According to a University of Chicago survey, 0.6
percent of American men admitted to paying for sex within
the last year, and 16.3 percent admitted to paying for sex
at some point in their lives.
University of Chicago survey reported that 1.6 percent of
American women admitted they "had sex with a person [they]
paid, or who paid [them] for sex," since age 18. For more
detail, download the entire report
the City Club of Portland made headlines by proposing that
the city create zones where prostitution would be tolerated.
You can obtain copies of the club's fascinating 88-page
report by calling 228-7231.
of the city ordinance charged that the original version
could have applied to babysitters and adult care givers. In
the new ordinance, city attorneys have tried to clarify the
definition of escorts as sex workers.
hearing on the legal challenge to the original ordinance was
scheduled for Feb. 4. It has been postponed.
Fishnet stockings in a darkened doorway. Thick makeup, a
smoky voice, an indecent proposal. A pimp patrolling the
boulevard in a pink Cadillac.
If this is your idea of a Portland hooker, you should
meet Lisa Pierce.
Lisa--not her real name--is her own boss. She earns
between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, which she reports to the
IRS. She maintains an office, a financial adviser and a
retirement plan. She doesn't work evenings or weekends. The
outgoing message on her answering machine is brisk and
professional. Indeed, it makes her sound like a dental
hygienist--albeit a slightly breathy dental hygienist.
"I would never consider streetwalking," she says. "I'd
rather work at McDonald's."
Like any ambitious businesswoman, Lisa has a media
plan--a discreet ad the size of a postage stamp in
Exotic magazine. The ad doesn't identify her as a
prostitute, of course, but as a "personal escort." As such,
she is part of a local cottage industry that has undergone
explosive growth in the past five years. Since 1995, the
number of escort services has jumped from a mere handful to
at least 150, according to Sgt. Ed Brumfield of the Drugs
and Vice Division, some with as many as 30 girls.
Not all escorts engage in prostitution. Many provide
services that are certainly legal, even if they would bring
a flush to the cheeks of the Marquis de Sade. But thanks to
the city's largely successful clampdown on streetwalkers
along once-notorious promenades such as Union Avenue, Sandy
Boulevard and Interstate Avenue, prostitution in Portland
has become increasingly sophisticated--and the personal
escort and lingerie-modeling business is the perfect cover.
"During our investigations over the past five years, 82
percent of time we've called an escort or sent someone to a
lingerie-modeling establishment, the escort or model has
committed an unlawful act," says Brumfield, who diligently
keeps back issues of Portland's sex magazines filed away in
a hefty three-ring binder.
One knowledgeable source estimates that she is personally
familiar with almost one hundred local escorts who trade sex
Last fall, Mayor Vera Katz decided to get tough. "This
industry has run rampant in Portland," Katz said in a press
release proposing new regulations to crack down on the
tumescent business. "Too often, police have found these
businesses to be fronts for prostitution and other illegal
The City Council agreed, and quietly voted for the
mayor's proposal. Under the new rules, escorts and
lingerie models would have to: apply for a permit;
undergo a criminal background check; display their
permit number in their ads; keep records of their
customers; sign a contract with each customer promising
not to engage in illegal activity; maintain an office
with regular business hours; and post the following
stern warning, in letters at least 1 inch high: "PROSTITUTION
IS A CRIME. PERSONAL ESCORT/MODELING IS REGULATED
BY THE CITY OF PORTLAND. IT IS UNLAWFUL FOR ANY PERSON
TO OFFER OR TO ENGAGE IN SEXUAL CONTACT FOR A FEE.
THESE LAWS ARE STRICTLY COMPLIED WITH BY THIS BUSINESS
AND ARE STRICTLY ENFORCED. DON'T EVEN BOTHER TO ASK."
In December, however, an unusual coalition of escorts,
models and free-speech advocates filed a lawsuit to block
the ordinance. Calling itself the Portland Area Privacy
Alliance (PAPA), the group (which includes a customer who
swore he would be "irreparably harmed" by the new rules)
says the ordinance violates the generous free-speech
provisions of Oregon's constitution.
