As Donna Steele walks down State Street, she keeps her head lowered and her gaze fixed on the ground as her flip-flops hammer the sun-baked sidewalk. A driver honks his horn, but the 55-year-old ignores it. He’s probably a cop looking to see if she’s “dating,” street parlance for selling or paying for sex.
Despite her determined stride that mid-July afternoon, her tired, floral-print dress fluttering around her ankles, Steele is acutely aware of every car that passes her. “He’s dating,” she says about a man sitting in a truck on a side street. “He dates, too,” she says, as a late-middle-age man drives by, his bare upper body displaying a mass of white chest hair.
“He’s a cop,” she says, as a gold compact car turns the corner. All the while, she seemingly hasn’t lifted her gaze past her purple-nail-polished toes as she hurries down the street toward the corner of 1300 South and State Street in downtown Salt Lake City.
She’s earned $35 that morning toward the $55 she needs for the daily rent of a room in a State Street motel. If she doesn’t get that $20, then she and her two suitcases—which she keeps in a corner of her room, always packed, in case she has to leave—will be out on the street that night, with nowhere to go. Along with the rent money, she needs another $10 or $20 for the heroin to help her get through the day. Anything else goes to food, cigarettes and money to send to her incarcerated youngest son.
Her earnings come from providing oral sex in parked cars for between $20 and $40, even though she has mouth ulcers. “10 minutes and it’s done,” she says. She doesn’t do intercourse. It’s too intimate, she says, and “I don’t want to be with my legs up in the air.”
“There is this perspective that prostitution is a victimless crime,” says Sgt. Mike Burbank, head of the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Organized Crime Unit, which is tasked with, among other things, policing prostitutes and their clients. “But that’s because people don’t appreciate there’s a bigger picture.”
Many sex workers grew up with abusive childhoods, Burbank says. A 2004 Psychiatric Times article, “Prostitution Is Sexual Violence,” cites clinical findings that 65 percent to 95 percent of those in prostitution were sexually assaulted as children. While 85 percent to 95 percent want to escape sex work, they “have no other options for survival,” whether that’s sex for money or drugs, or sex exchanged for shelter, survival or safety.
Arrests of prostitutes in Salt Lake City plummeted after SLCPD Chief Chris Burbank disbanded his vice squad in early 2012. Sex-solicitation busts dropped from 326 in 2011 to 25 in 2012. In the past eight months, SLCPD has been taking a different tack, focusing more on the “johns,” as prostitutes call their clients, and trying to direct the “working girls” to other lifestyles.
But, Sgt. Mike Burbank admits, “I don’t have the resources to do that,” so instead, he hands out cards for the Fourth Street Clinic’s medical-outreach team, Joel Hunt and Leticia Vasquez.
While Hunt and Vasquez have worked with an ever-growing number of sex workers over the past 18 months, their primary focus is outreach for the city’s homeless and mentally-ill street population, leaving them with limited resources to tackle sex workers’ extensive and complex needs.
Steele, as well as Candyss, 44, and her partner, 39-year-old Tina (Candyss and Tina are pseudonyms), who also sell sex, agreed to tell their stories to City Weekly to underscore the need for committed resources for street sex workers.
Candyss and Tina live together in a small motel on State Street that’s frequented by prostitutes, drug dealers and users. In June and July of this year, Steele resided two doors down. Each room has a bed, a dresser, a TV, a small en-suite shower and toilet. The motel is a squat, single-story row of rooms, where drug busts and police stings of prostitutes occasionally suppress the feverish illegal activity. Chaos and drama is never farther away than a knock at the door, as a dealer hawks “black” (heroin), someone wants a cigarette or money, or a client wants sex. It’s the same microcosm of dealing and using, robbing, snitching and sex work that you can find in numerous motels on State Street and North Temple.
“We have to get out of this motel, and we have to get off heroin,” Candyss says. “If we don’t get off the black now, we’re fucked. We’re fucked as it is.”
While a five-year “regular” of Candyss’ named Bill pays the rent for her and Tina, all Steele has is the gnawing anxiety building inside her each day as she struggles to find the money to keep her room.
Steele says she used to get up at 4 a.m. for the early-morning rush hour, and by 6 a.m., would’ve earned enough from men going to work to meet that day’s financial needs. But now, because of her age, and because she is far more cautious about jumping into strangers’ cars than other “girls” on State Street, Steele faces slim pickings.
And she desperately wants to quit prostitution. “It’s killing me,” she says, in tears. “I just want it to be over with. I don’t know what I did wrong. I don’t deserve to live like this.”
The three are among an estimated 60 street sex workers in Salt Lake City who, along with younger, more expensive prostitutes who advertise as escorts on Backpage.com and Craigslist and meet clients in hotels in downtown Salt Lake City and by the airport, remain a largely invisible community in Utah.
“It’s not like Las Vegas,” Candyss says, where prostitutes wear the high heels and hot pants that correspond to the movie stereotype of a street walker. Along Salt Lake City’s State Street and North Temple—or “ho-stroll,” as prostitutes call the blocks they work—it’s more a case of blending in, of not wanting to draw attention from law enforcement. Prostitutes look like other street people who are hustling for loose change, a roof for the night or a $10 shot of heroin.
That seeming invisibility, combined with having no one to advocate for them and an inability to break out of the cycle of addiction, homelessness and prostitution, essentially leaves street sex workers feeling that they have nowhere to go.
That said, help is available, at least in theory. Sex work inevitably carries with it emotional and psychological trauma from violence, both physical and sexual. Burbank says most sex workers have suffered sexual assault but don’t report it. The indigent are eligible for 10 state-mandated services if they have mental-health needs, including case management to get them housing, health and mental-health care and other programs.
But few if any prostitutes know that they have such rights. When told of the state-mandated services, Steele is furious. “Then why haven’t they had someone tell us?” she asks, in tears. “If I had known that, I’d have been out of this life years ago.”
Street sex workers often “don’t know they can get any funding,” says Susan Mitchell, Valley Mental Health’s director of substance-abuse services. Another barrier, she says, is the reality of their day-to-day lives. “I think in that world, living moment to moment, you’re not paying a lot of attention to what resources are out there. You’re just trying to survive.”