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A double standard in enforcing prostitution laws: “It’s economically advantageous to have [high-end sex work] going on”

D.C. police routinely arrest streetwalkers & raid massage parlors, while leaving high-end independent escorts alone


Alison Bass
October 5, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law"

Maddy has a “date” Friday evening in Washington, D.C., with a high-ranking government official who saw her ad on eros.com, a popular website for escort ads. The hazel-eyed twenty-six-yearold from North Carolina (whom I met at the Desiree Alliance conference) is staying at a boutique hotel in Dupont Circle, and she has agreed to meet with me before her date. We decide to rendezvous at Kramer’s, a popular bookstore and eatery a few blocks from her hotel. Earlier in the day, she had called to move up our meeting because her client was thinking of booking extended time with her. So I rush over to Dupont Circle on the Metro, and as soon as I walk into Kramer’s, I get a text from her: “The timing didn’t work out so there’s no need to rush.” I text her back saying I’m already at Kramer’s and will wait for her here. What better place than a bookstore for dawdling?

Ten or fifteen minutes later, I get another text from Maddy: “I’m here.” A minute later, I discover her bent over behind a table of stacked books, changing from flats into high-heeled black pumps. She straightens up and grins. “You caught me in the act,” she says. Maddy, it seems, takes her persona as an enticing escort seriously.

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We grab one of the few unoccupied tables in the back room at Kramer’s, but Maddy orders only a coke. “I have serious food allergies,” she says. “But that’s okay. I’ll have a soda.”

She is dressed casually, in a light-pink tailored shirt and tight-fitting blue jeans; a gauzy white scarf is wrapped loosely around her neck. She is wearing no makeup, and she has tied back her flyaway blond hair in a loose braid. Even so, she looks model-fresh and exquisite, like a porcelain doll that could easily break.

Maddy says she comes to Washington, D.C., about once a month to see clients. Most of her clients are corporate executives and top government officials who have seen her ads—one recent ad she wrote described her as a “sharp wit in a soft body.” “This guy I’m seeing in a few hours, he found my ad a few months ago and finally got around to getting in touch,” she says. “According to a survey done by eros.com, most gentlemen will peruse a lady’s website five times before they actually contact her.”

Once a client contacts her, Maddy does her due diligence. “I never see clients I haven’t screened,” she says. “I find out where they work, and I can verify that they actually are who they say they are.”

This evening, Maddy will meet her gentleman caller at the boutique hotel where she is staying and spend two hours with him (for a set fee of $1,200), fulfilling any fantasies he might have. Going to a sex worker, she says, “is a safe place for [clients] to explore their desires, such as cross-dressing or getting fucked in the ass. I use a strap-on with a lot of my clients.” (A strap-on is a dildo that Maddy can strap around herself.)

Many married men choose to go to an escort rather than risk endangering their marriages with an affair. “We’re not going to call them, we’re not going to disrupt their marriage or their family,” Maddy says. “They love their wives, but they have physical needs.”

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After her business engagement, Maddy plans to have a late dinner and a “foursome with two men and another woman,” all three of whom she is friendly with. “These are all people I enjoy,” she says. They know what she does for a living and are not at all bothered by it, she adds.

Even though she has been working as an escort (on and off) for nine years, Maddy has never come close to being arrested. “I’m very careful. I never discuss money and I never count my money. I just leave it there until after the appointment is over,” she says. “I won’t compromise my safety.”

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As a stylishly dressed white woman catering to upper-class clients whom she has carefully screened, Maddy does in fact face little risk of being arrested. She herself is acutely aware that there is a double standard in the United States when it comes to enforcing the laws against prostitution. While the D.C. police routinely arrest streetwalkers and raid massage parlors in poor and mixed-income neighborhoods, they tend to leave high-end independent escorts like Maddy alone. Abolishing laws against prostitution would benefit streetwalkers the most, if only because they bear the brunt of law enforcement. “The practice is not to prosecute what isn’t seen,” Maddy says. “It’s economically advantageous to have [high-end sex work] going on.”

Maddy believes that many companies and government agencies are less likely to hold major conferences in places where prostitution laws are strictly enforced. And indeed, several gentlemen’s clubs (a euphemism for private clubs where men can drink, obtain lap dances, and meet sex workers) are openly advertised right next to the restaurant listings in Where magazine, one of the free publications on display in my Marriott Hotel room.

“[Going to an escort] is so prevalent among the upper level of government that if they really prosecuted it, it would collapse the government,” Maddy says, giggling. “My client list alone would be enough to put the country on hold for a few days.”

