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A Dose of Reality in the Cold, Hard Light of Day : Prostitution: Florida officials are forcing hookers and their ‘johns’ to attend group counseling sessions. Authorities are also stepping up stings and publicizing the men’s names.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The movie is over.

The audience has heard about AIDS. About the Kiss of Mint-flavored condom. About 600 million sperm traveling at 20 miles an hour.

And, while sitting in straight chairs in the dark, it has even shared a laugh--when the talking-head therapist in the videotape pulled a condom over her fist and up to her elbow and deadpanned: “This would probably fit most men. If not, you probably spend a lot of time alone.”

But now the lights are on, and the 18 men and six women have been instructed to pull the chairs into one big circle so that everyone can look into the eyes of everyone else.

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Counselor Jeannie Kennedy sets the tone. With a knowing look, she says, “No one is here because you were sightseeing in the neighborhood. The embarrassment is over. We want to know what else you need.”

The people crowded into this room in a nondescript office building need many things. In the next few minutes, it quickly becomes evident that what they most want is to escape.

But they can’t.

On this Monday afternoon, each is here on the order of a court after being arrested by undercover police officers for soliciting sex. The women are prostitutes, most of them admitted crack cocaine users. All but one of the men are “johns,” caught offering to pay for sex.

The 18th man is Rodney, small and fidgety, a transvestite unfazed by his most recent arrest but so chagrined at being seen without a wig and makeup that he has to be coaxed to take his hat off. Neither does he want to be taken for a tramp.

“I don’t do oral sex,” he insists. “I just rob people.”

For the next hour and a half, under Kennedy’s direction, each person must say something about the events that led to him or her being in this room, and just what bearing that event might have on the rest of their lives.

The men are morose, sad-eyed, beset by problems with wives, relationships or loneliness. Many, under a heralded plan championed by West Palm Beach Mayor Nancy Graham, already have had their names published in the local newspaper and have been humiliated before family and friends.

As the afternoon wears on, they seem even more depressed and sink further into their seats.

For the women, however, impatience rules. They are dispassionate, disinterested. For most, the busts--even this so-called “sensitivity training"--is all in a day’s work, just part of the continuous obstacle course that must be run in pursuit of the next cocaine rock, the next high.

As the discussion proceeds, the women look at their watches. Fan their faces. Complain about the heat.

Jittery and agitated, they play with packs of cigarettes they are not permitted to smoke in this room, and as the men talk about fights with girlfriends and wives who don’t understand them, the women roll their eyes at Kennedy in “Oh, please!” exasperation.

By the time the session finally ends, it is dark outside and raining. And the women are jumping out of their skins.

Tracy, 27, lean and blond, says she’s been on the street five years. “It’s good money, quick money, and I can smoke all the dope I want,” she explains. “I’m scared a lot of the time, but when you’re smoking crack, you just want a hit.”

“And in between times?” asks Kennedy.

“Miserable,” says Tracy.

As the men stare blankly at her, Tracy wipes her brow with a dramatic flourish and emits a sigh. Kennedy asks if she is ready to accept help.

Tracy shakes her long hair. “No,” she says, “not yet.”

Prostitution in Palm Beach County is probably no worse than in other towns and cities along the I-95 corridor that parallels Florida’s east coast. Or, for that matter, it is probably no worse than in cities anywhere in the United States.

In the area called Northwood, where all of these hapless people were rounded up, women in short shorts and skintight halter tops have been whistling and waving at men as long as the men have been coming around to heed their calls.

But some months ago, alarmed by the incidence of AIDS among prostitutes and a brazen marketplace trade in sex and drugs in several low-rent areas of the county, police and civic leaders decided to take action.

“Prostitution is not a victimless crime; it’s ruining neighborhoods,” says Mayor Graham. “These are not call girls in a hotel. These are just street hookers, and it’s a huge problem. I get more complaints about this than any other issue, even code enforcement.”

First, law officers in West Palm Beach, Riviera Beach, Delray Beach and Lake Worth began to stage more “sting” operations, in which policewomen pose as hookers and policemen act as johns--and then pull out the handcuffs when money and specific sex acts are joined in the same sentence.

About the same time, Palm Beach Circuit Judge William Bollinger, inspired by the country song “The Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time,” decided it might help if the johns and the women they picked up saw each other in daylight. When she was dressed relatively modestly, and he was relatively sober.

To men arrested for the first time for soliciting sex, a second-degree misdemeanor, Bollinger offers a chance to avoid a criminal record. After paying $175 in court costs, the men must attend four court sessions to see prostitutes after the women have spent a night in jail.

In addition to six months’ probation, the men must watch a film on driving while intoxicated, submit to a blood test for sexually transmitted diseases, agree to eight hours of community service and read the chilling testimony of an AIDS-infected prostitute who says she could care less if she passes on the disease. They also must attend a two-hour seminar run by Pride Inc., a nonprofit counseling center where Kennedy--a veteran of the streets herself--is program coordinator.

