Trying to Make a Living

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.

"I know the name of the game is survival and money."


an Atlanta prostitute


Harlot. Hooker. Trollop. Whore. These words evoke either nervous laughter or serious social condemnation — but always images of the "bad" woman.

Public attitudes toward prostitutes and prostitution have been shaped by a combination of myth and history. And history has given us all the extremes upon which the myths and images are based. The notion of the prostitute in America as a downtrodden victim of oppression comes to us from earliest colonial times when women were imported from the streets of Europe and kidnapped from the villages of Africa. Throughout the history of this country, women have seldom had control over their bodies or their labor. In the South, a social structure evolved which added the dimension of race to the traditional bad/good woman dichotomy as black women became the legally and socially designated "bad" women necessary to perpetuate the double standard. The use of black women as chattel included the sale of their female offspring to serve as sexual slaves.

At the other end of the spectrum is the popular notion of the pampered, glamorous queens of the night. These women, too, have their historical counterparts in the select few who became celebrated as whores and madams in the boom towns and cities of America during periods of rapid growth. Many women went into the business for themselves, using their bodies as commodities. Some even got rich.

Regardless of the favorable or unfavorable circumstances under which these women labored, the underlying assumption was that women's bodies could be bought and sold for the pleasure and convenience of men. Practicing prostitutes are aware of this assumption and for thousands of American women, prostitution is work. Yet, due to social and legal sanctions, listings of jobs held by women seldom include prostitution.

The idea of prostitution as some sort of sleazy fun — rather than work — is encouraged by laws classifying prostitutes as criminals and by media images of prostitutes as happy hookers lounging in luxury apartments or walking the streets in expensive furs. Prostitutes have been looked upon as fallen women, lacking in moral upbringing and in need of decent employment. In fact, most prostitutes see their line of work as better-paying, and no more demeaning than welfare or the low-paying jobs usually available to women. In spite of the increasing number of women in the workforce, job opportunities are generally limited to traditionally defined "women's work," yielding an average income that amounts to 59¢ for every dollar earned by males. More than half of all the black women employed outside the home are working in low-paying service jobs or as domestics.

The voices of prostitutes are seldom heard. In 1980, Adina Back, Marianne Connolly, Phaye Poliakoff, and Barbara Solow collectively produced a three-part radio series in which prostitutes spoke about their work, their relationships with the public, and how they would like to see attitudes toward prostitution changed. The following article was adapted by Phaye Poliakoff from the radio series.


"I live in a whole lot less fear of a lot of things. Little fears like can I afford milk this week; or can I come up with the 22 bucks for my son to go to school? Can I pay the phone bill? I'm a single woman and a mother, too. If I were living on what I could make as a waitress I'd be frightened a lot of the time. I'd feel a great deal more pressure because I remember what it was like to live from one paycheck to the next."


"I'm not advocating that women should be prostitutes, but we want alternatives. Unfortunately, more women are going into prostitution because the economic situation is getting worse. You got two little kids. Welfare isn't really enough to survive, and it's humiliating besides."


"The way I became a prostitute was by finding my back against the wall and very little else to do but come up with a lot of money any way I could do it. I feel like there are an awful lot of women in America whose backs are against the wall. Battered wives who can't escape because they do not have the money to walk out the door with two or three kids — and where are they going to go? And when they get there what are they going to live on till she can get a job and an apartment and some money? So they get to watch their kids beaten or get to be beaten in front of their kids every day. Women in America have their backs against the wall more often than not."


"Why work so hard that when you come home, you just fall out because you're so tired? All right, for a woman to bring home 200 dollars a week — and that's a good-paying job for a woman — it's nothing for a woman in a bathhouse or on the street to make 200 dollars in an hour. It's hard to say, 'I'm gonna take this 200 dollars just cause I need it and I'm not gonna do it anymore,' so you quit that little job that took you all week to make 200 dollars, if you were lucky. If you had a college degree. But you got to have money to live. You got to have money to pay your rent, to buy your groceries."


