The Flesh Trade: Sex Work in America
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, mÃ©nage 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 mÃ©nage 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.
The structure of the Big Apple’s flesh trade suggests the financial, social and sexual organization of commercial sex operating throughout the country. A quick Google search of “prostitution” and “prostitution arrests” lists a zillion stories about sexual exchanges taking place everywhere and all the time throughout the country. However, according to the most recent FBI data, only 44,090 people were arrested in 2011 for “prostitution and commercialized vice.” This represents a 50 percent drop in arrests from the 2004 total of 87,872; the FBI offers no explanation for this remarkable decline.
FBI data seems counterintuitive given two long-held beliefs about the sex trade during periods of economic recession: men have the same sexual need but less disposable income to spend on sex yet continue to spend; and in the face of a high unemployment rate, women increasingly turn to commercial sex, undercutting yet expanding the market. Putting aside all the media bluster about the occasional hooker and john busts, perhaps local law enforcement has more pressing problems to deal with.
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In terms of today’s popular nomenclature, adult sexual relations take one of three forms: consensual, commercial or involuntary. Each is a terrain of moral and political conflict, with ongoing battles over the meaning of each term. Consensual sex seems simple enough. It involves adults (e.g., 18 years or older) who are fully “rational” (i.e., able to make a coherent decision) and agree to have sex without a financial (or other) exchange involved. Commercial sex involves a “consensual” relation involving a financial (or other) exchange. And involuntary involves all nonconsensual sex practices, whether rape, pedophilia or trafficking.
Dennis Hof, owner of Nevada's Moonlight Bunny Ranch, estimates that prostitution generates $18 billion annually in revenue, nearly all of it unregulated and untaxed. Sex trafficking invokes the horrible conditions of sex slavery experienced by all too many young women, girls and some males in the underground sex economy. While the media regularly highlights incidents of sex trafficking, it’s difficult to establish the true scale of the illegal activity. A 2012 Department of Justice report, “A National Overview of Prostitution and Sex Trafficking Demand Reduction Efforts,” reminds Americans that, “The illicit markets of prostitution and sex trafficking are, like any other markets, driven by demand.”
Digging deeper, two researchers, Amanda Walker-Rodriguez and Rodney Hill, wrote in a 2011 FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin: “Although comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking, an estimated 293,000 American youths currently are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.” (The source of the estimate of at-risk youth is from a 2000 report.)
Another DOJ report from 2011, “Characteristics Of Suspected Human Trafficking Incidents, 2008-2010," found that federal authorities had “opened 2,515 suspected incidents of human trafficking for investigation between January 2008 and June 2010.” Not unlike annual NYPD prostitution busts, the feds only opened 1,006 trafficking case per year. More revealing, the authors add: “Federal agencies were more likely to lead labor trafficking investigations (29%) than sex trafficking investigations (7%).”
The Urban Justice Center distinguishes “sex work” from “sex trafficking.” It defines sex work as “a commercial exchange of sexual services or performances (i.e. dancing) for money.” It finds the trafficking to be based on “the existence of some coercive measure that creates a climate of fear … [and] include threats of harm to the trafficked person or their loved one, taking travel documents, debt bondage, withholding wages, or physical or sexual assault.” Trafficking seems to be a small portion of the sizeable commercial sex trade.
With the rise of the culture wars during the Bush II administration, the distinction between sex work and sex trafficking blurred. Moralists on both the right and left, like Christian activist Linda Smith, founder of Shared Hope, and anti-porn feminist academic Gail Dines, effectively redefined “consensual” commercial sex as a form of sex slavery. Some, like Ronald Weitzer, in “Sex Trafficking and the Sex Industry,” detail the consequences of this movement and believe that efforts to suppress trafficking served only to reinforce reactionary policies of sexual repression.
Sex is a primordial human need. Like nearly all needs under capitalism, it can be turned into a commercial exchange. In the U.S., like much of the patriarchal world, the human (mostly male) sexual “need” for sex is mediated through the marketplace. The “relation” (however defined) between buyer and seller of sexual favors turns both collaborators into commodities.
Prostitution operates across society as variegated as the marketplace. There are “legal” bordellos operating in parts of Nevada; easily arranged hookup through “escort” services; one-on-one sessions with professional sex workers easily arranged through the Internet; local massage parlors and health “spas”; and added services at strip clubs and other illicit sexual venues. At the bottom of the flesh trade pyramid—and usually most easily targeted in police sweeps—is the streetwalker.
A century or so ago, women wore ankle-length dresses with corsets, masturbation was decried, intercourse was for procreation not pleasure, birth control prohibited, abortion a crime, premarital sex forbidden, interracial sex a hanging offense, pornography an obscenity and homosexuality a sin. A century later, E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey series has sold an estimated 60 million copies. According to one estimate, there are nearly 25 million porn sites worldwide and they make up 12 percent of all websites. One site, Xvideos, reports 4.4 billion page views and 350 million unique visits per month. Yet, prostitution remains unregulated, illegal throughout the country except for parts of Nevada.
The last, desperate battles of the culture wars are being fought over abortion in many state legislatures around the country. Nevertheless, something fundamental in the nation’s sexual culture has changed over the last quarter century. Same-sex marriage is legal in a dozen or so states and the Supreme Court recently gave it federal legitimacy. Pornography and sex paraphernalia are booming businesses, with each market generating annual revenues of $10 to $15 billion.
Perhaps it’s the right time to rethink prostitution. First, officials should seriously consider decriminalizing sex work and the arrest of sex workers and their johns; this approach, exemplified by New York’s Operation Losing Proposition, simply doesn’t work. Second, officials should seriously consider the “regulation” of commercial sex as a mean both to protect the health and safety of sex workers and to restrict, if not eliminate, sex trafficking. Such actions would help Americans get beyond the neo-puritanical, moralistic sex paradigm that has distorted healthy sexual life for the last four centuries.