Not No Easy Business

illustrations (scratch drawings) of two people next to each other

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 11 No. 4, "'Not No Easy Business:' Interviews with prostitutes." Find more from that issue here.

The following article contains references to sexual assault. 

"This is not no easy business. It's not like some people think. Some people think, you know . . . a lot of men say, 'Oh, boy! If I could be a woman, I'd be rich!' It's not easy at all.

"It's not easy on your psyche. It's not easy on your self-esteem. It's not easy with being arrested. It's not easy getting bad customers. It's not the kind of money people think it is. Maybe you'll see one person a night, that's 50 bucks. What the hell."

— Ronnie Turner


If female prostitution is "no easy business, " neither are the issues it raises. Traditionally, the sale of sexual services has been viewed as a form of sexual exploitation, inherently degrading to women. Nonetheless, some argue that prostitution should be decriminalized on the grounds that a woman's body is her own: her own property, and, quite literally, her own business, if she chooses to see it that way. The relationship between a woman's body, her self, and her personal freedom is at the crux of the public confusion over prostitution. To see this issue more clearly, it is essential to hear from those who are directly affected by social and legal attitudes toward prostitution.

Ronnie Turner is a 32-year-old streetwalker in Norfolk, Virginia. When she moved back to Norfolk from Pennsylvania, she was running from a bad marriage. Her husband beat her; when she realized he might kill her, she left. Turner was then in her early 20s, without a high school education, and already the mother of three children. In Norfolk, she hoped to find a job and make enough money to support herself and the child she brought with her. Under great economic pressure, she took a job in a massage parlor. The following year, the city closed the massage parlors and Turner lost her job. Within a year of arriving in Norfolk, she entered the business of prostitution. When interviewed in October, 1982, Turner was the only white woman among more than 40 regular streetwalkers working in the downtown area.

As Turner talked, the difficulties and dangers of prostitution became apparent. Most of the female streetwalkers in Norfolk have children who need to be cared for. Turner, for example, works on weekends while her child stays with relatives and she is adamant about receiving clients in her home only while he is away. Turner's son is not aware that his mother supplements her welfare check by prostitution, but keeping this knowledge from her child is a minor problem considering the major hazards of the business: robberies, rapes, arrests, beatings, and drug abuse.

The most telling evidence of these hazards is the gradual disappearance of female streetwalkers from the streets of Norfolk. The number and variety of streetwalkers in the downtown area changes depending on the season, the day of the week, and when the Navy men get their paychecks. What's surprising is that of the 40 regular "working girls," only eight are women. The rest are male transsexuals and homosexual transvestites, known on the streets as "he-shes."

The reasons for this scarcity of female prostitutes are extremely complex. In the early 1970s, Virginia laws were changed to allow men to wear traditionally female clothing in public. Male homosexual prostitutes had worked on the streets before these legal changes, but they have since become much more visible and numerous.

The growing number of he-shes has undercut the business of the female streetwalkers, partly because the he-shes generally charge less than the women. This increased competition has made it harder for women to justify the risks they take working the street.

Despite the dangers, many women like Turner continue to engage in this line of work. She and the other prostitutes are members of the community and rely on it for the success of their businesses. This is how they make a living, and regardless of moral judgements and laws, it is a business.


"I'll tell you this, when you're losing your home and about to lose your child and your child don’t have shoes or you’re hungry, you learn you can do anything. You'll learn that you can do anything, even if it had to be robbery. You'd do anything to eat. People have to survive and that's the way it is.

In my hometown, there was no kind of work there. I worked in soap plants, chemical camps, textile mills, shoe factories. That's the type of work. I've worked hard in my life. I've worked real hard.


Before becoming a prostitute, Turner worked at a massage parlor. She did not think of that as prostitution.


I was being paid a wage. The man wasn't paying me to do it. I was being paid by the owner. You put it in your mind it was a part of the massage. You didn't just . . . you massaged the whole body. And I got 10 dollars for topless.

