Michelle, a New Haven prostitute, is an enigma. Speaking on the phone, she is an odd mix of naive and worldly, sweet and belligerent, sincere and vulgar. At one point, she says she hopes her story will help other women avoid her bad choices. Only minutes later, she asks whether this article could help her get more customers. One starts to think she is a hooker with a heart of gold — then she asks if you have any money.

Michelle, who did not want her last name used, has been a prostitute in New Haven for five years. She said she never graduated from high school and is addicted to crack cocaine. Now, at age 29, she is unmarried and has seven children. About twice a day, Michelle gets called by one of her regular customers and goes to his home or a nearby hotel room for sex.

“I’ve got to support my habit and support my kids,” she said.

Despite all her problems, most of the women in New Haven’s sex industry would envy Michelle. With regular customers, she is no longer standing on corners looking for business. Out on streets as close as Chapel and Park, anyone with $20 can get lucky.

From top to bottom

“There is a hierarchy of sex work,” Yale epidemiology researcher Kim Blankenship said.

Blankenship would know. As part of her study of the transmission of HIV, Blankenship did field work with city prostitutes from 1991 to 1996, visiting sex workers in area hospitals, in prison and on street corners. She did follow-up interviews last summer, she said.

Deb’s Escorts, which employed about 100 prostitutes in the course of its business, used to be at the top of that hierarchy. U.S. Attorney Kevin O’Connor said men paid the women of Deb’s Escorts, based in East Haven, at least $175 per meeting. One of the company’s managers, Deborah Kerpen, 46, pled guilty last week to money laundering and conspiring to use the U.S. mail to aid her prostitution business.

O’Connor said the eight-year enterprise netted Kerpen hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most Wednesdays, Kerpen would meet her employees for “square-ups,” at which the women were allowed to keep only 60 percent of what they had earned.

In the same class as Deb’s Escorts are other escort services and massage parlors, Blankenship said. Here hundreds of dollars change hands for each sex act and the sex takes place in hotels and private homes, rather than parked cars. Ads in local newspapers hint at these services, sometimes without much subtlety.

These more upscale businesses are also among the only ones to attract the attention of the U.S. Attorney’s office. O’Connor said his office usually lets state authorities handle prostitution, but made an exception for Deb’s Escorts.

“It was a fairly large conspiracy and it went on for a long time,” he said. “A very organized ring operating in a front for a legitimate business is fairly unusual.”

O’Connor said it is presumptuous to assume all massage parlors and escort services are illegitimate, but such businesses can be fronts for prostitution rings.

A devastating low

Less fortunate than the women, and some men, working under the guise of masseuses and escorts are the prostitutes who walk New Haven’s streets.

Blankenship said street prostitution is a city-wide phenomenon. Frequent hang-outs include Park and Howe streets, parts of Fair Haven and Edgewood and local truck stops. Chapel Street is another popular location for sex workers, Michelle said.

“There’s not really a red light district in New Haven,” Blankenship said. “There are certain streets where people know there will be women around.”

The women on these streets usually range from 25 to 39 years old. They are racially diverse, though white and Hispanic prostitutes tend to concentrate in Fair Haven, said Yale epidemiology researcher Mark Kinzly, who has interviewed prostitutes extensively as part of his research on drug addiction. Though some services cost more, Kinzly said $20 is the going rate for oral sex in New Haven.

The workers in the sex industry are almost universally poor, but Blankenship said their customers do not fall into only one class.

“It seems to me that it pretty much runs the gamut,” Blankenship said. “Local business people, rich guys in BMWs who come in from the suburbs.”

Anthony Givens, a research assistant for Kinzly who knows Michelle, said she is now in the middle of the prostitution ladder, below escorts but above streetwalkers.

The life of a sex worker may not seem desirable, but those who drift into the industry often have few options, Blankenship said.

“Women would say they could make more money turning tricks than they could make at the local Burger King,” Blankenship said.

Women who exchange sex for drugs have the hardest time, Blankenship said. Most of the prostitutes on the streets of New Haven are addicted to either heroin or crack, Kinzly said. Heroin users only have to turn a couple of tricks each day to purchase drugs, but crack — Michelle’s drug of choice — works differently, Kinzly said.

“It’s a very short high — that delivers a devastating low,” he said.

