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The Second Annual Hooker's Masquerade Ball at The Club was probably the most bizarre and fun party in Cambridge on Halloween night. Co-sponsored by the Prostitute's Union of Massachusetts (PUMA) and the Family and Friends of Prisoners, the ball drew dozens of prostitudes, feminists, gay activists and exprisoners. Some of the several hundred total guests were as entertaining as the all-women rock band and the bellydancer.
A group of middle-aged, well-dressed men at the ball describe themselves as "lawyers and businessmen." A man dressed as Peter Rabbit confessed to being a Boston policeman. A well-heeled Cambridge architect came with several friends just looking for a good party. And a Paul Rever look-alioke claimed he owned a bar in Baltimore's equivalent to Boston's Combat Zone. Martin Slobodkin '41, premier Boston socialite, and Boston Globe gossip columnist Bill Fripp served as judges for several costume contests.
The party's guests, explaining why they came, reflected a variety of attitudes towards prostitution. There was an investment counselor from the North Shore who said he wanted to know "what makes a woman want to be a whore and why would she join a union," as well as an attractive, refined Boston University student who unashamedly stated, "I have been a prostitute since I was 13."
Ten years ago, intolerant city authorities would probably have harassed PUMA for sponsoring such a perfectly legal party. But a relaxed atmosphere prevailed, and the few men who came looking for "dates" were disappointed; PUMA was throwing a party and nothing else. The evening's one disturbance occurred when PUMA members, highly sensitive to any publicity that might be damaging to the group or might invade anyone's privacy, argued with several photographers over the ground rules for picture taking.
PUMA was organized more than two years ago, partially to dramatize prostitutes' problems to the public and media. Steve Lewis, a Boston social worker, read about a similar group in San Francisco called COYOTE and he acted as a catalyst in bringing together several former as well as practicing prostitutes in a new Boston-based organization. Lewis's association with PUMA ended last January and Lesley Weeks, a former prostitute, now serves as its president and main spokesman.
Weeks says there are presently ten active women in PUMA and another 150 on their mailing list. "Except for two, they're all call girl level,"--as opposed to streetwalkers--Weeks says of the active members, adding that many of the prostitutes PUMA works with are "teachers, nurses, cooks and students. A lot of our women are students putting themselves through shool."
"Union" is something of a misnomer for PUMA. The group, which operates as a collective, is more of a social service organization. They often help out by bringing sandwiches and coffee to prostitutes spending the night in the Boston Police Department's detention center, usually leaving their telephone number with detainees--primarily streetwalkers. PUMA will provide any women who call them with referrals to medical, legal or baby-sitting services.
The group presently is applying for taxexempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, and members are trying to secure grants in order to open a street-front center.
"It is one of the few feminist groups [in Boston] that have addressed themselves to the needs of poor women," Kip Tiernan, a social worker at Boston's St. Phillips Church, says. Tiernan says PUMA members often display an unusual sensitivity to the concerns of female alcoholics, prison inmates and battered women, in social projects which go beyond PUMA members' own immediate interests.
Because of its unique position, PUMA's greatest service to prostitutes may be what Weeks describes as "counseling and support for each other." There is a telephone number on PUMA's business card that women can call at any time. And through meetings and activities prostitutes build common bonds. "Prostitutes are very lonely women," because they are looked upon as different, Weeks says. "We have to support each other."
Although the women have not taken a stand on the role of pimps, Weeks says most PUMA members do not have one. She added that the group's drive to promote prostitutes' self-sufficiency undermines the pimps' importance.
In order to gain tax-exempt status PUMA as an organization must refrain from any formal political lobbying efforts. Nevertheless, PUMA members have been involved in lobbying at the State House to decriminalize prostitution, often working through Prostitutes for Legislative Reform. Lewis and Weeks praise some legislators--State Reps. Barney Frank '61, Mel King and Elaine Noble--for being supportive. But their meetings with some other politicians have been frustrating. In one meeting at the State House, the legislature's leading anti-abortion crusader started spouting Biblical injunctions as soon as Lewis explained his purpose. Lewis hates that at least 70 per cent of all American males have visited a prostitute, and says that the percentage is higher among politicians. Weeks is a little more direct: "We went to lobby. It was a riot because all the guys were tricks."