But easily the most controversial aspect of the crackdown on illegal sex was Graham’s idea to have local newspapers print the names of men arrested for soliciting. Although at least one of the area’s smaller papers agreed to report the names, the largest local daily, the Palm Beach Post, refused, saying that being charged with a misdemeanor--maximum penalty 60 days in jail and/or a $500 fine--was not important enough.

Graham was incensed. “They said it wasn’t newsworthy unless it was someone famous,” she says. “The example they used was Prince Charles (who occasionally visits to play polo). Well, I think it is newsworthy when someone who lives right down the street from you is arrested.”

So, using $1,700 in city funds from her office budget, Graham in the last six weeks has paid for two display ads in the Palm Beach Post, which listed a total of 143 names under this headline: “Have your neighbors been arrested for soliciting prostitutes?”

Says the mayor, in a classic understatement: “There was more reaction than I expected.”

The calls poured in, from across the country, from Canada and even Australia. CNN did a feature. “Hard Copy” came to town. “The Donahue Show” phoned. Graham flew to Boston and taped the Jane Whitney show.

“I didn’t realize the extent of the anger among residents from around the U.S.,” says Graham, a lawyer elected mayor a little more than 14 months ago. “It’s a problem out there too.”

Ridding neighborhoods of the oldest profession is not a moral or a political issue, Graham insists, but one of economics and human rights. “I don’t care who sleeps with whom,” she says. “But there is a whole underworld kind of culture related to prostitution and drug dealing, and it’s gotten to the point where people couldn’t come out of their houses after dark.”

Now, there is anecdotal evidence that the plan to drive out the supply by shaming the demand may be working. Judge Bollinger says he knows of only one man who has been caught twice in a police sting. More men are spending a night in jail after their arrest because judges are requiring higher bonds. And in January the Palm Beach Post ran a news story that included the names of two johns--one a prominent minister, the other an assistant county attorney.

In this Monday’s group meeting, there are no celebrities. These men are a cross-section of the community: construction workers and salesmen, employed and unemployed, young and older, black and white. What they have in common is making a poor decision to look for solace on the streets of a bad neighborhood--and then choosing a cop.

As Kennedy calls out first names, and the focus moves around the circle, waves of embarrassment, defiance, shame, anger, denial and loneliness radiate through the room. Daniel, 35, who describes himself as a churchgoer, “a tender-feeling person,” says he was drawn to the neighborhood by “the excitement, the lure of picking up a prostitute” and his desire to help them.

“I need to grow from this,” he says earnestly.

Kennedy cuts him off in a hurry: “There are no accidents, Daniel.”

Martha, the oldest woman in the group at 49, says she was charged with soliciting after simply accepting a ride from a man who offered to drive her home.

“Do you buy that?” Kennedy asks the group.

“Sure,” someone mumbles, while most shake their heads.

“It’s true,” swears Martha, who has no teeth, long brown hair and a weathered face.

“Healthy people don’t get into cars with strangers,” responds Kennedy as she directs Martha to attend a drug and alcohol evaluation.

In her 10 years as a therapist, Kennedy, 37, says she has heard it all. In her former life as a heroin addict and prostitute, she may even have said it herself. But now, clean and straight for 11 years, she is tough to fool.

“It is possible to be fooled,” Kennedy admits, “because people are not always honest, or sometimes they are so sick that their dishonesty cannot be detected.”

Kennedy, who spent her childhood being shuttled between one parent in Chicago and another in Montreal, says she fell into a life of dancing in strip bars, turning tricks and using dope “because the streets seemed better than the home I was living in.” She finally kicked her drug habit, she says, only when faced with death.

The way she broke free from her former existence, however, was by realizing she could live differently--and then finding someone to help. The chance she got, she adds, is what she now longs to provide others.

For the men Kennedy sees, soliciting sex is merely symptomatic of other problems, which she hopes can be addressed in the individual or marriage therapy she directs them to.

The women--and Rodney--are another story. Like anyone else, they cannot be helped until they want to be helped.

But Kennedy, who often uses her wry smile as a silent, ironic aside, understands that for the drug-addicted, recovery often cannot begin until the addict hits bottom. As she says to Rodney after he’s briefly told his tale of hustling and drugs: “We’re not going to do anything for Rodney. He needs to do his thing until he’s done.”

On this night, there are no epiphanies. No one falls to their knees in prayer, and no one bolts for the door before quitting time. There is just a roomful of pain and hard feelings that 24 people carry with them out into the night.

But back in her office, lighting a cigarette, Jeannie Kennedy says there was one moment in which she glimpsed some hope.

“Did you notice at the end there, the young blonde? She asked me for my phone number. I just pray that sometime she’ll call.”

Postscript: The stress of dealing with personal problems can take a toll on clients and counselors alike. Late last month, Jeannie Kennedy resigned from Pride Inc. for personal reasons. She says she plans to continue working as a counselor in the West Palm Beach area. Pride official Ann Hilf says she hopes Kennedy will return to the agency to work on special assignments.


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