The sex worker blame game has become an increasingly popular trend as evidenced by recent news stories. In the past several weeks, we saw strip club customer Wa Ilg join numerous other customers in suing strip clubs for stunningly high bar and dance tabs for which they claimed they were not responsible because of over-intoxication. In San Antonio, an accountant was convicted for embezzling money to pay for his “stripper addiction” and the judge in Kenneth Star’s ponzi scheme trial somehow managed to partly blame his despicable and greedy behavior on his infatuation with his young stripper wife. These women somehow become the scapegoats for their customers’ behavior and, in retribution, they are forced to pay it back in either shame or cold hard cash. The story that really takes the cake comes from deep inside the bowels of the most popular children’s toy store, Toys R Us. The summarized version goes like this: A director at Toys R Us embezzles millions of dollars and spends it on prostitutes and partying. This guy, Paul Hopes, gets caught and one of his favorite prostitutes, Dawn Dunbar, is dragged into court where an incredulous judge asks her how she can justify the amount of money she received. He orders the money and property she bought with it confiscated. Charlotte and I, a prostitute and a stripper respectively, discuss this article, sex worker responsibility, and so much more:
S: Why don’t you break down the outrage. Bullet points or something.
C: Well, I’ve never been able to articulate this in a concise way, but I think a lot of people object to sex work in a way that is really more about their issues with capitalism. By which I mean, they complain that sex work is exploitative because some sex workers need to work to pay bills and survive. But most people work jobs they don’t like to pay bills and survive! They get angry at excess even if that excess is what the markets will bear—so when an escort is charging $1,000 an hour, there’s a sort of “burn the witch” reaction, though it makes no sense to be angry with this woman for naming what her time and sexual labor are worth. The media’s always fascinated with expensive prostitutes and drawn to the idea of glamorous lifestyles and purchases, but simultaneously angry that a woman thinks she’s worth that much.
S: Right, it’s like sex workers are held to a different standard about how we should enjoy our work or charge for our work or even think about our work. I think the “whore with the heart of a gold” archetype is really strong in civilian minds.
C: Absolutely. How does anyone who provides a service arrive at their rate? They figure out what the market can bear. They assess what they’ve invested in acquiring their skills and what those skills are worth (i.e. the demand). In this specific situation, the judge actually said to the woman, “How do you manage to evaluate your services—sex—at £20,000 a week? How do you justify that?” It’s like well, jackass, she found someone to pay it—that’s how! That’s how our economy works. Just because he personally wouldn’t spend that much on that woman doesn’t mean her services aren’t worth that much.
It’s like baseball cards or old coins or stamps. Intrinsically those items are worthless. They’re only worth something because some people are willing to pay something. It reminds me of something Catherine said about Ashley Dupre, and how she was excoriated for charging too much; well, what would you have wanted for four hours of sex with Eliot Spitzer? What price is fair for your sexual labor?
S: We’re starting very macro. Demand and supply and capitalism in sex work.
C: What would this judge want in exchange for providing seven days of sex to someone? If they offered him $20,000, would he be like, “Oh no way, that’s far too much? I’m definitely not worth that!”
S: Ha! That’s what Miss Dunbar’s defense should have been. I think it’s interesting that the judge used the word “gift” to justify why she couldn’t keep the money. He suggested that she was not compensated, she was gifted the money.
C: Right. And because of the illicit and often illegal nature of prostitution, escorts may try to talk about gifts and donations instead of fees or rates to elide the directness of the exchange.
S: Exactly what was written about in the post, Language of Selling Yourself.
C: It’s interesting that for once an escort was telling the court, no, this was a direct exchange. She said, “Everything I received was a payment for my escort services and for him to see me exclusively.” I’m wondering if the exclusivity of the arrangement, which was something he would have paid more for (and should have paid more for) is what allowed the judge to claim that she was more of a mistress than an employee?
S: And sometimes I do receive what might appear to novices as gifts (i.e. gift boxes of jewelry) but for me that is not a gift, that’s payment for the hours of time I sat with my annoying customer not getting paid at all, because I only get paid for lap dances. Don’t your clients give you “extra” gifts/tips also? Which reminds me that when a waitress gets a tip, which is “given” to her, she still earned it, but according to the judge when a sex worker gets a tip, it’s unearned.
