I remember when I realized you could legally advertise escorting.
I was 19 years old and thumbing through the yellow pages, sitting on the bed of a man who was generously offering to let me stay the night at his place, under certain conditions. After auto but before plumbing was a sheaf of full-page ads with stylized T&A smudgily reproduced. The phone numbers were in huge type. There was very little other information. "It's legal to charge for your time, so it's legal to advertise," he explained, edging closer.
There were so many pages that the section made a dark stripe in the spine. I noted the thickness, the percentage of the book it constituted. So many ads, multiplied by so many men calling, multiplied by so much money. Economies—of scale and otherwise—became clear to me.
For years, my sketchy friend was correct: The websites and magazines used by independent escorts to set up their bookings have been protected by the First Amendment. But the internet's clickable red-light district has come under fire lately, most recently with the arrest of male escort site Rentboy.com's CEO and six employees last week. If they're convicted, the precedent could spell the end of certain types of advertising, which has depended on the use of particular euphemisms and specific practices. It will not stop people paying for sex, nor people selling it—sex workers and clients have been finding each other for a very long time, and there are always the same old shadows to duck back into.
What is it like to belong to an industry where one of the benchmarks for success is not getting arrested, where you know that you can never call the police?
Rentboy was operating not with impunity, but with a seeming lack of shame. With men assumed to be exempt from the specter of trafficking, it seemed that law enforcement would let sex-positive adults make their own choices. I envied that openness at the Hookies—international escort awards—in March, when I didn't know Rentboy was under investigation. My work as an escort and an agency partner has been more consciously covert. But despite my current legal status (fingers crossed!), I can report that hiding in plain sight brings you down.
What is it like to belong to an industry where one of the benchmarks for success is not getting arrested, where you know that you can never call the police? I've had illegal jobs for so long that I take concealment as a given. In uncertain situations, I go mute. I can attribute any investigative skills I possess to years of verifying potential clients' identities. I drive two miles over the speed limit, in an un-flashy car, with working brake lights. Those precautions have become part of who I am: guarded and fundamentally skeptical, with a strict hygiene of trust. I don't mind having picked up those traits. Anyone's life is easier to navigate if you watch your ass and your spidey sense goes to 11. But precautions, while essential, don't cover all the bases, and they don't mitigate the negative effects of having to work below the law.
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A week after my Yellow Pages epiphany, I got an interview with the third agency I called. It was the first that didn't hang up on me for having a young voice and asking dumb questions. My appointment was a day later, and would, I assumed, consist of the third-degree about which sex acts I would and would not perform, how best to perform them, and if I could magically get better hair.
The interview took three minutes and was as G-rated as a kindergarten bus ride. We covered transportation, credit card payments, and schedule. My interviewer was a dramatically thin woman, monochrome, a wood-colored tan the same shade as her hair. She smoked clove cigarettes and projected immense self-possession and anxiety, which I had previously thought were mutually exclusive traits. As the interview wound up and I didn't arrest her, she relaxed. Her final question to me was, "You know what this is, right?" I did. Sort of.
That night I had my first booking.
Many sex workers start with as little information as I did, and pick up their knowledge piecemeal. The learning curve is steep, but sometimes not steep enough. Younger sex workers are frequently not skilled at setting boundaries and enforcing them. Learning on the job is tricky. The only other person in the room may have goals in opposition to fostering their partner's own personal riot grrrl. Most clients are not consent violators, but they are about as crappy at sexual communication and reading body language as most people. The legal prohibitions that led to me meeting my first client green, with no information, are still in place today. They prevent sex workers from knowing what to expect, getting the training they need, and from speaking freely about what they do and don't want to do. This necessarily leads to unpleasant experiences.
The stakes are high when you're openly operating a business where it's a crime to sell something but legal to give it away.
Having been on the other side of that scratched laminate table, I know that my first madam didn't have much of a choice when she let me sink or swim. Two years after that interview, newly moved to New York, I got a job answering an agency's phone. One of the first things I learned was to never discuss specifics. Payment for time is legal. Payment with even a vague promise of sexual behavior is not. The way my new boss put it was, "These girls aren't prostitutes. They're just women who get paid to hang out, because they're beautiful—and they all happen to be giant sluts, but that's their business." Vocal temperance is rule number one, and two, and three. There are very few other rules. The stakes are high when you're openly operating a business where it's a crime to sell something but legal to give it away. My first and second days, I worked under the watchful eye of the agency owner, who gave me a list of words and phrases I was forbidden to utter: sex, full service, pimp, and any mention of specific activities (even as acronyms) were not permitted. If those words were used, I was to hang up.
