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Working the Streets


"Candy Kay" is not her real name, but it's the one she's known by on the streets. She looks a lot like all the other working girls around her, who sell their services to strangers every night. Her body is still firm and shapely, but her face is a little hard around the edges -- all traces of long-ago innocence gone. Sometimes she thinks she's seen it all.

It's hard to pick her out of the group of prostitutes that hangs out in front of Danny's Bar and Grill. She's just another bleached blonde not-quite-beauty who sports a few bruises and wears too much makeup and seems to be poured into the tight black leather skirt that's topped by a skimpy halter top and accessorized with cheap, flashy, costume jewelry. Like many of the hookers who work the neighborhood, she carries a gun. But to go along with it, she has something the others don't have -- a badge.

Candy has been with the police department of a medium-sized city for almost six years. She's been working on the vice squad, as an undercover prostitution decoy, since 1995. That's when her agency set up the sting program aimed at arresting the "johns" who patronize the city's prostitutes.

"Before that, the cops only arrested the women, even though the way the law is written, the customer is just as guilty," Candy explained. "It's a criminal offense to sell sex for money, or to pay money for sex. Same penalty. But selective enforcement had been the tradition. In some places, it still is."

Where she works, that's no longer the case. In 1996, over 150 men were arrested for soliciting the services of prostitutes. Most of them were caught when they made the mistake of directly approaching and propositioning Candy or one of the two other female officers who work the sting operation with her.

"We have to be very careful not to entrap anyone. That means causing them to commit a crime they wouldn't have otherwise. Entrapment is against the law. At best, it will lose you your case. At worst, it could cost you your job, get you sued, or both.

The law in her state says that police are allowed to provide a "mere opportunity" for a crime to be committed, as long as they don't pressure, threaten, or cajole an offender into doing the illegal act--in other words, setting up an abandoned vehicle and watching to see if someone comes along and steals parts from it.

"Just the presence of the abandoned car wouldn't tempt the average person to stop and strip out the stereo system," Candy says. "All the police are doing is setting up a set of circumstances where a person who's already inclined to commit a crime will have the opportunity to do it."

That's what Candy Kay and her colleagues do. They dress up like prostitutes and hang out on the street corner -- and wait. The department's lengthy policy strictly prohibits approaching potential customers. They wait for the man to make the first move. When he does, they can smile and flirt, but they cannot suggest or even imply that money change hands. He must make the offer, and name an amount.

"Then we've got him," Candy smiles. There's something in that smile that's almost feline, like a cat that has patiently stalked a mouse before finally moving in for the kill.

Doesn't she ever feel sorry for these guys, who've been led on and then find themselves handcuffed and on the way to jail, paying the money they'd hoped to trade for sex to a bail bondsman instead? What about the embarrassment and humiliation when the newspaper prints the names of those arrested? Many of the "johns" turn out to be otherwise upstanding citizens, businessmen and community leaders.

"I've got no sympathy for them," Candy says simply. "Prostitution is illegal here. We've been arresting the women forever -- and we still do. The hookers couldn't stay in business without the men who are willing to pay for their services. Why should those women have to face the consequences, and the men get off scott free?"

Some people argue that prostitution is a victimless crime, that it involves what should be a private business transaction, that neither party should be prosecuted by law. Candy disagrees.

"I felt pretty ambivalent about that a few years ago," she admits. "There was a part of me that thought the government shouldn't be messing around in people's sex lives. That cops have much better things to do than try to force moral standards on other people."

"That’s when all I knew about prostitution was what I'd read or seen on TV. Before I got out there in the middle of it, and saw all the ugliness and the pain. Don't tell me those women aren't victims. Sure, they choose it themselves -- at least, some of them do. A lot of them are put up for sale by their own parents when they're still children. Some are runaways, who left abusive families and had nowhere to go and no way to support themselves once they got there. The pimps grab them up and get them hooked on drugs and beat them and turn them into their puppets."

"Half these women have been put in the hospital more than once by their 'clients' or by their own husbands or boyfriends. Prostitutes are favorite targets of sadists and other 'kinky' guys who want more than their money's worth and take it by force."

"I'm not trying to paint the women as angels. Some of them are as vicious as rabid dogs. Makes you wonder why a man would actually pay money to risk going off alone with them. Sometimes it's the guy who ends up in the hospital, or worse. But victimless crime? There are victims all over the place. Don't forget the wives and girlfriends of these guys, either. The ones who end up with an unwanted gift, some disease he brings back home."

Candy knows that her agency's efforts aren't going to drive prostitution out of the city. The world's oldest profession has survived despite much more aggressive campaigns to curtail it. Still, she feels that she and the rest of the squad are making a difference.

"If nothing else, we've brought a little equality to the enforcement of this particular law," she says proudly. This is one crime where it takes two to tango; without intent on the part of both parties, there is no offense. "We don't look at prostitution just in terms of female offenders," she says. "The women are breaking the law, so they go to jail. The men are breaking the law, too -- nobody forces them to come over to this side of town, looking for sex for a fee -- so now, they go to jail, too."

"We're equal opportunity enforcers."

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