Last week, the Urban Institute released a study sponsored by the Justice Department that focused on the underground commercial sex trade in eight major U.S. cities over approximately 10 years. While it was billed as a "landmark" report—first of its kind, etc.—it mostly revealed the government's ignorance about the complexities of the sex trade and the people operating within it (pimps, sex traffickers and prostitutes chief among them).
I should know. I've spent the last 20 years working as a sensual masseuse, dominatrix and/or stripper. And if that experience has taught me anything, it's that this study got pretty much everything about being a sex worker wrong.
Fast Cash Earned Is Spent Even Faster. Let's start with the one fact the study got right: Sex workers aren't great with money. Basically, they treat cash like catching snowflakes—it's gone before it even touches the ground. As the study points out, they also move around a lot, chasing job opportunities wherever they may present themselves (another city, another state, another country). They go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras. They head South for Nascar's Sprint Cup Season. They set up shop wherever the Super Bowl is being held. At these events, strippers and hookers can capitalize on big tourist crowds and double their money, walking away with approximately $500-$1,200 a night, depending on the club, atmosphere and their hustling skills.
Other Money Matters Aren't So Clear-Cut. The Urban Institute researchers attempted to follow the cash in order to track the financial impact of the sex trade nationwide and to gain an understanding of its operational structure. According to a handy New York Times bar graph, they discovered the following:
- Men in Dallas like their drugs and guns considerably more than their hookers.
- Men in Miami like their hookers considerably more than their drugs and guns.
- Men in Washington, D.C., like their drugs and hookers equally.
I'm not sure what to think about lumping together drugs and guns with sex work, but I guess I'll just blame Hollywood. The New York Times article begins with a compelling, yet dehumanizing and sad, declaration about a hypothetical street prostitute in Dallas making as little as $5 per sex act before stating that "pimps can take in $33,000 a week in Atlanta." The report itself states that the going rate for full-service sex nationwide is $150 per hour. White girls are pricier—unless its Veterans Day and they're running a special. No joke.
I've never met a $5 hooker, but Hollywood movies seem to crave that version so I thank the study for reinforcing the stereotype. Also: Interesting finding about the Veterans Day Special. The reality is that sex workers would only run a special like that if veterans were their gold-star VIP clients.
From my experience, the going rate for Hollywood Handshakes (hand jobs) in Los Angeles is about $200 per hour if the girl is not off the tracks. Posing naked, topless or doing full service goes for about $300 per hour. These are women who generally advertise online, operate alone and don't have pimps. They're musicians, students, aspiring fashion designers and freelance videographers, in case you were curious.
The Internet As Pimp. The main finding seems to be, "Hey, the internet has affected the sex industry a lot." Well, duh. The internet and mobile credit gizmos have entirely changed the game. But the report's proposed solution to upending the digital revolution within the sex industry—"impose more fines for ad host websites"—is sure to fail.
One thing to realize is that working girls are smart, and they will simply adjust their prices accordingly. Another thing to realize is that advertising on adult service websites like Backpage, Redbook or Eros.com is so cheap and simple that fines (no matter how severe) won't stop sex workers from using them. (Sex workers abandoned Craiglist long ago when vice cracked down in 2001.) There are other benefits to these sites, too. Online, working girls set their prices before they meet the client, which also can serve as a screening process to weed out the cheap or sketchy clients who will try to cut a deal.
In other words, a fine is just a slap on the wrist. Instead, the government needs to help sex workers help themselves and regulate this type of e-commerce. Speaking of regulation…
Other Misguided Solutions. The Urban Institute proposed two additional policies to better criminalize pimps and to protect minors from human-trafficking predators: (1) increase awareness among school officials and the general public about the realities of sex trafficking; and (2) consistently enforce the laws for offenders to diminish low-risk perception.
Here's the reality. You want real policy change? Legalize and regulate sex work. Incarcerate sexual predators. Provide financial assistance to sex workers who want to transition out of the industry. And allow for more resources to help women and children escape pimps and sex traffickers.
I'm talking about things like SafeNight, a new app developed by Caravan Studios. It helps provide victims of human trafficking and domestic violence with housing when shelters are full. It solves a real problem. Every day thousands of women are turned away from overcrowded shelters, and while some shelters will cover the cost of a hotel room when they're out of space, their funding to do so is limited. SafeNight allows individual donors to pay for hotel rooms through the app so victims of sex trafficking don't have to rely on their pimps or abuser for shelter. It also connects them with support services to help steer them away from the street life.
As for enforcing the laws for offenders, the actual scenario is much different than the Urban Institute thinks. If a hooker is an adult and picked up for solicitation, she's charged with prostitution—a misdemeanor. (If it's a repeat offense, it's a felony.) A big fine for solicitation means she's back on the track the same day in order to pay the fine (along with all of her other bills). And newsflash: An individual with little or no education who is making more than $100 an hour would be hard-pressed to flip burgers at minimum wage for her next job—even if getting caught resulted in serious prison time. It's a long road back into the straight world, and it takes a serious motherfucker to turn off that money faucet once it's full blown. It's like stopping a river.
Instead of arresting sex workers and fining them, programs should be developed that provide women with alternatives to sex work. Have you ever spoken to a woman who has been in the sex industry for a few years? Having the sexual power to procure cash from men over an extended period of time is like nurturing a crack habit. Sex workers need housing, counseling, job-readiness programs—i.e., the support it will take for them to rebuild their lives. The process could take years. They might even backslide and do some dirty while recovering from the lifestyle. This is normal, and it's particularly true of women who have been under the control of a pimp or abusive boyfriend and have been the earner in that dynamic for many years.
That's not an easy answer. But it's the truth. A truth—like many others—the Urban Institute missed.
Antonia Crane is a writer, adjunct professor and performer living in Los Angeles. Her memoir, Spent, about her mother's illness and the sex industry is now available. Follow her on Twitter @antoniacrane.
Photo by Alamy