Safe from Harm | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Safe from Harm 

How a new support program is changing the world’s oldest profession.

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It all started with a little smoke in the basement. Jane smoked crack cocaine. Jane smoked crack cocaine with her husband. Six months later, Jane recalls, they would both talk about how they “smoked the house down.”

Before that, Jane took out an advertisement in the newspaper. She was going to sell her body for sex, with a little help from her husband. She took her first clients at the house. But after she and her husband had spent so much money on crack that they could no longer afford mortgage payments, they lost their home. Jane knew how important house payments were. After all, she’d worked as a mortgage loan officer with a $2,500 monthly salary. She once lived in a $250,000 house in the hills of Sandy with her husband and children.

Now she was selling sex on the street. But she got beat up from time to time, especially by crack dealers she couldn’t pay. She needed protection and found it in the husband of a friend who agreed to screen all johns before handing them over.

Life on the street was a blur. She’d worked her way up to a $900-a-day crack habit. But she could easily earn that kind of money in three hours. Her life became an endless stream of crack and “jobs.” It was 18 months of not drawing a single, sober breath.

“I had no life. I would spend the money for the motel we were living at, then buy drugs with the rest of it,” said Jane, who asked that she be given a fictitious first name. “There were days when I didn’t look so good because I didn’t want to.”

Then there were good days on the street. Days when she was feeling the “high.” She had the energy to fix her face, hair and wear a nice little outfit. The other side of Jane is the self-described “pretty girl,” who boasts about her busty figure, and the breast job she paid for before getting hooked on drugs.

After six months of street life, she got stopped in her car for expired plates. In no time at all, Jane was sitting in the back of a police car, arrested for drug possession. It was a turning point.

“I remember sitting in the back of the police car, so glad. So glad I didn’t have to scrape a pipe, go back to the room in the motel, beg my husband to go get me some alcohol from the store,” she remembers.

Jane never planned on being a prostitute.

Gina, who grew up in Rose Park and Glendale, lived in neighborhoods where drugs were a little more common. She was 23. Her boyfriend was almost 10 years older and on his way to prison. Gina was left with no money and a drug habit.

A friend took her to the street, telling her how and when to solicit as a john’s car approached. She was intoxicated on mouthwash and chemicals. After a while, she’d worked the streets long enough to recognize people—who came in, and who came out.

Jane never got arrested for solicitation. Gina did. Her first arrest by an undercover cop was in 1993. Gina got into an undercover car, and when the issue of money came up, the handcuffs went on. By 2002, she’d logged her fourth arrest and a class D misdemeanor. But when offered the option of attending a new “Women Against Risk” diversion program for six months, rather than jail, Gina chose the former.

Run-of-the-mill drug and alcohol recovery programs weren’t quite good enough. That’s when Gina discovered the “Women Against Risk” (WAR) program, under the auspices of the Harm Reduction Project.

It was almost two years ago, in 2001, that WAR’s program diversion project emerged as a collaboration between Salt Lake City Criminal Justice Services and the Harm Reduction Project.

There, Gina could talk about both addiction and prostitution with “women who know where you’re coming from.”

Even then, the task of getting off the street wasn’t easy. She’d been exposed to demonstrations by Harm Reduction Project workers before, in the prisons. The difference is that today she can say she’s been sober since last September.

The irony of Jane’s situation was that she was eventually able to quit a life of prostitution after being pulled over for expired plates. Gina quit after pulling herself through the hoops of the WAR program. But there’s one conclusion both law enforcement and counseling professional can agree on: Getting women out of prostitution is a lot more difficult and complicated than it looks, and the old ways of courts and jails are looking increasingly obsolete.

Professions don’t come older or more time-worn than prostitution. It’s part and parcel of human sexuality’s stubborn bulwark. And that’s one reason it’s so hard to eradicate, let alone manage within the bounds of law. Just ask Brent Parker, the former state representative caught allegedly soliciting an undercover officer posing as a male prostitute.

