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.


TriciaJaros said...

wow! I am so blessed by my life. You are so right that just one wrong turn in life and we could all be trapped in a mess. I'm sure that maybe your talk with her may make a differance, Who knows? However I cried a bit and have said a prayer for her.

ODD imagination said...

Your last paragraph in this blogatorial is your finest. Prayer (energy) is something that can create change. The intent of many with a directed focus is very powerful. If we would all use our power, energy, intent or prayer in this way for the good of all what a "Heaven on Earth" we would have. Krissy is blessed to have met you.
Although I did not read about if you found God in the 52 churches you visited I am certain that as you meet more people, you will discover the divine power of God in man.

Jamie said...

Wow. Really puts life and struggle into perspective.

Thank you.

Rick Daley said...

That was the finest piece of journalism I've read in a long time.

Anonymous said...

thank you for doing that...for hearing her story and letting us in on it. I will pray for her right now.

Lately I've been feeling pretty darn hopeless in the face of some friends' problems and addictions. How can I show them Christ and His wisdom when they are just so blind to God and even to the depth of evil they are messing with? But I was reminded by a friend that I am not helpless...As cliche as it sounds, God does SO much when we pray with honesty, compassion, and persistence. So I'm glad you asked us to do that for Krissy.

A Skin Bag for Jesus! said...

Wow. I'll be praying for Krissy!

I have been doing a lot of voluntary work in prisons. And sadly, I see faces like Krissy's everyday.

I believe in the power of prayer... especially knowing that it is God that burdens for us to pray! No doubt, HE is the One pursuing your new-found Krissy... and that it was Him that led you to her.

wendymhall said...

Great posts, Steve. It is interesting that here greatest fear is, essentially, dying alone...having no one to identify her. She has sex with many men in a day, but she is alone. So sad. I will pray.

Lumpy said...

After reading your post earlier today, I sat and said a prayer for Krissy. It is my hope and prayer that she will reach out for help for her drug addiction.

What's sadder still is that there are people in the "justice system" that rarely helps these women. I actually heard a court official call a woman a crack whore. What was even worse, he said it so emphatically, then repeated it saying, 'you're a crack whore, that's what you are.'

How is someone supposed to even attempt to break out of that vicious cycle when that's what they hear?

Lori said...


Jen - Mom of 4 said...

Great story Steve!

I have a very good friend who once was addicted to drugs - the point that he started selling them and wound up in prison for it. But, thru the Grace of God, he was handed a Bible the last time he was in jail. He found the Lord there and has completely turned his life around. He is a wonderful example of how God can do glorious works.

I will pray for Krissy and all of the people who are in her situation. I hope that they do come across someone who, even if it's just whispered, mentions that the Lord loves them and has a wonderful life for them when they are free of their bondage of drugs.

A Modern Ancient said...

this story hit close to home. not that i am or have ever been a prostitute (no one would pay to have any sort of physical relations with me) or addicted to drugs (though we all have our addictions), i have had two personal experiences with women like Chrissy.

first, when i was 19 and attending UC, i lived in northern kentucky. to get home, the easiest way was to go down through over the rhine, turn left onto liberty and jump on 471. one evening (around 6pm) i was at the stoplight at walnut and liberty. a fairly large woman came up and knocked on my window (scaring the proverbial sh-t out of me). i rolled down the window to see what she wanted. she said she had a baby at home and needed to get up to kroger's in clifton to get some formula because the one near there was out. she said she was going to walk but she decided to ask for a ride.

i was nervous, and honestly didn't even think about her being a prostitute... i was worried about her having a weapon or something, but i decided that i should give her a ride. so, she got in the car and i took a right to go towards vine street and up to clifton. as i turned onto vine, she asked why i was driving around over the rhine. i told her i was simply on my way home from UC. she then started talking about how most men alone in a car down there were looking for a prostitute. i thought she was warning me... sort of looking out for my well-being. i told her that was not me. that's when she made "the offer."

i seriously think my stomach flipped upside down. i was so taken aback that i didn't say anything for at least a minute (my eyes had to have been the size of dinner plates). as she started to describe what she would do, i interrupted her and told her that i was simply trying to help her by driving her to the store and i wasn't interested in any sort of sexual activity. she pushed a little harder, lowering her price, and i still refused. i then asked her why she did what she did. did she really have a baby at home? yes. did she really need a ride to kroger's? no. i ended up giving her a little bit of money and taking her back to over the rhine. crazy experience.

(to be continued)

A Modern Ancient said...

second, my father seems to know everyone. i seriously have never gone anywhere that he didn't know someone. i was working with him downtown one day and he shouted at some man on the street. the guy shouted a friendly greeting back. as we continued driving, my dad told me that was the head of the Teamsters in cincinnati. "he had people's legs broken," he said.

my dad, because of his business, used to spend a lot of time in downtown bars. he actually got to know a lot of the prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers. now, my dad is no saint and i honestly think he may have utilized the services of the sex workers, but he met a younger woman who was strung out on heroin and selling her body so she could get her next fix. for some reason, he had compassion for her.

it had to have been her story that struck him. she had been a bookkeeper for one of the hospitals in cincy. she was married with a young child. her husband began using heroin "recreationally" (as if that is possible) and she started to use it with him. soon they were addicted. she ended up stealing money and drugs from the hospital to support their habit. she was arrested and spent 9months in jail. during that time, her husband, hopelessly strung out, took off and left the kid. children's services put her son in foster care while she was in jail. upon her release, they would not give her child back until she successfully completed a drug rehabilitation program (she was able to continue her addiction in prison). she failed to comply. instead, she found herself homeless and she turned to prostitution to make money.

