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The Rand Report: Sex workers on Lake St.

By Rand Retterath

Rand Retterrath

Part 1 of a series.

For the past six or seven years, many of us have been documenting the rise in prostitution along Lake St. and Bloomington, long known as the sex destination for Minneapolis, as Selby Dale is for St. Paul. Apart from the spectacular increase and the universal agreement that it had been years since we had witnessed such an influx, people were universally upset with the fact that it seemed as though we were chasing our tail.  The ebb and flow of sex trafficking is constant.

At about the same time, I listened to an elected official report on sex trafficking of children for which the city had paid a couple thousand dollars and was left wondering what, if anything, I had learned that I could not have gleaned from an episode of Law and Order.

At another unrelated venue I was able to listen to two transgender sex workers talk about their desire for sex work. One indicated she did it because she could, and the other said that she felt safe on the streets.

Finally, while running one day, I came across a young girl waiting for MTC while a creepy man scoped her out. She was unsafe. I stood there until her bus came. It then occurred to me that I typically saw eight school buses picking up our children on 29th between Cedar and 11th in the midst of the sex trade.  

I routinely noticed a large convocation of sex workers on 16th and Lake right next to a child care center. I also documented an incredible number of students from Hiawatha Academy picking up the bus at Bloomington and Lake, arguably ground zero for the sex and drug trade along Lake Street.

I noticed statistical anomalies in the clustering and wondered why. With the exception of Bloomington and Lake, the high-density activity seems to occur around the property of a single owner/landlord (currently cluster in or near Clinton, 5th, Portland, Bloomington and 17th ).

On a recent run, at 5:30 a.m., I encountered three sex workers at Bloomington and Lake, a John or pimp at 15th and Lake, another sex worker at 15th and Lake, a transgender sex worker on Columbus and Lake followed by her pimp.  The pimp was wearing a jacket similar to, if not the exact one, of drug sellers at the Minnehaha Transit station.  

There was another sex worker across the street at Columbus.  At the Portland bus shelter was another trans sex worker, a cis female sex worker and their pimp.  At 5th and Lake there were 2 more sex workers.  Finally at Clinton I came across a suspicious vehicle.

Remember, this was all on one run.

Over the years, I have spoken to these men and women.  I have found a Lesbian pimping her girlfriend and at least four gay men working on Lake Street. I have found rent boys in same locations and documented occasions where up to 35% of the known sex-workers at a given time were trans.

All of this got me thinking.  We have argued that the sex industry is gender-based, with men oppressing women and forcing them in to this. While that remains statistically relevant, it does not explain the trans, gay and lesbian involvement.  

It also upset me that this gender-based argument translates to sentencing.  Johns are given gross misdemeanors and sex workers a misdemeanor. That begged another question for me, who has the greater negative impact on my community ?The gender-based political argument would have the demand supply of the equation at fault. However, the supply side participants are the ones living here and among us. They are also the ones with the needles and other maladaptive behavior. I have seen them beaten and beating.

I sought to understand. We are getting nowhere with the political gender imbalance argument. It continues to ebb and flow and the community is the ultimate victim.

Among the many books I read to educate myself include:

1. Jonathan Kozol “Savage Inequalities, Children in American Schools” where I concluded that schools MUST be part of the solution. Children, as they mature, independently form social and community bonds with each other. Formerly, through sporting and organized extra-curricular l activities, schools provided guidance and direction in the formation of socially acceptable norms for these kids. In their absence, maladaptive norms form. This is how the trans woman mentioned above came to feel “safe” on the streets.  She had been indoctrinated into the street life. Then same is said for gangs.

2. Judith Butler “Gender Trouble” where I learned that normal and traditional feminism is wrong to look at natural, essential notion of female or even sex or gender.  Gender is a social performance rather than expression of prior reality. This allowed me to consider the alternate non-cis females as part of the discussion and how the rainbow of participants is important to consider in ANY solution.

3. Julia O’Connell Davidson, “Prostitution, Power and Freedom.” Davidson’s research involves nine countries across the spectrum of sex tourism, adult and child prostitution, procurers and clients.  Her conclusion is that prostitution is hugely complex and not just an effect of men oppressing women through violence and intimidation. She also introduced me to the concept of sex-tourism and I came to understand that Lake St, like other locations is a Twin Cities Sex Tourism destination. EVERYONE knows about Lake Street and Selby-Dale as sex destinations. It has been that way for decades.

4. Barbara Gibson, “Male Order, Life Stories From Boys Who Sell Sex.” From this author I gleaned how a boys childhood can relate to their life on the streets, affirming Jonathan Kozol and placing the phenomena of female sex trade again on par with that of male. They experienced all the same issues and concerns women do, from violence to addiction, to HIV, brokers and pimps etc.

5. Editors Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah “The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Sex, Oxford University.” Most of the economic analysis was over my head; however, it did beg the question of a new approach to the phenomenon.  Social and political approaches haven’t work, and are subjective rather than objective. This puts the law in the position of choosing who is and is not a victim based on gender rather than behavior and set the stage for the really pivotal paper to follow. It also muddies the discussion by making it emotional rather than factual.

6. Glen Chandler, “The Sins of Jack Saul, the True Story of Dublin Jack and the Cleveland Street Scandal.” One man, one all-male brothel, 1880s forward and a chronicle of how he faced all the same issues any sex worker of any period has faced making the issue not one of gender but of profession. 

7. Finally and most importantly Seven D. Levitt (University of Chicago Economist) and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh (Professor of Sociology Columbia University) “An Empirical Analysis of Street-Level Prostitution.” By combining transaction-level data on street prostitutes with ethnographic observation and official police force data, they analyzed the economics of prostitution in Chicago.  

Rand is 30 year resident of Phillips, homeowner, past block club leader and veteran of many city initiatives and committees who believes we must ALL hold people in power responsible and seek to build community.  Neighborhood engagement, economic development and personal growth/responsibility are the cornerstones of community.

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