Even amid the religious fervor of the Crusades, Europe’s invading warriors vigorously protected their “washing women.” New Orleans’ Storyville, San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and even Salt Lake City’s own Block 57, where the Gallivan Center now stands, were history’s hotbeds of nocturnal exchange. Many European nations threw up their hands long ago. Legalizing prostitution let them bring the practice into the bounds of law and regulation. That freed up margins of jail space and also helped stem the tide of sexually communicable diseases by making sure licensed prostitutes passed health tests and were well versed in the ways of safer sex.

Except for small pockets of Nevada, America remained true to its Puritan roots. Prostitution would always and forever remain illegal. But health professionals and law enforcement agree that, working together, society might as well come to partial terms with a profession no one’s ever successfully eradicated.

There are several types of prostitutes that law enforcement deals with. There are “circuit girls” who operate as part of a network. The “cookie cutter” is the one-timer who will perform a trick for much needed cash but then return to a legitimate job for income. It’s the streetwalkers performing tricks for random johns, apart from established networks in legion with other sex workers, that are the most vulnerable.

Because prostitutes—or “commercial sex workers” as some professionals prefer to call them—operate outside the legal realm, they often exist in a rough-and-tumble world of violence, assault and economic exploitation. Never mind the unsavory prospect of giving your body over to a stranger. These women are sometimes robbed and brutally beaten, with little recourse to the law.

Alana Kindness, a former outreach worker for the Harm Reduction Coalition who now works for the Victim Resource Center, frames the larger issue this way: “No matter what somebody does for a living, we don’t believe that they should be assaulted.”

Women Against Risk wants to see sex workers operate in safe environments free of disease, violence and psychological harm. Criminal Justice Services wants to see these women off the street. While the two sides appear to be working at cross purposes, they are also to some extent searching for a stable middle ground.

Meanwhile, the figures keep on coming in. From 2000 to 2002, law enforcement arrested more than 350 people for violations involving prostitution. More than 100 of those were arrested more than once.

“We can delude ourselves that our system is working, but it’s not,” said Simarjit Gill, a Salt Lake City prosecutor.

Lucianno Colanna, director of Utah’s Harm Reduction Project, speaks in the booming accent of his native Boston. Long before he tackled the complexities of prostitution in this country, Colanna worked on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand. As part of a group of activists studying ways to prevent the spread of HIV, he met both men and women who sold their bodies for sex.

“We watched it happen, and there were few work opportunities we could offer to them instead,” Colanna said. His group focused solely on preventing the spread of disease, whether the individuals continued prostituting or not.

Father to a 14-year-old daughter, he says he’d do anything to keep her off drugs and abstaining from sex. He’d recommend abstinence for prostitutes as well if we lived in a perfect world.

“But what about the woman who cannot quit?” Colanna asks. “For women who cannot stop, for economical, for psychological or economical reasons, our job is to get them involved in an area where they can investigate what led to their behavior, and to keep them as healthy as possible.”

To that end, the Coalition passes out, of all things, pamphlets. “Sex Work Basics” will tell you everything you want to know about turning a safe trick but might have been too embarrassed to ask. Wear clothing that will allow you to escape if attacked, the pamphlet advises. Comfortable shoes, that come off easily are also important. Be assertive, and charge more for infection-prone sexual practices. It is also wiser to give than to get when it comes to the real kinky stuff, like bondage. Condom use for everyone is strongly encouraged, and you’re well advised to negotiate the date, place and money matters outside the john’s car. It’s but one of WAR’s attempts to educate commercial sex workers about the risks of their profession.

“There are few places for prostitutes to go to talk about their occupation, few awareness centers,” Colanna said.

And Gina wholeheartedly agrees. “It is a piece that was missing,” she says.

For law enforcement, it’s a balancing act. Women who participate in WAR are placed on probationary status and expected not to engage in any more criminal behavior—even while they are being taught how to practice the profession more safely. Put another way, Criminal Justice Services expects sex workers to make a career move into another lifestyle. But the WAR program only reports to Criminal Justice Services whether the women attend the program’s class regimen or not.

“From the city prosecutor’s view, they are cutting the women a deal. And in this deal, they better not re-offend,” said Emily Aikins, clinical director at the Harm Reduction Project.