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The woman sitting at the table next to us is staring at her; it’s likely that she has overheard parts of our conversation. Maddy feels the intensity of her gaze and flushes. “I’m going to have to talk more quietly,” she says. “I have a loud voice.”

Like many other sex workers, Maddy doesn’t understand the distinction that society makes between men like Donald Sterling (the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers) who have a trophy girlfriend and pay all their expenses and then some, and men who spend a few hours with an escort like herself in exchange for compensation. “That is the only thing where two consenting adults can engage in something, but because money is involved, it’s suddenly illegal,” she says, her eyebrows drawn together into a dark-blond line. “What’s the difference between this and maintaining your younger girlfriend in an apartment?”

Four blocks to the west of Kramer’s, the sex industry assumes a decidedly different cast. A passerby would never know that on the fourth floor of a narrow building on Connecticut Avenue hides the office of FAIR Girls, the nonprofit organization that serves sexually exploited girls and young women. There are no signs outside or in the lobby announcing the organization’s presence. A prearranged appointment is required, and the door to the suite is locked. When the door is opened, I walk into a brightly lit room buzzing with young women; there are no men on the premises. Three young African American women are sitting around a conference table; they look up and smile at me brightly. A twenty-something woman rushes over and introduces herself as Teresa, the director of FAIR (Free, Aware, Inspired, and Restored) Girls. Teresa guides me through another room, containing a blanket-strewn sofa, a chair, and a small refrigerator, to a back office where Executive Director Andrea Powell is typing intently on her laptop. She looks up briefly and asks me to wait a few minutes until she finishes. She too looks young and is slender, with long blonde hair and bare legs under a short skirt. Two necklaces of brightly colored beads hang around her neck, made (I later learn) by the girls her organization helps.

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FAIR Girls provides services to girls and young women, age eleven to twenty-four, who are “survivors of sexual trafficking and labor exploitation,” Powell explains. “The average age of our clients is sixteen, and the average number of years they’ve been trafficked is four years.” FAIR Girls provides emergency housing, clothes, and food, along with counseling and legal support. It also helps its clients find jobs or schooling and teaches them the skills they need to become independent.

Powell founded FAIR Girls in 2004, a few years after she first stumbled across the problem of sexual exploitation, while doing a junior year abroad in Germany. In a German class, she met a sixteen-year-old Bosnian Muslim girl who had been sold by her family into servitude as the fourth wife of a much older man. The relationship had become abusive, and Powell and her new friend made plans for her to escape, but before they could put the plan in motion, the girl disappeared. “I traveled to Bosnia to find her, and while I was there I saw a lot of girls and young women engaging in what you could call survival sex—this was not long after the Yugoslav war,” which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, Powell says. “I also saw what I think was some trafficking.” She never did find her friend.

After Powell returned to the United States and graduated from Texas State University, she started FAIR Girls in Boston, initially working with young women who had been trafficked to the United States from abroad. But when she moved to Washington, D.C., she started hearing more about domestic youth being exploited. “We now serve upwards of 125 to 150 girls a year,” Powell says. “Over 90 percent are American citizens.” Most of the girls have run away from abusive situations at home or in foster care. The work Powell and her employees do involves everything from helping their charges get their records expunged—laws in many states now allow sex workers to get convictions expunged from their records if they can prove they have been trafficked—to getting them back home or into school.

FAIR Girls also runs an “empowerment” program that teaches the girls how to make jewelry. “They earn a small amount of money, but more importantly, their self-esteem goes through the roof,” Powell says. “We have an annual gala, and the girls sell the jewelry they made. Fesha, the young woman from Kenya, made a necklace that Rose [DeLauro], the congresswoman from Connecticut, bought. That made her feel so great.”

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Powell works closely with local police, since they are the ones who often refer clients to her organization. But she doesn’t think sex workers of any age should be arrested, and her organization (along with others that work with exploited youth) is currently pressing for the passage of a bill, known as Safe Harbor, that would prohibit the arrests of minors involved in commercial sex in Washington, D.C. Safe Harbor laws have already been passed in other states, including New York, Washington State, and Illinois. “Criminalizing those who are being sold is just retraumatizing the victims and pushing them further underground,” Powell says.

Like other nonprofits, FAIR Girls finds that working with law enforcement can be a double-edged sword, since many teenagers from dysfunctional families have had run-ins with the law and don’t trust the police. Powell, who is now thirty-four and married, says she can also do without the teasing from some cops. “I have a standing fight with one detective, who calls me ‘Rescue Barbie,’” she says. “I tell him I know how to tweet and he doesn’t, and one of these days something I say about him is going to go viral.”

