Last call for sin
Henry Singer* is hunting.
* Names and other identifying details throughout the article have been changed.
It’s past dawn and he knows that Carina will be waking with a crack attack—a hit to start the morning as others pour that first mug of caffeine. She’ll need his $20 to buy a rock. It won’t get her through the day, but she’ll be able to face the sun. He’s early for work after tripping out the door in Barrington with a stale kiss for his wife and a mouthful of lies about a breakfast meeting. He cruises Elmwood Avenue, hoping Carina will be propped by a bus stop, an alibi for the cops. He prefers the twenty-somethings, and Carina is forty, but even after two kids her body should be illegal.
A year ago, he was infatuated. But you can’t get attached to someone faithful to a pipe. He crawls past Burger King, then Empire Loan, and slows by McDonald’s. Across from a graveyard cluttered with Coke cans and gauzy dime-store flags, he parks at AutoZone.
It’s not yet eight o’clock; she might be sleeping. If he can’t find her, there was one by the 7-Eleven near Lockwood and Broad who looked better than some of the other sea hags. Five foot, two inches maybe, with dark hair to her ass. Her pimp idled in the parking lot, his Explorer’s smoke-tinted window unrolled a few inches to broadcast his presence.
Carina is nowhere to be found. He circles back to the 7-Eleven, parks and flashes his high beams in the woman’s direction. As she strides closer, he sees her age — over his limit, but she’ll do since he’s late for work. She has a gap-toothed smile and a pinched, rat-like face, but at least she’s built. “Can you give me a ride to my daughter’s house?” she asks. Her eyes inventory the Oldsmobile. Singer scans the lot — no sign of the Donut Patrol. “Get in,” he says, unlocking the passenger door. Her pimp shoots him a hard stare as he drives to a ghost alley. She wants $40 for a b.j.; he haggles her down to $20 — the going rate — for a mic check.
When it’s over, he thinks of Carina. She would have done a better job.
I thought she was pregnant, which would have been kind of hot. Turns out she was just fat . — roboman
During his lunch break, Singer unwraps a roast beef on rye and shuts his office door. He fires up his personal laptop, checks his Yahoo! account and digests The New York Times headlines. Then he clicks over to another site and logs in as “Streethunter.” Like an Amazon.com customer reviewing a book, he wants to offer his opinion of a recent purchase. Got a mic check from Ratgirl this morning. Pretty mechanical. Face could use a paper bag but decent rear assembly. Looks, 3, Effort, 5.
The Web is where the oldest profession meets the new millennium. The local forum of a national site — usasexguide.info — is Singer’s locker room. It’s where “mongers,” as the Johns call themselves, rate sex workers on looks and performance. They swap notes: Cathy needs to be knocked off her perch. Tiffany is so far gone these days she’s not worth picking up. Watch your wallet with Anna; she’d pickpocket her own mother.
The site includes a photo gallery, location maps and strip club reviews. It’s a venue for Johns to grumble about the price of gas and the dearth of parking near downtown spas. The men reveal which dancers provide takeout service (meaning they can be bought outside the club). They name women whose looks and talent make them most desirable and out the ones who need coaching. They tell who will do what for how much and offer negotiating tips.
Members describe how to discern a police decoy from the real deal and which streets are being hit by “Uncle Leo” (law enforcement of-ficers); posters have even raced to their computers to broadcast a warning minutes after a decoy sighting. Users know the best time to cruise the West End’s Armory district or the Dunkin’ Donuts on Broad. The forum is both community and confessional booth. Singer, a fifty-two-year-old businessman, only discusses his “hobby” with other posters. Anyone else would be too risky in this incestuous state.
The hunt is often strategic for these serial mongers, some of whom procure two or three prostitutes a day. There is proper hygiene before and after a “date”; a John might stash a change of clothes in his car trunk and shower at a gym
before heading home to a wife or girlfriend. There’s the ruse of switching to a beater car that won’t advertise “mug me” in the ghetto or be recognized by someone who knows his daily driver. Some men bring props. Should Uncle Leo inquire about their business on these derelict streets, a real estate section is folded on the passenger seat. “I’m scouting apartment buildings,” Singer will say, “thinking about investing in property around here.” The cover only works at certain times — one reason he
doesn’t monger after midnight. And if he weren’t snoring in his Barrington bed at 2 a.m., he’d have some explaining to do to Mrs. Monger.
I ran into the famous Carrie. She is retired from this game and is getting her life together, so she says. But all it takes is one hit on the glass pipe to get her working again. — RImonger
The Rising Sun Mills sign glows gold on Valley Street in Olneyville, blinking of condos that fetch up to $1,500 a month. Beneath a bruised sky, a junkie-eyed woman shivers. She stomps her Timberland boots, fidgeting for a fix. As a black Camaro creeps near, she glances over her shoulder and gives the driver a deep stare. He offers her a ride, and the twenty-four-year-old slides in.