From the attitude of those at WAR and the HRC, it’s of course great whenever a woman moves out of prostitution. “But we realize that all our participants will not do that,” Aikins said.

Gill, a city prosecutor, takes the hard line, all the while remaining open to compromise and new possibilities. “I think it would be a misrepresentation that you can continue prostitution and drug use after participating in the program,” he said.

“They have to follow the expectations of anybody put on probation while participating in this program,” he said. “We modify our position, they modify their philosophy, and so far it has been a successful partnership.”

Disagreements, of course, flair up. One of the first was an argument over urinalysis. At first, the city prosecutor wanted WAR instructors to facilitate the taking of urine samples before each class, to make sure the women were clean of drugs. The folks at the Harm Reduction Project objected. That, they said, was the job of the courts. Asking a classroom of women if they got high last night harmed the feeling of rapport instructors were trying to nurture with these women. In that battle, WAR won.

Even with the tensions, there’s a sense that one faction cannot really operate without the other. The Harm Reduction Project needs Criminal Justice Services to bring in clients and expand its outreach. Criminal Justice Services needed a new approach to prostitution. So far, and a year into the partnership, 28 women have been referred to the program, 22 reported to it and attended its classes. Fourteen completed the program. Among the women who continue attending, a high percentage of them quit commercial sex work while enrolled in the program. It’s still hard to extract a record of those who’ve quit for good, though. Because so much prostitution is linked to substance abuse and addiction, relapse is, unfortunately, likely.

Colanna holds on to few illusions. “It’s not a Julia Roberts Pretty Woman scenario for them. They would like to transition out of this. We do our best to help them,” he said.

The women who don’t complete the program are those who “cannot quit” as opposed to those who “will not quit,” he believes.

“Let’s be honest. Who wants to be doing this?” he asks. “Some of them have been doing drugs for 20 years. If the threat of jail would keep them off drugs, then we should be having a drug-free society, because incarceration is the common method used to deal with the problem.”

For those who cannot quit a life of drugs and prostitution, the Harm Reduction Project wants to keep them as safe as possible and engaged in a long-term relationship with the organization.

It could be said that Alana Kindness worked the Harm Reduction ethic even before the Harm Reduction Project set up shop along the Wasatch Front. She began to see the necessity of these programs when she worked with Travelers Aid and Volunteers of America. She worked mainly with the homeless, many of whom were prostitutes and drug addicts.

“That was when I began to see that we might not be able to get them off the street right away, but we can reduce the harm for these individuals,” she said.

Today she works as an outreach worker at the Victim Resource Center, which helps alleged victims of violent crime file their cases in court. Kindness worked on a program of case management for women who suffered violence in the course of selling their bodies for sex. She helped them examine the reasons behind their sex work and drug addiction. She helped them find other forms of employment and housing. At one point, Kindness’ program had 150 referrals but was eventually cut due to lack of grant money.

Violence is a frequent topic in WAR class sessions, which cover every possible threat to the safety of commercial sex workers. It’s an issue both because of gender and the private nature of a prostitute’s work. In fact, it’s hard to find a more high-risk job than that of the commercial sex worker. And even when abuse occurs, many women never report it.

“The types of victimization that they are subjected to are the same as anybody. Often they’re victims of domestic violence, stalking cases, and a lot of times it’s associated with the work they are doing. But they might be reluctant to report it because they are afraid they might not be taken seriously,” Kindness said.

These are women who traditionally fear the legal system. WAR classes encourage them to report the cases. But it’s not always so simple as that. Many of these women have warrants out for their arrest, many for solicitation and many for drug possession and use. The Victim Resource Center where Kindness works refers reported cases to an officer with the police department. If there is a warrant for the woman’s arrest, it’s like turning herself in.

“There is a chance that there would be outstanding warrants for their arrest. In that case they are not immune from arrest because they have been assaulted,” said Dwayne Baird, spokesperson for the Salt Lake City Police Department.

