Sex Industry Sent Topsy-Turvy by Terror
"Business has slumped," says Sunny Delight, a bubbly escort who also models for a full-figured clothing line. "For the first two weeks after [the attacks of Sept. 11] happened, I didn't see anyone. I wasn't about to make an appointment -- I think that was partly my choice, just being scared -- but the phone didn't ring," she says. In August, Delight grossed $20,000 from a working stint and says she would have lost her apartment without having it as a cushion. Business has picked up gradually since then, but dwindling funds have sent her scrambling for new clients. "I think we're going to go into a full recession and I'm counting my money," she says.
On the steamy front lines of the sex industry, prostitutes are feeling the war on terrorism encroaching into their territory. It's created a paradoxical shift. On the one hand, September's events led to a spike in "terror sex," the much-reported need for sexual connection in times of heightened fear. But at the same time, the tanking economy has resulted in a marked drop in business, as clients -- just as the general public -- cut back on spending and struggle with post-traumatic anxiety. The competing dynamics make America's multi-million dollar prostitution industry look like a microcosm of the country at large -- confused, unpredictable and shaken, but resilient. And in some cases, booming.
Spectator Magazine, a listings and sex news rag, experienced an unexpected surge in advertisers post-9-11, according to its publisher Dara Lynne, despite fears that business would remain sluggish. Sex shops, too, have reported a general swell in sales. Others, like Taliesin the Bard, a porn actor and producer who runs several adult Web sites, says that surfing for salacious material has remained at a steady pace. "Things slacked off right after the attack, of course -- who knew what to do? But the Internet doesn't involve traveling for recreation." he says. "As far as a slump, there has been no dramatic change."
Where there has been a substantial upswing is at the Moonlite Bunnyranch, a legal brothel that has been running for 46 years outside of Carson City, Nevada. Owner Dennis Hof, who candidly refers to himself as the "Colonel Sanders of Porn," says his working girls -- all 250 of them -- have continued doing uninterrupted business. "In Nevada, during hard times, sales in sex, gaming and liquor go way up," he says energetically, estimating that his business has shot up 25 percent. "We're probably one of the few industries not suffering in America. I get the CEOs in the corporate jets, the big dogs -- they don't have money problems. This place hasn't been affected by any of the nonsense in the world."
Prostitution as Patriotism
During times of war, prostitution received support from organizations that historically opposed it, such as the military and police. In Hawaii during World War II, for example, prostitutes were licensed by a vice squad and given a strict set of rules for conducting business. Brothels also served to keep venereal disease in check. In World War I, more soldiers had contracted infectious STDs than were wounded in battle -- not great odds, boys, either way.
The idea that sex helps us cope in times of extreme stress, then, is nothing revolutionary. For most of us, sex is a liberating and necessary release. Sociology professor Pepper Schwartz at the University of Washington has been widely quoted on the mounting phenomenon of "terror sex," and has commented that sex makes us feel "real." "I'm alive, I'm functioning, I'm real. There's a euphoria, a triumph in sexuality," Schwartz breathily told Salon Magazine in late September. "People want to connect. It's life-affirming to feel your body attached to your head."
While it's a no-brainer that sex feels good, bin Laden or no bin Laden, it seems anxiety and fear have temporarily replaced alcohol as America's social lubricant. And sociologists like Schwartz are voicing their approval, predicting climbing birth rates as our sexual instincts override an initial sense of panic.
For some, sex's life-affirming release has meant something with decided bite. "I've had a slight increase in men wanting domination since 9-11," observes Pussy Powers, an escort who offers clients hard-core and sensual services. "This could be a coincidence, but I can see the pattern making sense -- them wanting cathartic release, perhaps due to fear or even guilt about the things we Americans have done and are doing to innocent people around the world."
For others, it has been a desire for connection. "Sept. 11 hasn't changed physical needs," says sex worker Jeff Ryan, based in San Francisco. "If anything, it has become a more emotional process as people move through fear, shock and stress." Ryan says several of his clients often flew between New Jersey and San Francisco, the same route of United Airlines flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania; another client lost two colleagues when the Twin Towers collapsed. "In the first few weeks, people were anxiety-ridden. We were all wrestling with issues -- terrorism, war, anthrax, economic downturn, warnings that suspension bridges would blow up -- (my clients) were shell shocked," he says.