Unlike some antitrafficking proponents, Powell recognizes the difference between trafficking and prostitution. “Prostitution is a crime in which a person is selling sex on their own and there’s not any force, fraud, or coercion,” she says. But then she adds, “If the majority of our clients were between thirteen and twenty-four when they first got coerced into [sex work], the concept of choice gets pretty blurry.” For that reason, she supports laws that would criminalize buyers, particularly those who have sex with underage girls and boys. “Someone who buys sex from a sixteenyear-old and does it more than once, that’s not a john, that’s a serial child pedophile,” Powell says. “They need to be held accountable.”

Sex workers’ rights advocates agree that it should be illegal to buy or sell sex involving underage prostitutes. However, several studies have found that blanket laws criminalizing the buyers of sex from adult prostitutes only expose sex workers to greater violence and make it more difficult for them to practice safe sex.1 For that reason, many academics who study the sex industry are opposed to overly broad laws that make it illegal to buy or sell sex.

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Researchers, antitrafficking groups, and sex worker advocates all agree that sanctions against violent pimps and coercive traffickers should be increased but diverge widely on the definition of a trafficker and on the question of who should be subject to criminal penalties. Many states currently criminalize anyone who lives off the earnings of a prostitute, which means that a nonabusive boyfriend or husband or even a roommate can be arrested and charged with pandering, pimping, or trafficking. Some researchers say such overly broad laws should be repealed because they make it more difficult for sex workers to work safely with people who know when and where they are selling sex and who can be summoned if help is necessary.

“Punishment should be restricted to those who are violent or coercively exploitative—for example, forcing a person to work at certain times, to earn a certain amount of money before she or he can leave work, to perform disliked sex acts, and so on,” says Ronald Weitzer, the sociology professor at George Washington University who has studied the sex industry for years.

Weitzer and other respected researchers favor a relatively open system that decriminalizes sex work but also subjects it to some restrictions, akin to New Zealand’s approach. Such a hybrid system of semiregulation would permit the licensing of both large, corporate-run brothels (like Sheri’s Ranch in Nevada) and smaller, cooperative brothels, where a number of sex workers could band together, rent an apartment, and hire a manager to screen calls and make appointments for them. The brothels themselves would be licensed and taxed, but individual workers would not be required to register.

“Escorts want to be able to work just like any other business, but they don’t want to go through any kind of licensing,” says Barbara Brents, the sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has written several books about prostitution. “And when you’re working the streets to escape an abusive husband and feed your kids, who wants to register?”

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In countries where prostitution is legal and individual sex workers are required to register (for example, Germany), many refuse to do so and continue to work illegally, which defeats the purpose of decriminalization. Instead of a requirement that individual sex workers register (and be exposed to public stigma), researchers who study the issue say that brothels and other venues (for example, massage parlors and private clubs) should be licensed, taxed, and inspected regularly, like any other business. And if such businesses violate the law (by hiring minors or illegal immigrants or exploiting their workers), they should be shut down. Even though independent sex workers like Maddy should not have to get licensed, they should still be required to pay taxes and could list their occupation as escort. (Maddy already pays taxes now, but on tax forms, she lists her occupation as a model and translator.)

Like many other sex workers, Maddy supports decriminalizing prostitution but is adamantly opposed to a legal approach that permits only the kind of heavily regulated prostitution found in Nevada’s brothels. “If it’s heavily regulated, we’ll be targeted and further marginalized,” she says. “We’d be relegated to red-light districts, to strip clubs that are in the poorest, most crime-ridden areas.” Or to brothels in the desert that are an hour away from any urban centers.

Some researchers agree. As Weitzer notes in his 2012 book, “the less onerous and costly the regulations, the smaller the illegal sector [of sex workers],” and he points out that the latter is virtually nonexistent in New Zealand.

Taking another page from New Zealand’s bold experiment, researchers suggest that policy makers take into account the voices of sex workers themselves as well as the views of local residents, who know what may be best for their neighborhoods. “The fear is that the politically savvy men who make the laws are listening to the voices of people with a lot of capital and resources instead of listening to people who actually do the work,” Brents says.

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If federal and state prohibitions against adult consensual prostitution were removed, it would be up to local municipalities to decide how they want to regulate the commercial sex trade. “Every area might come up with something a little different,” Brents says, again echoing the approach in New Zealand and the Netherlands of putting control in the hands of local counties or municipalities. All municipalities would probably prohibit sexually oriented businesses from locating near schools and playgrounds, and some might also ban street prostitution, as Amsterdam has done.

