It takes an effort to remember that some of the prostitutes on our city streets are teenagers. They hardly look it. Streetwalking, even for a short time, ages you. Poor diet, sleepless nights, alcohol and drug usage, and all those fears -- of the police, of "freak tricks," of other prostitutes, of predatory pimps -- coalesce to make you look older. A police description, "40-year-old midgets," is apt.

Typically, the girls have left home. Many are runaways. Some are "throwaways," children who leave home without being missed or who are encouraged to move. And some are on their own only because their family, as a result of divorce, illness, death or imprisonment, disintegrated around them.

These girls work the streetcorners, fixing on passing males, squinting at approaching cars, determined to earn whatever quota their pimps have set. Like their adult counterparts, they have become an established part of the urban panorama.

There are two versions of the story of the teenage prostitute. The first features a villain. By acclamation, he is the pimp, the man with no redeeming virtues, a black man living off white women. He finds susceptible young women and coaxes them with false promises to come with him. The honeymoon is brief. Soon the girl is for sale, performing whatever acts her "tricks" request. No longer her pimp's special person, she becomes just another "wife-in- law," one of several who labor to support him in his idleness, his cocaine, his finery. She wants to leave, but is afraid; if she flees, she will be caught. If she earns too little, she will be beaten. Over time, she sinks into alcoholism and addiction -- and into despair. Her health is poor and her future tragic. She has lived the life of a slave; the pimp has been her master.

Another version downplays the demonic side of the pimp and characterizes their union as a bargained-for exchange, a matter of contract. She has struck a deal to secure certain benefits. He agrees to protect her from the police, rival prostitutes, perverted customers, the routine hazards of the trade. He will find her a bondsman and a lawyer when she gets arrested.

Sometimes he promises more. He will buy her pretty things, take her out on the town, even help her look after her kid. Together they may fashion some vague dream of the future -- a house somewhere, ownership of a boutique or a bar downtown. They are in this thing together.

Both versions mislead. The teenage prostitute does not take on a pimp because of the services he provides, nor does she accept his patronage out of fear. Her motivation is more nearly the opposite: She takes up prostitution as a way of acquiring a pimp.

Although there are instances where a pimp forces a girl into "turning out," the more common situation is where a girl interested in finding a pimp meets a pimp interested in recruiting a girl. The process has a name -- "choosing" -- which indicates its volitional character. The pimp places himself in a position to be discovered. His success comes from looking and acting like what he is.

One Seattle girl, interviewed by sociologist Diana Gray, describes her turning out:

"We were all sitting around and I had the cocaine tray and he (a pimp) pulled up a chair and started talking to me. He asked me my age and I said I was 19. I had a wig and everything. (She was actually 14) ... He asked me why I'd been coming down here all the time 'cause he'd been admiring me but we hadn't been seeing each other. So I explained to him ... I always wanted to know how the 'fast life' was. I had to find who I really wanted to be with, see how the life was. Then the next day I left and went to San Francisco with him."

For girls like this one, the customer is incidental. Her pimp is everything. His glorified idleness is her pride: She has made it possible.

Kitty, a New York streetwalker, feels the same way, as reported by Susan Hall in "Gentleman of Leisure":

"I'm madly in love with Silky ... If I left him, I'd be miserable all the time. If I'm with him, I'm miserable some of the time ... He understands all women ... Silky puts all his time into being a ladies' man. Another guy has to go to work. Silky dedicates all his energies to pleasing us. Whatever he does, it's for us. Him and us together. If I was really unhappy, he'd try and get me happy."

As to her day-to-day problems, the hazards of the life, the pimp is helpful, but not as much as claimed, and probably not as much today as 10 years ago. He is more inclined to let his girls spend a night in jail than to pay a bondsman, and to let the public defender represent them rather than to hire an attorney. Kitty recalls:

"I was going to leave Silky when I was in jail. I didn't understand why -- with seven wives-in-law -- I was in jail for six days. I understood after I talked to Silky. It turned out he really didn't have no money. A pimp is supposed to be in a position to take care of bail, but he can't just snap his fingers and money comes. He's got to get it from us. If we're not giving him money, he can't have no money. How could I make money when I was in jail?"

The pimp is also less likely to take her on trips, buy her expensive clothes, or show her off in fine cafes. And with respect to the one occupational hazard that is actually life endangering, the "freak trick," the customer who seeks not sex, but to injure or kill the girl, the pimp is worthless. The modern pimp rarely goes in the streets except to make sure his woman is still working or to collect money.

What the pimp does provide, true to his claim, is "love." He is his girl's life support system, the whole thing. She is a barnacle; her dependency is massive. It lies there for the pimp to exploit. Kitty reports:

"I'm scared that I might be so totally dependent on him I won't be able to do things for myself ... He keeps telling me, 'Bitch, if you leave me, you won't be nothing. You'll be a bum. How could you make it on your own?'"

The pimp's line can baffle and embarrass a third party overhearing it; it is not for grownups. But the girl is tuned in. It makes sense to her. Her own identity is so merged with his that separateness seems peculiar. What she fears is neglect; mistreatment is a tolerable, at times even a welcomed, form of attention. When beaten by her pimp, she will, as soon as she recovers (or sooner), plead to be taken back ... though hours earlier she told the police she couldn't understand how she ever got mixed up with him.

