The acquittal of Edwin Moses on sex solicitation charges in California and the recent deaths in Washington of three prostitutes have focused new attention on the subterranean world of hookers and pimps, highlighting the inability of law enforcement agencies to stem this multimillion-dollar-a-year business and the violence it spawns.

Moses, the 29-year-old Olympic Gold medalist, told the jury that when he stopped at a Hollywood street corner well known for prostitution business last January, he thought the woman who approached his car was a "fan," until she began describing two sex acts. But instead of leaving, according to the woman, an undercover policewoman, Moses asked, "How much for an hour?"

The case boiled down to Moses' word against the police officer's, and in the end jurors wondered whether Moses had been entrapped. The key for law enforcement officials in such cases is to wait for the "john," as a customer is called, to make the first move -- but that such a move was made rarely can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

A close call for Moses, but even if he had been convicted, prostitution and its underlying causes would continue unabated. The placement of decoys in red light districts is a tactic that police have been trying for years, and occasionally a politician or celebrity is nabbed and enough publicity generated to clear the streets for a while.

There are now more than 1,000 prostitutes on the streets of Washington -- more than ever, according to police estimates, despite numerous and expensive law enforcement efforts.

Last year, the District began a crackdown on sex-oriented establishments located along the tenderloin district of 14th Street NW, and it managed to put half of them out of business. At the time, the women who worked in those places predicted that the streets would fill with women who once worked in relative safety indoors, and that danger was sure to follow.

It did.

Today, one woman is recovering from a severe beating sustained when she led her "john" into an alley off 14th and Q streets NW. Three other women who worked that same area have been slain. There have been countless robberies and assaults along the strip in recent months, all of which makes a mockery of the word that legally characterizes prostitution: misdemeanor.

Two years ago, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments began a regional approach to combat the problem of prostitution.But as the women who worked the streets understand better than anybody else, as long as men will pay $100 for an hour or less of sex -- be it in a fleabag motel room, the back of a car or a syringe-strewn alley -- there will be prostitutes.

And as long as their world is relegated to the darkness of side streets and ruled by drug smugglers and porno kings, there also will be violence and death.

"There are a lot of misconceptions about prostitution being a victimless crime," said Lt. Robert Poggi, commander of the D.C. police prostitution and obscenity unit. "There is a tremendous amount of violence between johns and prostitutes."

In response, the women have formed self-defense groups, and at the slightest sign of trouble they will produce razors and knives to rid themselves of anyone who gets in their way.

It would seem that people would cease to venture into areas where the threat of violence is so great, but the streets are as hot as ever, the flame fueled with stolen goods, drugs and sex.

Meanwhile, Edwin Moses can count himself lucky, not because a jury discounted the testimony of three policemen in favor of him, but because he did not get his throat cut that night.

And perhaps now is the time to consider realistic approaches to controlling prostitution -- including legalizing it.