C: I think it keeps the nature of being a gift sometimes (not a tip) but that the gift is given within the context of a transactional relationship, which may make it different. I’m thinking now about “gift exchanges” where two people are basically required to spend money on each other because they work in the same office or something. It’s an interesting idea, is something still a gift if it’s part of an exchange? I guess to me, that’s not the nature of a true gift but either way, giving an item (or money) to someone makes it theirs.
S: Here’s the exact quote: “Most of the money was given to Miss Dunbar and not earned by her, and could therefore be confiscated.” I found it pretty interesting to see how the journalists who covered this story were especially dismayed that he didn’t give the stolen money to his wife, as if that would have made it all better.
C: I think the judge’s true stance is that sexual labor is not “real” labor, as you pointed out above.
S: I wonder about the employees who got all their money jacked by the Toys R Us ass hat. I’m feeling kind of sorry for all the money that someone got screwed out of somewhere, probably, and I think maybe Miss Dunbar does have a human responsibility to give some of it back. Am I doing the “whore with the heart of gold” projection, here? I mean if Toys R Us Ass Hat had given great quantities of money to anyone (waitress, hairdresser, etc.) I’d be like, oh shit, can we get that money back to the people he stole it from?
C: Well, with property it’s easy, they can repossess stuff and sell it, but even then not for the original value. You wouldn’t go to a car dealership and say, this criminal bought a new car from you and now it’s got 100k miles on it but we want a full refund. I’m trying to think of a non sex worker equivalent where he could have spent a lot of money on a service….
OK, so if he loved puppet shows…
S: At the same time, though, I can sort of see the argument that if I did a bunch of work and got paid with stolen money, it’s still my work and I want that fucking money. I shouldn’t just give it back because it was stolen.
C: If he’d hired a live-in personal chef, it wouldn’t be right to say, “Sorry, all that labor was free because the money was stolen.” With Bernie Madoff, authorities confiscated all of his assets but they didn’t retrace his steps to every massage or expensive dinner, or personal car service, and demand back money from anyone he tipped or paid directly for their work.
S: Right. Oh damn, you left the puppet metaphor. I was so excited for that. Maybe we’ll find a way to return to that later.
C: It’s my personal daydream, this guy sitting in his living room and clapping his hands in joy at the puppet show. Shouting “again, again!” Poor puppeteer, no way the judge is going to agree his services are worth 20k either.
Either way, taking the money back or leaving it with who he paid, someone is getting screwed. Taking the money back creates another theft.
S: Right. That’s why stealing sucks.
C: We’ve made a lot of progress here today!
S: Which is sort of what this whole article missed…
C: Yes. This man was the one who did something wrong, not the woman he hired.
S: That’s what has been pissing me off lately, all these articles focused on the sex work rather than on the ass hat customers who are going to be ass hats either way. They’re not getting wasted drunk because of the strippers in the club and they’re not embezzling millions of dollars because of the brothel they visit.
C: They’re doing it because they have issues with self control and ethics. These women aren’t pickpockets, they’re trying to work. So when someone comes in and wants to pay them, that’s not a red flag. That’s what’s supposed to happen.
S: Exactly. And not all customers are that way, obviously, so it’s not like we as sex workers only attract the ass hats either. In a way, these articles both damn sex workers and give sex workers super human powers. We drive men to such lengths of insanity that they’ll embezzle millions of dollars of children’s toys. Um, sorry, no, they showed up at the door this way.
C: There’s a lot of misogyny in it. You can tell that part of the reaction is “these money hungry vultures.”
S: So true. The age old finger-pointing accusation that we do it for the money. To which, we calmly reply…. Duh. Of course.
C: It’s so funny to me when radical feminists complain about sex workers making men think that women are always sexually available to them. Um, not when there’s a price on it we aren’t! Because if you’re broke, it’s not happening. In what universe does every man always have expendable income?
S: And, of course, when we demand money we sacrifice our heart of gold, which seems to be the only way mainstream society can swallow our behavior.
C: Yes, there was definitely some of that in the way the judge reprimanded the woman, an implication that she should feel guilty for accepting so much money for her sex and time and attention and exclusivity. Which presumably, to the judge, is not worth much.
S: So here’s another heart of gold question, I’ve been having: At what point do sex workers as sexual providers have to deal with sex addiction? For instance, if we have a customer who is displaying all the signs of addiction to what we provide, are we obligated to cut the supply? I know that bartenders will kick out alcoholics after too many drinks but mostly, because they don’t want them to pass out on the floor and obstruct business.
