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Most charges brought against men who have been arrested in Massachusetts for soliciting prostituted women are dropped, according to findings by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Two years after the state signed into law an anti-human trafficking statute that classifies many prostitutes as victims, they continue to be arrested and prosecuted in larger numbers than johns. WGBH News reporter Phillip Martin reports on the disparate ways that we view prostitutes and johns and the ways popular culture obscures the complexity of both.
In the movie Pretty Woman a wise-cracking prostitute, played by Julia Roberts, is picked up on the streets of Hollywood by a wealthy suitor, played by Richard Gere. The prostitute is soon transported into a dreamscape come true.
Cherie Jimenez, founder of the Boston anti-trafficking group EVA, said people have a very Hollywood version of the way things are.
“That’s why you have to get people that are most affected to set it straight,” she said.
Jimenez points to people like Tanee Hobson, a former prostitute at age 14.
“Whenever I would get into a car some part of me hoped that this guy would see me as the child I was and I wouldn’t have to do it. But in the back of my mind I knew it wasn’t going to happen and all I could do was hope that it was done really fast so I wouldn’t’ have to suffer the pain but after a while your mind just gets numb to that feeling,” Hobson said.
It’s not just teenage girls battling trauma. A former prostitute said most women in “the life” here on lower Blue Hill Ave. in Boston- known as the New Combat Zone- experience more pain and abuse than buyers of sex could ever imagine:
“Let me just say this. Women that work on the streets, sell their bodies it’s more than just the drugs. They’re doing it because there’s something inside them that’s hurting. What do you think about yourself at 13 years old when you’re being molested by your brother, your uncles, your father, you don’t have no worthiness. So you come out here and you think that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
The childhood trauma that drives scores of woman and girls into the arms of pimps and johns is experienced across racial, ethnic and socio-economic lines, but there is a disproportionate number of low income girls of color who are systematically targeted by pimps, according to Lisa Goldblatt-Grace, the executive director My Life, My Choice, a local advocacy organization for exploited girls:
“They don’t get an Amber Alert in the same kind of way when they go missing. They’re seen as “teen prostitutes”. They are seen just part of this victimless crime; just kind of like collateral damage, if at all,” she said.
Trauma and victimhood cuts both ways, said Boston based sex therapist Andrea Herber. Herber counsels men who buy sex. The deep secrets held by some of her clients explains why some are often unsympathetic to the women they solicit, she said.
“Some of the men I work with have horrible histories of sexual abuse, which rupture their trust in humanity which rupture their ability to be intimate. They abuse the women not even thinking about it as abuse as some of the time. It’s just that ‘I want to have sex and it’s safe here because my emotions don’t come into it and it’s raw and I can just be in denial.’”
This transaction is complicated for women, said Lisa Goldblatt-Grace.
“But the place where it’s not complicated is on the demand side,” Goldblatt-Grace said. “We don’t buy and sell human beings.”
But that’s one view of prostitution. Another view is that it is a victimless crime that should be decriminalized, such that neither the prostituted person nor client is stigmatized.
Goldblatt-Grace argued that view doesn’t take into account the structural ways that prostitution is formed, and she said it often begins in childhood, which makes the act inherently nonconsensual. She points to the example of Lawrence Taylor, the NFL Hall of Famer, who was sentenced to six years probation for sleeping with a prostituted girt in 2011.
“That 15-year-old girl had run away from a bad situation. She had met a pimp. That pimp had said you will work for me. She said no. He had beat her and so she went into that room with Lawrence Taylor, and when she walked into that room with him she was a 15-year-old with a black eye. And when asked about it, he said ‘listen, when you buy sex you don’t know what you’re going to get’.”
Lawrence Taylor, in an interview with Fox News’ Shep Smith:
LAWRENCE TAYLOR: …If it’s going to be a pretty girl or an ugly girl or what ever it’s going to be.
SHEP SMITH: Or a young girl?
LAWRENCE TAYLOR : Yeah, you can only ask. No, I don’t card them. I don’t ask for a birth certificate. Hey, sometimes I look for some company.
SHEP SMITH: And you don’t mind paying to that.
LAWRENCE TAYLOR: I don’t. It’s all clean. And I don’t have to worry about your feelings (the prostituted woman). It’s all clean.
Not for Dana, who was prostituted as a child; was moved between Boston and New York for six years by a pimp and finally escaped shortly after her 20th birthday.
” I was in and out of the hospitals a lot, ” Dana said. “Black eyes. And of course there were the johns who were abusive. My finger was almost cut off. So yeah, there was a lot of abuse.”
These stories are all to common said Norma Ramos of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in New York and she says she’s frustrated by what that represents:
“I am frustrated because in this country we have constant push by elements of our culture to normalize prostitution; to normalize sexual exploitation without any understanding of how hugely destructive this is to a human being. Movies like ‘Pretty Woman’…”
And movies like Hustle and Flow with a pimp is the anti-hero.
Johns are shaped by the same cultural influences as everyone else, said sex therapist Andrea Herber. Movies, music, and pornography are among the cultural filters that help johns rationalize their choices.
“They have all these arguments that they make up in their heads that they’re doing the women a favor,” Herber said. “The say hey ‘they’re getting paid’. And you have the businessmen that go to Thailand or somewhere else and the believe that they’re there ‘doing these poor women a favor’.”
Jim—not his real name—is a New York limo driver whom we interviewed in our recent series on human trafficking. Thailand is where he met his wife, a prostituted woman.
“I’ve been to Thailand three times,” he said. “I felt sorry for her because I thought ‘here is this poor country girl that’s helping her family.’ It’s so bad that she has to prostitute herself. You see the world comes there and they just take from these women, and they don’t realize that they have to pay a heavy price.
Like Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman, Jim said he rescued his wife from a life of prostitution and brought her to the U.S. But unlike Julia Robert’s character, there would be no fairy tale ending. There was a debt owed in Thailand and Jim’s wife is still working in “the life” to pay it off. She travels between New York and Boston to rendezvous with johns in the real world of prostitution.