I remember the first time I did it [went with a man as a prostitute]. It was when the massage parlors were getting ready to close down and this man offered me 300 dollars and I needed the money so bad. We went over to this building and he was undecided whether I should do it, too. We got there and I said, "I can't do it. I can't do it!" We drove away and he said, "I don't want you to do anything that you don't want to do." I said, "300 dollars . . . take me back." Then I said, "No, I can't do it." We must have drove around four times before I got the guts to even go up there. And it was very simple. Here I had been with the man. I'd massaged him. I had seen him nude and everything. It just seemed . . . well, you know how society makes it seem.

It's hard to put a line on what is prostitution, you know? Everybody prostitutes theirself. Politicians, everybody sells theirself. Now, this is what I say to the men that say, "I never paid for sex in my life." I say, "Oh, yes you have. You take a girl to dinner. You take her to movies, and you buy her drinks. You've spent 40, 50 dollars on her. You take her home and then you still don't know. Maybe she still won't jump in the sack with you anyway. You're just playing on the odds." I say, "I don't want you to pay for my dinner. I don't want you to pay for the drinks. Give me the money, let me spend it the way I need to. I don't need dinner and drinks. I need to pay my bills." In the long shot, it's the same way. A man is paying for it. But they got a phobia about paying for it as putting cash in a woman's hand for sex. They'd rather do it the underground way.

My prices are more expensive than the other girls. One night maybe I'll make 200 dollars and some nights . . . I won't sell myself short. I don't know, something about that, I just won't do it. I guess it's keeping up my self-esteem, like I'm worth it. If I've got to do this, I've at least got to prove I'm worth something."

This lady I might work for [as a call girl], now she gets customers paying hundreds and stuff like that. I've got to give her 25 percent. Call girls get more businessmen. But the ones I got are 50 dollars.

I try to go with married men the most. I don't try to mess with no young sailors and stuff like that. I don't want to catch diseases and stuff. I got to be real careful because if you catch it and give it to some of your regular people, you're in trouble. I check out the customer pretty well. If they're not clean, they either go in the shower or they go out the door. I want a very clean person. I'm also a very private person. I don't do group deals and be in the same room with two men, stuff like that.

When you're with a customer it's a job. First of all, you've got to figure his mind out. Where he's coming from. Is he doing it for loneliness or what? Every customer's something different, you know. So all the time your mind is thinking, "I've got to do this this way or got to do that that way." And trying to find their little, you know, things that turn them on. And it's so much thinking, keeping your wits about you that you're not really involved. It's very few times, I don't think maybe two, three times in my life, that I've had an orgasm with a customer and it's one I've known for a long, long time.

If they're nice guys, if I've known them for a long time and we get along good, talk, you know, talk and friendship, it isn't offensive to me. Sometimes it's very offensive to me. Sometimes I'll get somebody who I wouldn't even speak to normally. I don't mean to sound like a snob, but I wouldn't give them the time of day, and yet I got to give them my body. It's something you got to really steel your mind to.

But if it's a good customer, let's say it's a stranger, you tell him the price, he don't try to gyp you down first of all saying, "I ain't got that kind of money." He just goes ahead and accepts that. Then, you always have to get your money first hand. You always, you always have to be in control. Never let them get in control because then you're in trouble. If you don't get the money ahead of time, they might be a person that'll pay you, but then you feel like you've got to do an extra, extra good job and you've got to get them off.

Now, if a man drank too much and everything else, after a certain time you've got to say, "Look, I can't do it." But you've got your money and you've done your work for your money. That's just like painting somebody's house and they decide they don't like the color. They still got to pay you for doing your job. But if the

The Vice Squad

There is a feeling of cordial toleration between the police and the streetwalkers and both refer to the situation as a ''game." The following observations of an officer on the vice squad provide a telling perspective of the street society.

Officer: On a regular basis, right now the downtown area probably has eight regulars [female streetwalkers]. They'll have a few who will come in and try it, make some quick bucks and get out real quick.

Wilkerson: Are they organized at all?

Officer: No, they're totally unorganized. Let's say you arrest one of them. They'll say, "Oh, come bail me out!" One'll say, "Okay, Honey, I'll be right there," and that's the last you'll see of them because that's one less they got to worry about.

