Watching automobiles in gridlock around the downtown Washington streets where prostitutes stroll, I couldn't help but think about that poor 24-year-old man called T.J., whose girlfriend worked the strip unbeknownst to him, returned home in the early morning hours -- and gave him AIDS.
T.J., according to a story in The Washington Post last week, is now homeless and unemployed because of his illness.
"When I went to work at night -- as a security guard -- she went to work at night, if you know what I mean," T.J. said. "She was a prostitute, but I didn't know until her girlfriend told me."
According to preliminary findings of a study of women working as prostitutes in Washington, T.J. may not be alone. A majority of 201 prostitutes surveyed said they were married or living with a man.
But when it comes to the spread of AIDS by prostitutes, the T.J.s of this city represent only the tip of the iceberg.
The study, conducted for the D.C. Commission on Public Health from April through June of this year, reveals that the AIDS epidemic has not put a dent in street prostitution.
Making matters worse, prostitutes and johns alike remain lackadaisical in their attitudes towards taking steps to protect themselves from the virus.
Here are some of the survey findings:
Of the 42 prostitutes who said they had been tested for the AIDS virus, 13 -- or 31 percent -- indicated that they had tested positive, while 52 percent had tested negative. The remainder did not know their results. Three had been diagnosed as having AIDS.
Seventy-seven percent of the women refused to be tested. The reason given: They did not want to know.
Here are some likely reasons why:
Seventy-five percent said that stopping to have the customer put on a condom takes the fun out of sex, while 58 percent said that customers indicated that sex does not feel as good with a condom.
Fifty-one percent of the women reported having sex while high on drugs or alcohol or both, admittedly diminishing their judgment about AIDS prevention.
Sixty-three percent had exchanged sex for drugs, indicating significant drug involvement by street-level prostitutes. Sixteen percent said they prostituted solely for drugs. Twenty-nine percent had used drugs intravenously.
An astounding 60 percent of the women reported having as many as 10 regular sex partners who are intravenous drug users.
On the positive side:
Thirty to 51 percent of the women said that, in response to the AIDS epidemic, they had asked clients to use condoms, had actually used more condoms and had refused to have sex with persons suspected of having AIDS.
Sixty-seven percent said they were using condoms more often than before and 50 percent said they had significantly reduced their frequency of anal sex without a condom.
Nevertheless, when asked if they would maintain their changed ways, most of those prostitutes said no. It was a simple business decision. Most customers did not like condoms. Prostitutes' drug habits, low self-esteem and need for money dictated that the customer be satisfied.
The bottom line:
Seventy percent of them said they will engage in any sex act -- if the price is right -- condom or not.
The youngest prostitute surveyed was 17 years old; the oldest was 48. Sixty-eight percent were black, 19 percent were white and 6 percent were Hispanic.
Most women said they began having sexual intercourse at age 12 or 13, and began receiving money for sex at 19 or 20.
Twenty-seven percent reported having more than 80 regular or occasional customers during a three-month period; most reported having between six and 20.
In response to the new data, the D.C. Office on AIDS Activities last week launched the Prostitute Education and Training project, in which health officials canvassed red-light districts of the city urging prostitutes to undergo tests for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Nearly half of the women who participated in the survey reportedly believed their behavior put them at risk of contracting the AIDS virus -- and passing it on.
T.J. knows they are right.
"I spend my days trying to take care of myself," he said. "I get up, have my temperature taken at the clinic, get breakfast, lay down. Go sit outside, lay down, eat dinner. Stay in and rest."
Until they find a cure. Or until he dies.
T.J. says he hasn't heard from his girlfriend since he was diagnosed as HIV-positive.
But chances are somebody else has.