she had family in south carolina and florida, but she had burned them so many times that they wouldn't take her in until she got clean. so, my mom and dad offered to let her stay with them so long as she entered a rehabilitation program.

for a while, she did really well. unfortunately, she slipped back into her old life (not before stealing a bunch of money and credit cards from my mom). my parents ended up pressing charges... partially because they had to to get the credit card charges reversed and partially because they hoped another stint in jail would get her straight.

when she got out, my parents again offered to help her. sadly, she again stole from them and went back to the streets after a few months.

this actually happened a third time (what is that saying about fooling me once and fooling me twice? who gets taken in a third time? people with big hearts i guess). eventually, they were able to help her get off heroin long enough that her family was willing to step in and help.

the unfortunate ending to this story is that after a year (that's how long the final cycle lasted) she left her family, came back to cincy, and fell into her old lifestyle again.

it's tough. is there hope for her? i don't know. as a follower of Christ, i firmly believe in the possibility of redemption for everyone and everything. but at what point do we 'shake the dust off our feet'? is that line different for those who are this broken?

thanks for your post and your compassion towards Krissy.

Anonymous said...

Reading this story gave me chills because i was on the streets of cincinnati for about four months strung out on heroin...I used to be around mcmcicken between mcmicken and vine and mcmicken and dunlap...i was 19 at the 20 now....i grew up in hebron ky and became addicted to pain killers...eventually that turned into heroin once my parents found out about my addiction i left hebron to go downtown where all the dope was and ended up selling myself..i quit school and parents were worried sick and later convinced me to go to rehab...this story is so familiar to me because i used to be the girl askin for "rides" and" cigarettes"...u would be surprised by the type of men that go down there and there crazy fetishes..i would walk up and down mcmicken all day trying to "hit a lick" (meet a client) during all that you might be dope sick, dodging police, or other prostitutes trying to rob you.when it gets cold out its horrible and for some reason business slows down...soo your just standing out there forever...if you go on mcmicken and vine you will see a large group of ppl standing there all day...they are called butter heads or crack addicts...they are standing in front of one of the busiest crack houses in that area looking for someone interested in buying crack...what they do is take the customers money take it into the crack dealers house and for bringing them business, the crack dealer gives the crackhead a small crack rock to show his thanks....waiting all day just for that...the drug problem down there is horrible.

not bad said...

i really like your article. i prayed for krissy to leave her addiction and for all the women addicted to drugs to leave their addictions, and for all men addicted to sex to leave that addiction too. and i pray for you to be a good journalist also. it's really nice to find someone smart and thoughtful and kind who is a believer. Godspeed.

Anonymous said...

Reading this story i actully know who Krissy is and she is from Aurora Indiana. She is very bright and generous girl and you probally would never guess her profession if you met her in diffrent circumstances. Sad to say that Krissy has not left the area and is serving a 6 month sentance @ the justice center. I honestly commend all of you for caring about her well being and praying for her as on any other sight she would been ran into the ground but I dont see any pop shots here. Its good to know that good people exist and I have come to know alot of these girls from years of living in the area and most want a way out but the lack of even moderate treatment is non-existent in Cincy as Talbert has this market cornerd and sucks all the grants and funding up witch prevents other treatment facilitys that could possibly work better. Most people you meet that have attended talbert house have relapsed but I am not sure of the true sucsess rate. When we have decent programs in place we could curb this epidimic.

Mary said...

Weird question, but can you describe Krissy? I saw a blonde girl yesterday near the corner of McMicken and MLK that is still haunting me a day later. Completely strung out, long, blonde hair that she was using to partially hide her face, inappropriately dressed for the weather, etc...There is a program run by Union Bethel at the Anna Louise Inn in Lytle Park called "Off the Streets" that, well, helps prostitutes get off the street. Sometimes refer themselves, but usually they're court ordered. I wish more women were able to get the help that they need.

Anonymous said...

the human mind is stronger than you may think. if you have a strong will power, you can stop yourself from getting that bad off. they just turn "getting high" into a habit and it gets worse from there. didn't you stupid whores pay attention in D.A.R.E class? or do you just not care? help clean the streets and just kill yourself if you wont change. There is too many good people struggling and wanting to live right. Make some room

Deb said...

I am a woman who lives in the McMicken/Ravine neighborhood. I also teach at UC. My husband's business is on Central Parkway. I often walk to/from my office there. It is a very uncomfortable feeling to be gawked at by creepy ol' white men driving by. Yuck. Yuck. Yuck! And it is sad, angering, CONFUSING to regularly share the sidewalks with womein like you portray above. When I think of their families, wow, how tough. There is nothing they can do to bring their daughter, sister, wife or loved one out of the addiction and unhealthy lifestyle. Just this morning a woman was found gunned down in the middle of the street. My husband and I knew we would recognize her when the picture finally posted. We just wondered which one she was. She walked and stood regularly on these streets. She's gone now. Quickly. 24 years old. I appreciate your story. -deb

Anonymous said...

Deb, I believe you Re talking about my ex girlfriend and friend Jessica Revelee. She was a great person that had a problem. She did not deserve to die like that! No one does!!!!!!