Prostitution has many links to other work traditionally done by women. Women's roles at work often reflect their roles in the family as social and sexual providers. Just as the vital services performed by a woman in the home are often not recognized or valued in the same way as the work her husband does, the public job market places a lesser value on her services as well.

Several Atlanta prostitutes stressed the similarities they saw between prostitution and other work, including wifehood:


"What is prostitution? Selling of the body? To me, every woman is a prostitute in one way or another. I've been a housewife for 15 years. If I would be good to my husband during the week, like extra sex, I'd get extra money at the end of the week to buy a pair of shoes or a blouse."


"It's just as bad behind the bar [working as a barmaid]. Sometimes you get regular customers who come to the bar and they want to tell you all their problems at home and everything else. I have some customers who come in every day who don't have the slightest idea I do anything else besides tend bar. But it's just as bad with them as it is with some of my dates. They want to sit there for hours and buy you drinks, and they don't feel you should have to wait on anyone else. 'Pay attention to me. I've got this problem I want you to solve.' And you really don't want to be bothered."


"I worked at Steak 'N Egg for a while, and there's a lot of guys come up there regularly, just to sit and drink coffee. And when they want to pinch you on the ass, I thought, 'Hey now. Wait a minute. I'm not getting paid for somebody to pinch me on the ass up here. You leave me a 50 dollar tip for that cup of coffee or you keep your hands off.'"*


"I was working very hard in a restaurant. Working double shifts. Not making very much money. Being sort of abused as a waitress. And a girl I worked with said she'd worked in massage parlors and made a lot of money. I found I could work a couple of nights for what I had been making in a week, or I could work a week for what I could never have made doing anything else, unless I was a doctor or a lawyer. And I've never known what it was like to have money."


Almost anyone will tell you, "a prostitute is a bad woman.' 'But why is she bad? One reason often given is that she makes herself available to more than one man. She oversteps the sexual boundaries surrounding women. And while some women may have more than one lover, or even many, a prostitute commits the final offense. She demands money in exchange for sex. She says, "I'm not doing this for love or enjoyment. I'm just trying to make a living." The separation of women into "good girls" and "bad girls " has allowed women's sexuality to be defined for men's needs.


"Sex gets to be just like working in a factory or being in an assembly plant. It's just something you do. You close your eyes and do it. It gets to be an every day thing that doesn't bother you anymore. And if it does, after you look at the money it doesn't bother you anymore."


"Sometimes I don't enjoy it. It's boring. It's tiresome. It's a mental strain. It's having to deal with people that under ordinary circumstances, if you weren't doing this, you wouldn't have to deal with."


"I never thought I'd do it. I'd always been a prude. You had to go with me two months before you could touch me. But finally I did. I started working in the hotels at first, but I got barred from all of them. I got cases — busted, in other words. I never wanted to work on Peachtree Street; I thought it was cheap to walk the streets. But there's a way to do things. You can have some class about yourself no matter where you work. So from the hotels I went to the bathhouses, and then I finally went to the street. I work from my car. But even now, I have to get high to go to work cause I don't like to deal with the fact of giving my body to everybody. I don't mind blow jobs that much. I'm very good at it. But I can't stand to have somebody jumping up and down on top of me all the time."


"They're buying your time. They're not really buying you. Most of the women I met were fairly proud. They felt like they were doing a job, and they knew what they were doing."

"I think the most negative aspect is the social condemnation. The inborn negative aspect isn't that strong in the nature of the thing itself. I think it comes mostly from the way people see it."


Another occupational hazard facing prostitutes is arrest. Except in Nevada, where it is heavily regulated, prostitution is illegal. Clean-up campaigns, crackdowns, and street-sweeps occur with periodic regularity around the country. But which prostitutes get arrested? A call woman in Atlanta said that she felt very little fear of arrest. "They 're not interested in women who work quietly and service wealthier clientele," she explained. Streetwalkers and black prostitutes often act as buffers for police action, absorbing the fervor of clean-up campaigns, while other forms of prostitution continue to flourish. This kind of selective enforcement, in some cases, helps to prevent women from moving out of the business.


"I was really angry about being arrested. It really hurt me a lot. There is always a risk, but when it happens — they treat you like a criminal. You're fingerprinted and mugged and all, and it's humiliating. They have all the power and they're doing this to you, just like you're a criminal."


"As I was working I got a case. A prostitution case. And I'm thinking, ain't no big thing. I'll get out of it, first offender, you know, 150 dollars, I can pay that now. But it's not like that. The bond is so ridiculous. They give you a 6,000 dollar bond. That's why we never have a win. Most of the time we're trying to get the bond lowered. How much do they think prostitutes make? Are they crazy? If we made that we wouldn't be out there but once a week. And in most cases, it is entrapment. The police have entrapped you. In my incident, he took his clothes off, he laid on top of me. He went through all of that. That was unnecessary."


"Do black girls get locked up more than white girls? The answer is yes. Go down to Decatur Street [Atlanta's city jail] and see for yourself. See how many of them are black and how many are white. Yes!"


"If you get a case, you say I'm just going to go straight after this. But by the time you get the money to pay the lawyer, you get another case. It's a vicious circle. So you can't stop. They fine you so much money — working in a straight job, you could never pay it. A 300 dollar fine today. A 500 dollar fine today. Or 30, 60, 90 days in the stockade. And the judge isn't going to believe you instead of an officer. There is no such thing as innocent until proven guilty when you go before the judge that first day. It's whatever he says you did, that's what you did."


Enforcement efforts are aimed mainly at visible prostitution. In 1980, Atlanta's Midtown Business Association took up street prostitution as an issue. A woman then working in one of the bathhouses in an area on Peachtree Street known as "the strip" recalled the tactics used in the resulting busts:


"These people went through all this trouble. They tapped my phone. Bugging the places. Busting the girls. I got busted six times in one week. I was in jail several times. They busted just about all of the girls one weekend. They set all of the girls' bonds at 20,000 dollars, okay? Then they called all of the bonding companies and told them that they couldn't make any bonds for 15,000 or over. They wanted to scare the girls. Keep them in jail over the weekend, hoping that someone would turn state's evidence. But, my God, there was nothing to turn state's evidence on. Apparently it was just something for TV. Something to keep the public happy. It was really senseless. They didn't have anything else to do, I guess."


Because of their illegal status, a prostitute usually has no legal recourse if she is raped, robbed, beaten, or if a client refuses to pay. Angela Romagnoli of the National Task Force on Prostitution sums it up this way: "When a man wants to hurt a woman, who's easy pickings? Prostitutes. They are throwaways. They are not protected. " An Atlanta prostitute agrees, and describes her own experience looking for police protection:


"Do you think I could get any protection? Hell no! We're streetwalkers. We don't have no rights. We shouldn't be out there. I met a man last night, driving a Mercedes Benz, money all over the place. He almost killed me. I blacked out three times — he strangled me. He kept screaming, 'I have so much money, what could anybody do to me? I could buy my way out of anything. The headlines would read: Another Prostitute Killed by Wealthy Man. Good Riddance.' When I finally got away and told a policeman, he says, 'Lady, I'll tell you what. Go to that Chevron station, and I'll radio for another car so you can file a report.' I said, 'A report? That man just turned the corner. You could catch him. I'll tell you what. Forget it. You go after your jay walkers and your traffic violations, cause you're not going to do a damn thing about it anyway.'"


Pimps of one kind or another have long preyed upon the illegal and dangerous status of the prostitute, offering a type of protection for a large financial cut. The brothel and the madam have been replaced by the street pimp, who is in turn being replaced by "legitimate" businessmen running escort services. Some of these are part of escort service chains, headquartered in major Southern cities.


"It consisted of an apartment where a bunch of girls would sit around the telephone. And there were a couple of guys who backed the thing with money. The people I worked for did certainly make a lot of money. They had the income of maybe five or 10 girls, maybe more, coming into them every night. Even after their expenses they made enough to make it worthwhile to them. Definitely more than any of us made.

"It's safer working for the escort service. And it's better money. And it's probably more socially acceptable in the eyes of the person who is picking you up. Which means it's safer and more money."


"When I first came to Atlanta and started to work at the bathhouses, it was 15 dollars for 30 minutes time with a lady. Whatever the man and the lady did in the back room was strictly between them.

"A lot of the girls on the street would love to work in the bathhouses. There just wasn't ever any room for them. Then you're out of the cold in the winter, you have showers, all of the comforts of home. Plus you don't have to run from the cops on the street. You don't have to worry about being taken in for loitering. It is a lot nicer when you can be in a place like this — a bathhouse, modeling studio, massage parlor — whatever you want to call it. It's a lot more protection. True enough, the man that owns the place, he did make a lot of money. But the girl took a lot less chance of being hurt."


"I've made up my mind. The security is worth it. I don't know anything about the escort services except for what I hear. Now I'd never work for one on Peachtree Street, that's out, cause I know they don't do nothing for you. But in Buckhead or Sandy Springs [wealthy Atlanta neighborhoods] or somewhere where they've got a lot of money, I wouldn't have to worry about catching no case, cause you know they're paying the police off. Ain't no way in hell they're gonna bust nobody in Sandy Springs. And they got prostitution in Sandy Springs."


Concrete options exist to eliminate the current legal double standards for prostitution. Legalization and decriminalization are the two options most often discussed. Legalization is a misnomer since the name implies that it would help women. Actually, legalization has come to mean heavy regulation, keeping men in control of prostitution and able to benefit even more from it. Decriminalization would repeal the present prostitution laws and would allow women to control their own means and methods of work. Most prostitutes favor decriminalization. Angela Romagnoli explains why:


"We need it decriminalized, not legalized like it is in Nevada. The situation in Nevada is good for the capitalists, the person that owns the business and the customer, but not good for the women, unless that particular house-owner happens to be nice. Women aren't allowed to go into town. They are stigmatized. They work long shifts; it's like slavery or something. But it's legal, and it's for the convenience of men. They're making big bucks off it. But they tell you how much you charge, and they take a cut on your tips. We want to work out something where it's decriminalized — where the regulations and the licensings are worked out for the women's interests.

"If women are going to be prostitutes, we want to make the job better, with things like protection against rape, assault, and robbery. They need a place to go, a hot line, they need supportive services. We want services for women who want to get out of it. We're working for jobs to be upgraded all the way around, for all women, including prostitutes. If you decriminalize prostitution and raise women's economic status in legitimate work, you will see less prostitution. If women continue to earn 59¢ for every dollar, you will not see a diminution of prostitution. If I go and do a workshop on prostitution, mostly people just want information. They don't want to talk about strategizing. If you start talking about support systems for prostitutes, a lot of women get real nervous. It sounds like you are supporting prostitution. Not all women start to freak inside, but some do. Because prostitution is an issue that borders on everything in a woman's life."


Romagnoli went on to offer her perception of the fears and stereotypes now dividing prostitutes from other women, and how that might change:


"For women there's always been a lot of negative stuff surrounding sex because we definitely haven't had power over our bodies and our sexuality. I just don't want it to be dumped on prostitutes. I think it's really ridiculous, like the prostitute is responsible for perpetuating the sex roles. Any woman who is participating in the system in any way, you could say the same thing to. It's really bad that women are divided. This division keeps women from being powerful. If men can turn around and scare you by calling you a whore or a lesbian, then they can keep you doing what they want. It would be very bad for men if women got together and stopped feeling like they were separate from each other, if women who were living straight lives saw that prostitution was not that much different from what any woman has to do in order to survive. A prostitute is looked at as though she is the scum of the earth by other women. It keeps us from being powerful."


* From Frontiers, Summer, 1983, “The Pebble Lounge: Oral Histories of Go-Go Dancers.”