No simple solution for prostitution, cops say

Abandoned homes, like these on Sterner Street, are often hotbeds of crime in Kensington, residents say.
Abandoned homes, like these on Sterner Street, are often hotbeds of crime in Kensington, residents say.
Posted: January 28, 2011

You couldn't turn on the TV or open a newspaper during the Kensington Strangler's recent two-month reign of terror without hearing from the women who stood the greatest chance of becoming his next victim: prostitutes.

It was, frankly, a rare situation. People - the media, the public - seemed to care, seemed to really want to know just how miserable a prostitute's life was.

Many women spoke out. They talked about nightmares that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy - rapes, beatings, kidnappings and endless nights spent wandering the streets, looking for a "date" that could net them the $10 or $20 they needed for their next high.

Then the police caught the alleged Strangler, Antonio Rodriguez, and everyone - the media, the public - moved on.

But many experts on prostitution hope that the story won't end there, that a bigger discussion can begin about more effective ways to deal with the problem.

One thing is for sure: Simply locking them up isn't the answer.

"We make over a thousand arrests a year. That's just street-level prostitution, and not taking into account indoor operations," said Lt. Charles Green, head of the Police Department's Citywide Vice Enforcement Unit.

"We have a lot of repeat offenders. Some of the girls we arrest on Kensington Avenue just end up in another part of the city. It doesn't stop."

Green has spent 10 years working in Vice, long enough to know that traditional policing methods alone can't solve what he called "a very complex situation."

"No one raises their hand in first grade and says, 'I want to be a prostitute when I grow up,' " he said.

Women who end up at that wretched point have usually been sexually abused as children before entering prostitution in their teens.

"You have a lot of things coming into play," Green said. "I don't profess to have the answer to it. I don't even know if there is an answer to it."

Mary Anne Layden, director of sexual trauma and psychopathology at the Center for Cognitive Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent decades working with sexually abused women, many of them former prostitutes.

Layden said there are solutions to this age-old problem worth trying, like doing more to deter men from seeking prostitutes.

In California, she said, men caught patronizing prostitutes are forced to go to a daylong "John School," where doctors discuss in great detail the types of sexually transmitted diseases spread by prostitutes. The men also hear from prostitutes, who discuss how repulsive their sexual encounters are.

In Sweden, prostitution has fallen by 50 percent since 1999 because "men are given jail time, and prostitutes are offered psychotherapy, drug rehabilitation and job training," Layden said.

Men who are caught with prostitutes in Philadelphia are charged with a misdemeanor and usually end up in an alternative-sentencing program and have their records expunged, Green said.

"If your goal is to reduce prostitution, there are ways to do it," Layden said. "If you want to protect women from the damages and ravages of being prostitutes, then you have to give them the resources to get out of prostitution."

City public defender Mary DeFusco is among those trying to do just that.

DeFusco - who previously helped create Dawn's Place, a safe haven for prostitutes - spoke proudly this week about two women who are slated next month to become the first graduates of Dawn's Court.

She said the program, modeled after the Philadelphia Treatment Court, aims to get prostitutes who are in jail and awaiting sentencing on other crimes into rehab and therapy, and also provide them with job help.

"If we had more funding, we could offer this to more women," DeFusco said. "We could really turn their lives completely around. Too many of these women are ready to believe they're only good for one thing."

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