I sipped vodka and orange juice for courage as I drove along the 405 freeway toward a beach city near Los Angeles. I felt like vomiting. I felt like turning around and going home. Drinking and driving is something I would normally never, ever do, especially early on a Saturday morning. But none of this was anything I would normally do.
I was about to embark on a career as an escort.
The week before -- with $75 in my bank account, no more unemployment checks and hundreds of résumés and carefully crafted cover letters sent and ignored in a rotten economy -- I bypassed the typical job ads on Craigslist and went straight to the "adult gigs" section, just out of curiosity.
What I found was an eye-popping number of help wanted ads. These ads weren't looking for how fast you could type or if you knew PowerPoint, but they were also discreet about what skill set, exactly, was required. One posting caught my eye: "Make up to $2,000 a week!"
Maybe it was the desperation and anxiety of my empty bank account, maybe it was the normalcy of the website I was using, but I wasn't as repulsed as I expected to be. The ad described a female-run agency, the potential to make a lot of cash in a short amount of time and a safe, friendly work environment. The ad encouraged hopeful applicants to forward along two recent photos via e-mail. No phone number. No contact or company name. It was nothing more than a couple of lines of poorly written ad text and a Craigslist-generated e-mail address to reply to, but it would change the course of my life for the next six weeks.
Recently, Craigslist replaced its erotic services section with a "censored" non-link and removed its "adult gigs" section completely, wiping the American version of the website clean of this dirty little problem (international Craigslist pages continue to run ads for both). It's the latest in an ongoing debate about the website, which has been accused of acting as a haven for sex traffickers and underage prostitution. Honestly, I don't know anything about that. (I was carded by my employers. I was never forced to do something I didn't want.) What I do know is that ads on Craigslist made it easy -- yes, too easy -- for a naive woman like me to slide into a dark and illegal lifestyle. In the world of escorting, essentially straight-up prostitution, Craigslist was the Walmart. Everybody said that.
That afternoon, I sent an e-mail with two attached photos, thinking I'd never get a response. In 20 minutes, I got a call from a blocked phone number. The woman on the other end of the line was very straightforward. She asked my age, height and weight. "Have you done this before?" she asked.
"Sex? Well, yeah."
"No, I mean shows. It's an industry term. It means meeting with the clients," she said.
"Oh, um, no," I said. "But I'm a quick learner." I cringed to hear myself fall into interview mode.
She quickly explained how the agency worked, and then asked if I could meet in person. It was a whirlwind of information to take in, so I simply replied: "Yes."
"You'll be meeting with Mario. Be sure to wear something cute, bring your makeup bag, and take a shower before you come."
I wondered: Who doesn't take showers? That should have been my first clue that I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
As I drove to the meet-up location to meet my "driver" for a "training" -- like "meeting with clients" and "shows," all the words were comically bland and imprecise -- voices in my head began to scream: "My parents will disown me." "What if my friends find out what I'm doing?" "You have a college degree. Why are you doing this?"
I chugged on the vodka, thought about pocketing $2,000 in cash a week and plowed ahead.
Mario was a big African-American man. He was the type of guy you'd see in L.A. body-guarding young starlets or working as a bouncer at some Sunset Strip nightclub. Mario isn't his real name (I've changed all the names to protect the privacy of individuals), but I'm pretty sure the name he gave me wasn't his real name to begin with. Not much is actually the "truth" in the escorting world.
I met Mario at a park bench just outside a strip mall restaurant. There was another girl doing the in-person interview who introduced herself as Rose. She looked as scared as I felt. Later, I found out she left and never came back.
We drove to a seedy motel on a busy street, where Mario handed me a wad of cash and simply said: "Go get a room."
It was surreal. On TV and in movies, upscale escorts always have a somewhat charmed life. I remember watching Diane Sawyer interview Ashley Dupré a few years ago and thinking that, aside from the whole illegal issue, being an escort seemed almost ... nice. Didn't escorts stay at the Four Seasons, or the W? This dump wasn't even the Days Inn.
I had stupidly assumed that there was a difference between being an escort and being a prostitute. Turns out it's just all semantics. While everyone in that world used the term "escorting" -- and the P-word was completely forbidden -- I would soon learn there really was no difference.