"I find people are going more for relationships now -- it's not a matter of balling our brains out because it's the end of the world," says Talisein. "You can go to the Net to jerk off, but it's the idea of relationship that has meaning." Tal, who consults on porn movie and television productions, muses that in the '70s, when Presidents were perceived as weak (think: Nixon, Ford and Carter), fantasy flicks with larger than life characters (think: Superman or Luke Skywalker) were prevalent. "We needed heroism and sexuality reflected those fantasies," he says. But now "we have real heroes -- firefighters, police and decent Americans. Our focus has become more adult, and we're looking at what's important in our lives."
Delight has also sensed this shift and has put a new spin on her business, which she calls the "erotic girlfriend experience." "I'm more apt to say yes to kissing and hanging out longer, things I wouldn't have been out for three months ago," she says, explaining that her appointments are now a minimum of two hours at $250 an hour. "My customers are looking for intimacy. They want to talk more -- I can't think of one person who hasn't mentioned the World Trade Center."
Even at the Bunnyranch, Hof says the sense of urgency of the last few months has made him cling closer to the women he sleeps with -- all eight to 10 of them. "I'm having more sex. I think it's the need to be close to someone I care about. I just had sex four times this morning with (porn star) Sunset Thomas before going out to ride my horse," he says. "Normally, I'd do it once. And I'm going to do the same thing this afternoon with a different girl."
Hof's PR man, Kent Wallace, who used to consult for escort agencies in New York City, puts that sentiment a little more delicately. "People have felt vulnerable. They've been questioning their real values compared to the materialistic ones we're used to obsessing over," he says. "Sex is a part of intimacy and we're not virgins thinking 'we'd better get laid before we die.' If you haven't really made love, if you haven't fucked in a long time, it's important. The pleasures of the flesh, of the here-and-now -- it's a cool thing."
That cool thing has aided many workers in the adult film industry, who have been actively rallying against terrorism. In early October, Adult Entertainment Against Terrorism held a fundraising event in Atlantic City to help with disaster relief.
In order to gain entry to the rally, fans had to buy a T-shirt featuring the slogan: "We blow people, we don't blow them up."
We'll always remember where we were when we heard or saw the news, the exact moment, the initial disbelief mingled with the leaded terror of despair. For Kent Wallace, that moment was almost cinematic. Having missed a train with his daughter on the Swiss Italian border, he walked into a tiny hotel to book a room for the night. John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" blared from the radio as a nearby television aired repeated footage of the planes smashing into the World Trade Center. "It was mind-blowing," says Wallace. "The idea of New York, this proud and fearless giant shuddering and looking over its shoulder in paranoia, made me reevaluate my life." Wallace decided to leave, bringing his daughter to Nevada.
That feeling of menace and ongoing crisis has had a great impact on the national psyche and put many of our attitudes in greater perspective. "What Sept. 11 drove home to me is that the myths or assumptions about prostitution all have to do with the fact that it's a dangerous profession," says Tracy Quan, a former high-class escort and author of "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl." "It's one of the weird ironies in life, but the people who got blown to bits were law-abiding types, probably pursuing careers their parents approved of." With the violence and possible escalation of war often looming in the distance, she says, "minor sexual transgressions don't seem so sinful anymore."
"There's this idea that prostitutes are bad and mommies and daddies with children are good," says Ryan. "What this tragedy confirms is that this is a dangerous world -- it burst the fantasy that everything is perfectly safe."
As fear and economic crisis linger, Quan feels that our changing perspective on the world is helping to bring other truths to light. "People don't realize we have meaningful relationships with our clients, even if they are unofficial. We don't get to mourn our dead -- that's true of clients and coworkers," she says, noting that she had spoken to an escort who had lost a client in the World Trade Center. "The money is easily replaceable. It's not always about the money."