March 9, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: The Prostitute

I have been fascinated with prostitution for years. I'm not sure how it started, but I assume I was propositioned in Clifton while stopped at a red light. One hot spot in Cincinnati is on McMicken Avenue, which happens to be the street I used almost every day for three years while living on Riddle Road.

I write about this process in The Sickness, but here's the basic exchange:

A dude is driving along. The prostitute typically hangs out at intersections with natural stops (lights, signs). While the guy is stopped, the prostitute uses opening lines like, "You got a cigarette?" or, "Can I get a ride?" These are icebreakers. They are designed to express interest without blatantly discussing details. If she called out, "I'll have sex with you for twenty bucks," she could be arrested, but there is nothing illegal about giving rides to helpless strangers.

Often, miles will be used in the place of dollars. If the guy says he's going twenty miles, that means he's offering twenty bucks. The prostitute can agree or negotiate. Again, sex hasn't been mentioned at this point. Nothing illegal has occurred.

I was propositioned dozens of times on McMicken Avenue. It made me want to learn more about prostitution in Cincinnati, so I started exploring other areas of the city. I quickly discovered Over the Rhine was a hotbed for prostitutes. So, I drove by and observed. I was fascinated.

Men pulled up to street corners like they were drive-thru windows at fast food restaurants. A line of women waited to be picked up. And this wasn't a Richard Gere/Julia Roberts love connection. The men looked rough. The women looked rougher. I learned most of Cincinnati's street prostitutes were addicted to drugs. They wore the scars of addiction heavy on their faces. I got propositioned a lot in Over the Rhine (which makes sense—they thought I was shopping for a date), and what I saw frightened me. Most of the women were so strung out on crack that they had no idea what was happening to them. I've had prostitutes attempt to persuade me by flashing their breasts. I had a transvestite lift up his/her skirt to reveal ... trust me, you don't want to know.

For a long time, I wanted to pick up a prostitute and talk to her about life. In 2007, I actually did pick up a woman in Lower Price Hill (another hot spot). She got into my car and said, "So, you want head?" I was stunned by the question and responded, "Ummm, no thanks, I'm not looking for anything." She replied, "Twenty, thirty bucks for head."

To this day, I'm not sure why she offered me a choice. Clearly, I would have chosen the twenty dollar option ... unless there were additional perks for thirty dollars, like at the car wash. An undercarriage cleaning, perhaps?

Again, I said, "No, thanks." Then, she asked for money. I told her I didn't have any, but she kept asking. I starting getting nervous at that point. What if I pulled out my wallet and she killed me? (I know, I'm paranoid, but you never know). In order to throw her off my scent, I said I didn't even have my wallet with me. I doubt she bought the lie, but about thirty seconds later, we arrived at her destination (or so she said), and I dropped her off. For a split second, I wanted to say, "I'll buy you dinner and give you twenty bucks to hang out and chat about your life," but I wasn't ready to take that step.

Fast-forward nearly three years.

In March of 2010, I decided it was time. After teaching an evening class at the University of Cincinnati, I went searching for my prostitute. Here's what happened:

I left my house at 10:45 and drove around for almost an hour, passing several candidates along the way. I was nervous. So nervous that I couldn't find the courage to stop. After realizing I was running out of time, I finally sucked it up and pulled over next to a somewhat normal looking woman. I recorded our conversation, so some of this will be verbatim, and other parts will be my summary. For example, here is how my interaction with Krissy began:

(Krissy is standing outside of my car.)

Steve: Hey.

Krissy: Hi.

Steve: Uhhh ... so, I'm not going to pay you for sex.

Krissy: Okay.

Steve: Alright? But, I'm a writer.

Krissy: Huh?

Steve: I'm a writer. I'm being dead serious here. And something I want to do is to have a conversation with someone like you and write about it. And so, I'll pay you for that, but like seriously, this isn't like a ... I'm not kidding or anything, but like, I'll pay you, but I don't want to have sex.

Krissy: Okay.

Steve: Are you cool? Like, you don't have a weapon? You're not going to kill me?

Krissy: No.

Steve: Okay.

Krissy: Do I get in?

Steve: Do you ... get in? Okay.

(Krissy is now in my car.)

Krissy: So, what do you want to write about?

Steve: Your life.

Krissy: Ha ... shit. Do you know how many people have told me I could write a book?

Steve: How much do you want by the way?

Krissy: I don't know. How much do you want to give me?

Steve: Uhhh ... I mean, I ... so let's start there. What are your rates? That's a good question.

Krissy: Twenty to forty.

Steve: Twenty to forty? Okay. Let's just drive around and chat for a while, and I'll give you between twenty and forty.

Krissy: Okay.

And ... scene.

I'm glad I have the recording because I basically blacked out during that part.

I paid Krissy forty dollars to hear her story. You get it for free.

Krissy is from Indiana. She grew up in a normal family. She even told me about the horses she rode as a child. So, how does someone go from riding horses in Indiana to turning tricks in Cincinnati?