These young girls create and shape their pimps to meet the depths of their needs, internal demands so at odds with reality that they can never be met, thus propelling the girl from one pimp to another, and then to another. They seek their predator to become his prey.

The lore that a prostitute is afraid to leave her pimp is largely hyperbole. Relationships are inherently unstable. The life of a relationship is short, rarely more than a few years. For juveniles the term may be shorter than for the adult prostitute. Their expectations are less realistic, more quickly punctured. They need a new pimp to ignite the old fantasies.

Leaving one's man to return home is even easier. According to the New York City Pimp Squad, most girls who remove themselves from the pimp's orbit are not followed. The average pimp will not trouble himself to track a girl who has disappeared or to take a long trip to harass her. These lounging, costumed men have their own problems. Their moment on stage is fleeting. Most pimps struggle to make a go of it.

Despite the myths to the contrary, pimps are not important organized crime figures. Except in two particulars, they are not important at all. The first is their utility as informants, the second their capacity to corrupt police officers.

Because pimps are in routine contact with other criminals, they can assist the police in solving crimes. Though not as important as informants now because so many travel a circuit from city to city and don't know the local scene, they still are valued sources. If the pimp is not paid for his information, he may have an expectation of some return benefit. The officers he helped are indebted. This means that when he is threatened with prosecution, he may have a friend in the police department who will try to get the charges against him dropped or reduced.

The pimp may also be a source of funds to those officers who are willing to take. Those pimps who have high incomes, in some months perhaps $5,000 or $6,000, may seek to negotiate a mutually rewarding relationship with the vice detectives.

Everybody who has examined teenage prostitution perceives it as a problem demanding a solution. No one views it as something government can properly ignore. Unlike the adult prostitute, the teenager is not dismissed as a necessary evil; her presence offends.

This perspective is unsurprising. That the working life of a prostitute is brief, hazardous and often tragic is well understood. Ten working years is a long time. Then, no longer salable, of no value to her pimp, broken by drugs, alcohol and the steady abuse of her body, she survives as an object of scorn and abuse, everybody's victim. As Polly Alder said years ago, "No wonder people ask what propels a girl into this short, unhappy life."

In extreme form, this concern emerges as an indictment of us all: What have we done to our children? Trudy Peterson, a social worker in New York, confronts Dan Rather on "60 Minutes":

Peterson: If a pimp is meeting the needs of our runaways in our society, if he's taking them in and sheltering them, what does this say about us as a society?

Rather: What it says is pretty devastating.

Peterson: It is. It's very devastating. And these are our children. These are not sluts and whores and fallen women. These are our children.

Others treat the problem as a failure of bureaucratic expertise. A planner of youth services explains: "We are competing for our youth on the street. Our competitors, the pimps, view our children as economic assets. If we don't get to them fast, our competitors will. It is ironic that they have developed a system without the benefit of public funding. Outreach, intake, orientation, job development, on-the-job training, housing, peer support, role models and incentive programs are all part of what he offers. We've got to at least match what he provides."

Another approach grandly looks for root causes. A large consultant firm, reporting to the Department of Health and Human Services, proposes "six intervention strategies." Among these: "reduce negative early childhood experiences;" "mitigate environmental influences;" and "provide meaningful social roles."

The impulse of the reformers -- that we can do better -- is admirable: Better to be an optimist than a pessimist if one is to get things done. But there are some things government does not know how to do. Teenage prostitution, except at its outer edges -- where the girl is very young, very ambivalent or very abused -- seems unamenable to governmental reforming.

What is it that government can do to compete with adolescent fantasies of flashy cars, glamorous outfits, mindblowing drugs, a life on center stage?

Prostitution provides an alternative that is in important particulars better than the life the teenager knew. Even the dark spots -- the insults, the beatings, the degradation -- horrible in themselves, are not necessarily foreign. They are, tragically, likely to remind her of home. As she grows older and understands better what she has sentenced herself to, she may break away. She may not. About this process, government has little to contribute.

For those girls that seek it, a place to flop, some supportive counseling and therapy and good food are indispensable. They represent a wise expenditure of public monies.

But to go beyond this is questionable. By and large, it makes sense to treat the teenage prostitute as if she were an adult prostitute.

Admittedly, this is not an appealing option. One can put it more forcefully: There is nothing attractive about it. To fine the girl is to participate in her business. To punish her is, if not senseless, not a solution. Nonetheless, it may be the best we can do. To rehabilitate her surely seems beyond the capacity of our bureaucracies.

There is an endless queue of teenage girls who may want to give prostitution a try. The pool is bottomless: the million runaways, the thousands of children of prostitutes, the host of kids who can't be lumped under any heading but simply belong to parents who don't give a damn. There are no "six intervention strategies" for them.

And there are no reasons to predict a diminution of teenage prostitution. More, rather than less, is likely. If there are ways of achieving a reduction, they are long term. Teenage prostitution is not so much a problem as a proxy, for ills, individual and societal, that form part of our way of life.