As a curriculum, WAR is more or less a class on street smarts divided into two sections: life skills and a discussion. The life skills segment has no shortage of lecturers, which run the gamut from the YWCA to the Rape Crisis Center. You’ve got to learn how to tell the johns that you demand use of a condom without offending them. When they communicate with a john, we teach them how to assert themselves. When they say they want to use a condom, there’s ways just how to say it so the john doesn’t get offended. They tell them how they want to make contact,” says Jana Ballou, counselor and case manager for the WAR program.

A WAR discussion class can begin with women talking about the risks of driving a long distance to meet a john. Instructors teach students about relationships, self-defense and even legal defense. “Just so they know if they get busted what they may want to say and what they may not want to say,” said Emily Aikins, clinical director of the Harm Reduction Project.

While WAR instructors do not teach the participants how to escape Salt Lake County police officers, participants sometimes share experiences about beating the legal system with each other.

For example, women in the sessions sometimes trade lessons they’ve learned after a lot of time on the job, such as the tricks of avoiding undercover officers. Jane knows first-hand how to skirt those. Rules vary by jurisdiction, but in Salt Lake County police cannot show their genitals.

“You say, ‘Are you gonna whack that thing out or not?’ and if they say, ‘Probably not,’ you say, ‘Have a nice day officer,’ and get out of the car. Technically, they can’t arrest you because you haven’t violated the code,” Jane said.

“You’d hate to see [these women] go to jail, and I’m not sure it accomplishes anything. Their life circumstances are the same, probably worse. They’re left with $5 in their pockets, so what do they do? So I don’t think it solves anything,” Aikens said. “We are not advocates of commercial sex work, we are advocates of people taking care of themselves. We do not want to see diseases spread.”

The Harm Reduction Project’s and Criminal Justice Services’ approach to prostitution has one aspect in common: They believe that without remaking the infrastructure of a commercial sex worker’s life, there is no chance she will stop walking in the streets. Commercial sex workers often lack the structure of an average person’s life, such as health care, a stable home and sometimes even an address. Due to excessive drug use, they have mostly separated themselves from friends and family.

Gill has worked seven years as city prosecutor, and has never met one person who enjoyed selling their body for sex.

“It’s really easy to lock people up,” he said. “But we’re just setting people up to fail. … We’re trying to find a way to assist them with the infrastructure in their life. You can arrest a person, take them to jail, but that person is not in a position to make a transition.”

Indeed, it took four arrests before Gina asked for the option of attending the WAR program. Now she has an apartment provided by Volunteers of America and attends Salt Lake Community College. She has lingering financial troubles but knows that returning to the beaten path of solicitation won’t help.

“Every penny of what I earned went to drugs. I know if I go sell my body, I’ll go use drugs. They’re both forms of abuse I give to myself, like a full circle,” Gina said. “I’ve made drastic changes. I have a whole different kind of friends that encourage me rather than discourage.”

Jane remembers deciding to turn sober Sept. 15, 2001, while sitting in her car stopped at a State Street streetlight. “It all just dawned on me. This isn’t who I am,” she remembers.

Her arrest for drug possession 20 minutes later, after she’d been pulled over for expired plates, drove the point home. After jail, she remained sober through participation in several substance-abuse programs. She relapsed for a while, performing tricks with a female friend for a john. But she soon quit when her husband found a job.

Before losing her home, Jane had no clue about where drug addiction would take her. “I had too many ‘yets,’” she said. “All the things they say happens to drug addicts hadn’t happened to me just yet.”

She hadn’t been to jail—yet. She hadn’t lost her son—yet. She hadn’t lost a home and been on the streets—yet. She hadn’t been driven to prostitution, a topic on which she can today speak at length.

“I have a lot of gratitude for where I’m standing now,” Jane said. Her husband’s been working for 17 months. She’s stopped soliciting for just as long and now has a weekly job cleaning houses.

Gina admits that probably only half the sex workers who sign on for WAR classes are there because it’s better than being in jail, but she’s living proof that the other half want to succeed. Criminal Justice Services knows that, too. There’s little to lose by moving away from using incarceration as a cure-all.

“I’m not naive enough to think prostitution is going to go away, but the past approaches have not worked,” said Salt Lake prosecutor Gill. “What risk are we taking when, looking at the previous trends, there have been no improvements?”

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