How big a problem does Albuquerque have with prostitution? I hadn't given much thought to that subject ... until I met Bill Cobb for a cup of coffee and an eye-opening education into the matter.
Cobb is president of a neighborhood association (Silver Hills) in the UNM area, and I'd seen him on television a couple of weeks earlier during an “investigative report” on a local channel on the topic of streetwalking.
When I tried my old Sociology 101 argument about prostitution being a “victimless crime,” he sighed resignedly. “That's what people always say,” he commented. “But when you see it up close; when you are forced to live with it every day, then you realize there really are lots of victims to prostitution.”
Cobb's neighborhood has had a lot of opportunity to study prostitution up close. Over the past two years as crackdowns by police on hookers in other neighborhoods have occurred repeatedly, streetwalkers have gradually moved into Silver Hills. And there they have stayed. So far.
Their presence has attracted drug dealers. Late-night traffic through the neighborhood has jumped noticeably, but even in broad daylight families have become reluctant to permit their young children to go out in their front yards because of the sordid commerce going on in clear view.
The neighborhood association has begun to wage the same type of battle that the associations in the hookers' old neighborhoods waged to get them to move. They call the cops whenever they see soliciting going on. They yell at the prostitutes and their pimps. They try to make life as unpleasant for them as possible. When there's an arrest, the association tries to follow up by sitting in on the court hearings and pleading with judges for tougher sentences.
It will eventually work. If they are persistent enough, the streetwalkers and their handlers will at some point decide to cut their losses and move a few blocks away. Then they'll be another neighborhood's problem.
Cobb feels the problem is in defining prostitution as a misdemeanor. This means that women (or men) picked up for it are rarely held accountable. The District Attorney's office often fails to appear at hearings involving prostitutes, leading to frequent dismissals. And even when they wind up doing time, it is usually only for a few days.
Their johns, or customers, get charged with the even less serious offense of patronizing a prostitute, which is legally viewed as a petty misdemeanor ... something akin to a traffic violation. The police do their best to patrol the area, Cobb said, but the penalties are such minor slaps on the wrist that they are often as frustrated as the neighbors.
He's gotten to know a lot of the pros working his neighborhood personally. According to him, they all appear to be addicted to drugs; all sorts, but now especially crack and methamphetamine. The drugs make it possible to engage in the reckless behavior they are paid for. And the drugs are also the reward waiting for them when their shift is over.
It's a cycle that guarantees a short lifespan. One of the women working Cobb's street recently died of an overdose just days after being released from jail. Cobb said he'd tried to get her held long enough to do some good, but she talked her way out by promising to go for treatment ... and never did.
Coincidentally, the same day I spoke with Cobb I began reading Freakonomics, the current bestseller about the work of Steven Levitt, an economist who specializes in asking unusual questions, thereby gaining insight into troubling social problems.
Levitt points out that the reason prostitution has proven to be impossible for any society to eradicate is that it involves distasteful work that few are willing to undertake. Yet it doesn't require much training, and asks for even fewer skills. Finally, there is a virtually unlimited number of patrons willing to pay money for it.
The result is that prostitutes can earn far more money on their side of the law than they could possibly hope to earn on the law-abiding side. So “treatment” that enables them to find work at minimum-wage jobs rarely proves attractive.
Still, there are programs that have proven successful in assisting prostitutes to leave their extremely dangerous and frequently lethal work for less hazardous employment. I heard a British woman named Edwina Gately speak a few years ago about her work among the streetwalkers of London and Chicago and about how difficult (and how rewarding) it is to assist those who want to transition out.
She is a genuine heroine. Unfortunately, as a society we simply don't invest enough in rehabilitating prostitutes to ever see much headway being made. The victims of this supposed “victimless crime” will continue to multiply until we get serious about responding to it. Many were themselves childhood victims of sexual abuse. Their needs are multiple.
What could we do to help them? For starters, the city could consider turning its old alcohol-detox facility into a treatment program for women arrested for prostitution. If there were some place to actually send them for help, the courts would be much more likely to get involved.
Until then, Cobb and his neighbors will wage their campaign to get the hookers off their streets. And the next neighborhood to feel the force of the plague could be yours ... or mine.