“To understand what prostitution’s really like, you need to go eyeball to eyeball with a John.”
I listened to the words spoken by a vice-sergeant in the police force I’d been working with for several months as I researched street teens and found myself nodding my head yes.
Which is how, a forty-something woman found herself standing in the night along a downtown street, trying to lure the men who drove slowly by in their cars to stop and negotiate sex-for-hire.
I had rules. At no time was I to get in the car with a man and if I felt in danger, I was to use the get-out-of-danger line the two cops who were watching over me had provided.
Easy. Peasy, I thought and headed out to the street one night, dressed in my fishnet stockings, short skirt and top specifically designed to reveal the most cleavage. I thought I would gain understanding of what it was like for the young, and not so young women, who stood out, night after night, trying to entice men to pay them to have sex with them.
I had no idea what I was in for.
I knew many of the other women lining the street. I’d chatted over coffee with most of them during the weeks leanding up to that night. They’d answered my questions with grace. They’d shared their stories and thoughts and ideas on life, children, helping one another, and of course, sex.
I had empathy, compassion, admiration for the girls. They were strong. Courageous. Funny. Kind.
I had way more judgements of the johns.
They were the predators. The men who preyed upon women, enticing them with money-for-sex while they relieved their tensions and sexual frustrations in cars parked in dark alleys and out-of-the-view-of-prying-eyes-corners of the city.
And then I went eyeball to eyeball with a john.
He was young. Good looking. Blonde. In his twenties. When his little blue car pulled to a stop in front of me I was scared. My mind went blank and I forgot every carefully coached word the vice cops and the girls had given me to help me through the night.
After a hasty, “Hi. You want to party?” as I approached the open window of his car, I immediately played my ‘get out of danger’ card ithout uttering another word. “There’s too many cops around out here. I’ll meet you down the back alley behind the hotel.”
I had borrowed a girlfriends fur coat for the night and was holding it tightly closed with one hand at my neck as I leaned into the open window.
As I stepped back and before he pulled away, he leaned over towards the window and said. “Hey. Maybe save you a walk for nothing. Let me see what you’ve got under your coat.”
I opened my coat and showed him my wares.
He nodded his head and pulled away.
I didn’t know if I should say thank you or F*u. I stepped back onto the curb and started to shake. My first encounter with a john and I send him away with alacrity.
I knew I couldn’t stay out and walked back to one of the unmarked police cars where Ron, my police guide and watchman for the night was howling with laughter.
“I wondered how long before you’d have to open your coat,” he said before adding. “Give it ten minutes. He’ll be back.”
And he was. A few minutes later, joining the stream of cars, circling the block, again and again, looking for just the right girl.
I lost my innocence that night. I lost my blindness. My ability to ignore what sex-for-hire does to the self-worth, heart and soul of everyone engaged in its dark underbelly.
When I stepped out onto the street that night I carried my judgements with me. I had no compassion, no sense of empathy, or even pity for the men called john who abused these young women and made them pay for their failings by getting them to do unspeakable acts just so they could feel better about their lives.
In one night I discovered all my thinking of them as perps, as evil, as scum could not change the fact, they were not there on the street because everything was great in their lives.
They were there because they too are broken, damaged, hurting.
Holding my judgements against them, holding my condemnation, my blaming and shaming does not change anything, other than leaving me standing in the darkness of my own mind.
I cannot change or heal what I do not acknowledge. Condemning the johns only made the night darker. No matter how much I wanted to hate the johns, to carry my condemnation into the night and not feel empathy for those who in my mind, were the cause of prostitution’s presence in our world, did not change the fact, they are there because they don’t know where else to go to relieve their pain.
It doesn’t make it ‘right’. It does make it easier to understand why we can’t just stand by, do nothing and use the excuse, “they’re not hurting anyone.”
Prostitution, say some, is the oldest profession.
Longevity does not make it right.
It does not make it safe.
And it doesn’t make it a career we want our daughters, and sons, to engage in.
Standing on the street that night, I came up against my own humanity, my frailty, and my judgements. Standing in the dark, I could see clearly that until we see all people through the light of compassion, we will continue to hurt one another to relieve our pain because our pain is even older than prostitution.