The women of sexually oriented businesses and how we effectively pimp them
Houston has found the prostitution industry so profitable that you could say we’ve perfected the art of pimping the pimps.
Conveniently dismissing the statistics and facts that show that prostitution is far from being a victimless crime, Houston, as well as numerous other cities and private businesses, has been stuffing its coffers with revenues generated by local sexually oriented businesses that are widely staffed with victims of sex-trafficking. The lack of action on the government’s part to dismantle the prostitution industry is a glaring clue to the underlying motives of the parties involved on both sides of the law: Money.
In alliance with the traffickers, pimps, and business owners that operate fronts for off-street prostitution, the government has constructed an elaborate, high stakes, low risk game, rigged with loopholes and gray areas and rules written in invisible ink. The pawns are the prostitutes, who this society envisions to be wily entrepreneurs of the sex-trade, thanks in part to the hooker-Cinderella story, Pretty Women, and also to the mass media who portray them as such through print ads in the back of free newspapers and on the silver screen. The public’s acceptance of this fallacy is detrimental to the success of the government in its quest for financial gain through the sex-industry. Reality suggests otherwise when the facts are revealed. Let us look at our ‘victimless’ sex-workers, our career-driven women of the night.
In a study conducted by Richard J. Estes, Ph.D., and Neil Alan Weiner, Ph.D., it was found that the average age of entry into prostitution was 12 to 14 years old (“Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S. Canada and Mexico,” University of Pennsylvania, September 18, 2001). Under the same study they found that 162,000, or 70%, of homeless youth are victims of commercial sexual exploitation in the United States. Fifty percent of street prostitutes are under 18 years old, and 55% of minors in prostitution are African-American. One third of “off-street” prostitutes are minors working in the massage parlors, men’s spas, modeling studios, some strip clubs, and escort services, all which are licensed by the city. According to client interviews,Portland’s Council for Prostitution Alternatives reports that 85% of prostitutes were sexually abused in childhood and 70% reported incest. An American Journal of Health study of inner city prostitutes reported that fifty percent of prostitutes were raped before entering the business and up to 75% are raped by customers and pimps. The Council also estimates that female prostitutes are raped approximately once a week. They are physically assaulted, raped at knife and gunpoint, beaten and psychologically tortured into submission on a regular basis. In a five country study of prostitutes throughout South Africa,Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Zambia, 84% were homeless, 75% had drug problems and 92% said they wanted to escape prostitution immediately. (Farley, Baral, Kiremire, Sezgin, “Prostitution in Five Countries: Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder”, 1998) Of those in the USA who tried to escape, 52% were threatened, stalked, abused, and forcibly returned.
Prostitution and sex tourism fan the flame of demand for the trafficking industry, through the need for a steady supply sex-slaves. Of the estimated 1.2 million victims of human-trafficking worldwide, 80% percent of human trafficking victims are women and children who are sold and resold for sexual exploitation. Of the 80%, half are children, who are the caviar of the trafficking world. Their appraisal values are sometimes triple that of an adult.
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research states that approximately 45,000-50,000 women and children are smuggled by traffickers into the U.S. annually and based on Estes and Weiner’s studies sexually exploited children, more than a third, or 17,000, are children under 17, of which at “at least half eventually become victims of commercial sexual exploitation as part of their trafficking experience.” Sometimes they are forced to work in brothels to pay off ‘smuggling’ fees, usually tens of thousands of dollars, and some of them earn their freedom eventually. However many are not even offered a debt-bondage, they are simply held as human slaves. In Houston, the nationalities of the trafficked victims in brothels are predominately Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, South Korean, and from south of the border.
These statistics among many others all point to the blatant fact that most prostitutes are certainly not in the industry by choice. It doesn’t even feel right calling them prostitutes, as they are forced into being prostituted. While there may be a handful of consensual, sound minded prostitutes who truly enjoy their career, the vast majority are victims of bad circumstances or victims of sex-traffickers who either coerce or force them into commercialized sexual exploitation, and we in turn exploit them as well.
