Lives for sale
Police have their hands full battling prostitution on and off the streets
(Second of two parts)
It’s Friday night and Pasadena police Lt. Tom Pederson of the department’s Special Investigations Section waits patiently across the street from one of the dozens of motels that dot this end of East Colorado Boulevard. Pederson and 11 other undercover officers are on a six-hour prostitution sting operation, and they’re all in place to find some action.
Before long, a female officer clad in faded blue jeans and a tight black sweater struts in front of the motel.
Within minutes, a van slows down and pulls up next to her. After some small talk, the man pulls into the parking lot of the motel, where more officers are waiting. The woman officer follows him and soon, after the man makes his intentions known, he is swiftly handcuffed, arrested and taken into custody.
Before the night is over, these officers will arrest 10 more men looking for illegal sex on the streets of Pasadena. Last year, 93 of the 124 arrests made by police for prostitution were in this part of town alone. Also last year, California led the nation with 12,351 of the nation’s 67,287 prostitution arrests, even though those numbers are down from the previous year,
when 14,134 people were arrested statewide, 87,872 nationally.
“It’s no longer possible for the kinds of prostitutes you see in ‘Starsky and Hutch’ to stand on the corner,” Pederson explained during a lull in the action, which the Weekly was invited to observe.
“It is a misdemeanor to act like a prostitute or conduct yourself like one. You can be arrested even if there is no money or solicitation,” he said.
A few major factors have contributed greatly to keeping down the number of arrests for prostitution. Two are California laws enacted in 1995, one of which makes it illegal to loiter on street corners for any length of time. The other tightens up laws against pimping. Combined, these statutes have made it much easier for police to make arrests without going through all the trouble of enticing potential suspects into breaking the law.
But another reason why arrests are down is due largely to the adjustments that have been made in promoting the world’s oldest profession, many of whose practitioners have moved off the streets altogether and now instead advertise their services on the Internet and the back pages of alternative and other publications. And not just in Pasadena and Los Angeles, but in communities across the country.
Two years ago, police in Tennessee arrested Nels Noseworthy, an advertising executive with the Nashville Scene, a member of the alternative newspaper association that the Weekly belongs to, after a grand jury handed down a six-count indictment against him claiming he knowingly served as the contact for people offering sex in exchange for money. Charges against Noseworthy were eventually dropped in exchange for community service.
But as a result of that arrest, the Scene no longer carries those types of ads, and a number of other members of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, most notably Boston’s Weekly Dig, have also stopped publishing those types of ads.
The Dig, however, did not drop its massage and adult services ads over questions of ethics. According to a May article in Editor & Publisher, Dig President Jeff Lawrence said demographics actually drove his decision to change the youth-oriented paper’s classified content, which he felt was more attractive to older suburban males than young, hip urbanites.
“It's no different than if we started running ads for Geritol or Depends adult diapers,” Lawrence told the magazine. “In terms of attracting readers, content is one thing, but the advertisements, too, are a huge part of determining whether your readers are going to respond to your paper.”
While the Weekly still carries such ads, the paper’s top management has long been vexed by the need to be responsible citizens and at the same time generate revenue. The result has been an effort to cast a wary eye on such customers, tone down the sexual content of those placements, and plans for doing away with such ads altogether.
In Pasadena, police regularly investigate these businesses, most of them legitimate massage parlors, but many of which offer sexual services for sale.
“They’re always a point of concern,” Pasadena Police Chief Bernard Melekian told the newspaper. “We follow up on them fairly regularly. I have always been surprised that the Weekly underwrites the exploitation of women to some degree.”
One reason for Melekian’s concern is the simple fact that prostitution is a highly dangerous and often violent business for the women involved.
In a recent study by the Mary Magdalene Project, researchers interviewed 126 prostitutes and found that many of them began their careers when they were as young as 15, and then remained in the business for about 10 years. During that time, these women were arrested an average of six times.
The study also found that the main reason for maintaining this lifestyle was a drug habit or merely a need for steady financial support.
Monica, 19, tells a story much like the ones offered by the women in the study. Monica moved with her family from Oklahoma to California when she was 15. That year, she began a relationship with an older man who put her on the streets. Since then, Monica says she has been robbed, raped, beaten so badly that she suffered serious head injuries, burned by cigars and stabbed once.
Martin McCombs, executive director of the Mary Magdalene Project, has seen the results of the violence many times, but knows that sometimes it is not always enough to scare women straight.
“The violence is unending,” McCombs said. “One of the women who left our program early was stabbed seven times by a john just last night. She’s still alive, and we’re hoping it’s a life-altering experience for her. Then again, it was a life-altering experience that brought her to us last time, and she didn’t finish the program.”
From the street, the San Fernando Valley building that houses the privately funded Magdalene Project looks like any other housing complex. Begun in 1980 by a Presbyterian minister who offered women who hung out in front of his church a place to sleep or hide from their pimps, the Project today provides a home to some 25 women a year who are seeking refuge as they get their lives together. The program offers educational opportunities and even pays for health care and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.
Most of the women who are in the program learned the address from other prostitutes. As a result, “By the time we see women they have usually been victims of a trifecta of homelessness, physical abuse and substance abuse,” McCombs said.
The program takes three years to complete and claims a 90 percent success rate, with more than 150 women graduating.
“We need a place like this,” Monica said. “I tried to stop so many times, but when you try to get into normal society, you don’t have the skills and you have burned your bridges with your family and friends. I don’t really have anywhere else to go.”