The patina of many Providence streetwalkers — who have ranged in age from thirteen to sixty — can be shocking. According to experts, at least 90 percent of them are addicts; the drugs have aged them by at least a decade. Most are missing teeth because methamphetamine, crack and other stimulants trigger excessive teeth grinding. The drugs also ratchet body temperature and cause dry mouth, so users crave soda. Heroin junkies grow a fierce sweet tooth from the drug; all addicts gravitate to sugar products because they’re cheap, stocked at the nearest convenience mart and require no cooking.
Ninety percent of the city’s streetwalkers also have hepatitis C, a viral disease that destroys liver cells. Chronic hepatitis C often leads to cirrhosis of the liver and is the leading cause of liver cancer in the United States. Drug users contract it by sharing needles contaminated with an infected person’s blood (it can also be transmitted if blood is exchanged during sex). Most carriers exhibit mild or no symptoms, so a John can’t detect whether a prostitute has the virus. And women are frequently offered more money to not use protection.
If a customer goes bareback, he may be swimming in a Petri dish of sexually transmitted diseases. According to one social worker, a streetwalker who got HIV from a John vowed vengeance, declaring, “I’m going to sleep with everyone out here who will pay me and give it to them!”
I’d be willing to pay to have sex with the same woman I’d turn down for free in a bar. —Nightrider
I’d be willing to pay to have sex with the same woman I’d turn down for free in a bar. —Nightrider
Undercover detectives Liz Wajda and Keith LaFazia watch the dead-eyed woman at Rising Sun Mills climb into the Camaro. They tail it for several blocks until the driver parks and they can’t see the woman upright. Then they flash their blue “busted” lights. When they confront the baby-faced driver, the man sputters, “I’m not the kind of guy who needs to pay for that!” But Johns can’t be typecast any more than prostitutes.
Michael Sullivan is a fifty-something John who works in the science and health research field. A regular poster at usasexguide.info, Sullivan says he goes to prostitutes for sex, plain and simple, when not in a relationship. Singer and Sullivan are both upper middle-class professionals who possess doctoral degrees. They are fathers. They do not consider themselves risk-takers and say they are generally law-abiding.
Johns see the prostitutes more than naked. Some have met their kids, their dealers and even watched them shoot up. Occasionally, the men fall in love. “They call it the oldest profession for a reason,” Singer says. “It’s in the genes: men want as much sex as they can get to spread their seed. Women want one man who will take care of them and support their child.” He welcomes the helplessness of streetwalkers and massage parlor workers as an antidote to ‘Feminazis.’ “Men fall all over Carina because of their natural inclination to take care of this fallen angel,” he says.
Singer has indulged his vice every week to ten days for the past six years. In 2005, he spent $6,160 on sixty-eight dates with thirty different women. If he were single, Singer would be a regular at the local massage parlors. But, he laments, the women are liberal with massage oil, and “it’s hard to hide your activities when you left home smelling like Irish Spring and you come back smelling like eucalyptus oil.”
Feminists say prostitution is degrading to women because it puts men in control. But if you’re looking for sex with a twenty-two-year-old, you’re going to have to pay for it, which puts the power in her hands. — Streethunter
Felicia Delgado is a sex-workers outreach specialist
and individual case manager for Revitalizing and Engaging Neighborhoods by Empowering Women (R.E.N.E.W.), a program administered by the Pawtucket Citizens Development Corporation (PCDC). R.E.N.E.W. provides a myriad of services that enable streetwalkers to exit the life, such as facilitating detox programs, jobs, housing and counseling. Delgado is omnipresent in Pawtucket’s Barton Street neighborhood, an area frequently mentioned on the Johns’ forum.
Solicitation is about a man expressing how he wants to be satisfied without having to look at the woman’s face again, says Delgado, who prostituted for two years to support a crack habit. “Maybe their girlfriend or wife doesn’t do it the way they want to. They get addicted,” she says. “There’s a thrill to the risk of picking up a prostitute, an adrenaline rush to doing it in a car or a back alley. It’s about freedom.”
Sullivan, who is divorced, confesses a taste for the “sluttishness” of sex with a stranger because “there is no romance, no real foreplay, just pure carnal pleasure.” When single, he spends about $3,500 a year on sex workers. “It is money well spent. I have thus avoided sexually harassing good platonic friends, colleagues and strangers,” he says. “I am free to develop
relationships without having the pressure to seek sex as a primary goal. I am also free to leave sex workers whenever I want, without having to spend half my assets on them and their lawyers.”
As Sullivan drives away from a date, a prostitute fades in his rearview mirror. He goes home, showers and taps a review of the encounter. When Delgado looks backward, she gets angry. Angry about the years she wasted on the streets — time that could have been spent in school and with her four kids, of whom she lost custody. She thinks about the taunts they ignored, the whispers they pretended not to hear.