“Nothing”, was Houston City Councilmember Ada Edwards’ response when I asked her what the city was doing to monitor and protect the sex-workers within the legally licensed sexually oriented businesses in Houston. We were at the September press conference for Human Trafficking Awareness Week outside of City Hall.
Eyes shielded behind dark Jackie O sunglasses, she smiled wearily and shook her head, in visible disappointment that the city’s lack of action forced her to say ‘nothing’. There is no database keeping track of those employed in these businesses, no required registration to verify age or willingness to be working in the trade. The Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission recently passed a law that makes establishments that sell alcohol post signs featuring the human trafficking hotline if they don’t hold a food and beverage permit however there are many places that don’t fall under TABC’s jurisdiction. She went on to say that we need to focus on slowing the demand for prostitution, but she ladled no burden on the city to monitor or inspect the businesses that are well known by all to be fronts for prostitution. Less than 20% of prostitution is ‘street-level’, where the workers are physically walking the streets. The majority of prostitution is ‘off-street’, and takes place behind the very doors of the sexually oriented businesses we allow the city to license for operation.
Yet, as with the drug war, when the law is more focused on financial gain than quelling the problem, preventative efforts would be counteractive to those gains. There are a number of ways that the government makes money from prostitution and a number of ways it could be using that money to sensibly abrogate the problem, yet for some reason (money) nothing is really being done.
In return for a portion of the revenues and tax dollars, the city allows these businesses to operate knowing full well what takes place behind their doors. The licensing fees for sexually oriented businesses range from the initial $475 fee and a $225 annual renewal fee. Supposedly, each ‘entertainer’ must apply for a $29 permit as well, however, those women who are bought by brothel owners from sex-traffickers, or forced into the business by pimps, are probably not registered with the city. Yet we have no way of knowing this as we’ve failed to implement a system that would monitor the individuals that work in these conditions.
While not openly discussed for obvious reasons, brothel owners have been known to use cash bribes to keep the law at bay. However, this is not necessary, as the rules of the game are outlined to allow the businesses to remain open and profitable to parties on both sides of the law. Thanks to the loopholes and gray areas of the law/game, most brothels are allowed to remain open for business, even after they’ve been raided and busted for prostitution. Police vice squads regularly raid businesses yet they aren’t there to close the place down or arrest the owners. They are there to collect. When a vice squad raids a place, on top of arresting and ticketing the prostitutes, they are allowed to seize all valuables on the property and sometimes even the property itself. Cash, jewelry, electronics, automobiles, are all seized and handed over to the Feds where the items are auctioned off and the profits divided. The city gets a piece, the vice squads get a piece and the rest goes back in the government’s cookie jar. Vice squads and task forces are expected and required to generate a portion of their operation costs, which ultimately will line the pockets of the agents involved in the sting. It’s a great incentive, and they will take extreme measures to make a case.
In one case in Hays county, Texas, an officer went so far as to let the women he was busting put her mouth on his penis before giving the signal to raid the place. This was probably after a long, sensual massage by a naked woman, complete with a table shower if he was lucky. He withheld the information during the trial until he was forced to confess that he was ashamed because he was married.
Thanks to HPD Chief Harold Hurtt, undercover cops in Houston are allowed to get naked in order to solicit an offer of prostitution from the women on site. This is despite the fact that in 2003, while he was chief of the Phoenix Police Department, more than sixty prostitution cases were dismissed because the local sheriff’s investigators not only disrobed, but engaged in sexual activities with the women they were trying to bust.
We have seen the grainy videos of half dressed women in the rooms of motels and brothels, where undercover cops try to negotiate prices for offers of sex. However it is extremely rare for an owner of a sexually oriented business to be charged with operating a front for prostitution.
