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Woman: ‘I hated my life’ as a prostitute
This is the second of a two-part series on the life of prostitutes.
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Betty May Johnson was a street prostitute and drug addict for 13 years. She’s been clean for 10 months and intends to stay that way.
PINELLAS COUNTY – Betty May Johnson describes herself as “a former street whore.”

She sold her body to support an expensive drug habit.

Now 10 months off the streets that nearly killed her, Johnson credits a belief in God and her boyfriend of 12 years ... a former client and one-time male prostitute ... with turning her life around.

She also hopes that her two daughters who disowned her years ago will answer her calls and letters.

“I hated my life,” Johnson, 46, said. “I hated being a prostitute and a drug addict.”

Today she looks more like a financial consultant at a bank or an office worker, but for about 13 years she sold herself along 34th Street in St. Petersburg and elsewhere in Pinellas County.

She even worked the streets of Nebraska Avenue in Tampa.

For two years she was homeless and lived in abandoned buildings, in alleys and parks.

She’s been beaten nearly to death by Johns – the men who buy the services of prostitutes – and once was trapped in a car by two men wanted for multiple murders.

Her parents, both alcoholics and deceased, divorced when she was a toddler. Her mother moved from Michigan to Florida where she remarried. It was her stepfather who turned her into a prostitute.

“He would pimp me to his co-workers and friends,” Johnson said. “I was 14 years old at the time.”

The stepfather also raped her, she said.

“My mother didn’t believe that had happened,” Johnson said. “Years later I confronted my stepfather and he denied it. He said I dreamed it. It wasn’t a dream. He really raped me.”

During this time she was taking care of her younger sister, now a Largo nurse with aspirations of becoming a doctor.

As Johnson grew older she fell deeper into the Pinellas County drug cult. She began prostituting herself in the early 1990s to pay for her habit.

“I was very skinny in those days and the men liked me,” Johnson said. “I’d walk 34th Street and sometimes Fourth Street in St. Petersburg.”

Those areas are still well-known hooker hangouts, as are sections of Pinellas Park, Clearwater and elsewhere within the county.

Johnson lost count of how many times she was arrested.

“Maybe 30 times,” she said. “I’d get 30 days, then 60 and eventually the jail sentences became months instead of days.”

She describes herself as a loner who doesn’t allow others to get close to her.

“I hated men, mainly because most of my clients were married,” she said. “I hated all people and I hated myself for what I became.”

Johnson, whose street name was a play on cartoon character “Betty Boop,” charged $50 for sex. Sometimes, if she was strapped for cash, she’d drop the price to $20.

“I kept clean by washing my clothes in gas station rest rooms,” she said. “I hardly ate because I needed the money I earned for my drug habit.”

Several times during her 13 years on the streets she tried to reform. Each time she failed.

“My daughters, Tanya, 24, and Tammy, 29, live in Florida and want nothing to do with me,” Johnson said. “I can’t blame them, but someday I hope we can reconcile.”

She cried freely as she spoke of the daughters.

“One hangs up on me when I call,” she said.

As she fell deeper into the street lifestyle her weight dropped accordingly.

“I was 78 pounds at one point,” she said. “I’d work the streets, get my drugs and sleep in the bushes or in an alley.”

She met her boyfriend, Walter, as a prostitute. He was looking and she offered her services. They later teamed up and sold themselves together.

“Some men paid up to $150 to each of us to watch live sex acts,” Johnson said.

She claims she wasn’t “your average street hooker.”

“I never robbed people like some prostitutes,” she said. “I did what was asked of me, took what was owed and then left.”

Sometimes she’d ask a customer to drop her off at the place where she bought drugs.

“I’ve done everything from marijuana to crack cocaine,” Johnson said. “I smoked drugs, snorted and injected them. It’s a miracle that I’m still alive.”

Now 10 months into rehabilitation she is determined to make it this time.

She credits Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, other organizations and God for keeping her straight.

“I have a different outlook on life,” she said. “I’m starting to like people and I feel good about myself.”

She now goes to red light districts to pray with the girls who still prostitute themselves.

“Most are as desperate as I was,” she said. “I’m bi-polar and schizophrenic and take regular medication. Depression comes easy.”

Her goal in life is to open a mission for prostitutes and homeless people who want to carve out a new lifestyle.

“It will be in Pinellas Park,” Johnson said.

She stays away from her old street friends who she said now are either dead or in jail.

“God helped me make the break and now I want to help others do the same,” Johnson said. “I don’t ever want to return to that lifestyle. Ever.”
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