Perverts beware

Posted: Jan 29, 2003 12:00 AM
As Norma Hotaling puts it, children engaged in prostitution are "the only sanctioned group of kids that it's absolutely OK to sexually abuse." Hotaling should know. She was lured into prostitution as a very young child. As an adult, she worked as a hooker until she kicked her drug addiction. Hotaling later formed the group SAGE, Standing Against Global Exploitation, a San Francisco group that helps prostitutes leave the life. Hotaling recalled a visit seven years ago with a woman representing the United Nations, who told her, "I can't believe that the United States arrests children for being sexually abused." Hotaling told her, "We arrest them so that they can get (social) services." The worst of it is, the girls are arrested, while the men often are not. (Last year, SFPD arrested 183 juveniles for prostitution. But if the johns were arrested, it was for loitering.) Hotaling is working to change that. The San Francisco Police Department has responded, and Washington is listening. It's Saturday. Sgt. Inspector Lynne Atkinson of the San Francisco Police Department's vice squad and Hotaling are talking to a roomful of men arrested for soliciting adult prostitutes. The johns are participating in San Francisco's First Offender Prostitution Program, which began in 1995. They pay a fine of up to $1,000 and attend "john school"; if they don't re-offend for a year, their records are expunged. The john school has a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent, Hotaling boasts. In past years, Atkinson tells Saturday's class of 24 johns, police often went easy on men caught with underage prostitutes -- maybe even let the men go so they wouldn't have to face serious charges. But those days are over. Atkinson likens law enforcement's new attitude toward men who have sex with child prostitutes to the change in attitude toward wife beating. There was a time when police treated spousal battery as a family matter. No longer. Today, savvy cops understand that child prostitution is not a victimless crime. Child prostitutes are victims, and their "clients" are perps. Juries are wising up, too. In 2001, a San Francisco jury sentenced a pimp for girls as young as 14 to 10 years in prison. Hotaling is pushing authorities to get tough with the girls' johns as well. "Who in here thinks of yourself as a criminal?" Hotaling asks at the beginning of her talk. No one raises a hand. "Who in here thinks of yourself as a sexual abuser?" No hands. Hotaling knows that some of these men have paid for sex with minors, and she says so. A man with a teenage daughter is appalled. Having sex with a child prostitute, he says, is "the sickest thing in the world." Most of the attendees seem to agree with him. One man said he supports tougher penalties for men who have sex with child prostitutes, because, "There is such a thing as deterrence." But a 26-year-old john says he doesn't like the responsibility of knowing whether or not a woman is of legal age. "How do you honestly, honestly know?" he asks. A man may not know by looking, but once a 13-year-old starts talking, he can tell she's a kid, Atkinson says. In a speech to the U.S. Department of Justice in December, Hotaling cited a study that found that the average age of entry into child prostitution is 13 to 14 years old. "All my girls, all my victims, have (sexual) abuse in their history. Whether it was an uncle, or a dad, they had this abuse," Atkinson explains. "In fact, they think (that by leaving home to work as a prostitute), they've left it." Not all the johns were oozing sympathy. One mutters about girls "stupid" enough to fall for a pimp. Then there was the john who argues that "going after the man" makes no sense. "Get rid of the supply," he says. "You're not going to get rid of the demand." Hotaling is happy to go after the demand side. She's telling johns that if they're not careful in their choices, they could spend time behind bars for child molestation or statutory rape. I ask afterward how many of these johns have had sex with minors. Ninety percent, Hotaling guesstimates. With girls under 16? Forty percent, she answers. "You didn't distinguish between adults and kids," Hotaling told the johns as she began Saturday's class. "You haven't had to." Now they know they have to.