Crack forces its addicts to turn far more tricks each day, Kinzly said. Michelle said she would have sex with four or five men a day when she was on the street.

Dangerous streets

Four years ago, Michelle said she entered a car with two men who she thought were customers. One man climbed on top of her and pinned her down with his knees while another held her hands. The man on top began choking her, she said.

Michelle said she escaped when someone in a nearby house saw the commotion and called the police.

The incident is hardly an anomaly. New Haven prostitutes are a vulnerable class, a group whose profession requires them to be alone, at night, with some of the city’s less law-abiding residents. Michelle said she stopped walking the streets for business when it became more dangerous.

“[There are] extraordinarily high levels of violence,” Blankenship said. “There is rape on the job and a lot of it goes unrecognized by police.”

Blankenship said police are often unwilling to make arrests in cases in which a customer denies the prostitute money after sex.

“That’s a form of rape because [the sex is] not consensual anymore,” she said.

New Haven police spokeswoman Bonnie Winchester said in an e-mail that officers are trained to investigate all criminal acts thoroughly, including claims of rape by sex workers. But Blankenship said behavior by police varies widely.

“There were occasionally stories of police officers who were helpful,” Blankenship said. “But some of the officers have a reputation of being really abusive.”

Michelle said she is suing the department following an incident that occurred a few months ago. She said police stopped her on the street while she was running an errand, pressed her up against a wall and searched her without probable cause. Michelle also claims a New Haven police officer paid her $50 a week for a year and a half in exchange for her services.

Winchester denied accusations of unprofessional police behavior.

“Our officers treat everyone they encounter with respect, as they are trained to do,” Winchester said.

With dubious protection from police, sex workers are forced to fend for themselves, Kinzly said.

“There’s a community of sex workers who really look out for one another,” Kinzly said. “The women and the men share much more information about who to look out for.”

Besides trouble with police and violence from customers, Blankenship said the prostitution community is at high risk for HIV infection, though education has improved knowledge of safe-sex methods.

“This is a very knowledgeable group,” Blankenship said. “They know they should use condoms. They know they should not share syringes.”

But knowledge of safe sex is not always enough for sex workers, Kinzly said. When women are going through drug withdrawal, he said, some are willing to have unprotected sex with customers who will pay more money if the women do not insist upon using condoms.

But more dangerous to the sex workers’ health than sex with clients is unprotected sex with personal partners — husbands and boyfriends — which is a common source of HIV infection for the women, Blankenship said. Once infected, the women can transmit the virus to their customers. Michelle said she knows several women who are still having sex with customers, even though they have been told they are infected.

“The guys don’t even know,” Michelle said. “They’re so damn stupid and then they bring it home to their families.”

Turning a corner

Getting into the sex industry usually involves a combination of economic necessity and drug addiction. Getting out is another matter.

Blankenship said some women escape the street when they gain access to public housing or become involved in stable relationships. Some never get out at all.

“They end up dying from HIV, overdoses, accidents and so on,” Blankenship said.

Some involved in the sex industry are pulled out of the world of prostitution against their will. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Kerpen faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the conspiracy charge and 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine on the money laundering charge for her eight years managing Deb’s Escorts. She is scheduled to be sentenced on May 14. The sex workers standing on street corners do not usually get the same attention, but arrest and prison are always lurking nearby.

Blankenship said some of the women manage to succeed in drug treatment and get jobs as outreach workers or drug counselors. For every woman who moves on, though, there’s a new one to take her place.

“There’s a lot of young girls I see that don’t need to be out there,” Michelle said. “I saw this 15-year-old girl on crack yesterday and I wondered, ‘Where is her mother?'”

As for her own children, Michelle said she suspects her oldest daughter, now 16, is prostituting herself.

“She has money that she shouldn’t have,” Michelle said.

Michelle said that she has no plans to stop working now, but has tried overcoming her crack addiction several times before.

“I get out — and then I go right back in when I get depressed,” she said.

But even the sex workers with the desire and willpower to overcome addiction often find no facilities open to them. Kinzly said there are fewer slots available for women in drug-treatment programs than men, and it is hard to find space for prostitutes who want to go clean.

Gaining access to one of these programs, Kinzly said, takes luck. And for a New Haven prostitute, unlike her customers, getting lucky takes more than $20.

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