Oct. 7, 2007
It’s not yet seven thirty on a frost-bitten November Saturday morning in Nashville, 2002, when men start filing into what used to be called the Workhouse, an old red-brick building where misdemeanor criminals once made amends. Now the Metro Sheriff’s Training Center, it’s a labyrinth of corridors and dark, dungy rooms. A female deputy sits in a secured booth inside the door giving the same directions over and over with an amused smile. “Uh, huh. End of the hall, to the right.”
Through a steel-bar gate, past doors without windows, all the men follow the signs tacked to cheap paneling — “Johns School” — finally arriving in what must be the largest, darkest, dankest room in the place. This is where the men, all of them convicted johns caught soliciting prostitution, will spend eight hours listening to a parade of people preach to them about the laws and illnesses associated with their proclivities.
Local TV news has been sharing with Middle Tennesseans a series of raids on massage parlors, the embarrassed faces of half-dressed men and the angry, defiant faces of the women paid to service them flashing across the screen amid a swarm of plain-clothed cops. The newspaper has also covered the raids and mentioned the Johns School. The well-planted stories are a front-end deterrent of the Metro vice crackdown while the Johns School is post-arrest aversion therapy. The men caught in the stings, who either missed the news or whose temptations trumped the threat of arrest, find themselves here with men who had been shopping for street prostitutes, and in this dark, dank room, they will continue to support the type of women they wanted to employ in the first place, but the $5 trick has cost them several hundred, and most of it will help women get off the street and dry up the supply the men so eagerly demanded. The irony of the program piqued my interest.
The johns’ faces are young and old, poor and middle class, bored and anxious. They’re the everyman. All of them grew up down the street from someone, maybe you; went to high school with someone, maybe your sister. You see them in restaurants, stand across from them when you fill up at gas stations. You work with them. I stick out because I’m carrying a pen, a notepad and a tape recorder, and that earns me several wary looks. But I know these men better than they think I do. If they’re the seedier side of society, I met them long ago, thanks to my sister.
My sister was born into misery, the result of our parents’ affair, in 1955. I was born thirteen years later, the third child, when our parents’ marriage finally tore asunder. I have very vivid early memories — of a party for my third birthday, a house my grandparents rented before then. But I never remember my sister living at home. My first recollection of her is on a Christmas morning. I awoke and ran into the living room, eager to open gifts. “Shh,” my mother said. “Your sister’s home. She’s sleeping.” I rushed into the bedroom to pounce playfully on her, and she said, “Shut up and go away.” It’s a phrase I would hear regularly.
Our Houston neighborhood was sliding from its middle-class roots into homes for the working poor. Drugs were rampant. My brother was regularly threatened at his junior high school for his lunch money. My sister seemed to be in the middle of it. I was told that she was a run-away, a juvenile delinquent, a drug addict. Her friends were to be held at arm’s length; they didn’t join us for Sunday dinner. Most of them, like the johns, appeared normal, at first. Two of them, a white guy and a black girl, both teen-agers, stood in our driveway one day and threatened to kill my sister for a wrong she’d done them. I’d never seen them before, but it was apparent, and puzzling, that these people, not my family, were who my sister spent most of her time with. Other friends were regularly stoned, some were grungy, tired-looking, walking around in the same kind of hollow skin that often cloaked my sister.
My sister’s life — whatever it was — fueled an ongoing fire between she and my mother. I watched and listened as the sparks roared into flames. I remember, at least once, riding in my mother’s truck when she was arguing with my sister. My mom slammed on the brakes, pulled over to the side and kicked my sister out. I stood on the seat and looked out the back window at a sad, aimless kid, cursed out of our lives for the time being.
When she blew back in there was always caution in the air. She regularly terrorized our brother, a child caught in the middle of a family’s beginning and its end. When she left, our whole house bobbed and gasped and struggled for a breath in her wake.
Through all the screaming and yelling, all the anger, my sister was my heroine, a tragic figure, but one who spoke up for me, one who introduced me, in very small doses, to her world. Once at a bowling alley, when I was about five, she and her friends laughed and joked as I sipped their beers.