According to “Prostitution and the Sex Discrepancy in Reported Number of Sexual Partners,” a paper published by researchers at the University of Washington, there are 23 full-time prostitutes per every 100,000 people in densely populated cities. Each averages about 868 sexual encounters a year, or just fewer than three customers a night.
Monica said she usually had about five to 10 customers a night and made anywhere between $300 and $500.
“You have two kinds of prostitutes out there: The older ones who are hooked on drugs and are just trying to get high, and the younger ones who are being pimped. Some of the others work without pimps, but those are the main two,” said McCombs.
Those are some of the success stories. Others aren’t so lucky, mainly because they’ve been able to stay in the business without risking their lives on the streets. That’s primarily because they’ve been able to attract customers in other ways, among them newspaper advertising.
“Asian Lovers: Best Young Girls in Town,” “Asian Girl: Pretty Apples,” “Grand Opening, Young Asian Cuties,” read several ads that appeared recently in the Weekly.
Pasadena City Councilman Paul Little said he believes the ads in the Weekly are contributors to the city’s problems with prostitution.
“When the ads are listed under adult entertainment and the big selling point is something like ‘pretty, young Asian girls,’ I expect the service is more than your standard Burke Williams-type massage,” said Little, who represents District 2, portions of which are a hotbed of prostitution activity.
“In fact, I look at the ads when I pick up your paper because, more than once I've been alerted to such operations in District 2 as a result of just such ads. The last one was operating without permits or a [conditional use permit] and was shut down by code compliance before the police investigated,” Little said.
According to police Lt. Keith Jones, officers wait for Thursdays, when the Weekly is published, to make appointments with businesses to see exactly what goes on at some of these places.
“There are a number of massage parlors in town. In addition to offering a massage, they offer sexual acts,” said Jones, a 30-year veteran. “Some we’ve shut down and some we’re still in the process of investigating. We investigate any place that appears to be suspicious to us. If you go to the adult section [in newspapers] and look under ‘massage parlors,’ you can tell if the language is sexually suggestive.”
The Weekly called several of the phone numbers listed in the ads for comment. Due to either a language barrier or merely an unwillingness to talk, all the people contacted refused to comment for this story.
“A lot of prostitutes are going to the Internet,” Monica said. “They don’t have to walk the streets and they’re not afraid every time a car pulls up to them.”
Ivy Suriyopaf, an attorney with the Asian-American Defense League, said that if an ad is suspicious, newspapers shouldn’t run it.
“Publications have a choice about whether to run certain ads,” said Suriyopaf. “If they have any reason to believe that businesses are conducting illicit activities, they have a social responsibility to report it to the authorities or, at the very least, not run the business’ advertisements.”
Earlier in this series, Suriyopaf explained that many prostitutes may actually be victims of human trafficking — young girls from Asia and other impoverished places throughout the world who, lured by the promise of legitimate work, agree to be smuggled into the US only to become exploited as sex slaves with little or no hope of escape.
A federal crime with penalties as high as life in prison, human trafficking is also a burgeoning industry, with as many as 50,000 women and children trafficked into the United States each year. Most victims end up coming to Los Angeles or San Francisco and, according to UC Berkeley researchers, nearly half work in the underground sex-for-sale economy.
In a November article, Silicon Valley’s The Wave Magazine quoted a San Jose police sergeant connecting their alt-weekly competitor, the Metro Silicon Valley, to the joint federal and state investigation of a human smuggling ring that allegedly brought dozens of women from Asian countries to work as prostitutes in suburban massage parlors.
“It seems they’ve been using adult online services… But the biggest thing, too, seems to be is they’ve been using the Metro,” The Wave quoted the investigator as saying.
The story then went on to cite a document from the investigation that named a Metro ad that read “HOT LIPS, Asian Beauties, Japanese and Taiwanese.”
In the case of the Nashville Scene, authorities claimed the 29-year-old Noseworthy was promoting prostitution. According to the indictments, Noseworthy served as the contact for those wanting to run ads in the "Personal Adult Services" section of the paper.
Officers placed several ads for prostitution-related services with provocative language and prices for hourly rates, resulting in the arrest of 25 people who faced prostitution charges in connection with the ads.
Noseworthy agreed to perform 48 hours of community service in exchange for the dismissal of six felony counts of promoting prostitution, according to an October Associated Press report.
Weekly Publisher Dale Tiffany said since taking over the paper nearly three years ago, he has reduced the number of adult ads in the paper, cut out some of the more provocative images that usually go along with those ads and has developed a strategy for their complete removal.
“It’s not an easy thing to accomplish when you have to look at revenue replacement, but it can and will be done as we focus on core community businesses that have stayed away from the benefits of our readership because of their personal beliefs,” Tiffany said. “This story shows our commitment to moving that strategy forward sooner as opposed to later.”
Don’t do it
Penalties for prostitution range from a $1,000 fine to three months in the county jail. Both prostitutes and johns must take AIDS education classes, and they are tested for the disease.
The message that officers like Pederson want to get out to the public is this: If you are thinking of becoming a prostitute, or if you are considering purchasing sexual services, either off the street or from the back of a newspaper, think again.
“It’s pretty obvious today who is a prostitute and who is not. They have a very finite behavior. They dress in a certain way, act a certain way, they mill and wander aimlessly. It removes the requirement from the police to get the money for sex,” Pederson said.
“Before we had to set up a sting, which is time consuming, or the person may leave the area before we could set it up,” he said. But no more.
“If you are a prostitute or a john, this isn’t the place to come because you’re going to get caught,” Pederson said.
Reporters Kevin Uhrich and Joe Piasecki contributed to this story.