IL: Reform advocates push for overhaul of prostitution law

Advocates target customers, seek help for women

By Erika Slife, Tribune reporter
September 17, 2009

They can be lawyers, doctors, CEOs and even police officers. They’re often somebody’s husband, boyfriend or father.

But the public may know them better as johns. And far too often, former prostitutes and their advocates say, they’re getting away with their crimes.

“I went to jail, and he didn’t,” said former prostitute LaTaunya Frazier, 39, who was caught with a john. “I never really understood that because we’re both committing the crime. If he wasn’t buying, I wouldn’t be selling. I never thought that was fair. … They get to go home to their families, their wives, and no one knows what they did.”

Johns and pimps are severely underrepresented on arrest logs, but starting Thursday, reform advocates will push for an overhaul of state law to give police departments the resources to go after leaders and customers of prostitution rings. They also want prostitutes to be eligible for protections and benefits afforded to victims of sex trafficking because many of the women suffer from the same elements of recruitment, harboring and force.

The belief is that by holding the men accountable who are fueling the demand for the sex trade — and by helping the women escape it — prostitution would plummet.

“What we’re doing right now does not work. And we don’t need a Rhodes scholar or a rocket scientist to tell us it does not work,” said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, whose office presides over a special prostitution intervention team. “The general public opinion on this is not in step with everything we know about this issue, and that really needs to be challenged and changed.”

The campaign, called End Demand, is being watched by reform groups across the country. It has the backing of the Chicago Police Department, the Cook County sheriff’s office and the women’s-rights group NoVo Foundation, which invested $550,000 in the effort. NoVo is led by Warren Buffet’s son Peter and his daughter-in-law, Jennifer.

“We thought, ‘Wow, if Illinois can do this, what a model for the country, and even the rest of the world,'” said Jennifer Buffett, who will speak at a panel presentation about the campaign Thursday.

Advocates want to increase penalties for pimps and johns, create a statewide database that would track the arrests of prostitution-related offenders and encourage law-enforcement agencies to work together in prosecuting prostitution-related crimes. They also want to reflect in state law that a prostituted individual is a victim, said Samir Goswami, policy director for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

“If you treat her as a victim and offer her services and support, it’s less likely she will [return to prostitution],” he said. “And that’s the shift in our law that we are advocating for.”

According to Goswami, johns account for 25 percent of the 4,000 to 5,000 annual prostitution-related arrests in the city. Pimps represent less than 1 percent of those arrested, advocates say.

In the Chicago area alone, studies have shown that between 16,000 and 25,000 women and girls are involved in the sex trade, many of whom travel across city and county lines. Some of the women start out as runaways, while others are introduced or coerced into the lifestyle by family members or boyfriends.

One former prostitute, who called herself Ashley while working the streets on the West Side, said her 24-year-old boyfriend asked her to turn her first trick when she was 15. As a runaway, she felt she had no choice.

“I said I could do it this one time,” said the woman, now 19. “I got really sad. I started crying. That’s how it all started. I didn’t have any help, so I did it out of survival.”

Advocates say that once girls and women enter prostitution, it’s even more difficult to get out. Felony prostitution convictions on their records make it difficult to find jobs; abusive pimps scare them from leaving.

“Many of these women see the [pimps] as their intimate partners. They’re coerced, raped, and they’re sold,” said Leslie Landis, director of the Mayor’s Office on Domestic Violence, which oversaw a 2006 prostitution study. “Violence is sometimes used against them. Taken as a whole, it’s just an advanced stage of domestic violence.”

eslife@tribune.com
Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune

See original at Chicago Tribune

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