Some men look embarrassed as they walk from the parking lot through the back entrance of a two-story office building on University Avenue in City Heights, which the San Diego Police Department refers to as the Multi Cultural Storefront. Others chat more casually as they walk through a hallway and into a room past a sign that reads, "Court Ordered Impact Panel."
A hipster wearing a trucker cap strolls up to a police officer sitting behind a folding table checking IDs and collecting $200 from each person. The payment has to be in a cashier's check or money order, which the officer explains the young man can get at the 7-Eleven down the street.
An overweight middle-aged white guy in a yellow T-shirt and jeans hands the officer the proper payment and is directed to get in line for mandatory HIV testing, the results of which will be provided immediately.
By 6 p.m. about 30 men representing a wide range of ages and ethnicities, although none looking obviously affluent, silently fill several rows of chairs facing a table with a microphone at the back of the room. The last row of chairs is reserved for non-English speakers, for whom the presentation will be translated through headsets.
A tall, slender, middle-aged black man in a blue blazer and white trousers walks up to the front of the room and, in an English accent, speaks to the audience sympathetically.
"I'm going to say something that may sound a bit unusual, but I'm glad you're here," he says. "I'm glad you're here because it's an opportunity for you to get educated. It's an opportunity for you to learn about the impact of a behavior that may appear to be a one-on-one transaction."
Acting as the night's moderator, the softspoken man is one of nine volunteers helping to put on the program, which includes local homeowners, former prostitutes and recovering sex addicts. With programs every other month, volunteers from the community rotate involvement.
Created by the Mid-City Prostitution Taskforce in 2002, the program is called the Prostitution Impact Panel. Established to educate men arrested for buying sex on the realities of the sex-trade industry, its message is straightforward: The sex trade in San Diego is dangerous and demeaning, and a disturbing number of girls who walk the streets have suffered severe trauma as young children, often molestation at the hands of family members.
"You're dealing with damaged people," Crystal, a former prostitute tells the audience. "And what happens in the transaction is not only damaging the society, the neighborhood, but it's damaging the damaged individual further."
Under long, curly blonde hair, her face bears the marks of anguish and heavy drug use, a habit she explains she supported with prostitution. Given marijuana and raped by her step father at the age of 7, she says such experiences are common among sex workers, many of whom are controlled by violent pimps and gangs.
"Nobody goes out on the corner and sells their body because they want to," she says. "There's not one person that I've ever met, and I deal with a lot of survivors—not one of them was ever out there because they wanted to. We make you believe that we want to so that we can get more money out of you, but it's not because we want to."
In a deal only for first-time offenders, participants attend the three-hour panel of speakers in order to get their solicitation charge substantially reduced. That way, prospective employers and others may never know they were arrested for buying sex.
However, statistics suggest that participants may be leaving with more than just a favorable plea deal. Since the program started, less than 3 percent of offenders—32 of 1,155 participants—have been rearrested and convicted of solicitation or a similar crime, according to the San Diego City Attorney's office.
The program's gravity came as a surprise for Grant, a former Navy officer now in his early 40s. (CityBeat honored a request not to use his real name.)
"When you're out there, you never think about how this girl has a pimp and she's being abused," he told CityBeat. "The only thing you're thinking about is, I can help her, and she can help me."
Sitting on the edge of his seat during the program, Grant appears rapt as he listens to a recovering sex addict named Paul. The bald, middle-aged man describes growing up with an alcoholic father who kept an accessible collection of porn in the front room. From a young age, Paul developed a serious habit of using sex and masturbation to numb feelings of neglect.
"I'll tell you what this disease will do," he told the audience. "I caught chlamydia from a sex worker. I went to the county and got the disease fixed. I'm driving around. I see the same sex worker. I go to her again, and get the same damn disease. Now, I'm not a stupid person, but the power of this disease made me do that again."
For Grant, who was having sex with up to four women a night, the story had a powerful impact.
"I was in awe," he said later. "I wanted to hear everything he had to say and how he got his problem fixed, because that was me."
When Grant was 17, he was stationed with the Navy in the Philippines, and like many of the guys in his crew, while in port he had sex with numerous prostitutes. A tall, good-looking guy, he didn't need to pay for sex, and he quickly developed a habit of going out to clubs and picking up women. Often, he'd sleep with a different person every night for weeks on end.
However, despite having regular girlfriends, he continued to frequent prostitutes for oral sex both overseas and here in the States.
"I knew that I must have had a problem because my girlfriend would be at home, and then I would leave the house and go pick up a street walker, you know," he said. "Then go back home, and we might have sex. It's like a high."
In late March, he was arrested for soliciting an undercover cop. For years, he had frequently picked up girls on 32nd and Main streets in Barrio Logan, where prostitutes regularly wait for Navy officers. As a result of getting caught, he was forced to face his behavior.
Fearing ridicule, Grant had kept his actions largely secret from everyone in his life, never seeking help. During the impact panel, he's introduced for the first time to the idea that sex addiction is a treatable disease.
"When I went to [Sexaholics Anonymous], I realized I couldn't fix myself by myself," Paul tells the audience. "But when I went to SA, I found an entire community of people who were willing to help me on my journey.
"If I can save you from doing the stupid shit that I have done, I didn't waste a Monday night coming here," he adds. "This is perfect. This is exactly what I need to do."
The testimony had a powerful impact on Grant, who said he's now determined to get help. But since attending the program, Grant has continued to engage in prostitution.
"I want to slow it down to where I can have one girl to be with and I don't have to think about another girl," he said. "I pray for that every night. Every night, I pray that I can just meet a girl, fall in love with her and just want to be with her."
The stories of those speaking on the impact panel have different details. With little preaching, each person shared their individual narrative: Some folks used more drugs; others had more vicious encounters with rape and near-death.
However, nearly all the panelists shared the common experience of severe early-chilhood trauma, their cautionary tales depicting failed attempts to deal with deep-rooted pain through drugs and other means of escape.
Almost unconsciously at the end of his interview with CityBeat, Grant mentioned his own trauma.
"My mom never hugged me," he said solemnly. "Maybe that's the reason I treat women the way I do, because I'm getting back at them, you know."
Having grown up with his grandmother, Grant revealed feelings of abandonment that mirrored, to a degree, much of the pain that the panelists had shared with him.
"I feel lonely," he said. "It's kind of strange. I have all these women, but I still feel lonely. I never have been honest in a relationship. I've always cheated."
He paused for a moment. "I'm probably going to have to do the classes. I'm going to have to address the issue."