As a teenager, Krissy smoked crack with a friend. Shortly after, she moved to Cincinnati and became an addict. Since turning nineteen years old, prostitution has been Krissy's way to earn money. I was surprised to learn she actually likes doing it. She told me it's better than working some boring minimum wage job. Krissy is now twenty-two years old. She earned $1,000 during the first two days of her "career." Of course, almost all of it went to buying drugs.

Since that first weekend, Krissy told me she walks up and down McMicken Avenue every day, all day, looking for business. Dozens of men pick her up on a daily basis. Some are regulars, some are repeat customers, and some are brand new. If you do the math—approximately one thousand days on the job ... dozens of men every day—the total number of men Krissy has had sex with is astounding.

Krissy explained that most of the men are older—fifties, sixties, seventies. Many are married or have girlfriends. I asked if the men who picked her up were gross. She said that many of them are. When I asked if she actually enjoyed the sex, she said yes. She goes to a place in her brain that actually allows her to orgasm during sex. I have no idea where that place is, but considering the men I have seen trolling around McMicken Avenue, Krissy must have one hell of an imagination.

Krissy told me she has been beaten, raped, and arrested multiple times. Her greatest fear is getting killed and not having anyone care. Because she doesn't carry identification, her body would sit for weeks without being identified. Her family would eventually get a call from the authorities, but by then, she would be a distant memory. She said, "My biggest fear out here is that one day somebody would kill me and nobody would know, you know, then one day, like three weeks, two weeks later, it would be on the news, you know, but they won't be able to identify my body. I'm ashamed of that part with my family, for sure."

Probably the most interesting part of our conversation (in my opinion) was what she told me about walking up and down McMicken Avenue every day. She wonders what the neighbors think about her. She worries what children think when they see her. I have always wondered if prostitutes felt guilty or degraded, and I suppose at least one does.

Speaking of degrading, the weirdest thing she has ever been asked to do is urinate for a customer. Other girls have been asked to do worse—defecate in public, use a strap-on, and other acts of depravity I don't feel comfortable mentioning. Men can be sick, sick puppies.

I asked about sexually transmitted diseases. Krissy claims to have none, but she did admit to contracting hepatitis. She also informed me that prostitutes get tested every time they go to prison, which I suppose is a good policy. She always makes her men wear condoms, but not all of the girls do. Scary thought.

Krissy actually works without a pimp. It sounds like a lot of girls are independent contractors in Cincinnati. Despite keeping 100 percent of her profits, Krissy is homeless and told me she usually sleeps with friends or on the street. Considering how much money she supposedly makes every day, that sounds unbelievable. She did admit that almost all of her money goes to buying drugs. I learned a crack rock costs anywhere from ten to twenty bucks.

Being Pimpless in Cincinnati hasn't stopped men from abusing Krissy. I don't remember seeing this story in the local news, but her ex-boyfriend (who is now dead) was involved in a police chase and jumped into a river to elude the cops. Krissy was in his car during the chase. That boyfriend beat the shit out of her the entire time they dated. It sounds like most prostitutes suffer traumatic abuse. Krissy's childhood sounded somewhat normal, but other girls tell stories of being molested, raped, born as a crack baby, and so on.

It's a nasty world that prostitutes live in. Hearing Krissy's story made me feel incredibly grateful for my own blessings.

I asked Krissy about God. She used to attend church as a child, but that was more for her father. She hasn't explored her faith since living in Cincinnati, and she didn't seem very interested in church. She has tried getting clean at the Talbert House a number of times, but it's never worked for her.

When I asked what she would do with the money I paid her, she told me," Get high." At least she was honest. I made her promise to use at least one dollar on something other than drugs. I hope she buys herself a candy bar or something else fun.

I asked why she wasn't in school, and she told me she would like to be in school, but her addiction keeps her trapped. She said the high of smoking crack is something that she craves. She doesn't want to get high, but the desire is too strong.

I thought the saddest part of our conversation was when I asked about her hopes and dreams. Krissy has none. It felt like Krissy's entire existence is about getting high. She said she always worries about getting arrested. Her life is stressful every moment of every day.

I dropped Krissy off after driving around for thirty minutes. I was amazed at how normal she seemed. She could have been one of my students without the addiction. Hell, she grew up riding horses in Indiana. She could be anyone. She could be me. But one wrong turn led to another, and another, and another, and so on until she ended up sitting in my car Monday night.

How do we give hope to the hopeless? Is Chrissy beyond the reach of God? Is it too late for her? I kept wanting to say the "right thing." I wanted to share loving words that would make everything better for her. But what do you say to someone who gets paid to pee in front of men? What do you say to someone who has sex with dozens of strangers every day? What do you say to a crack addict?

Maybe there's nothing you can say. Maybe it's more about what we do.

Maybe you buy a local prostitute dinner tonight. Maybe you drive around your town's version of Over the Rhine passing out free condoms. Or maybe you make a donation to an organization helping prostitutes get off the streets.

Or maybe we simply spend a few minutes being thankful for the blessings in our own lives.