year from its four brothels. It is not an important source of county revenue compared with taxes from Anaconda Copper, which has its largest open-pit mining operation there. On the other hand, neighboring Storey County, which ekes out just a little tax money from the tourist business at Virginia City, gets its largest revenue from Joe Conforte's Mustang Ranch, the biggest and best-known of Nevada's brothels.
Bob Griffin, a retired garlic grower and chairman of the Board of Lyon County Commissioners, led the campaign to license the county's brothels. Griffin sat in his comfortable, newly built farmhouse and explained:
If I was to vote again tomorrow, I'd do the same thing. Morally prostitution may be wrong, but how can you legislate morals? The whorehouses have always been here and the people want them. You know, the strongest support came from mothers—they'd rather have their sons go there than get some local girl in trouble. The only opposition was from one of our ministers.
It's a way of life out here, going all the way back. Remember what Mark Twain wrote—"The miner came in '49, the whore in '51. They rolled upon the barroom floor, then came the native son."
George Allen has worked for Lyon County for twenty-seven years, almost ten of them as sheriff. It is his job to enforce the prostitution statute. For three dollars each prostitute is issued a work permit. In the sheriff's office, the women are finger-printed, photographed, questioned about their age (they must be at least eighteen) and any past criminal record. "If she's been arrested twice or convicted once of a drug charge, she's gone," Allen says, "or else the madam watches her carefully." Thus, in spite of formal rules, actual practice is quite casual. And there is not much red tape. The day we visited the sheriff's office, three young women who were getting their licenses at 11:00 A.M. were at work at the Kit Kat Ranch by mid-afternoon.
The Nevada law requires weekly venereal disease examinations, so a doctor visits each brothel once a week. Advocates of official supervision of prostitution, like the officials of Lyon County, usually raise venereal disease protection as a major plus for licensing. But public health officials estimate that only 5 percent of venereal disease in the United States can be attributed to prostitutes. (High school students contract VD more than any other age group, but only a small fraction of prostitutes' customers are teen-age boys.)
As Sheriff Allen drove us through sixty miles of sagebrush between Yerington, the Lyon County seat, and the Kit Kat Ranch, in the corner of the county closest to Carson City, Reno, and South Tahoe, he talked about the four licensed houses he supervises:
It's a good system. The girls get steak a couple times a week. Pimps? We've eliminated them. State law says a girl can't arrive at the house with anyone. They come in their own cars or a cab. Of course they have boyfriends. When a girl's off, she wants to travel, she's making good money. So the boyfriend quits his job and she supports him. Housewives work there too, weekends only, usually. She and her old man have a fight so she decides to make some easy money. I once arrested a man bringing his wife over. He got two years at Carson, over at the state prison.
We have no prostitutes working in the county outside the few houses, but there's plenty across the county line in South Tahoe and Reno. Business here isn't as good when the police aren't enforcing over there.
The owners are good citizens. They contribute to the United Fund and the fire department. Some of the mothers around here would be surprised to learn who's paying for their sons to play Little League.
The sheriff turned down a dirt road marked by a large sign, "Central Valley Steel Pipe Co." Underneath was a small square sign which said "Kit Kat Ranch—1/2 mile." (The law forbids any larger signs or lighted displays, but the sheriff permits Moonlight Ranch, one of Kit Kat's competitors, to use a large flashing arrow visible from the road because without it prospective customers had often knocked on the doors of nearby homes.)
At the Kit Kat Ranch, Sheriff Allen exchanged friendly greetings with the young women who were sitting around in the main parlor or drinking coffee in the kitchen. Some of them looked younger than the law's eighteen-year-old minimum. A few of the prostitutes were black, but, the sheriff said, none of Lyon County's brothels accept black customers, a source of unpleasantness between county officials and the commander and black men of a nearby military base. Only Mustang Ranch in the next county has let down the color bar, but even there blacks use a separate entrance and parlor.
Big spenders at the Kit Kat Ranch can ask for its special lounge with purple walls, mirrors on the ceiling, and a leopard spread on the double bed. Other special luxuries or services carry an extra fee. But the standard rate is about a dollar a minute, fifteen minutes minimum. Says the sheriff, "By the time the customer decides on the particular program he wants, he's likely to be paying a lot more than fifteen dollars."
The sheriff introduced Marie, madam and owner of the Kit Kat Ranch. She is about sixty, a grandmother and still very good-looking. As she talked in a small sitting room, flashing pictures of naked women appeared on the top of a jukebox.
"I hate to see a girl start," she said, but quickly added that she thought legalized houses did not, as some argue, encourage more girls to enter the profession. Before prostitution was legalized the police rarely interfered with the Ranch, but Marie feels the change is clearly for the better. "You have a legitimate business, you keep your books, you're not hot and on the run. The girls prefer it too. They're not going to get hurt. When they're sick or have their period they have a place to stay. If they manage their money, they can retire and have a good life." College students do stints at the Ranch in the summer, and a student at a nearby medical school used to work during weekends.
"I still hear from her," Marie said. "When they decide to leave, I tell them to forget where they've been and make a new life, but some of them say, 'It's a part of my life,' and they don't lie about it." Girls who want to work seldom call ahead; they arrive at the Ranch and ask for work. To Marie, women who make a man feel at ease are successful: "It's not the looks that count."
Streetwalkers who disparage life in a brothel claim the prostitutes at the Ranch are confined there. Marie denies the charge, and says they may come and go as they please except when they are working a shift. Most houses permit women to leave for a week once every three or four weeks.
The four houses in Lyon County are clustered along the highway several miles from any town, and perhaps their isolation accounts for why the Kit Kat's women are free to go where they want. But in other counties local authorities have established restrictive regulations, including hours that the women can be in towns, and buildings in which they are permitted, specifically excluding bars, gaming houses, and residential areas. The town of Winnemucca, for example, does not allow prostitutes to have friends within the town, including pimps, boyfriends, or husbands.
If hostility toward the prostitutes exists in Lyon County, we did not find it. District Attorney Ronald Banta and Sheriff Allen both spoke warmly of the Kit Kat Ranch's annual Christmas party, which they and other county officials attend with their wives. It was a fine party last year, with lots of food and liquor, Banta told us; "We all danced with the girls while our wives watched."
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.
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.