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The Flesh Trade: Sex Work in America

Can Americans get beyond the moralistic sex paradigm behind the criminalization of sex for money?

Three centuries before Las Vegas was founded, New York was known as sin city. It was home to drinking, gambling, and most especially, illicit sexual pleasures. One of New Amsterdam’s first sex workers was Grietje “Little Pearl” Reynies, a lively bawd or "doxie." Taunted by seamen on a departing sloop with the cry, “Whore! Whore! Two pound butter’s whore!” she allegedly lifted her petticoat and pointed to her naked backside, replying, "Blaes my daer achterin."

Daily media reports often headline tantalizing stories of the NYPD arresting streetwalkers, breaking up a prostitution ring, and closing storefront sexual massage parlors. "Sin" still sells. However, between 2008 and 2012, the state Division of Criminal Justice Services reports the NYPD arrested only 5,834 people for patronizing prostitutes. On average, that’s only 1,167 arrests per year, 22 or so a week – and that’s in a city with 8 million-plus adult residents and visitors (e.g., businesspeople and tourists) prowling the city streets every day.

Last year, the city’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly, championed another program to curb the oldest profession: Operation Losing Proposition. Like similar programs before it, this one targets the customers, the johns. It is armed with the latest, high-tech “solutions” that taxpayer dollars can pay for, using decoys armed with remote audio systems; “arrest teams” and undercover officers providing backup. The NYPD, along with other local police forces and DAs across the nation, regularly hold press conferences promoting its latest busts.

Police efforts to suppress commercial sex in New York, like most cities across the country, largely target what is best understood as the low-hanging fruit of the flesh trade. Columbia University’s Sudhir Venkatesh made this clear in a 2011 article, "How Tech Tools Transformed NY's Sex Trade." His findings are simple: sex work is big business in the Big Apple. “The economies of big cities have been reshaped by a demand for high-end entertainment, cuisine, and ‘wellness’ goods,” he notes. “In the process, ‘dating,’ ‘massage,’ ‘escort,’ and ‘dancing’ have replaced hustling and streetwalking. A luxury brand has been born. These changes have made sex for hire more expensive."

Examining changes in New York’s commercial flesh trade between 1991 and 2010, Venkatesh confirmed an old truism: the more things change, the more they remain the same. He found that women once euphemistically called “ladies of the night,” and with the introduction of the telephone, “call girls,” are now postmodern escorts, investing in smartphones as well as breast jobs.

Venkatesh segments the city’s commercial sex business into four groups, with the respective terms of services “for traditional intercourse.” A streetwalker got a $75 fee and her pimp’s cut was 25 percent (30% on weekends). Self-employed hookers got $150 per session and pocketed it all, but “she has to pay for online marketing, transportation, security, bribes to shopkeepers, and drugs for clients.” “Blue-collar” escort services charged $350 per outcall session and the sex worker gets 60 percent, but the service “pays for advertising and on-call security officers. The client covers the hotel room and drinks.” Finally, upscale escort services and the sex worker are paid separately, “if one gets the standard $2,000, the other gets the same. The client covers expenses.” 

Venkatesh adds texture to this broad segmentation by detailing the fees for three sex acts – hand jobs, ménage a trois (with two women, each paid separately) and “mommy” role-play sex – offered in four different parts of the city: Wall Street/Tribeca, Chinatown/ SoHo, north of 14th Street and the Bronx. A hand job in Wall Street went for $225 whereas in the Bronx it costs $75; a ménage a trois in SoHo would run $1,000 for both women, while in uptown Manhattan it would cost $600; and mommy sex play would cost $400 in Tribeca, but only $75 in the Bronx.

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