My sister usually carried a guitar or two, although she couldn’t have afforded them. Her fingers danced over the strings like the long slender legs of a garden spider, and when she sang I heard the cigarettes she smoked and the bus-station phone calls she made, asking to come home, from Kansas or Alabama or a small West Texas town. I could hear how she was never completely rested.
Each town has its dark side. I’ve seen them everywhere I’ve lived: Montrose in Houston, barrios in south San Antonio, projects in Montgomery, Ala. In East Texas, where I lived from second grade through high school, there was a part of town called The Front. Any white man seen in the front was either buying drugs or women.
In Music City, where I moved in 2000 to work for the daily newspaper, Dickerson Road was a dark, broad avenue lined with pawn shops, hourly-fee motels, tire stores and worn, tattered retail space that lay dormant for thirty years. It was on the northern side of the Tennessee River, across from the famed music row and glitzy tourist traps.
In 1996, Nashville was an upwardly mobile city, its previous reputation as a hamlet for vagabonds had been polished by then-Mayor Phil Bredesen, now Tennessee’s two-term governor. But prostitution continued to plague Dickerson road, so the mayor created the Working Group on Prostitution to examine the issue.
Rosemary Sexton, a lawyer in the district attorney’s office and a member of the working group, says street sex was getting out of hand, hitting close to schools like Shwab Elementary. She often tells the story of “the twelve-year-old girl who was walking home from school when a fifty-year-old man asked her for a blow job.” She pauses for effect. “How would you like that to be your daughter?”
Public health was also at stake. In 2000, Metro Nashville had the highest syphilis rate in the country. Housewives in the city’s classy Green Hills neighborhoods started worrying, for good reason, that their husbands were visiting ladies on Dickerson Road and bringing home more than the bacon, according to another working group member.
The good people were complaining. Something had to be done. But the jails were already crowded, and expensive. In 1996, it cost $245 to keep a prostitute for the mandatory seven-day sentence, and these weren’t Miss Kitty’s saloon girls. A survey of thirty-eight women incarcerated for prostitution found that every one was addicted to cocaine, forty percent tested positive for HIV and ninety percent had a past STD. They turned tricks for an average of fifteen johns a day (one reported twenty-five) for about $15 each. The women had sex for the first time at an average age of eleven. Jail also lacked rehabilitation. Some of the women were arrested hundreds of times, and the working group reported that “A return to prostitution is inevitable.”
Another key finding of the group’s research: “Women were getting jail time, and the guys were walking away with nothing,” Sexton says. So the group suggested a direct-to-consumer approach to law enforcement and the county’s public health blight. The state had passed a law making solicitation of prostitution within a mile-and-a-half radius of a public school — just about everywhere — a felony that carries a $1,000 fine and a week in jail, with a maximum of eleven months, twenty-nine days incarceration.
The working group crafted the Johns School as an option for first-time offenders. Instead of paying $1,000, they can pay $250 for the day-long school, get six months’ probation, get tested for STDs and, if they behave, have their records expunged. The money, kept separate from municipal fines, goes to Magdalene, a residential drug and prostitution rehabilitation program started by Nashville’s Rev. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal minister, wife of a successful song writer and shepherdess to former women of the night.
By eight a.m. the line to get in has gotten longer. Ultimately, fifty-three men will assemble, the largest group Kenneth Baker remembers. Baker runs a company called Behavior Intervention Programs that contracts with Metro to counsel the fine, upstanding citizenry arrested for spousal abuse or domestic violence. Every six weeks he runs the Johns School with a cognitive behavior-modification tack: make the johns aware of what they’re doing, tell them it’s bad, that it’s illegal and that it has consequences. This is a new concept for many.
Baker sits at a table and checks the men’s names off a list from the district attorney’s office. He asks for proof that they were tested for STDs and collects $250 in cash. One old man shuffles in wearing bib overalls and tells Baker he has Parkinson’s. One young man arrives with two older women, maybe his mother and grandmother; he doesn’t have enough cash and quietly sends the ladies, who seem kind and embarrassed, to get more. About 20 Hispanics show up. They’ll eventually huddle in a corner listening to a female translator.