C: Yeah, or implicate the bar when they drive drunk and get into an accident.
S: Right. Well there’s a sex and love addicts anonymous group. My understanding is that addiction to anything is when it fucks up the rest of your life.
C: If there’s such a thing as sex addiction, there must be such a thing as food addiction, right? And would restaurants be denying or turning away people who visited regularly or ordered big meals?
S: “No, you cannot have the Big Mac, I’m only serving you french fries today, fatty. That’ll be a dollar at the window.”
C: I mean say a bulimic wanted to sue a Ben and Jerry’s because she would pig out there and then throw up. We’d be like, “That’s crazy.” Or say a puppeteer…
S: If you start a puppet anonymous group, I’ll be your first member. Those double jointed superstars really do me in.
C: My general attitude is that there are some people in the world who have no moral compass, no sense of responsibility, and will exploit everyone they can. Some of those people are sex workers but way more of them are bankers and CEOs and so on. But I think most people want to do the right thing and if it seems like a guy is ruining his life trying to see you, you’ll try to talk to him about it and get him to stop. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever been in that position.
S: Yeah, have you?
C: A few times. When I worked on webcam, there were a lot of guys who were seriously broke and kept scraping together money for shows or racking up credit card debt. But in person, no one’s ever been so forthcoming about their finances. Although I have been told sometimes that they’ve been laid off.
S: I’ve been semi-close, I think, but the guy’s life was miserable to begin with so it was hard to tell.
C: Yes! It’s really hard to be the one taking their biggest joy away from them. Everyone deserves some release (I don’t mean that in a purely sexual way). If you’re living in your parent’s basement, which several of my webcam customers were, and you’re too shy to talk to any women in person and your happiest moment of the day is talking to this pretty girl online… I don’t know. I feel like it’s not for me to tell them, “pull yourself together! Start exercising more and save money so you can get your own place.”
S: I guess, you’re right, we want all people to have a moral compass of some sort (sex workers included) but we can’t really be prescriptive about it. If the bartender keeps serving beer to an alcoholic and the sex worker keeps sleeping with a client who seems to be a sex addict, it’s sad, but it’s not illegal. And it doesn’t mean that the bartender or the sex worker hasn’t earned the money, fair and square.
C: It’s like—have you ever had a client who seemed to be kind of a pedophile?
S: I actually haven’t (thankfully).
C: When I was on webcam this guy would talk to me about how I reminded him of his daughter who was like, pre-pubescent. I could never tell if he was just trying to upset me or if he was being serious, and if he was being serious if I was feeding into something evil or if I was giving him an outlet to not do something evil. I think most sex workers, when faced with stuff like that, want to do the right thing. We’re not like, fuck everyone else in the world, if I’m getting paid I don’t care!
S: Yeah, that’s tough.
C: But life is messy, sex is really messy. The idea that we can work under only the most perfect conditions is insane, no one can.
S: So true. I’ve been reluctant to try on phone sex operating because of just that. Strip club guys are mostly vanilla.
C: Think about how much debt people wrack up from impulse shopping. What can a department store do? Make them present a record of their finances before they’re allowed to make purchases? There’s a point where personal responsibility has to kick in.
S: I do agree with your shopping department analogy. Sex workers shouldn’t be charged with healing the world. And before, all the strippers tell me I’m crazy, I’ll just say, my strip club guys are vanilla.
Anyways, we can probably conclude…
C: Stealing is bad, sex workers are good? I think that was the take away.
S The judge is a jerk and at the same time accurately symbolic of civilian thinking about sexwork. Some people have hearts of gold, some of them are sex workers and some are not and some are CEO’s while most are not.
S: Sex is messy. Puppets are addicting.
C: Some people got their hearts of gold when a corrupt company president bought it for them…and now it must be returned
S: Oh snap.
Post script: Another hearing for Hopes’ second favorite prostitute, Tanya Wieck, is upcoming.
Nice post! I think the judge’s ruling is horrible and I really feel for the woman that happened to.
My first and most devoted regular customer was a homeless man who lived in his car. He was highly educated with a post-graduate degree but unemployed/underemployed, and was on a waiting list for Section 8 housing. He’d come into the club once a week or so, get one glass of juice, stay for several hours, and spend between $60 and $200 on me.
It was a weird situation, but I didn’t feel like it was my place to tell him how to spend his money—for more than the obvious selfish reason. If spending time with me, having good conversations, affection and attention was making him happy and less lonely, I can understand why someone would want to do it. I don’t think it’s sex workers’ responsibility to help men budget their money. I would never take advantage of him of course, but as long as I’m being honest I think I’m being ethical.