Adopting New Zealand’s hybrid approach to regulating prostitution would bring millions of dollars into local government coffers in licensing fees and taxes from brothels, massage parlors, and escort services. Much as the legalization of marijuana in a growing number of states has done, it would take money away from the criminal element (in this case, exploitative pimps and traffickers) and put it into the hands of sanctioned businesses, individual women, and regulatory agencies. A recent study in Britain suggests that legalizing and taxing brothels and other places of prostitution would boost that country’s gross domestic product by at least $8.9 billion.

When New Zealand removed prohibitions against adult consensual prostitution, the same legislation officially recognized sex work as legitimate work, thus according its participants the rights and protections available to workers in other occupations. As a result, sex workers Down Under can sue brothel owners for harassment or exploitation, and have done so successfully. Weitzer suggests that the United States remove such prohibitions as well, so that sex workers can better protect themselves from exploitation and the pressure to practice unsafe sex. Indeed, during the period when Rhode Island unintentionally decriminalized indoor prostitution, the state saw a steep decline in reported rapes and cases of gonorrhea.

Experts also suggest that local government encourage safe sex practices and regular health exams, but not mandate them (as currently required in Nevada’s brothels). “Compulsory testing for sexually transmitted infections stigmatizes sex workers, tests are not always accurate, and testing clean on a certain day may give the false impression that a person is sexually healthy afterward,” Weitzer says. Instead, he recommends that local health officials conduct safe-sex outreach education with sex workers and clients and encourage regular exams and free testing, as they do in the Netherlands and New Zealand, which don’t mandate testing and have very low rates of HIV infection.

Mandatory testing may actually increase the danger of sexually transmitted disease transmission, according to some. As Lenore Kuo, the professor of women’s studies and philosophy at California State University, Fresno, writes:

In reality, medical exams simply force prostitutes who are infected to work in an illegal venue, where they are often more likely to infect their clients due to the related difficulties of practicing “safe” sex. In Nevada, as in other jurisdictions, there is a common tendency for many men to offer prostitutes bribes not to use condoms. Regulations requiring medical testing of prostitutes are only likely to increase this tendency because they lead to the false expectation that the prostitute is disease-free. It is quite possible that a prostitute has been exposed to an STD [sexually transmitted disease] since her most recent test. . . . There is therefore no clear value in such tests but significant danger in encouraging clients to believe that prostitutes are disease-free.

Both Weitzer and Kuo make persuasive arguments that criminalizing prostitution is a failed and dangerous strategy. It doesn’t reduce the prevalence of sex work, and it clearly harms the women who do it. Arresting prostitutes heightens their isolation and estrangement from family and friends and makes it very difficult for them to seek other types of employment. Kuo notes that “criminalization also strengthens the prostitutes’ dependence on pimps, who will post bail, arrange child care, and obtain legal counsel when they do get arrested.”

Women who are not sex workers are also threatened by a culture that allows sexual predators to kill with impunity and views prostitution as something dangerous and forbidden. Kuo argues that “women will never be normalized, will never cease being ‘other’ until sex and sexual activity are normalized. And sex and sexual activity will never be normalized until the sale of sexual activity is normalized (and vice versa).”

On a more pragmatic level, decriminalizing adult consensual prostitution would allow law enforcement to focus on violent crimes and what both sex worker advocates and antitrafficking proponents consider a priority: prosecuting pimps who exploit underage youth and traffickers who force illegal immigrants into the sex trade. Many researchers argue that decriminalization would make it easier for victims and clients to report abuse to the police without the fear of being arrested themselves. “Sex workers would be much more likely to come forward if you just talk to them than if you arrest them,” says John Lowman, the criminology professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “If there’s an adversarial relationship between prostitutes and the police, they’re not going to solve anything.”

*

Back at Kramer’s Bookstore, Maddy is getting restless. Earlier in the interview, watching me scribble away in a notebook, she admitted, “I’m a little nervous talking to you.” Now, in response to my questions about her future, she says she won’t be doing sex work for much longer. “The work I do is a wonderful fit, but it’s not forever,” she says. “It’s like modeling or sports.”

At the time of the interview, Maddy was about to complete a bachelor’s degree and had already been accepted into several M.B.A. programs. She tells me that when she starts graduate school, she will probably stop doing sex work. “The economy has tanked, so there’s less of a demand for luxury goods,” she says, implying that this may be a good time for her (as a luxury item) to get out of the business. She bends over and changes back into her flats. Then she abruptly stands up. “I really have to go,” she says and, with a quick wave of her hand, flies out the door.

Excerpted from "Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law" by Alison Bass. Published by ForeEdge, an imprint of University Press of New England. Copyright © 2015 by Alison Bass. Used with permission of University Press of New England.


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