While Delgado circles Barton Street in a gray Elantra emblazoned with It takes a community to transform a life, the forty-two-year-old reminds herself how far she’s come: the speaking engagements, PBS appearances, the prison class she teaches, the numerous boards she serves on. But prostitution stains. “You never can wash it off, and when you close your eyes you remember some of the acts,” she says. “You remember the despair, you remember the filth and, on top of that, you remember getting raped in the middle of prostitution.” Delgado is whispering now, shaking her head in slow motion. “Getting raped in the middle of prostitution.”
Some mornings she looks in the mirror and shame stares back. But when the Barton Street women meet Delgado, they see someone who looked like them. A woman who fought back after she was beat up by the streets. An ex-prostitute reunited with her children, earning a college degree, holding a steady job. They see hope.
None of them acted like abused slaves when they and I were being happily ended. — Cruiser
Prostitution behind closed doors is not illegal in Rhode Island. Police can arrest a worker for giving a massage without a license, but they can’t bust her or the customer for a sexual transaction. According to the Loitering for Indecent Purposes statute of the Rhode Island General Assembly, “It shall be unlawful for any person to stand or wander in or near any public highway or street, or any public or private place, and attempt to engage passersby in conversation, or stop or attempt to stop motor vehicles, for the purpose of prostitution or other indecent act, or to patronize, induce or otherwise secure a person to commit any indecent act.”
The legislation was originally drafted to address prostitution at the street level, so only pimps, streetwalkers and the customers soliciting them as a passerby or from their cars can be charged. Singer and other Johns can evade the law by arranging indoor dates with streetwalkers or escorts; posters private message one another with women’s phone numbers. The offense is nebulous if a driver solicits from his car but there is no business talk or transaction until the couple is behind closed doors.
Last year, a bill that would have banned indoor prostitution was rejected by the Senate after criticism that it would pun-
ish the women, who — the Rhode Island ACLU objected — are already victims. Meanwhile, officials work to shutter the spas for massage license and building code violations.
Earlier this year, city officials presented revised legislative language that would make indoor prostitution illegal while addressing concerns of victim status. The proposal is pending General Assembly action.
Until then, Rhode Island remains an adult amusement park, an I-95 exit for New Englanders seduced by the wink of something illicit yet legit.
Providence has at least ten “spas” or massage parlors that operate as brothels and are scattered across the city. The workers are mostly South Korean women, rotated every couple of weeks among parlors along the East Coast. Streetwalkers bristle at the public’s perception that they are willing sex workers but massage parlor employees have been forced into the industry.
“Few women will enter prostitution if they have other choices,” says Donna Hughes, a women’s studies professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI) and an expert on sex trafficking (defined as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act). “So the women don’t make a choice, but there’s no debate that the Johns make a choice.”
Prostitution is a hydra: sever one arm and it sprouts another. After a spa is shut down, it’s often business as usual by the next week; by logging onto a website, Johns know when the doors reopen. One monger growls that it’s greed, not altruism, behind anti-trafficking measures. He believes that prostitutes are detritus to be swept under the rug as officials roll out the red carpet for developers. “I hate the hypocrisy used to explain their busts,” he says. “Don’t give me any of this American Dream bullshit — they’re not going to do shit for these women after they get out of jail.
I can’t understand how those cops could persecute the women. In my book, they are really bad men. —Bestcustomer
It’s a seismic debate: Should officials concentrate on eradicating the supply or the demand? Choking the supply is a quick fix, but as Detective Wajda says, “If there were no Johns, the girls would be forced to get legitimate jobs.”
According to Lieutenant Thomas Verdi, head of Providence’s Narcotics and Organized crime unit, the department arrested thirty to forty Johns and 138 prostitutes last year. In 2005, they arrested fifty Johns and 165 prostitutes. If it’s an individual’s first offense, the crime of solicitation or prostitution is a misdemeanor punishable by up to $500 in fines and six months in jail, but a first-time offender is rarely jailed. Verdi notes a dramatic increase in the amount of indoor prostitution and escort services due to web advertising but says that his department concentrates on violent crime and doesn’t really monitor the sites.
In San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program, first-timers can expunge the arrest by paying a $1,000 fine and
attending a day-long John school run mostly by ex-prostitutes. The initiative has become a worldwide paradigm. Of the 5,244 men completing the class between 1995 and 2005, only 217 have been rearrested for soliciting anywhere in California, for a recidivism rate of 4.14 percent. Rhode Island and national recidivism rates were unavailable; however, rates of re-arrest are generally low because getting caught in the act scares most men into abandoning the hobby or securing an escort instead.