I was talking to another customer once (a pretty high spender) who said he didn’t like it when strippers thought they were “hustling” men. He found that sentiment degrading and said he knew full well what he was spending his money on; no one was manipulating him.
The fact that the Toys R Us guy was embezzling money makes the situation more complicated, though, but I really feel for that poor woman who ended up working for free. That’s awful.
We didn’t get to this in our conversation but another similarity to the Ashley Dupre story is that Miss Dunbar, a full figured and not-so-young woman, also got a lot of flack for her looks. One of the articles I read about this story had several commenters saying shitty things like, “After seeing those photos, she ought to have paid him for sex.” Nasty comments like this get back to what Charlotte said in the beginning of our conversation about how outsiders (like the judge) have the audacity to think they should be the ones determining the price rather than 1) the market and 2) the individual agreement between the client and the service provider.
Great point: “It’s really about their issues with capitalism.” We have so many scapegoats–anything to avoid the real shit that makes us miserable.
And a great irony. What better icon of capitalism than sex work: pricing, supply and demand, and markets that persist even in conditions of oppression; creative entrepreneurship; and profit made from desire, consumption, dreams and all those other things that make the capitalist world go round. And repression of sex work has only gotten stricter over the last 200 years of capitalism.
Very interesting to read. I’ve struggled with the idea of whether to “cut someone off” when he’s clearly spending beyond his means, as it’s happened several times with regulars. I don’t want to hurt my income, no, but I also don’t want to deal with that on my conscience. The joy these men get might be the only break from the rest of the world, and it is personal responsibility for finances. On the other hand, knowing the misery (and possibly, real consequences of bankruptcy and divorce, as one of my former regulars is facing) they’ll have when they get the credit card bills, check their savings…it’s hard to wonder whether I should stop that.
Ultimately, I’ve decided it’s not my responsibility beyond being ethical about the way I sell dances (not being misleading about the cost or nature of what I do, reminding customers of the time at various points, things like that). “I don’t offer money management as a service at this time…” (And if I was going to offer money management, I’d suppose I’d ask to be paid for the advice, as well! And probably a desk, from management.)
It’s interesting to see a group of sex workers discussing an ethics issue. I’d love to see more of it. 😉
Interesting that I am NEVER on everyone else’s side. I think there is a distinction between “gifts” and “payment” that is valid. EG – a prostitute up hereabouts managed to avoid paying taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars because it was far in excess of what would reasonably be thought of as payment, and was therefore, most likely, a gift. Contractual services and gifts are distinct, and the definitions and standards have been developed over a long period of time. If she could say “well, this sum came about because…” or produced itemized receipts (“well, this 10K was for this activity; this 14K was for this…”) there may have been a different result. Plus – there is no evidence that this is even remotely connected to what she normally charged. She didn’t place ads – “Escorting; $20000 per week.” Had she been able to say “This is what I normally charge or around what I normally charge” there may have been a different outcome.
Baseball cards and old stamps have value because people are willing to pay for them – but the value isn’t set by a single buyer/seller. For example – if she said that he paid her 1.2 million pounds for a common 63 cent postage stamp – nobody would find that to be a compelling argument because he and she agreed, contrary to the opinion of the rest of the world, that was its value. If you are ever going to distinguish gifts and income you have to have some attention to the marketplace outside of the individual. Finding one person to give you 1.2 million for a postage stamp doesn’t create a marketplace; in fact the marketplace says something very different – it creates a particular understanding between two people. As another example – if a customer buys a few dances and pays you $100 and then instead of a generous $25 tip, gives you $10,000 – is this taxable income related to a marketplace (you found someone to pay you $10,100 for a dance!) or is this a gift, the tax implications of which belong to him?
I would say that obviously the $25 would have been income; it is a 25% tip – well established and understood in the marketplace; the $10,000 is so wildly excessive to what the marketplace would have any expectation of, I think you can reasonably claim and expect that is a gratuitous gift. Setting up a marketplace that only deals with two people and has no attention to the value of services in the marketplace around them would pretty much eviscerate the whole notion of “gifts” actually. I’ve received gifts from customers. I do not regard them as income. I may regard them as well deserved – but that is not the same thing.
