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Work to Do

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 1/21/2004

Recently, I sat down to a lunch where prostitution became the heady topic of conversation--specifically, how the trade, in all its age/race/gender varieties, thrives in Baltimore. Cynthia Gaver, my lunch companion and co-founder of the Baltimore Prostitution Task Force (an ad hoc advocacy group composed of social activists, law-enforcement and judicial personnel, and former sex workers), used modern-day scenarios to describe the world's so-called oldest profession.

"One night while I was [on the street] doing outreach, I talked to a woman who told me she was determined that her daughter would not go through the same thing," Gaver said, adding that the lion's share of women who sell sex are mothers. The woman's daughter was with a sitter, so the evening's take would not only have to include money to take care of her daughter, but also "money to pay the sitter who's keeping her kid safe."

It was a working mom's tale with a sad and somehow unexpected twist. It stands to reason that many people working the streets are parents, but that's not what leaps to mind when you spot such workers on any number of city streets. Instead of a concerned mom or dad, it's easy to see a junkie . . . an abused soul caught in an ugly maze . . . a freak let loose from the strip-club circuit . . . someone we could feel sorry for, except the libertarian in us believes they could clean up their act if they really wanted to.

Gaver said, however, that the biggest reason most people don't hone in on the particulars of prostitution is because society turns a suburban blind eye to the trade, or views it through the lens of adult entertainment, where people pay, play, and mind their business afterward--how else was porn grandmaster Larry Flynt welcomed into our charmed midst?

"This is a society that gives a wink and a nod, and wants to disconnect causes from effects," Gaver said, adding that prostitution "cuts across the board" when it comes to issues like "racism, lack of education, drug addiction and treatment, not to mention health."

Like any activist worth his or her salt, Gaver believes greater public awareness and outreach can help change the lives of sex workers in positive ways. Maybe that means greater enforcement of the state law that allows johns to be fined $500 for solicitation (a stretch); or maybe it means re-sensitizing citizens to the plight of men and women who wind up selling sex after years of sexual and physical abuse as children and adolescents. "If we understood that this got started in childhood, I think a lot of it would end," Gaver said, in hopes that johns with a conscience might think twice, and that social stigmas about prostitution might lessen.

Heaping burrito aside, this talk was tough to swallow--not because I disagreed that heightened awareness could help sex workers, but because I realized how, on some levels, I'd become oblivious. On many an evening drive through areas such as the intersection of St. Paul and Preston streets, I've marveled at the convincing wig-and-makeup jobs on transvestites, offering two ultra-liberal snaps inside my head and thinking myself a better human being for having watched Paris Is Burning way back when. Beyond that, I didn't think much.

And while I don't drive around the Block after dark, I've made my share of cryptic jokes about flagrant prostitution taking place right under His Honor's nose--mainly because, like Inner Harbor traffic and police chiefs, it's one of those things you love to hate about this town. But ask me how rampant prostitution is, or what new or increased dangers await sex workers in the 21st century, or how its peculiar economy thrives in a city with little booming economy to speak of, and, like many people, I'd have no answers.

That's precisely why the Baltimore Prostitution Task Force has been meeting every month or so, drumming up talk and, hopefully, Gaver said, opening eyes: "We don't look at suffering in the eye--but I've watched women walk across the street, dragging one leg [after being beaten]. I've seen them when they've gotten a bad bag of dope, and they're looking nervous and gaunt, their teeth missing. We think of people in prostitution and see Julia Roberts waiting for Prince Charming, right? Well, she doesn't have track marks."

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