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Deeply Leisured (2014)

QueenieBonBon via http://www.melbournefringe.com.au/
Queenie Bon Bon (Photo via the Melbourne Fringe website.)

Deeply Leisured, a one-woman show by local Melbourne talent Queenie Bon Bon that details the joys and battles of being a sex worker, played during this season’s 2014 Fringe Festival. I was fortunate enough to see one of the six nights of Queenie’s show—her final performance was last weekend. It’s always fun supporting a fellow sex worker (or a “co-ho,” as Queenie would say) with whatever they’re doing outside of their work, but I didn’t think it would be this much fun. Queenie narrated her short stories on her experiences as a stripper, brothel worker, and all-around fantasy maker. The performance took place in Melbourne’s historically queer Hares & Hyenas bookshop in trendy Fitzroy. She sat, illuminated in symbolic red light, on a desk decorated by books and miscellaneous items. She looked like a modern-day Aphrodite, with her beehive and dangling condom-pack earrings.

It was enthralling and relieving to listen to her hilarious diary-entry style recollections. Her portrayal of sex work, while still being personal to her, seemed to encompass every thought and feeling I’ve ever had about the profession. She managed to put a comedic spin on even the smallest details; from having worlds collide when your butt plug tumbles over your toothbrush in your bag while you’re on the phone with mum to stringing out a service to savor the opportunity to pick the brain of a knowledgeable client. Navigating the simplest things, like choosing which song you’re going to jerk your client off to, are skills specific to sex work, requiring a thought process non-sex workers are unaware of. All sorts of situations require sex worker troubleshooting, like suddenly having stage fright during a golden shower upon finding yourself gazing down at your client’s expectant eyes and ajar mouth.

The Big Ripoff: TER, The Texas Murder Aquittal, and the Myth of the Vulnerable Client

elms
Dave Elms, founder of The Erotic Review, possessor of a rap sheet documenting violent crimes and harassment against women.

In early 2010, Dave Elms, founder of the infamous website The Erotic Review (best known as the review site where clients rate prostitutes on a scale of 1-10), was arrested after talking to an undercover officer in an attempt to hire a hit man. Elms wanted to pay for the murder of an escort and the severe injury of a website founder who used his own forum to air the well-known but rarely publicized fact that Elms and other TER moderators extorted sex and/or money from escorts in exchange for maintaining their positive reviews. Elms was convicted of conspiracy to commit aggravated assault. This charge, to which he pled guilty, was one of many legal issues he faced at the time. He was already on probation for drugs and gun violations from 2006. Furthermore, Elms’ decision to pay for the killing of Jane Doe came on the heels of his outing her to her family, as well as publicizing her legal name and home address online in connection with her escort name. Murder: it’s for when relentlessly harassing a sex worker just isn’t enough.

Though it was only three years ago that David William Elms entered official records as a man willing to invest in murdering prostitutes, this information is rarely discussed anymore among online-advertising escorts, let alone among the clients who position TER as a defining force in their sex and social lives. TER chugs along like the profitable, amoral machine it is, unharmed by its somehow secret status as the most enduring and powerful product of a scummy, thuggish psychopath. The company itself “parted ways” with Elms after his 2009 arrest (that’s the one where he tried to engineer an escort’s death, if you’re having trouble keeping track). This is no more accurate than saying the United States “parted ways” with Thomas Jefferson after his slave-raping became public. A project cannot be cleanly extricated from the ideology of the person(s) who created it, no matter how convenient or fervent the dream of tie-cutting may be. If his legal conviction wasn’t evidence enough, Elms is also on record as conceiving TER in the crucible of his intense sense of entitlement and permanent grudge against sex workers.