I booked a room down a dark hallway in the very back of the complex. It reeked of Pine-Sol, as if the carpet and bedspreads had been soaked in the stuff. Ant traps peppered the bathroom and bed area. I was a little scared just to sit on the bed. It was disgusting. I was disgusted with myself.
"Suck it up," I thought. Like it or hate it, I had run out of options.
Mario told me to take off my clothes and show him what I could do. He sat on the bed, naked and waiting.
Someone way more erotic than my usual self must have taken over my body at that moment, because I suddenly didn't have a single worry about stripping down to my lacy bra and thong in front of a complete stranger, though Mario had to nudge me to go further.
"I thought guys liked it when women played coy," I said, clearly stalling for time.
"Not when they're paying for it!" Mario said, laughing.
When we finally had sex -- aka "the training" -- I felt very little. I wasn't happy or sad, I just felt numb.
The woman who initially called me turned out to be Lisa, the booker. Lisa answered all the client phone calls and e-mails and placed all the ads on Craigslist, Backpage.com and other websites. She and Mario were in constant contact. Every time one of his three cellphones alerted him of a new text message I became more and more nervous. A text message potentially meant a client was on the way. As I waited in the hotel, my anxiety flared.
In the meantime, Mario had plenty of free time to critique me.
"Your dress is way, way too long," he said, giving me an up-and-down look that I would soon become way too familiar with. "Plus, you don't look all that sexy."
"What's wrong with my dress?" I asked. I thought my dress was cute.
"You need shorter dresses, or booty shorts. Do you have anything like that?"
"No" was my very curt reply.
"Well, OK," Mario said hesitantly. "We'll see how this goes."
I got lucky and unlucky that day: Four men showed up at the door that afternoon, and they all left within minutes, if not seconds. Money made = $0.
"I think they all thought you were a cop," Mario said. "You just don't look like an escort in that outfit. And, seriously, you need to work on upping your makeup. You need to look like the fantasy girl they can't get in real life. You look like the girl next door."
So they wanted a naked Kim Kardashian; I was more of a fully clothed version of "Blossom's" Mayim Bialik. There was no question this gig didn't come naturally to me. I was used to eight-hour days at a desk job. I'd spent my life not wanting to look like a prostitute; was it weird that I took a certain pride in being told I'd succeeded?
But that wouldn't help my bank account. I went home that night without a cent earned. Before I even got to my apartment, Lisa had sent me e-mails directing me to makeup application YouTube videos and links to an online shop called Yandy.com where I could buy the "type" of clothes I suddenly needed to invest my last measly dollars in. It was like Forever 21 for aspiring call girls.
The following week, we drove to the same seedy motel. I was again handed a wad of cash and repeated the check-in routine. Over the next six weeks, this is the part of the transactions I would dread the most. There was a reason to be nervous, too. Eventually, Mario and I were banned from at least three motels, and others were so sketchy that Mario said we would not be going back. As my "driver," Mario was part bodyguard, part therapist and, in a strange way, part confidante.
The first time a client stayed and paid, it was so much different than I'd expected. In fact, it was almost easy. Granted, I'd run through so many worst-case scenarios -- in my nightmare, the "client" turned out to be an undercover cop and I landed in jail -- that it was relief to see an average 30-something guy simply looking to get some action on his way home from work. He handed me the prearranged amount of cash, $150 for a 30-minute "show," and took off his clothes. I pulled the bedspread down, counted the money, and hid it away in a drawer.
There was something about that money hitting my hands that changed my idea of what escorting really was: It was simply a transaction. I'd been so cooked up about the shame and the indignity of it all. But it almost felt more like my high school job at a mall clothing shop than a taboo, illegal act. He handed me the payment, and I provided the service.
That first encounter was a blur of nakedness. I was so nervous, I'm sure I was visibly shaking. Of course, none of that mattered to the client. He didn't know if he was my first client or my hundredth. He was there for just one thing, and -- like bing, bang, boom -- it was all over.
From the knock at the door to the client leaving, it lasted less than15 minutes. He seemed happy, and I had some money. I was also, finally, initiated as an escort.
I would quickly learn that there are three types of clients: The good ones (85 percent), the bad ones (10 percent) and the crazy, stalker, awful ones (5 percent). For the most part the work itself wasn't hard. The good clients showed up, paid the right amount (or even more), and left satisfied. The bad clients tried to renegotiate the "donation" or were just a little too forceful. The terrible clients were an entirely different story. Several of the worst clients I saw were doctors, like the guy who insisted I dominate him and creeped me out so much I had to ask him to leave; so much for that amazing "marriage material" you always hear about.
