“When I was in the lifestyle, I didn’t care anything about all you,” begins Rosetta Menifee, a blonde woman in her late forties wearing glasses and a suit. Talking to a class of 50 men at the Brooklyn John School, she looks like a social worker, but she sounds like Lil’ Kim.
“I wanna ask you,” she says to the men, most of whom appear to be in their late thirties, “how many of you would take advantage of a physically retarded person, you know, like deformed? Well then, why would you take advantage of someone who is emotionally retarded? Because that’s what prostitutes are. We were victimized as children. We are empty shells.”
Introducing herself as a community educator and former prostitute, Menifee apologizes for not giving a shit about giving her customers HIV or herpes, much less the hepatitis C and B she picked up along the way. She says it was impossible to care about them when she didn’t care about herself. Cops didn’t help, she says, when they busted her with johns and told the guys to “get the hell out of here.” They put cuffs on her and laughed at her, called her “bitch,” called her a disease-ridden crackhead.
In Brooklyn, first-time offenders arrested for alleged solicitation of prostitution have the option of attending “Project Respect,” the Brooklyn John School, instead of going to trial. Unique in New York City, Brooklyn’s John School is similar to programs in Washington, D.C.; West Palm Beach, Florida; Pittsburgh; and Buffalo. San Francisco operates the oldest and largest such program, focusing not only on johns but also on helping sex workers.
The choice is stark in Brooklyn: Show up for the class, pay the $250 tuition, stay out of trouble for six months, and charges are dismissed. Or go to court and risk up to 90 days in jail. But most men, perhaps telling their wives and girlfriends they have traffic school, show up at the district attorney’s office on Jay Street to get scared straight for five hours.
In the lobby they get name tags that read, in clear black letters, “Sex Crimes.” In class, they hear from people like Menifee, and from a clinician from the Fort Greene Health Center, who shows the men slides of swollen, dripping, oozing, diseased sex organs—male and female.
“This man had oral sex performed on him,” the clinician says brightly. “She had herpes in her throat.”
The men also hear from Detective Marcella Makebish of the Brooklyn Special Victims Unit. A former decoy prostitute, Makebish, with her big hair and deep tan (and a purple blouse that allows for a generous display of cleavage) is all about audience participation.
“I know many of you have issues with law enforcement,” she says coyly. The room erupts into yelps and guffaws. “How many of you think it was entrapment?”
“Damn right!” comes a shout.
“Yes, in my case it was,” begins a man with a heavy accent.
“Bullshit!” spits an old man. “It was bullshit!”
Cops providing security pace the aisle nervously. “Keep it down,” one of them barks. “You need to keep it down. If you think you’re innocent you can take it to court!”
The D.A.’s office says that since the launch of the John School in 2002 only two participants have been rearrested in Brooklyn. But not everyone thinks john schools—whatever the stats say—are a good investment. Juhu Thukral, director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, says that johns who get caught just turn to escort services or Internet hookups. “John schools are part of an effort to address the demand side of the industry, but it’s really just a revolving door,” she says.
On the supply side, the grim truth is that younger and younger girls are getting into the life. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children still reports the average age of entry as 14, but advocates say that number has dropped as low as 12, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods, like East New York and other sections of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Up to 30 percent of street prostitutes are under the age of 18, according to some experts.
Younger pimps are also more common. Some experts in the field theorize that, because of harsh mandatory sentences for drug trafficking, young men find it less risky to pimp than to sell drugs.
New York’s pimp network is well entrenched. Sex workers say that everyone knows everyone, and if you turn on your pimp, his friends might kill you. As for police catching a pimp without a prostitute’s cooperation, it’s nearly impossible. An undercover cop would have to convince a streetwise pimp that she’s a sex worker who wants his protection. Then he’d ask her to prove it. “The protocol is, usually the pimp has sex with the girl first. An officer couldn’t do that, of course,” says Legal Aid veteran Kate Mullen, who counsels sexually exploited children. Only a few times in her career, she says, has she seen the pimps of the girls she defends go to jail.
Menifee, who now works in HIV prevention, says the relationships pimps develop with their workers parallel the most extreme cases of domestic abuse. “Why are they hard to catch?” she says incredulously. “Those women love their man. That’s all the love they know. They’re not going to testify against this man because it’s the game they’re in. They are living a whole different reality.”
Besides, it would be dumb for a sex worker to rat out the only person who can bail her out of jail, which is why Menifee, like many New York activists, favors a conservative brand of decriminalization—not legalization, she’s quick to emphasize, but a reduction in the severity of the offense, so that women who she says are “emotionally retarded” enough to sell their bodies would no longer be threatened with jail time. If they did not need protection from vice cops, pimps would have less of a chokehold on them.
“You want to get rid of pimps? Decriminalize,” says Robyn Few, an activist from the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) in Berkeley. She calls john schools and similar scared-straight programs for prostitutes “shame based” and misdirected. Decriminalization is no panacea, she says, because young girls will still get tricked into the life. But at least they would be able to seek help without fear of being locked up.
The way Few sees it, prostitution is already legal—but only for the middlemen. Operators of massage parlors, escort services, and topless bars are just pimps who pay taxes and get a wink and a nod from police. “Everyone in America knows what goes on in there,” says Few, “and when they open a Yellow Pages and flip to [the escort section] they know what those places are.” The employees of these de facto brothels have little recourse when they’re ripped off or assaulted.
The Bay Area has an active decriminalization movement, says Thukral, of New York’s Sex Workers Project. New Yorkers, on the other hand, have been slow to agitate for radical change. That could be due in part, she says, to Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaigns in the ’90s that made sex workers feel even more targeted by law enforcement and thus more wary of organizing. This could be slowly changing; a few organizations, like Prostitutes of New York, have come out in support of decriminalization, and a new industry magazine called Spread (written for and by sex workers) is being circulated.
Still, the Urban Justice Center has not taken an official position. Thukral says local energies are for now concentrated on other issues. “Most sex workers we talk with,” she says, “express a need for services like ESL and other education. Then there’s the problem of not being able to make living wages in traditional low-skill fields. Law enforcement should put money into helping prostitutes find a way out, not into arresting johns.”
“I’m not calling you guys child molesters, but these are just kids, guys,” a young assistant district attorney tells the John School class. “We don’t have a program for [molesters]—our program for that is jail. You guys have to realize, what if she were your daughter and a guy like you approached her?”
The Brooklyn D.A. does have an intervention program for young prostitutes called “Saving Teens at Risk,” which has received mixed reviews. A more established program for minors, the nonprofit Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, is based in Manhattan and has produced a video that’s used in the John School.
In the video, African American teens—faces blurred to protect their identities—tell stories of being lured from their homes by pimps who acted like boyfriends. In soft, childish voices, the girls describe being punched, kicked, and stranded outside in the dark after failing to meet their quotas for the night. They talk about their shame and terror and, most of all, how much they hate the johns.
“Y’all know you’re wrong,” one whispers. “I was only 13. Come on, you knew I wasn’t 20. I should’ve been home with my family.”