The Eros Raid Means None of Us Are Safe

Three days ago, Eros-Guide’s call center in Youngsville, North Carolina, was raided by the Department of Homeland Security. On Tuesday morning at 10:30 AM, a dozen black government vehicles converged on parent company Bolma Star Service’s office and data center, beginning a search and seizure operation that would last into the night. They confiscated computers, documents, and servers. The search warrant is sealed in federal court, with officials offering no comment on the investigation besides the fact that it is an active investigation. All DHS agents will say is that they are often assigned to crossborder cases involving money laundering, cybercrime, and human trafficking. So we have no idea what their probable cause even is. No arrests have been made yet, or charges filed. But collectively, we sex workers shudder with that familiar fear: we’re witnessing yet another instance of an ominous multi-year pattern, from Craigslist to MyRedBook to Rentboy to Backpage, of our advertising platforms being raided or pressured out of existence.

Once again, some of us are left in desperate suspense, waiting to see if our business models are about to be disrupted; if we’re going to be left in economic turmoil. Sure, eros.com and the other Eros subsidiary sites are still up for the moment, but how secure are they to conduct business over now?

Over the past few years, Eros has required progressively more revealing ID checks in order to confirm advertisers are of age. Now those IDs, including those of migrant and undocumented sex workers, are in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security. Sure, if they use this evidence at all, the feds will probably just focus on those of us they can construe as traffickers—sex workers who own incalls for the use of other sex workers, for example. There’s probably no reason for most Eros users to panic about this. Still, having your real name, address, and ID number in the hands of DHS is a nightmare scenario in a profession where our survival depends on our anonymity.

When it comes down to it, though, as many Eros workers pointed out on social media, they’re more worried about being homeless than about the government having that information.

The rest of us look on with empathy, knowing that any day, we could be next. We all try not to think about how tenuous and transitory our ways of doing business are so that we can go through our days without feeling the paralyzing economic terror hitting many of us now. But when something like this happens, it’s difficult to avoid that hard fact.

When Backpage caved to government pressure and shut down its adult ads earlier this year, some middle and upper class escorts felt immune. They felt that the higher prices they were charged for ads on Eros and Slixa meant they were paying for security. They acquiesced to the ID checks those services innovated, trading in their anonymity for the hope that now their advertising platforms couldn’t be accused of trafficking minors the way Backpage has been. (Not that the ID submissions weren’t foisted upon them as one of an array of very few options.) But now that Eros has been hit, our higher end counterparts must recognize that none of us are safe. No matter what security measures we take, no matter how many layers of privilege might mitigate our grey market or black market status, at any point, criminalization can strip us of all of them and leave us economically and legally exposed.

“Pretty Woman” Is Real

Ahh, marital bliss.

If there’s one element Pretty Woman is most commonly maligned for, it’s the improbable ending of a street working prostitute whisked away by a filthy rich client. Civilians love to crow about how wildly unrealistic it is to think that a john will ever marry his sex worker and yeah, if you’re entering into sex work with the goal to use it as a dating service, you’re probably going to be a disappointed. That goes for clients and providers. But it’s not uncommon for sex workers to have romantic, unpaid relationships with men they first met as clients. I’ve been in just such a relationship for almost six years. And at last count, I know five married couples who fit the same bill. (I should stipulate that two of these are now divorced, which is consistent with the national average.) It’s not just escorts; strippers, too, can end up with a patron. Nor it is limited to folks who work indoors. A street worker I know spoke to me once about a burgeoning unpaid relationship with a former client, although she made it clear to me (and to him) that she had no intention of quitting work just because she began dating him.

That’s where Pretty Woman really gets it wrong: even when sex workers find a man willing to support them, they often want to keep working.

What the hell is going on with Backpage?

Did this promo code work for you? Let us know! (image via theconceptofawoman.tumblr.com)
Did this promo code work for you? Let us know! (image via theconceptofawoman.tumblr.com)

This week, after an informal request from a law enforcement officer, Visa and MasterCard announced that they would no longer let their cards be used to process payments to Backpage.com, the most widely used site for adult advertising in the United States. American Express had already pulled out earlier in the year. This leaves Bitcoin and prepaid Vanilla Visa gift cards as the only ways to pay for advertising on the site.

Like many ostensible anti-trafficking efforts, this will do very little to actually affect human trafficking. It will, however, impact free speech, and serve to make many sex workers’ lives more difficult.