Felicia Delgado is working with the Pawtucket police department to facilitate a similar John school that would involve
Barton Street neighbors. Her colleague Shandi Brown, a community organizer for PCDC’s Barton Street Neighborhood Revitalization Project, says that prostitution evicts residents or holds them hostage because parents keep their children indoors.
“Unlike the Johns — some people can’t afford a place in Westerly,” says Detective Wajda. “These residents and their kids should be able to walk down the street without some guy pulling up, asking ‘You wanna ride?’ or ‘How much?’ ”
Sullivan contends that no responsible parent would want their kids playing in those “slums” anyway, places frequented by drug dealers and their customers. “Maybe if the ‘community activists’ paint their houses, clean their yards, landscape their properties and walk around their neighborhoods,” he says, “the undesirable folks will move to other run-down areas and no ‘activism’ or legislation will be needed.”
He and many other Johns argue that prostitution is a consensual transaction between two adults that should be legalized. The men like to think they’re doing these destitute women a favor by keeping them in business, says Detective Wajda. “But if you really want to help, don’t make her have sex with you — just give her twenty bucks. Or when a woman tells you, ‘I’m hungry, I need $20 for some food,’ go buy her some food. The Johns know their money is going toward crack!”
Sullivan, a health researcher, says the problem is not his dollars but our state’s lack of affordable, available and effective drug and alcohol treatment resources.
Another monger concedes that while he may enable women with drug and alcohol problems, he is not forcing them to have sex.
Poverty is a pimp, says Delgado. Women who start prostituting to pay the bills often end up doing drugs to kill their minds during the act. She scoffs at the Johns’ consensual defense: “Am I consenting to have sex with you because I need money? Am I consenting because if I don’t have sex with you, I’ll get beat up when I go home? Am I consenting because if I don’t get this $20 for a heroin addiction my body will go into a seizure? Am I consenting because my kids don’t have nothing to eat? Am I consenting so I can get money to bring my people over here from Asia or Africa?”
“And,” Shandi Brown chimes in, “if someone is high, that’s not consent.”
Simone has had a terrible life — her parents were junkies, her mother had her on the streets at thirteen. If you ever pick her up, go easy — she will do whatever you want for whatever you think is a fair price. — ConsumerReports
The Internet has changed everything, says Singer. He learned where to find prostitutes, how to approach one and the nu-ances of the law before his first solicitation. “The sites create a community that serves to legitimize their behavior because they think ‘It seems as if every other man is doing this, so I must not be wrong,’ or ‘Maybe I should try it as well,’ ” says URI professor Donna Hughes. “The forums enable men to prolong the experience and describe it in a way they prefer to see it and not as what actually happened to the women. Their descriptions have made me sick in the stomach…you can see their utter contempt for the women they buy. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be in the same room as men who have those kinds of attitudes toward women.”
Singer recently celebrated his twentieth anniversary and credits mongering with sustaining the marriage. “My hobby improves the relationship,” he says. “My wife isn’t as interested in sex anymore, so it takes the pressure off her. If I could be satisfied with just one woman I would stay with my wife, but I do this for the variety and frequency of the sex. When I was twenty-five, I didn’t have to go to prostitutes. I could meet girls and have flings. But now, women in their twenties don’t acknowledge I exist.” Besides, he adds, free sex is the most expensive kind.
Sullivan says that some of the women really do like him and vice-versa; on rare occasions, they really do like the sex. But many prostitutes brag about conning their tricks into thinking just that. “I hated every single one of the Johns,” says a former sex worker. “I was just an orifice to them. Prostitution took my soul.”
Johns have heard some of the prostitutes’ backstories of being raped by a stepfather or a brother. The vast majority of prostitutes report being sexually abused — primarily by a family member — between the ages of three and fourteen. Feminist author Andrea Dworkin calls incest “boot camp for prostitution.”
“My virginity was taken at six years old,” Delgado says, her voice dropping an octave. “That abuse continued until I was twelve. My self-esteem was gone. When a girl is molested, she thinks her body is a piece of property. A lot of women can say I been molested until they turned around and told their Uncle, ‘Now you got to pay me for it, I’m not gonna give it to you.’ From that comes the shame. If you’re a prostitute, you’re nobody. You’re never gonna be anybody.”
Singer decides to troll instead of battling the five o’clock commute. He hopes Carina is doing the Olneyville stroll as he cruises the cadaverous, plywood-windowed houses on Harris Avenue. He turns onto Valley Street, past Rising Sun Mills and Fidas Pollo Frito and Hot Wieners. No Carina. She’s an eclipse these days; he’s left three messages in two weeks, and guys on the forum haven’t seen her around lately. Singer circles Eagle Square, scanning Shaw’s parking lot. Nothing. As he pulls back onto Valley, toward 95 South by the mall, his cell phone bleats, flashing his wife’s number. He turns up his radio to drown the sound.