In the U’s shadow: Prostitutes trapped by drugs, pimps

by Joanna Dornfeld

Minneapolis police Officer Matt Wente circled the blocks near Lake Street and Chicago Avenue South in mid-January searching for a prostitute at 10 a.m. Few women were out; temperatures had dipped below zero for the first time this winter.

Wente slowed the unmarked squad car as he turned the corner and made eye contact with a woman. He nodded and she scampered up to the car and opened the door but slammed it shut when she saw the police scanner on the floor.

Wente hopped out of the car and talked to her for a minute. He promised not to arrest her for prostitution if she answered a few questions about her life on the Minneapolis streets. She agreed, more to get out of the cold than to avoid going to jail.

Candy, a slightly overweight woman clad in jeans and an oversized winter jacket, climbed into the front seat of the car. She rocked back and forth incessantly, dropping her glasses and pushing her overgrown bangs out of her eyes. An addiction to crack cocaine makes her unable to focus or stop swaying.

She is no “Pretty Woman” Julia Roberts, and the men she meets are not going to whisk her away in a limousine.

Candy, a 41-year-old Minnesota native, has been a prostitute since she was 13.

“The second time I had sex, I was a prostitute,” she said.

Prostitution not only thrives on the streets in south Minneapolis, it also penetrates the University community. Prostitutes work in every hotel in Minneapolis, Wente said.

In the past year, the Minneapolis Organized Crime Unit has made sting operation arrests at the Radisson Hotel Metrodome at 615 Washington Ave. S.E., the Econo Lodge at 2500 University Ave. S.E. and the Days Inn University at 2407 University Ave. S.E.

The unit also arrested a prostitute March 7 in an apartment on the 2500 block of University Avenue Southeast.

Wente said he thinks there must be college students prostituting themselves to pay their way through school.

“I don’t see why the University campus would be immune,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s better than a student loan or not.”

Kelly Coughlan, University Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education executive assistant, agreed with Wente.

“I don’t think it’s discriminant of any age,” she said. “I don’t think it’s something that they join at 14 and out at 18.”

Chris Stark, a former prostitute and co-founder of Escape: The Prostitution Prevention Project, sold her body for sex while attending classes at the University more than 10 years ago, she said.

Stark said she was forced into the sex industry when she was a toddler.

At least 75 percent of prostitutes were sexually and physically abused as children, according to a 1987 study by WHISPER, a now-defunct prostitute advocacy program.

“My father and his father and some of my uncles were involved in
prostitution and pornography,” Stark said. “I was used from the age of 2 or 3.”

Stark said she escaped when she was 21 by saving enough money to transfer to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Targeting pimps

Minneapolis police have not focused on prostitution for the past 15 to 20 years, Wente said.

He said because the people participating in the crime, the prostitutes, johns – men who use prostitutes – and pimps, do not report incidents, the police focus on crimes that more directly victimize innocent citizens.

But in the last year, the OCU and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension received a large amount of state and federal money to apprehend pimps, he said.

The crime unit targets escort services, saunas and massage parlors advertising prostitution using newspapers, phone books and the Internet.

Wente and other vice officers then execute sting operations. One officer meets the woman either in a hotel or where she is working. When the woman agrees to perform a sexual act for money, other officers enter the room and arrest her.

Their goal is to obtain information about the women’s pimps. But most women are too frightened to provide incriminating evidence and are charged with prostitution, Wente said.

Officers try to help prostitutes who assist police by connecting them with advocacy programs to get out of prostitution, he said.

Currently, there is no legislation in place that allows patrolling officers to arrest suspected prostitutes in Minnesota, Wente said.

State legislators would more likely support tougher laws against prostitution if they realized it also occurs in the suburbs, said Anne Taylor, assistant Hennepin County attorney.

“No one could think smugly that their child couldn’t be affected,” she said.

Candy lived in Litchfield, Minn., with her family until she was 13. Like many prostitutes, she ran away because she was abused at home.

Candy said she lived alone on the street, hungry and scared.

Many homeless girls sell themselves in exchange for food when they have no other options, said Melani Suarez, executive director of the PRIDE program, an advocacy group for current and former prostitutes.

Homeless juveniles receive their first offer of sex for money within 48 hours, according to the 1999 study by the Paul and Lisa Program, a group offering support services for people at risk of sexual exploitation.

Candy worked in saunas, where women earn between $100 and $200 per hour. As women age, men pay less for their services.

Many women take drugs to numb the reality of their lives. Candy began using crack when she was 31.

“When crack hits the picture, you hit the street,” she said.

Now Candy earns between $20 and $40 each time she performs oral sex, most often in the vehicle of the man soliciting sex. When the bars close she can service up to 20 men in a row. Candy earns between $200 and $1,000 per day, and almost all the money supports her and her pimp’s crack habits.

Candy has had seven children. Five are being raised by family members who won’t speak to her. The other two died – one from a miscarriage, and the other didn’t live for more than two months.

“Crack probably had something to do with it,” she said.

Candy was sober for three years while her pimp was in prison. During that time, she worked for Merry Maids, a cleaning service, and was reunited with her children.

After her pimp was released last year, the two quickly began using crack again. In three months, Candy said, she lost her house, car and children and returned to the streets.

Now Candy has no address. She lives in abandoned buildings, in cars or under bridges. When she is lucky, a john rents a hotel room for a night where she can shower and warm up.

“I have no reason to quit,” she said. “It looks kind of hopeless when you just lost your kids and lost your house.”

Joanna Dornfeld welcomes comments at [email protected]