By the end of my run as an escort, I had wrangled about a half-dozen regular clients, and I had begun getting to know them and their lives. In fact, each of those guys became sort of like a friend. Not a real-life friend, but someone I could keep a running dialogue with -- about seeing a certain movie the week prior or my plans for the weekend -- and I might even look forward to seeing them. These were also the men who usually had a higher starting "donation" fee and often tipped really, really well.
But regular clients were tricky. I had to keep in mind what I wore the last time I saw them. I had to remember which of the many false names I'd used with them. Because Lisa communicated with them by phone and text, I never knew which made-up stories she would tell them if I wasn't available.
I often had to quickly dodge bullets like, "Was your weekend away fun?" when I hadn't been out of Los Angeles in months. Or the worst one: "Is your mom feeling better?" Um, yep, she's fine.
These are the guys who made the rest of my day seem doable. But I can honestly say there was not a single client I would have wanted to see outside of work. Not one I would consider giving my phone number to. Not one I would want to know my real name.
Eventually, work began taking a toll. I started agreeing to work longer hours, then more days each week. My days off were spent in bed, not wanting to face the real world. I'd end a shift at midnight, get home by 1 a.m., then stay awake till the sun was out, sipping cheap red wine. I withdrew from the people in my life that I loved, none of whom knew what I did for a living. Mario and Lisa became, in a weird way, my closest friends, and that was a mistake; I was a money-making venture for them.
I started drinking a lot. Actually, I started drinking too much.
Despite the $2,000 a week that Lisa had suggested, I never made more in a week than I'd made in any other job I'd had -- often a lot less. It was a total myth that this was easy money. On my most successful day, I pocketed only about $350. On the worst days, we'd only just cover the cost of the motel room and leave with $40 to split 50/50. Nothing was more depressing that driving home with $20.
The day I quit was the first day I felt my life might be normal again. There was no replacement job lined up, but I was just tired: Tired of the lies, tired of opening up the door of some miserable motel room, just praying the horny man on the other side wasn't a freak or a cop. I was tired of my body being judged. I was tired of smiling and playing pretty for clients I couldn't care less about. Most of all, I was tired of rationalizing this whole business.
The breaking point came earlier that day. I'd never met a client who had cheated me out of the "donation," so maybe I'd let my guard down a little. A charming and very overweight guy showed up, immediately got naked and handed me a stack of cash. I gave it a quick glance, didn't count it like I should have. It was late; I just wanted to go home.
After he left, I went to the dresser drawer and discovered it was short by half. I wanted to cry. Also, I wanted to throw a chair across the room. As per agency rules, I was going to be docked the lost money. I went home with nothing for that show. I knew I was done.
When Mario dropped me off at my car that night, I gave him a hug. I hated that job, but I still felt affection toward him. The next day I sent a text message to Lisa and Mario explaining that I was done. Lisa was mad and wanted me to reconsider. Mario told me he understood, that he knew it was coming.
I've thought about that job a lot since I quit. No, not about going back, but about the business itself. I think there's a common assumption -- at least it was an assumption I had made -- that women in the sex-work industry are there by choice or because they like it. Maybe that's true for some women, but I can't imagine enduring the whole thing unless I really had run out of options. Yes, it got me through a rough patch. And I don't regret those six weeks, exactly -- more like, I wish I had never been that desperate. But this is a brutal economy, and I'm sure I'm not the only one getting morally creative. I'm sure I'm not the only young woman on Craigslist dazzled by the false promises of the adult-services gigs.
When I heard Craigslist had shut down its erotic service ads, I'll be honest: I was relieved. It won't stop Internet ads offering sex for money -- a simple Google search proves that. And it won't mean much to employers like mine. A while ago, when I asked Mario what he thought about the Craigslist debate, he told me they'd just advertise elsewhere. But I know it would prevent someone like me from going down this path. The Craigslist ads were just right there in front of my face each day; one simple click took me from legitimate job ads into the escort work.
I know I'm lucky to have gotten out of this relatively unscathed. But I also know that plenty of other women aren't so lucky.
Phoebe Kay is the pen name of a real person who did not want to disclose her identity.