When women had issues, they tried to communicate what was wrong in code. This was hair-raising: picking up the phone to a crying, inarticulate woman whom you last sent into an enclosed space with an unknown man tests the iciest cool. Fortunately, no one I worked with was ever hurt. One time my friend Hanna called me from the street, very upset, but resigned. After an abbreviated performance on his part, her client had turned surly and said that he wanted half of his hourly fee back. She explained that that wasn't how it worked. Upon reaching the street, she checked her bag and found that he had corrected the alleged financial injustice himself. I called the client repeatedly. When he picked up, he chose a good offense as his defense, screaming into the phone, and I let him go off. But when he asked if I knew who he was, I found my leverage. I don't remember what I said, but two minutes later, Hanna called back, incredulous, to report that the client had come to the street in his boxers to give her the balance.
Intimidation worked. It was our only tool, so it had to.
A year or so later, the business restructured, and I was a partner, which meant interviewing dozens of women who wanted work. Taking on new talent is historically how agencies get busted, as the madam doesn't come into contact with clients directly, and in a properly-run business the women don't know the location of the office. The women I interviewed were all taciturn and wary, as was I, with one exception: a beautiful brunette I met at a coffee shop. Her questions immediately made her as an undercover. I told her that she must have gotten the wrong idea, and left terrified and shaky, looking over my shoulder for a week.
By the time the agency collapsed, all that looking over my shoulder had changed me. There was a focus to illegal work that justified all my bad behavior. My unequivocal first priority was not getting busted. Everything else was secondary: making money, relationships with partners, politeness, health. I was most afraid of the swiftness with which I knew the worst would come. There's no do-over to fucking up and suddenly being cuffed, and for most people, there's no warning. You think you're annoyed that your lunch delivery is taking so long or your boyfriend didn't take out the trash, and five minutes later nothing will be the same. With disaster as the worst case scenario, putting things into perspective was easy, and that gave me leave to be a dick. When challenged, I would point to one of my three cell phones and ask if I could get some space to concentrate.
Even now, setting this information into black and white alarms me, even though I just googled "statute of limitations." I filter everything through an apocryphal flow chart of legal assumptions, the same as most sex workers. I buy advertising with my credit card, I have a domain registered to my name, and I feel safe because it's common to do so, but not because I have certainty. It's an insecure position on which to base one's finances and freedom.
Rentboy's employees were not following my agency boss's protocol. But we were an escort service, not an ad site. Setting up appointments could get you arrested, but providing a platform for independent contractors to advertise themselves has been, for the most part, fair play. Rentboy has been around since 1997. When I read that it went down, my first three emails had the subject line, "What the hell is going on?" Clearly, what can be safely said and done has shifted in a way no one could have predicted—how else do you explain a 20-year-old site being the focus of the anti-terrorist arm of the federal government?
It was a strange feeling, walking out of society, away from law and accountability, away from being able to call 9-1-1.
Most escorts I know are most concerned with legal safety, but there are other, more serious, dangers. When I walked into that first house, I was aware that if something happened to me, I was on my own. It was a strange feeling, walking out of society, away from law and accountability, away from being able to call 9-1-1. I would be lying if I didn't say there was something exhilarating about it, but I was a dumb 19-year-old kid.
Years later, I found myself in a room with a very large man with not great intentions. I remember looking him in the face and realizing that beating up women like me was his kink. He was prepared in a way that I was not; he had a script in his head, one that ended in me hurt, him leaving quietly, and it ending there, no repercussions.
You never know how you're going to feel in advance. In this case, I decided to eat his face. My bloodstream chimed in with high-intensity chemicals, and suddenly I felt very positive about the situation. I would likely get badly damaged, but he was going to get rocked in the process. There would be no calmly putting on his jacket and walking through the soft falling snow to the train. I was not a supporting actor, whore or no.
He left at that point. When the adrenaline drained, I was shaky but numb. There was nothing to think about. I was hungry. I knew that I was lucky, and I didn't want to be lucky.
I wanted to be a person who could call the cops.
The Rentboy arrests are an interesting contrast to the recent Amnesty International sex work decriminalization report, which recommended the full removal of penalties for all people involved in the sex trade. It was written because of stories far, far worse than mine, consequences far more severe seen by people with far less power and choice. It was written because there is sex work all over the world, and it's dangerous. Despite the fact that the report also urged continued and redoubled prosecution of trafficking, it has been challenged on the grounds that legalization would lead to increased coercive sex.
My experience runs counter to that. It helps the most vulnerable to be able to call the police, to be able to get out of the shadows. I break the law because I profit from doing so. I'm paid combat wages for risk, and would probably lose money if sex work was legal. But somewhere, right now, there is a man with a script, and there is a woman who knows she can't call the police. Not everyone is lucky.
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