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Sex for Less

She walked west on Polk over 13th Street, a block north of Van Buren. White tennis shoes, tight jeans, a man's button-down work shirt gathered and tied in a knot at her navel. She had a slim build with long kinky dark hair running down past her shoulders. Her lips were covered with red lipstick, too much; and her eyes, made up with thick black liner and surrounded by light shadow set in deep sinkholes, resembled those of a raccoon. Aside from the shoes, a Central Casting Anglo hooker.

From afar, though, she looked untouchable, pure suggestion, a barrio Madonna miming the street whore: Attitude in her step, as if selling sex consisted of this simple hip sashay, like some precise body movement earned her the power, the cash; that it didn't involve her having to embrace some total stranger and put a piece of his anatomy inside of herself. A blind confidence belied the grim reality of streetwalking.

A study released in August reveals sad truths for those who choose prostitution as a profession. Conducted by Melissa Farley, a psychologist for Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in California, the study shows that prostitutes commonly suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. Farley's researchers interviewed 475 male and female prostitutes, aged 12 to 61, in the United States, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey and Zambia; 62 percent reported being raped, 73 percent said they had been physically assaulted, and 68 percent said they had been threatened with a weapon. The study concludes that being a streetwalker can be as traumatic as war, with 67 percent of the prostitutes questioned suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, many at levels of severity comparable to Vietnam vets.

At the corner of 13th and Polk, the prostitute didn't mind talking about her job. And when she spoke, she had a nervous habit of brushing strands of hair out of her face with her right hand, which also held a lighted cigarette. She said her name was--of course--Cherry, and she is 28, a mother, and recently relocated from Colorado where she was born. In the past, she has been an escort and a nude dancer. She has also been arrested for prostitution more than once.

Up close, she presented a reality of someone who has been surviving despite the odds, an illustration of Melissa Farley's study that shows a woman bravely sustaining in a society that looks down on her work, not as anything honest, but as something degrading and immoral.

The vulnerability of Cherry's existence is obvious, and her days in the trenches reveal battle scars: her face is weathered, beauty replaced by the tired lines of circumstance--so much so that working in some other "more acceptable" form of the sex industry like a topless bar wouldn't even be an option now. She is skinny, very skinny. And despite her street diva posture, there are tinges of fear: fear for her children, fear of getting hurt, fear of getting arrested. She revolves in a world of fear, and it has become her prime motivation; no matter how in demand her services are, she has no rights. What she does is against the law.

In a country where sex work is destigmatized, how different Cherry's life would be. In Holland, say, where prostitution is legal and pimping is not, prostitutes are cited for their therapeutic benefits; regulation minimizes health risks and physical danger. Dutch whores even pay taxes, set up retirement plans.

"Once you get busted, it's on your record, no one will hire you," Cherry says in a surprisingly deep rasp, listing one of the many pitfalls of being an illegal sex worker here. "But you have to go, 'Look, man, it don't matter, 'cause I got bills to pay and mouths to feed.'"

The mouths being two boys, ages 2 and 4, who live with her and a "friend" in a west Phoenix apartment. Cherry says her "friend" also watches out for her on the streets. A pimp of sorts.

"He watches, yeah, he watches. But he also does a lot of drugs. I try to stay away from that shit, but sometimes I can't."

Who takes care of the kids when she works?
"I have somebody who baby-sits; I can't afford no day care."
What about STDs (sexually transmitted diseases)?

"I will use condoms for everything, and a lot of the time I can get 'em going right in their car. There will always be guys wanting it, ya know? A lot of them are jerks who look down on you, too, but it never ends. They always come around."

Isn't she afraid of getting arrested and losing her kids?
"I always do what I want; I could never work in a bank," Cherry answers bitterly. "I'm always afraid of getting arrested. But nobody can take my babies away. No way, no matter how hard they would try. I wouldn't let it happen.

"If somebody tries some shit with you, you can't call the cops," she continues, detailing the downside of working outside the law. "They [the police] don't care, and they still intimidate you. If somebody is going to hurt me, they know I can't call the cops. That is why I have somebody else out here helping me out. So far I have been okay. Most of the people I catch are lonely men or plain horny ones, dudes wanting adventure. I have some regulars now who I can call when I really need money. I won't get in a car with someone who has a bad vibe. Like I said, I have been okay so far."

What are her plans, does she have any?
"I wanna save enough money to get back to Colorado because I don't really like it here. I moved here to get away, and I had a friend who I have known for a long time come down here last year. She said it was a nice place for kids. I want a nice place for my kids, a house. It won't be long." Cherry's choices seem contrary to her goals--as though whatever decisions she will make will be the wrong ones.

At this point, Cherry said she had to go; her man wouldn't appreciate her talking and not working, not at all. "Bye, bye, baby," she said predictably, and slipped back into her job description with the ease of a seasoned pro.

I watched her move down Polk toward 11th Street, her slutty high school cheerleader hip sway in full swing. It was cartoonish, that walk. And after talking to her, I realized her affectation is complete, a billboard of $20 promises, an identity borne of male desire. It was truly cartoonish.

Then nights later I talked to two undercover cops on 14th Street and Van Buren who said recent drive-by shootings directed toward the prostitutes have put an element of terror into the nights around here. The plainclothesmen were on the streets to warn the streetwalkers and others of the shooter(s). For the streetwalkers, talk about job insecurity, talk about traumatic stress.

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith