Loneliness. Trauma. Sex addictions. Whatever led more than two dozen people to engage in prostitution, they ended up together Friday at the West Palm Beach, Fla., Police Department, listening to law-enforcement officers, doctors and people who work with human-trafficking survivors share stories of sex work’s seedy underside.
At times, they were shamed by the officers who busted them. At others, they were shown how their pursuit of pleasure fueled a culture of drug abuse and violence. And at a few points, they were grossed out by what sexually transmitted diseases and bug infestations can do to their bodies.
In exchange, the prostitution charges they face are one step closer to being dismissed — and, the program’s founders hope, they’re one step further away from the behavior that brought them there.
The founder of the Prostitution Impact Prevention Education program — or PIPE — Gail Levine repeated to the group a story she’s told hundreds of times: how she and her husband watched many dear friends die because of AIDS in the 1980s, then moved to West Palm Beach, only to find unexpected and unavoidable prostitution acts taking place near their home.
She started the program in collaboration with city police and the State Attorney’s Office as a way to shame first-time offenders facing prostitution charges into not re-offending.
Levine expects the class in August to be even fuller, thanks to the Orchids of Asia Day Spa bust in which 25 men, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, were charged with soliciting a prostitute.
Five of the men have agreed to deals in which they pay a $5,000 fine, do 100 hours of community service, complete the PIPE class and admit in court the defendant had knowledge of “illicit activity.” In exchange, their cases will be dismissed.
That bust came up briefly while Levine discussed increased awareness of prostitution, human trafficking and sexually transmitted diseases thanks, in part, to high-profile prostitution operations like the one in Jupiter.
Friday’s class primarily focused on street-level prostitution, as opposed to the day spa-type of sex crimes as in Jupiter. Presenters discussed both why people ended up working the streets and the risks associated with being a customer.
After a woman from the State Attorney’s Office dealt with a barrage of logistical questions — court costs, paperwork, whether their criminal records go away if they complete all terms of their plea (they do) — two Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies who work undercover in prostitution stings walked to the podium and smiled.
About half the men in the room were arrested trying to solicit them for sex.
“While you sit there and complain about court costs, we remember how much you offered to pay us to suck your (expletive),” one deputy said.
Within minutes of standing on a street corner during those stings, the deputies said they were inundated by catcalls and offers of money for sex.
They stressed that the operations, which involve about a dozen law-enforcement officers, aren’t intended to entrap men or meet an arrest quota. The stings are aimed at putting a dent in the cycle of crime in which prostitution exists.
When one of the deputies worked as an officer in Delray Beach, Fla., she saw the same woman time and time again prostituting herself to feed a drug addiction. One day, after coming up short on money for drugs and alcohol, the woman woke up sober on a sidewalk covered in cockroaches, said “Enough” and moved back with family out of state.
The deputy stressed to the men that though they may not think they’re fueling a woman’s drug addiction by paying her for sex, their money does just that.
“When I’m working with somebody coming out of sex trafficking, that’s only the latest in a long line of abuse,” said Becky Dymond, founder of the nonprofit Hepzibah House in Palm Beach County. “And, for many, that’s not even the worst.”
West Palm Beach Officer Sarah Burgoon asked how many of the people in the class were arrested near their homes.
Very few hands went up.
The most common complaint the department fields from neighborhood associations is about street-level prostitution, she said. Residents don’t like explaining used condoms or public sex acts to their children.
Burgoon knows the arguments for legalizing prostitution. But she also knows the robberies, drugs and gun violence that stem from seemingly consensual sexual encounters.
West Palm Detective Robert McGinley told story after story of violent crime cases he has worked in the city that started as prostitution.
“It’s all interwoven,” he said. “Where there’s dope, there’s money. Where there’s money, there’s guns. Where there’s guns, there’s violence.”
A man in the class, who asked only to be identified as Bill, said he’s had numerous cars and thousands of dollars stolen from him by women he has paid for sex acts.
Bill said he was arrested after soliciting a woman who seemed “too good to be true” in Lake Worth.
“I’m not proud of what I did, but I did it.”
“Loneliness,” he said.
He pointed to childhood trauma and unhealthy relationships early in life that warped his sense of normal.
Numerous doctors and therapists spoke to the class about mental illness, as well as the effects of trauma and sex addictions.
Several men remarked that they’d never thought of their unhealthy behaviors as symptoms of a larger, much deeper problem. Similarly, several admitted to not putting much thought into why a woman was working the streets.
Laura Cusack, human trafficking prevention and education coordinator at the nonprofit Place of Hope, shared stories from women with whom she has worked. One's mother sold her for $10 when she was just 11 years old. Another was kicked out of her home, only to wind up being sex trafficked out of state.
After years of grappling with a mother who abandoned her and her sister for drugs, Gina Moore took to prostitution and illegal substances to find out why, except, along the way, she became tied up with serial killer Lucious Boyd. He would be the last one to see Moore alive before the 20-year-old’s body was found near a Palm Beach County canal, Moore’s sister, Amber Barry, told the class.
To a silent and captivated audience, Barry detailed the horrors of her childhood and her big sister’s murder in the 1980s, for which no one has been arrested.
“She was not just a prostitute. She was my sister who I loved,” Barry said. “She’s missed by so many.”
Beyond the violence are the diseases. To audible gasps of horror, biological scientist Choubhury Bari with the Palm Beach County Health Department showed pictures of genitalia infected with sexually transmitted diseases. He and others answered questions about how HIV/AIDS is treated and dispelled myths surrounding what diseases such as syphilis, herpes and gonorrhea actually are, as well as how they are contracted.
While working undercover, McGinley picked up scabies from a woman who’d agreed to be paid in exchange for a sex act and only briefly touched him over his clothing. He said that after explaining the situation to his wife, he had to toss all of his clothes and bedding, which also likely were affected by the tiny, burrowing mites.
“No one is here to judge you,” McGinley said. “We’re here to educate you.”
As Levine stamped participants’ certification sheets as they left the class, Levine looked at each person and said in her motherly tone, “Hopefully you learned a lesson.”