It seems as if age-old stereotypes and beliefs cloud our collective judgment when it come to dealing with street prostitution. Media coverage triggers our curiosity, pity, or disdain but does little to encourage a common sense approach to address a common “problem” – street prostitution in Baltimore.
Over the years, I have talked to thousands of women who have been involved in street prostitution. The women and their backgrounds are all very different. What they have in common by the time I meet them is that they are all poor, have a steady supply of customers, and, through the transaction that defines prostitution, have the ability to consistently, albeit meagerly, meet a myriad of basic human needs. And while drugs are often in the picture, many women continue to prostitute for housing, transportation and other necessities even after they are drug-free. Women involved in street prostitution cannot overcome the persistent poverty, haunting abuse, and drug addiction if we expect them to remain homeless while doing so.
As we cycle women through jail, homelessness, and emergency rooms at a disturbing rate, we perpetuate our frustration with a hodgepodge of strategies that clearly don’t work. Criminalizing women involved in street prostitution does little to change their economic status or improve their health. It does not alter the cultural norms, human behavior, and economics that drive the sex industry. Nor does it offer alternatives to those who use prostitution as their source of survival. Arresting a homeless woman who trades sex for a place to sleep and putting her in jail will likely not dissuade her from doing it again once she is released – but offering her safe housing would.
So what should we do about street prostitution? Common sense says offer a realistic path from the street to an alternative that includes shelter. A nonjudgmental 24-hour crisis center and shelter would give women an alternative to prostituting for a place to sleep and provide a stepping stone to other assistance, such as employment counseling, education, permanent housing, drug treatment and health services. A crisis center and shelter could potentially produce big public savings if diverting women directly to the center reduces emergency room and jail admissions as well.
With all the research available on the effectiveness of treatment and education over incarceration, we should know that burdening the criminal justice system with the bulk of the responsibility for preventing prostitution wont work – facing head-on the structural issues at the core of why women trade sex to survive and offering real alternatives will.