Although it certainly takes two to Tango in this industry, women tend to be the target of most vice operations. In Chicago, police district 14 accounted for the highest number of prostitution arrests in 2002, in which over 89% of the arrests were prostitutes (mainly women), 10% were ‘johns’, and less than 1% were pimps or brothel owners. In 2005, the FBI estimated 89, 891 people were arrested for prostitution and commercialized vice combined. Commercialized vice is the term used to classify pimping, soliciting sex, operating a brothel or transporting humans for sexual exploitation. Of the total arrests made 21,056 were male and 41,607 were female. (FBI Crime in the United States 2005, Estimated Arrests, Tables 29, 39, and 40.) However those two totals do not add up to the total number of arrests. The difference of 27, 228 is made up of the number of people arrested more than once, as the previous figure consists of total arrests, not how many individuals were arrested. Most of this remainder can be attributed to the fact that a high percentage of prostitutes have been arrested more than once. Typically, they are bailed out by their pimps and put right back to work. Fines and charges range from $2,000 and 180 days in jail. It creates a revolving door effect where tax-payers pay the inmates overhead, and the city jail gets repeat customers. Currently, 70% of female inmates in America were initially arrested as prostitutes.
Our reputation as a city of high profits and low risk for the pimps and brothel owners insure the proliferation of the sex-industry inHouston. If there was more focus on salvaging what little self-esteem is left in these women, or rescuing those who are their against their will, prostitution would begin to phase itself out. But, since the government, and in turn the people, have become dependent on the commercial sexual exploitation industry to increase our budgets, we must be weaned from that source of revenue.
Prostitution benefits the local economy as well. The budgets of companies in the private sector have also become dependent on the bought and sold rape of women. Landlords that lease the space for brothels and motels that rent hourly rooms for paid sexual encounters are on the receiving end of the funds that are procured through prostitution. Media owners, typically free, weekly publications that aren’t ‘family oriented’, profit from the promotion of such businesses through print ads for massage parlors, modeling studios, escort services and even ‘indie’ call girls. The National Organization for Women recently threatened to protest New York Magazine and the new owners of the New York Press for gaining from the human sex-trafficking industry if they didn’t stop accepting sex ads, accusing them of being a “marketing arm of the organized crime world of prostitution and human trafficking”. The protests were cancelled when the publications announced that they would indeed stop printing sex ads.
On the NOW.org website, they claim that ‘adult’ advertisements generate 35% of newspaper gross revenue on a weekly basis. Many papers report that they would be unprofitable or unable to publish if not for these advertisements.”
Also on their site: Village Voice Media, owner of several weekly publications around the country, (including the Houston Press, to whom we owe our congratulations, as they have recently added a full color page to one page of their ream of classifieds, but just for the top-shelf “2 for 1 New Young Asian girls” ads), “generates an average of $80,000 a month on the adult ads that line its back pages, according to the classified ad sales department.” The spa owners can afford it too—they tend to run consecutive ads and get a discount for doing so. Backpage.com is also owned by Village Voice Media, and while the majority of classified ad postings are free on the site, the only ones that are fee based are sexually related and extremely graphic. It illustrates clearly how untouchable the owners of the advertised business feel. Need a sexy eight month pregnant model to blow your mind? No? Then, here’s a good one: Spinners are us at Relax Spa, New Young Asian Girls. Backpage.com also hosts a forum for client reviews of local brothels including addresses and names of the girls they bought sex from.
In the process of trying to figure out why sexually oriented businesses are allowed such leniency in their operations, the answer always comes back to money. It is not an argument of legalizing something that we are already prospering along with. We are not ready to legalize it because there is no way to monitor it for involuntary workers. The issue is that we aren’t doing anything to protect the victims that we essentially pimp ourselves, and even a real pimp does that much. And the men who pay for sex have no desire to know that the woman under them is there against her will. They pay for consenting sex and that’s what they fantasize it to be. It is a lucrative industry in which the demand for a product of penetrable, obedient flesh is for sale. And as long as there is money to be made from the prostitution industry, the violence and despair and corruption behind the neon lights, and tinted windows will remain a dark secret.