PUMA members charge that both the wording and the enforcement of most prostitution laws are sexist, prohibiting women but not men from selling their bodies. Also, union members assert that police often arrest prostitutes while letting the customer go free. Members differ in their positions on shortterm legal reforms, but the group is adamant in its demand for ultimate decriminalization. It supports decriminalization as opposed to legalization because the former would eliminate legal hassles, while legalization might entail residual government restrictions.
But PUMA members have de-emphasized the push for legislative reform recently as they have realized most politicians will offer them little support. Weeks says, "We were getting doors shut in our face for decriminalization." So the group is re-orienting itself toward social services.
What may be the greatest task for PUMA, and certainly a prerequisite for any serious legislative reform, is educating the public to what PUMA interprets as the proper role of prostitutes. Weeks and several of the women at the Halloween party stated they have a right to be prostitutes, emphasizing the differences between themselves and women who commit several other crimes in addition to prostitution. Frank agrees, "There's nothing inherently violent about the sale of sex. There is something violent about illegal businesses."
The violence and robberies associated with prostitution in the Combat Zone are the obvious examples. Weeks says she worked in the zone for years but now fears going there. She describes her experiences as a prostitute with an air of professionalism. "We used to take the trick home and bring him back to the bar," instead of operating in dingy strip joints and rooming houses, Weeks says. She also says she and other women were careful about whom they accepted as customers--"I like to look a man over. If he takes care of his shoes, he takes care of his body."
Changing society's image of the prostitute seems to be as important a goal to Weeks as gaining acceptance of the profession. She quickly points out the other skills and second jobs many prostitutes have--"We are church goers, PTA-goers and mothers," Lewis says of the women he worked with, "Some had dropped out of the seventh or eighth grade; others had master's degrees."
Convincing authorities of the worth of prostitutes' profession may be somewhat difficult. Lewis says Boston Police Superintendent Robert Jordan and several of his staff members refused to discuss with Lewis any matter related to prostitution. John Doyle, chief of Boston's bureau of investigative services, including the vice squad, says he disapproves of the union, even though he admits to knowing little about it, because the organization seems to encourage prostitution. "I don't agree prostitution is a victimless crime," Doyle adds. He asserts broadly that decriminalization would threten the very nature of society, but then doyle once attended a legislative hearing on prostitution with a bullwhip he claimed police had confiscated in a raid on a house of prostitution.
Police insensitivity to prostitutes' problems and PUMA's ambitions is to be expected. A report released by the Boston Police Department last year documented widespread corruption and dereliction of duty among the police patrolling the Combat Zone. Prostitutes live in a very delicate coexistence with the law: no prostitute has formally charged any policeman with rape or blackmail even though, according to the report, such arts occur. Weeks says, "The police down the Zone get away clear. They take you in the paddy wagon and say, "If you blow me, I'll let you go," Doyle replies to these accusations by saying he will gladly check into any charges against the force.
The public's acceptance of prostitution is growing, although this may not necessarily lead to decriminalization. PUMA's activities have won some increased support for the prostitutes, but it is unlikely that its efforts to educate the public will significantly speed up the general process of loosening society's restrictions. The bar owner from Baltimore at the party went as far as saying prostitution will never be legal because "the excitement of doing something illegal is what turns most people on." But one PUMA members scoffed at this reasoning, saying, "I've known enough tricks to know it's not true."
Whatever the union's success in changing public attitudes, PUMA's efforts to fill the vacuum of services for women "in the life" magnify the group's importance for beyond the small number of active members, and raise possible solutions to long-ignored problems. One soft-spoken, gray-haired guest at the Halloween party said, "I'am a customer and I'm here because they provide a service, and I support them."
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