Wilkerson: How competitive are the streetwalkers?

Officer: The he-shes'll primarily have Monticello Avenue and the Steak 'N Eggs. That's their territory. And regular girls have downtown 100 block. That's their territory. And, lately . . . it used to be, "This is my territory," the women were here and the he-shes were here — now, they're sort of intermingling and they just seem to get along fine.

But, they're funny because every chance they get, they'll set the other one up. Let's say, Joseph Brown beats Candy Miller out of a trick. Look out, Joseph, because as soon as she finds you going somewhere now, she's gonna find a policeman and point him out and say, "Get him." Oh. they'll get nasty. They'll get in heated fights in the middle of the street over who stole a trick.

If you come into this type of job thinking you're going to do wonders for society and stop [prostitution], you're full of shit. But what you're doing is you're making a trade. See, a lot of these girls down here, when you get them on a charge, they'll do whatever the other person wants. You're gathering information on other crimes like murders and robberies because they know what's going on on the street. So, you'll put them on a prostitution charge and they'll give you somebody who's not a major, but a decent-sized heroin or cocaine dealer. Most prostitutes turn in drug dealers. Some of them will turn in somebody who robbed a bank who they know.

Wilkerson: So, in a way, you need the prostitutes as your undercover people, at least that's how they function.

Officer: No, we don't really need them . . . but they're nice to have around.

From the viewpoint of the prostitutes, they may not like being this useful to the police, but it is widely accepted as part of the "game." A good relationship with the vice squad is crucial to the success of Turner's business.

Turner: [The vice squad] is all right with me. Although when they bust me I don't like them very much. But we've since made buddies. My buddies down there, they leave me alone, but some of these new ones, I worry about them. I don't like the vice squad for the reason that I don't know which ones are the right ones or the wrong ones. The old ones know I'm not out trying to hurt nobody. I'm just trying to mind my own business.

Wilkerson: It seems like over 80 percent of the prostitutes are he-shes.

Turner: Well, the police run most of the girls out of town. They just have arrested them or harassed them. They're all in the penitentiary or something.

Wilkerson: Talking to the vice squad, they said they would rather have women working down there than the he-shes.

Turner: Then why did they arrest them all and put them in the penitentiary?

Wilkerson: They said they'd rather have women than the he-shes because the he-shes cut people. They're meaner and they end up with more people getting hurt.

Turner: Well, they're a man, too. And if a man messes with them . . . like, a woman will get the shit beat out of them. But, even though they're dressed as women, they got a man's strength. And some of them do rob because their business is harder than a woman's. It's harder for them to make money. If I'm down there, I'll get much more cars pulling up to me because I'm the only white girl down there. You're down South and a lot of white men don't want black girls. And, secondly, a lot of them know what they are and don't want to be with a man. On the other hand, a lot of them know what they are and go with them, too.

person has his money, you're obligated to do what you've got to do to get him to give it to you.


Never go without getting the money first. They try to steal the money back. Oh, it's just so much crap. You got to hide it good. And sometimes they'll beat you to get it back. And there's ones that lay out there and take you out and they'll give you the money and then they rob you of everything you made the whole evening. I remember when I used to make three and four hundred dollars and get robbed of it. You know there's no worse feeling: that you've worked hard all night and you're tired and have some idiot come and rob you for your money. That's why I bring everything home right away. I don't keep it on me when I'm working out there.


In addition to her dealing with customers, Turner is part of an under-society, a combination of street people, the he-shes (who Turner says prefer to be called "girls"), and the police (see box). It's a tight-knit group because it is to each person's advantage to know everyone and keep track of what goes on.


We're all okay to each other. Now you got some shits down there that none of us like because they undercut or something. It's a code just like anything else. If I stand there and offer 50 dollars, the girl next to me would never, should never say, "Well, I'll take you for 40." She won't be on the street long. Somebody will do something to her.