That completely confuses me. Here is the US if you get more than $13,000 (I think this is the right amount; it is something around that) from one person within a year, you have to pay taxes. I don’t know if you have to classify it as income per se, but it’s not tax-free just because it’s a “gift.” I’m not sure where you live (Canada?) so maybe it’s different there, but I can’t believe many countries allow people to give huge cash “gifts” to each other without paying taxes. If they did, everyone would go that route instead of declaring their income as income.
Baseball cards and stamps were (my) poor analogy since we’re talking about services. All contractors can make up their rates based on the time and effort involved as well as who their customer is. Lots of non-sex working professionals charge annoying rich people double what they would charge a friend of a friend or for that matter, anyone who is easy and pleasant to work with. Let’s say I’m a website designer and Fox News wants me to revamp their website but I hate Fox News. If they keep upping the offer until they’re promising to pay me 10x what I would normally ask for, and then I finally accept, that’s not a gift from them to me; that’s the only price at which I would do that work for them. People offering services can get away with charging way above the market median. It happens all the time without issue or comment in the straight world with lawyers or publicists or celebrities. Someone wants a certain name attached to whatever they’re doing, so they pay astronomically for it when another person could probably have done the same good work for less. It is still not a gift. If a client I can’t stand wants me to spend a week with only him and I say it would take 50k for that to happen, he is not giving me a gift. Just because I can’t point to other instances where someone I don’t like rented my time for a week doesn’t mean that exchange is invalid.
Oh and – I wonder if she paid taxes. Not for any moral reason – I wonder if she had paid taxes on all of that money and could therefore say “it was clearly income because I paid income tax” if it made/would have made a difference.
Very short reply – each case will turn on its facts.
Longer reply: You are correct, I am not American, and I’m not even remotely an expert in any nation’s tax laws. I thought though, that a gift cap tax thing you guys have down there was imposed on the donor, not the donee? Incorrect? And also true – our notion of taxable income is a little tighter than yours.
In any case – to address (some of) the rest of your excellent point – governments and courts wind up with a variety of complicated ways of distinguishing “gift” from “income”, because they have also thought of that. If your boss gives you a watch for Christmas – that could be taxable income. (I’m totally serious – that actually happened). The short answer is – there are lots of ways to distinguish gifts from income, and normally it does (as you hypothesize) happen like the other way – like people want it to be a gift, not income. Other people have thought of christmas bonuses, mortgage assistance, interest free loans etc to avoid this.
Certainly in your example of dealing with Fox News – if Fox News went bankrupt and there was doubt about whether you were paid for a service or Fox News gifted you something that was let’s say 20 times over the market rate and the trustee wanted you to disgorge – you would produce those emails and conversations that indicated a single party bidding war that started probably somewhere close to market rate and shot up because your high ethical standards and their intense desire to have you on this project. Had she been able to do that – you may have had a different result – and as I said above, had she been able to produce itemized receipts, a contract, or any normal indicators of income versus gift you may have had a different result – it will turn on the available facts and evidence, but it is objective evaluation – if the parties just declare when an exchange is a “gift” or “income” nobody would (as you point out) ever pay income tax again.
If you are wondering (with the Fox News analogy) if this issue of income versus gift is limited to sex work – no. In fact it will mostly come up NOT regarding sex work. This is a question that comes up all the time when, for example, your boss wants to avoid the deductions for an employee and you want to avoid paying income tax, or when you are about to go bankrupt and then decide it will be a great idea to pay your brother in law $200,000 to mow your lawn. Realistically – would the fact that she is a prostitute attract some extra scrutiny? Almost certainly. But this is not new or groundbreaking law trotted out just for the prostitute, and it isn’t really even a huge misapplication.
I work as a banker, and I kept thinking about the example of a relationship manager taking their client out for a nice, long lunch. The cost of the lunch is often a bit silly (say, a couple hundred dollars a head), and it is sort of like a gift. The customer isn’t ‘charged’ for it, but also it’s clear that these lunches are only available to customers that are very profitable for the bank. And of course, the customer knows it too.
But at law, this is regarded as an expense of doing business, a cost of keeping the customer, and is of course, tax deductible.
I find it strange that the learned justice in this case couldn’t see that, regardless of whether her customer paid her directly or ‘gifted’ it, she treats it as an income stream, presumably she pays income tax on it, she uses it to lay her personal expenses.
The only way to conceivably make this woman into an unemployed gift receiver is to turn consultants everywhere into legally unemployed people.