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In cases of prostitution, defendants are often victims

Certain types of crimes are considered "big city problems" that couldn't affect Wisconsin's smaller towns. When it comes to prostitution, many people assume that because they don't see women walking the streets and approaching cars to sell their bodies, the issue isn't a problem in the community. But there are plenty of misconceptions about the sex offense commonly known as the world's oldest profession.

One Wisconsin city whose leaders are discussing prostitution is Grand Chute, just outside of Appleton. The city has a population of about 21,000, but hotel and motel owners there say prostitution is a growing problem, in part because a major highway running through the city makes it easy for prostitutes to travel there to stay in any of the city's roughly 20 hotels and motels. Since April of last year, 74 women and one man have been arrested on prostitution charges, usually in stings conducted by the city's police department.

The women arrested in these stings can face a range of charges, both misdemeanors and felonies. The typical fine for prostitution arrestees is about $2,700, but can be much higher with a felony charge.

While many people consider prostitution to be a victimless crime between willing participants, the truth is that most prostitutes are victims themselves. According to a study on prostitution in Chicago, 70 percent of prostitutes are recruited by a pimp. Many pimps entice young women by assuming the role of a boyfriend, only to trap them into a life of prostitution and violence. These women are often unable to leave their situation. After they're arrested, they're forced to pay fines they can't afford, leading them to continue to engage in sex for money to pay off their debts.

Women who engage in prostitution often start out as teens, with an average starting age of 16. Most of us lacked financial independence at that age; breaking out of a violent situation to live on one's own is usually impossible for young women trapped in a life of prostitution.

Women and girls who engage in prostitution need legal help and guidance more than criminal prosecution. Those who seek this help deserve a chance to break free from a life of forced criminal activity, rather than heavy fines or prison time.

Source: The Post-Crescent, "Grand Chute targets prostitution," Jessie Van Berkel, Oct. 6, 2012

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