Cities & Communities
Red-light districts were commonplace in big cities throughout the 20th century. But in recent years, New York City has seen the midtown areas with high concentrations of sex workers empty out. The trade has moved indoors and diffused into more-upscale districts downtown.
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What is it like to be a prostitute? The answer depends on whether you work out of a client’s car or a $500-a-night hotel room. In 1999, I set out to study the effects of efforts to bring the suburban middle class back to New York City. The gentrification of Times Square made for a unique social experiment: What happens to sex workers when they are pushed off the streets and into the outer boroughs? I had little idea at the time that I’d be documenting the rise of an entirely new, upper-end “indoor” market, in which streetwalkers have given way to a professional class.
The economies of big cities have been reshaped by a demand for high-end entertainment, cuisine, and “wellness” goods. 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. But luxe pricing has in turn helped make prostitution, well… somewhat respectable. Whereas men once looked for a secretive tryst, now they seek a mistress with no strings attached, a “girlfriend experience,” and they are willing to pay top dollar for it.
Technology has played a fundamental role in this change. No self-respecting cosmopolitan man looking for an evening of companionship is going to lean out his car window and call out to a woman at a traffic light. The Internet and the rise of mobile phones have enabled some sex workers to professionalize their trade. Today they can control their image, set their prices, and sidestep some of the pimps, madams, and other intermediaries who once took a share of the revenue. As the trade has grown less risky and more lucrative, it has attracted some middle-class women seeking quick tax-free income.
I followed 290 women, 170 of whom made enough (at least $30,000) to separate them from streetwalkers. I spent at least 12 months earning their trust, trying not to ask a lot of prying questions. Once they realized I wasn’t a cop or social worker, they usually told me their stories. I focused on financial questions first, because it made them feel validated as workers. How much did you earn this week? What expenses did you have? Do you save any money?
The figures on the next page highlight some of the contrasts between old-world prostitutes and new-age sex workers. Yet they also suggest that some things haven’t changed: Even women who don’t work on the street report hiding their activities from their families and being abused.
* Plus a shot at the bar
More than 60 percent of women in the high-end trade have worked with escort agencies. Men like going through the agencies because it feels less dirty and because they can often write off the expense. (For example, the agency might give them an “entertainment” receipt that includes dinner, hotel, and other seemingly legitimate costs.) But many sex workers hate agencies because they take a cut without providing much security or support. So a lot of women self-incorporate and create a fake agency web page with swiped photos that make it appear as though they are part of a bigger operation.
Of the escorts I talked to, 63 percent had moved to New York City from another state after high school. But people rarely come to the big city to become prostitutes: Nearly all have held a legitimate job, but not necessarily the glamorous one they came to New York to get. Three worked as street vendors. Two appeared on daytime soap operas.
Numbers exceed 100% because of overlaps in work experience.
“You’ll make about 50 percent more with a good boob job,” one woman said. Other things that can increase a sex worker’s earning power:
It’s hard out there for a pimp—especially now. Changes in the sex industry have rendered them superfluous. I met 11 pimps working out of midtown Manhattan in 1999, and all were out of work within four years. One enlisted in the military; two have been homeless. Only one now has a full-time job, working as a janitor in a charter school. I asked one of them how pimping experience helps him in the legit economy: “You learn one thing,” he said. “For a good blow job, a man will do just about anything. What can I do with that knowledge? I have no idea.”
They might maintain four to six clients—each of whom pays at least $20,000 a year. They often rent an apartment just for sessions.
Of the women I talked to, 61 percent said they’ve used craigslist, mostly for advertising. But even before the crackdown on the site’s adult-services section, sex workers were turning to Facebook: 83 percent have a Facebook page, and I estimate that by the end of 2011, Facebook will be the leading on-line recruitment space.
Sudhir Venkatesh (sudhirvenkatesh.org) is a professor of sociology at Columbia University and author of the book Gang Leader for a Day.
Illustrations: Kate Francis; map compiled by Fletcher Haulley and Sudhir Venkatesh