At the end of the line is a figure whose fingers, wrists and neck are weighed down with gold. He yells, “I got framed! I’m starting a lawsuit! There wasn’t even a woman in the vicinity!” He’ll repeat his claim, loudly, throughout the day, and nobody will seem to care.
Around eight-thirty, Baker starts class by explaining his “bucket of shit” philosophy.
“The world is like a checkerboard,” he tells them. You move to a certain square “and a bucket of shit falls from the sky. Even being near one of those squares, you get hit by a bucket of shit. You ever been hit by a bucket of shit?”
The crowd offers a collective, “Uh-huh.”
The buckets are more likely to fall at strip clubs, on Dickerson Road, renting porn or going to a massage parlor, Baker calmly explains. Then his voice rises a little. “You have to go to court, hire a lawyer and waste a Saturday. And,” starting to yell, “if you still don’t understand after this, you know what you are? You’re just plain stupid!” A calming pause. Nobody voices disagreement. “And possibly sex addicted.” Beliefs, he tells them, cause behaviors. “We do what feels good,” he says, then he introduces the first speaker.
Jim McNamara, a public defender, begins by dispelling the fallacy that a cop on a sting has to admit to being a cop if someone asks. “That’s entrapment, man,” the gold-clad one says, and mumbles about his constitutional rights. “They’re allowed to lie to you,” McNamara says. They can also make the first move. And they only have to establish that men are soliciting, asking or engaging in some sort of negotiation, he says. “And one-hundred percent of the time they wear a wire.” Then he dispels another myth. “The life of a prostitute is hard,” McNamara says. “The decoys the cops most often use are the most beautiful women on the street.”
Next, Brad Beasley, an STD surveillance officer with Metro, steps in and passes out envelopes, results from the required STD testing. The room goes quiet. Then Beasley walks around showing photos of active syphilis and herpes in various locations on the body. Everyone’s disgusted. He tells them about gonorrhea of the eye. Later, Beasley and his coworker, Dederick Yeargin, tell me that very few of the johns test positive, mostly because they use condoms, but also because they only hire a prostitute’s hand.
At eleven a.m. Regina Mullins, a rather large, young black woman who turned tricks for a dozen years, addresses the crowd like she’s at a twelve-step meeting. “Good morning. I’m an addict recovering from drugs, alcohol and also prostitution,” she says. “I came this morning to give you some hope for your life.”
When she was desperate for money a friend convinced her to be an escort, an idea that seemed exotic. “What started as a $300 date without sex turned me into a $5 ho,” she says. “Most of you guys come out power trippin’ and you would rape me. You’d take what you want, my dope, my sex. A lot of girls have gotten smart,” she says. “You can find yourselves being raped or robbed, or getting an STD … then you take that shit home to your girlfriend or your wife. They don’t know you’re fucking off. You can put it back on them.”
The cycle of prostitution, she says, runs from an anxious addict eager for money to one who’s depressed and apathetic, and finally to a woman bent on revenge, armed with syphilis or HIV. “My thing was to get y’all (with a disease) before you got me,” she says.
I like Mullins instantly. She’s sure of herself, both where she was and how far she’s come to be clean, and she seems intent on not going back. Listening to her story I start to wonder about my sister, and how much of Mullins’ story could be hers.
After I was in my 20s I learned through a half-brother that my sister had overdosed several times, attempting suicide. She tried to kill herself twice when I was in high school; once with a gun and another with pills. What else had she done? What else had she been through? I suspected Regina Mullins might know more about my sister than I did.
Mullins softens and tells the johns how their money is being spent at Magdalene, how she got off the street and has been clean and legitimate for three years. She works 20 hours a week as a weekend manager in the program’s group home and volunteers at the hub of Magdalene operations, in the St. Augustine Episcopal Chapel on the campus of Vanderbilt University, where program founder Stevens is the residing minister.
