Prostitution: Still a Crime
Local police continue enforcement efforts.
Thursday, September 16, 2004
When Brenda Nelson travels with her truck-driver husband, she hangs her bra on his mirror while they sleep. It’s the “Do Not Disturb” sign in the trade; an indicator that the person on the inside is unavailable. When Brenda isn’t along for the ride, her husband Marvin has a more direct approach: He hangs a sign in his truck window that says “No lot lizards.”
To truck drivers, “lot lizards” are prostitutes. “They’re bold,” says Sarah Yocum, who’s been driving a truck for more than five years. “They knock on the truck door at all hours of the night, asking, ‘You need any company?’” That Yocum is a woman doesn’t seem to matter much. “They need their drug money, and they don’t care where it comes from,” she says.
Drug addiction is just one side of the trade; the other is a wicked seed of horror felt by women opting to hit the streets or wait by a phone for their next rent payment.
Some say prostitution is a victimless crime. But to others, the women and men who take to the streets as prostitutes are themselves the victims.
Victoria Singleton, an educator for the Monterey Rape Crisis Center, takes issue with the idea that prostitution is harmless.
“For those who are over the age of 18 without any trauma, mental abuse, rape, assault, totally of their faculties, maybe,” she says. “But from where I sit, seeing twelve-year-olds or sixteen-year-old runaways on the street, women beaten in the process or stolen from their homes, countries and villages to work for sex, I can’t agree it’s a victimless crime. And certainly there’s no such thing as child prostitution. It’s called rape.”
Whether there are victims or not, prostitutes are breaking the law, and one the Salinas Police Department is working to enforce.
After an undercover sting late last month, the Department arrested five women for prostitution-related activities. Their names, ages and photographs were advertised on news stations and local newspapers countywide.
Salinas Police Sergeant Andy Miller cringes at that practice. He says it is more fair and effective to publicize the identities of the prostitutes’ customers.
“In the past, our standard operating procedure was to
publish the name of the guy,” he says. “That was one of the
biggest deterrents of all.”
Salinas PD Lieutenant Dan Perez says prostitution trends have changed. “Back in the early 80s, it was so much worse,” he says. “It’s now spread out and underground.”
In Berkeley there is a movement to turn a blind eye to the practice. A measure on the November ballot would ask Berkeley cops to take no action to enforce prostitution laws.
The measure was the brainchild of Robyn Few, former call girl and head of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. She may take her campaign to San Francisco and Santa Cruz.
That worries Singleton, who believes anti-prostitution laws keep the harmful sex trade in check.
“Without the laws and the enforcement for those who don’t want to be involved, who are forced into prostitution, there is absolutely no protection,” Singleton says. “What recourse will they have? How can they ever get out?”
“If it were to be decriminalized, I suppose it could be taxed and overseen,” says Perez. “But it’s not going to make sex workers healthy, and it’s not ultimately going to help with disease control. On top of that, there are a number of drug issues involved.”
Decriminalization doesn’t do anything about the trade’s existence. The only thing that seems to affect that, experts say, is a shift in historical or cultural practices. The City of Seaside experienced just that with the closure of Fort Ord.
“We don’t even see it anymore,” Seaside Patrol Lieutenant Mick Vernon says. “In the olden days, it was so bad here that when GIs were overseas, they were warned not to go to Seaside. Now, I’d say we’ve got a problem in a couple of bars maybe.”
But prostitution still runs rampant indoors: at local bars and exclusive resorts, high-end clubs and posh inns. A glance through any phone book reveals numerous outcall massage parlors and escort services. The Weekly called every one of the escort services listed; none of the women who answered was willing to speak.
“We know they’re out there, but we haven’t spent a lot of time on them in the past,” Perez says. “That’s not to say that we aren’t now or won’t in the future.”
Perez says prostitutes are getting more high-tech and harder to spot.
“We get plenty of girls who work a circuit,” he says. “They come from the Bay Area or other places and travel with a manager, a pimp. They’re organized.”
Sergeant Andy Miller says it’s a fallacy that these women are choosing their own fate.
“Regardless of what people think,” he says, “it is not a lifestyle choice. Who would choose that for themselves? The violence against the women is a huge part of that lifestyle. A lot of them tell me they’ve come to accept the fact that occasionally it’s going to happen. And that’s not okay. It’s not okay.”
“It’s such a subculture. People figure they’re not victims because it’s their job,” she says. “Without laws to protect them, they’ll be losing a voice they so desperately need.”
With a voice or not, laws against paid-for sex still exist in California. Whether or not police agencies look the other way is another story. Locally, though, that’s doesn’t seem to be in the realm of reality for cops.
“That won’t happen,” Vernon says. “Not here. As long as they’re here, we’ll be looking.”