We also look out for each other. Let's say I see a customer in a car eyeing me, a girl will come up, poke me, "He ain't got no money." Or they'll come up and say, "He's trouble. Don't mess with him." Same way with me, if I see one of the girls looking at a customer I've been with that's been trouble. You give warnings to each other. If you feel like it's gonna get trouble, you tell a girl to take the license number down, "If I'm not back in an hour, yeah, call the police." But we very seldom do that. We just try to let the person know ahead of time that we got the other girls looking out for us. If one of the girls don't show back up and something might be wrong . . . you know. It's a system of lookout. It's sisterhood.

We call each other friends, but we don't socialize with each other, really. A lot of them are roommates and everything, but I'm a lot of a different case. Most of the black girls that work out there, their kids stay with their mother. They're on their own. They can more or less take it or leave it. They can operate when they want to or not. They don't have to cover their back like I do with my family, with my kid and everything.

A lot of them are drug addicts. The drug and prostitution businesses almost always run together. They got to make money just like me to keep their habit, but they're freer. If I was free and didn't have my kid here, I could make a lot of money. But the kid'll be home this evening and I won't be able to work probably all week again. I didn't work last night, so I worked one night — Friday night. What the hell is that?


With the recent economic hard times, crimes against women downtown have become more frequent and violent. There are no big-time pimps in Norfolk and although some women have boyfriends or husbands controlling business and providing protection, most of the women are on their own. As the women point out, if customers are looking to rob or abuse prostitutes, they will usually pick up the women. Because women are generally weaker than the he-shes, they are also easier to arrest. As prime targets of bad customers and police officers, the women are disappearing from the streets by a process of elimination. In July, the body of one known streetwalker, Joyce Bilups, was found mutilated in a Norfolk alley. The murder is still unsolved.


Honey, you're always a bit scared. If you're not, you're stupid. If you're not scared, you'll let your guard down and that's when you're gonna get hurt. And you're gonna get hurt out here. I don't have any teeth.

[Joyce Bilups] was turning 10 dollar tricks in the alley and also she used to rob people, but her mistake was just getting the wrong customer. All of us will get the wrong customer one time or the other. I have spurts. I've had a weekend when I've had three trouble makers. I'll think I'm not ever going out there again. I'm so glad to get away. You know, I had a Yellow Cab driver rape me on the way home from work one night. Guy picked me up at Steak 'N Eggs at four in the morning. I haven't been out there for about a year and a half. I'm just starting to go back.


Although Turner isn't satisfied working as a prostitute, she is convinced that it is the best way for her to make enough money to support herself and her child. In addition to their living expenses, she is presently working to pay her boyfriend's legal fees as well as her own dental bills, which resulted when one of her customers beat her and knocked out her dental work. Her only mention of the future is that once she has a reliable car she may move up in the business to a position as a call girl. The changes she would like to see are not so much in her own life as in the treatment of people in her profession.


What I'd like somebody to really do, study on, is why it's wrong; why the women are looked down on and degraded for being a prostitute, but it's all right for the man with the money.

Once in a while they'll put a girl [police undercover agent] on the street and if a guy propositions her they'll arrest him and he'll get a small fine. But not like us, we can go to jail so long. They can bury us. Especially if it's a second offense or something. Oral sodomy, a blow job, carries five to seven years. Something married people do daily is still considered against the law almost all over the United States. Even for married couples. Check your law books. Oral sex is against the law. It doesn't matter if you're a prostitute or a wife, it's just we're the ones that are getting the charges for it, and it carries a heavy charge.

I don't really want to see nobody go to jail no more than I want to see me go to jail. But I don't like their techniques; they catch you with a john, making him talk against you. And sometimes you haven't even talked about money yet and they'll say, especially if the guy's married, "If you don't say she did this and that, we're gonna run you in." Most of them are scared to death and that's how the cops can get them to say anything they want against you. So they get a statement from him that incriminates you immediately. He's gonna say whatever he can to get away from them and not have his family know what he's done.

I wouldn't like to see the johns arrested. I'd like to see them have different prostitution laws or have a different way of doing it. But we're not Paris, and I guess we never will be. It's just like Prohibition. It's something you're not going to be able to stop so why don't you try to deal with it in a different way. If you can't stop people from drinking, you're not going to be able to stop sex. A person who says you can is out of their mind.