Thursday, November 20, 2008

There’s a lot of sex worker stuff in the news lately, isn’t there?

So yes, I’ve been reading about the busts at the tanning salon/brothels on Aurora Ave. I have some sympathy for the female manager who got arrested, seeing as how I once managed a “sensual touch” business myself. And just because you read something in the paper doesn’t make it true. However, if she and the owner really were running women in and out of other states, through three different locations, all I can say is: with an operation that size, you should have seen this coming. I hope you both have a good lawyer.

See, I have this thing about sex work. One woman working for herself? Great. A couple women decide to band together to share a space and perhaps swap clients back and forth? Fine. Anything where it’s a small group of peers working together - okay, I’m all down with that. But this kind of set-up makes me deeply suspicious.

Now, it’s possible those women wanted to be doing what they did, that it was a very safe and egalitarian workplace, no one ever felt pressured to do anything they didn’t want to, and they were paid as well as they should have been.

But… I bet not. I just don’t get a sense of that from places like this. They look like strip-clubs without the pole, if you know what I mean. And strip-club management works like this: use the women to get as much money as you can from the men, and then take as much of that money as you can from the women. In this situation, I’m betting they took a lot.

In the place I managed, the house supported itself by taking a set portion of the basic appointment fee – “the gate fee” we called it. My job was mostly to keep track of that, coordinate everyone’s schedule, and to deal with the new clients and the guys who needed, for whatever reason, a lot of wrangling. Occasionally I would have to pull rank and tell someone that, for example, leaving a large pink vibrator on the coffee table in the public area was really not okay. Showing up an hour late for the shift? Not okay. Coming out of the session room accompanied by a literal cloud of pot smoke? Not okay.

But I was by no means controlling the six women who worked there. (Hah. As if. Most of them were pals of mine.) And once the client and the woman were in the room together, whatever extra services were negotiated, whatever other money was exchanged, that was all strictly between them. We did not ask about it or monitor it in any way, and we did not ever, ever take any of that money. That was her money.

Once in a while the owner would wistfully mention how she wished the house could get a cut of that cash, and I would threaten to instantly quit before I’d participate in any such practice. That always put an end to that conversation, especially since half the staff would have quit with me, and the owner knew it.

But this looks like the kind of place where you’d get pushed to get as much money as you could from the guy, and then you’d have to give it all to the house. You’d think it would be easy to hide your tips and keep them, but it’s harder than you think. The trick of moving women around is that not only do you create variety for the clients, you prevent the women from forming alliances with each other. So you can’t trust the other girls not to rat you out if they find out you’re holding money back. And you don’t stay on one place long enough to get to know and trust the regular clients, so you can’t rely on them to not say anything, even as an innocent mistake. Some places like this are wired for sound – or even cameras, although not always – so management will see or hear if a girl gets more money in the session rooms.

If they were moving the women around, it’s possible that they were housing them, too. That’s not unheard of even in more legitimate sex work jobs – strip clubs in Alaska used to fly girls up there and put them in what we called “the barracks”. I don’t know if they still have those, but I stayed in one once. It wasn’t a bad place – it looked like a low-end college dormitory, or a hostel. But I got out and found my own place to stay after a week, because it was feeling strange to never be someplace really separate from my work. You need that, I think. But if these people were moving the women around and housing them – oh, that would look pretty bad to me. That would look a lot like trafficking.

Of course I don’t know that, it’s all speculation at this point, so I’ll be interested to see how this story develops. But from this perspective, they don’t look much like people I’d have much in common with.

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