January 6, 2008

Nights on Ninth Street

When April was 16, her 24-year-old boyfriend who was addicted to heroin persuaded her to turn tricks to get him money to buy drugs. She became addicted to heroin and is now HIV-positive. Twenty years later, she's still working the street.

"I hate it," she said one recent Saturday. "I hate everything about it. Being raped, being messed with."

Michelle Watson, 41, was living under a bridge five years ago when she decided prostitution was a solution.

"I was there for three days. I got hungry. I wanted cigarettes. I wanted dope. This was an easy way to get money," she said, then reconsidered. "The first time was real hard."

Day and night on South Ninth Street in Modesto, prostitutes stand outside motels or near pay phones, bus stops and taco trucks looking for their next trick. Most of them are women, but men sell their bodies, too.

Some are trying to make money to feed drug habits, others are trying to feed children, fund college or pay mortgages. Sex worker advocates lobby for safer working conditions and decriminalization. Academics study the types of reform or support services that can lead to healthier life.

Law enforcement agents do their best to discourage "the world's oldest profession," which, at the street level, often is mixed with drugs, pornography, rapes, assaults and other violence.

"People say it's a victimless crime, but what's victimless about it?" asked Stanislaus County sheriff's Sgt. Anthony Bejaran. "You got a girl beat up or drugged into becoming a prostitute, or who did it because her mom was a prostitute. There are drug debts. It's a nontaxed business. A lot of the women aren't clean. Most girls aren't happy about what they do. And pimps beat them up if they don't make enough. Is it really victimless?"

Harvest time good for business

It's impossible to say how many prostitutes work in the area, said Sgt. John Walker, the Special Team Investigating Narcotics and Gangs supervisor at the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. But he estimated there are fewer than 100 street-level sex workers. Some nights, he's seen 15 to 20 prostitutes out at once, but other nights there's no one. Many are local but, for the past year or two, women have come from Fresno, Stockton and Sacramento to work on South Ninth.

When asked why they come, prostitutes have told officers they like the area and that they can work independently, without pimps. It's warm, so it's easy to be outside. And business is good, especially during the harvesting season.

The Sheriff's Department runs several stings a year to discourage the street sex trade. The most recent, Dec. 22-23, netted 33 arrests and citations: 10 suspected prostitutes and 22 suspected johns. One man was arrested during the operation on several felony drug violations.

During the first day, undercover officers drove around pretending to make deals for sex with prostitutes. They agreed on a price and an act. When the prostitute got into the car, he or she was taken to be arrested. Nine females, ages 15 to 47, were jailed on suspicion of solicitation. Officers picked up two men.

The next night, female detectives and a deputy acted as prostitutes, soliciting men outside the California Inn at 1130 S. Ninth St. Some wore large hoop earrings, others extra eye liner. Most donned jeans and flannel shirts. All wore a wire.

One woman at a time went into the parking lot.

"Hey man, how's it going? Want a date? Want to party?" came their voices over the wire. Men asked about various sex acts. Some left after hearing the price, which can range from $20 to $60, depending on the act, and the person offering the services. The general rule: the better looking, the higher the price.

Several of the female detectives had years of experience playing hookers. It was deputy Megan Lee's first time. A female detective took her into the bathroom and gave her advice on how to work the johns.

Other agents listened to the wire, handcuffed men and processed arrests. The curtains in the motel room were drawn. Detectives with walkie-talkies peered into the parking lot from time to time.

"These girls can make $1,000 a night," Lee said. "A lot of these girls start that way, they hear about the money. They think, 'I can give a little bit of myself to make a quick buck.' Once meth grips them, they'll do anything for it."

As the men, ages 17 to 60, came in handcuffed, many seemed in disbelief.

A 45-year-old from Modesto started to cry as he waited.

"I just wanted somebody to talk to," he said. "My father died last week."

Another blamed the prostitutes, saying that if the women weren't available, men wouldn't go looking to buy sex from them.

"Sometimes you just want something different. We're like animals," he said. "I'm new at this. I'm sure I'm not going to do it again."

A 38-year-old from Ceres said he'd gone out looking for "some strange." In his vehicle, officers found a black bag containing condoms, lubricant and sex toys. He said he sleeps with prostitutes often and always uses protection.

"I'll be more cautious next time," he said. "This will be hard for me to explain to the wife."

No help locally

Unlike a few cities, there are no programs in Stanislaus County geared toward helping sex workers pursue legal jobs and lifestyles.

But leaving a life of prostitution can be extremely difficult, experts say. There may be drug addiction. A lackluster résumé. Misdemeanor or felony convictions. Physical and mental health problems.

Dominique Roe-Sepowitz is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. She meets weekly with a Phoenix-based trauma intervention group.

"The mental health needs of women on the street are great," she said. "They need intensive counseling, family reunification help, serious medical treatment. Their problems are enormous. They don't have clothes. They don't have teeth. They don't have a family to speak to because they've done bad things to their family for a long time. Most of them are addicted to men -- not the johns, but the man who put them out there."

There are only a handful of programs in the United States equipped to handle such challenges, said Bernie Carver, executive director of a Springfield, Ill.-based residential program called Positive Options, Referrals and Alternatives.

Women can stay in PORA, which is funded by the state, private donors and the United Way, among other sources, for up to 24 months. They begin by addressing physical and mental health problems, which can take several months. Women bolster their confidence and social skills. As they continue, participants work on college degrees or general education diplomas. The last steps are transitioning into the work force and finding affordable housing.

Women who participate in the program for six months or more have an 80 percent chance of living independently, Carver said.

"It doesn't mean they live happily ever after," he said. "But they stay out of trouble with the law."

But leaving the profession often isn't an option, said Mariko Passion, director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Los Angeles. Women who choose to make a living from sex work should be protected and empowered, she said.

"If we acknowledge that this work and industry will never go away, then we can start to consider labor standards," she said. If the industry were regulated, condom dispensers could be required in massage parlors, for example.

In Rhode Island, prostitution is legal as long as it happens indoors, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Street solicitation and operating a brothel are illegal. Prostitution is not regulated by the state.

Street life no BunnyRanch

Nevada has an even more liberal approach. In most of its counties, brothels are legalized and heavily regulated. Frequent medical screenings for sexually transmitted diseases are manda- tory. HBO has produced several documentaries and a series about life in Nevada's Moonlite BunnyRanch brothel, where condoms are required and "All the Girls Look Like Playboy Playmates," according to former Minnesota governor and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura as quoted on the brothel's Web site.

But street prostitution is an entirely different world from the Hollywood-glitter of the Bunny- Ranch.

If she could, said local sex worker Watson, she would find different work. Despite her years working the street and addiction to meth, Watson has a wide smile, bright blue eyes and an easy laugh. She spent three months in a program to recover from meth addiction in 2007. During that time, she spent weeks job hunting, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. No one called her back. So, for now, she's back on South Ninth.

A week ago Saturday, she'd gotten kicked out of her motel because of roommate trouble and didn't know where she'd sleep that night.

"It would be better if I did stop doing this and tried to get a regular job," she said. "If I don't, I probably won't be alive in 10 years. I was shocked I made it to 40."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.

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