Stevens, in her early-forties, seems both intensely passionate and carefree. She has a runner’s build and an activist’s simplicity of fashion. Sitting in her cramped church office she explains that Bredesen was in favor of the Johns School if the fines went to help women. All of the speakers volunteer their time, and the money represents about one-sixth of Magdalene’s operational budget. Last year, Magdalene started Thistle Farms, a cottage industry operating out of St. Augustine in which the women make and sell fragrant potions that soothe and heal; bath salts called Lot’s Wife and an ointment called Balm of Gilead. “Thistles are the gangly weeds that grow along Dickerson Road,” Stevens says. But the weeds have beautiful flowers. Magdalene has helped 100 “drug addicted, streetwalking women,” according to the reverend. The first step, she says, is breaking a chain of hard-headed myths — that women want to be prostitutes, that they’ll never change, that prostitutes can’t be raped. (Eighty-seven percent of the women who have gone through Magdalene are clean and are not working as prostitutes, a statistic twice the national average, Stevens says.) “Prostitution is not the oldest profession. Sex abuse is. To heal that, we have to heal the men as well as the women,” she says. She has sympathy for the johns, but adds, “When you disregard the humanity of another just to get your needs met at the most basic level, it’s sick.”
After a lunch break, Baker explains to the johns the term “activating event.” Something happens, he says, that leads men to believe, “‘I’ve got to have some.’ It’s the same thing in domestic violence or alcohol abuse. You didn’t get your way. But what if everyone in this room had stuffed their feelings of horniness? You wouldn’t be here.”
Another speaker, Dr. Reid Finlayson, a Vanderbilt University psychiatrist, describes sexual addictions and passes around a list for people to sign if they want to be considered for an addiction study. Several sign up. One is James, who says he’s in the restaurant business. He’s married and has children, and says he’s been going to prostitutes for 18 years, “at least,” to get away from his problems. “I never realized that it was selfish indulgence. They made me realize the actions of one person go a long way.”
Bill, 49, graduated college from Lipscomb University, a Church of Christ school in Nashville that prohibits drinking, profanity, pornography, sex and other behaviors, on and off campus. Bill was married twice, was a Church of Christ minister, sold men’s clothes and most recently worked for the state in human resources. He’s been on disability for bipolar disorder for almost a year. He knows he’s an addict. Several years ago he started visiting a porn store near his home. (One prominent building in downtown Nashville is the Southern Baptist Convention’s publications headquarters; another is a large sheet-metal building along the Interstate 35 called “World’s Largest Sex Store.”) “I kept them in business. I’d go two or three times a week and get three to four [videotapes] at a time.” Soon, he says, “I had to reach out to something more exciting.” He trolled for women. And then a different woman each time. He didn’t consider their looks. Over the course of a couple of years, he spent several thousand dollars on his daily habit, one so automatic, he says, “I didn’t even think about getting in my car and heading [to Dickerson Road].”
After the class, the men file out slowly. The one with the gold chains leaves surprisingly quietly. Mullins had caught a cab earlier. Bill and James say being arrested was the best thing that could have happened to them. They’re being evaluated for Finlayson’s research and hope to turn their lives around. Bill’s in therapy.
I hadn’t come with my sister in mind, but I leave thinking that I had just witnessed part of her mysterious life as a kid, a stray wondering Houston. I think the worst thing that might have happened to her was a desperate decision to trade sex for money, for drugs. Had she been abused and beaten, raped, exploited, like Mullins described? Probably. Maybe by women, too, by people who looked as typical as the johns. She survived, but not like Mullins, with the help of a program like Magdalene. She survived her way. She married twice, has two kids and she’s a grandmother. She keeps a job, a house, for a year or two, then tosses it all out and tries again. She has a partner. She turns 51 this year.
Sometimes I wonder if my sister might have turned out like Stevens — smart, attractive, settled and comfortable, her life put together and working toward an end — if she’d been born into a kinder world, if she’d made better choices, had better friends. It’s almost like wondering what she would have become if she hadn’t died.
I hear about her now and then from my brother or my dad. It’s been 10 years since I’ve talked with her, or heard from her. Our lives have grown too far apart, and she still produces a powerful vortex; I’m not strong enough to be near it without being sucked in. I know of no balm for my sister’s life, no Saturday antidote.