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.
“I was getting ripped off,” Elms told MSNBC.com in 2006 with no further explanation of what “ripped off” might mean. In TER’s world, a ripoff can be a woman not looking like her pictures, asking for more money than her initial show-up fee to have intercourse, or not being a good enough lay. Given that Elms followed this statement by positing getting ripped off against getting “good service,” it’s probable he was referring not to a woman taking his money and running but rather taking his money and not performing to his sexual standards. In the words of MSNBC, this was about “protection”—for clients, not for workers. Elms added that TER is founded on his deep conviction that it’s important to “hold people accountable for their actions.” The person in this scenario is a prostitute, and the action is failing to provide outstanding sex to the specifications of a man who’s just handed over three 50s. TER’s “About Us” page makes no bones about it: “This site is here for one single reason: We all work hard for our money and we don’t want to waste it on someone who doesn’t deliver.”
Is any of this sounding familiar? It might ring a bell in the mind of Christmas Eve killer Ezekiel Gilbert, who, after yesterday, will enjoy a jail-free life in spite of murdering a young woman whom he paid $150 for—he thought—sex, and who allegedly did not deliver. It’s the ultimate meting out of accountability. When a whore doesn’t give a man what he wants, she deserves to be punished as severely as he sees fit. “DID YOU GET RIPPED OFF AGAIN?” asked one TER print ad. “Don’t let them get away with it.”
In his police interview, Gilbert “never mentioned anything about theft,” raising the question of what exactly it is he, like Elms, considers retaliation-worthy prostitute behavior, AKA a ripoff. What perceived slight cost Lenora Ivie Frago her life on December 24th 2009? We’ll never know. We do know, however, that when drug and gun charges were filed against Elms in 2006, a prostitute present for the arrest told police Elms had raped her at gunpoint. Elms maintained that he’d paid her $100 yet she wanted more money before she’d consent to sex. The deputy district attorney declined to press charges against Elms, citing a lack of evidence. Looks like yet another one of those devious prostitutes “got away with it.” (Does “it” mean “her life”?)
I’m going to keep this short because our lives are short: it’s time for sex workers to do some killing of their own. We need to kill this myth of the righteously aggrieved client once and for all. It’s a myth that enables men to blackmail, rob, rape, and kill sex workers. It is a shame when you pay for a service you don’t receive, but it happens all the time in all varieties of the service industry, and it shouldn’t ever foster vengeful attempts at singlehandedly policing every worker in an entire field.
I propose that from this point forward, we don’t let the letters “TER” go uttered even once without launching into a recounting of the information above. That we support and encourage our colleagues while they explore ways to work without reviews, or at the very least with reviews on sites acting as alternatives to TER. That we create our own alternatives. That we recognize and reject vampiric pimps in all their forms. (As Melissa Gira Grant once put it, Elms successfully “jockeyed to take the abusive middleman’s place.” Jason Itzler, the man who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from famous New York escort Natalia, praised Elms as “the most influential man in the prostitution business in America.”) That we don’t let a single client bemoan the risk he takes by submitting to a screening form when escorts are, indisputably, disproportionately, and aggressively targeted for arrest, police violence, extortion by friends and family, abuse from violent men posing as clients, and life-ruining stigma when outed. They do not suffer a fraction of what we suffer. That lie ends now.
Clients sometimes lose money. Sex workers regularly lose their lives. How should we rate that reality on a scale of one to ten?