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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008 01:39 am

Going to the Johns

Fighting prostitution from the demand side


The women who walk by my house, sometimes early in the morning, are always polite when I ask them to go work someplace else. If they don't leave, I call the police, who come by if they're not busy and move the women along. There are occasional stings, where several women are arrested and spend the night in jail. Sometimes we don't see them again for weeks. Prostitutes don't bother me much.

Theirs is a quiet crime, and in the past I've advocated a quiet approach to dealing with it. Streetwalkers are a nuisance, but they don't seem to hurt anybody. Causing a stink about their enterprise only identifies your neighborhood to all your friends and family as a problem. For 20 years I worked in the Lincoln Home neighborhood, which became known as the home for hookers. No matter how much we fixed up buildings and worked against crime, as soon as somebody complained publicly about prostitution, our efforts to build the neighborhood's reputation went down the drain. Now I live and work on housing in the Enos Park neighborhood. Once again I got that sinking feeling in my stomach and my property values when I read the headline, "Prostitution concerns Enos Park residents." The article said Enos Park has now taken over from the Lincoln Home neighborhood as the top hangout for prostitutes.

Now, after listening again to the good folks at PORA (which provides Positive Opions, Referrals and Alternatives for women who want to get off the street), I'm realizing the crime of prostitution has a victim, and it isn't me. The victims are the women themselves. They often work against their will, to pay for drugs that keep them dependent on their pimps. Most have suffered violence at the hands of the men who use them as objects. In 2002, the body of one PORA client was found dismembered in a refrigerator.

The women usually are infected with sexually transmitted diseases, which occur at an alarmingly high rate here. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, in 2007 the case rate for chlamydia was 573 per 100,000 population in Sangamon County, but 440 statewide. The gonorrhea case rate in Sangamon County was double the state average—344 per 100,000 here, and 162 statewide. These diseases create fertility problems, difficult pregnancies, and illness and death in newborns. Many are also infected—and infect others—with HIV and hepatitis C.

Public health costs are enormous, and billed to taxpayers. For all their health problems, the women usually find treatment at emergency rooms, where a single visit can cost $1,200. Treatment for HIV costs $1,200-$1,500 per month. Hepatitis C treatment is a similar public expense.

So, no longer do I believe prostitution is something to keep quiet. Treating women this way is outrageous. As PORA has taught us, the real criminals are the "Johns," usually men, who pay for sex. "There are 10 Johns for every sex worker," says Bernie Carver, outreach coordinator for PORA. "Arresting one woman leaves 10 men looking for someone else to take her place."

Though police have been cracking down on prostitution, there have been only two or three arrests for solicitation in recent months. Those who are arrested face a Class 3 misdemeanor charge, for which a typical fine is $350. But anyone who hires an attorney can usually get off with a warning.

PORA says if you want to slow the demand, stiffen the fine, to $1,000 or $1,500. That would not only help pay for law enforcement, but also send a message to Johns—often from out of town—to look for their fun someplace else. If that doesn't work, impound their vehicles, like they do in Chicago. Having to walk home or call for a ride seems only fair.

Many major cities send the men they catch to "John School." There, for a full day they listen to law enforcement tell them how they could go to prison if they get caught a third time. They hear prostitutes in recovery tell how their lives have been damaged. And they get a lesson on what sexually transmitted diseases can do. Not all are smart enough to learn these lessons, but in cities where John School has been tried there's a low rate of recidivism.

Prostitution has been called the oldest profession. PORA calls it the oldest oppression. They propose that Springfield mark next year's 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth by putting an end to this modern form of slavery.

Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times. Contact him at