Facing a legal challenge, the city backed off from enforcing
the new rules. This week, the council is expected
to approve a slightly amended ordinance that would
have a better chance of holding up in court. If approved,
the new law could take effect in early March, making
life more difficult for Portland's hookers--which
is the point, says Brumfield. "What I've seen on TV
glamorizes the life of a prostitute," he says. "By
the time we run into them, they've been beaten, arrested
or murdered. For every one that I see who has handled
it physically and emotionally, I see 100 whose lives
have been destroyed by it."
Without question, prostitution can be a nasty business.
Portland has its share of desperate drug addicts, sadistic
pimps, and even children who have been lured from their
families to become playthings for the rich and the depraved.
But there is also no question the law will affect prostitutes
who do not fall neatly into these stereotypes, the
women who pay their taxes and donate money to charity.
By definition, they aren't law-abiding citizens. But
as the case of Lisa demonstrates, neither are they
helpless victims. Indeed, in many ways, their greatest
occupational hazard proceeds not from customers, pimps
or the law, but from their own consciences.
Strumpet, harlot, hussy, whore--call her anything you
want, Lisa loves her job.
A slender, attractive, blue-eyed blonde, 28 years old,
with a ready smile and an infectious laugh, Lisa talks with
her hands, punctuating her sentences with a peculiar
gesture, her forefinger and pinkie thrust forward, like
Spiderman activating his web-shooters. In her brown cords,
striped Old Navy cardigan and dangly silver earrings
resembling the inverted minarets of a Turkish mosque, she
doesn't look like a prostitute--more like a college girl
home for the holidays.
The incongruity is further sharpened by her workplace, a
studio on a busy street in Northeast Portland that could be
the domain of any young artist. The room is cool and clean,
with a high ceiling, several large canvases on the walls and
a hint of incense in the air. A dainty red umbrella leans
against one corner. In the other sits her desk, fashioned
from an old sliding door, which supports a profusion of
paints and brushes, a hexagonal tin filled with pencils,
crayons and sticks of charcoal, a bait box crammed with tiny
jars of glitter, a palette made from a pane of glass, and a
pink plastic nose.
But the emotional center of the room is the bed: A
double-sized futon with crisp sheets topped by a silky red
pillow, set thigh-high on a wooden frame that allows her
clients to stand and deliver.
Next to the bed is a night stand, groaning with the tools
of the trade: condoms, latex gloves, lotion, massage gel,
silicone lubricant, moist towelettes, nipple clamps,
vibrators and, in the bottom drawer, the heavy artillery: a
tiny can of pepper spray and a 12-inch double-headed rubber
dildo that's as black as Rush Limbaugh's heart. On top of
the night stand, an electric clock counts down the seconds,
silent and imperturbable.
The first question, of course, is why she got into this
business. A routine exploration of her background does not
turn up any obvious clues--it's certainly hard to make the
case that Lisa is any kind of victim. She grew up in an
upper middle-class family in the Portland area. Her parents
are professionals. She was not abused as a child, has never
been sexually assaulted and doesn't do drugs.
Unfortunately, Lisa's own answer is not very revealing.
"Honestly?" she says, sitting cross-legged on a cushion,
taking a drag from a cigarette and letting the smoke curl
around her face. "Because I felt it was part of my destiny."
Like many women her age, Lisa pursued a bohemian
trajectory, obtaining a degree in painting from a college on
the East Coast before returning to Portland, where she
waited tables in an Italian restaurant and worked as a nanny
and a jill-of-all-trades so that she could concentrate on
her canvases. She used to make about $1,200 a month.
True, her emotional résumé does include some more exotic
entries. She has wrestled with sexual anxieties--including a
period when she was convinced she was frigid--and she spent
a couple of years as an amateur dominatrix in Portland's
low-key but surprisingly vibrant S/M scene.
But none of this really explains why one day she checked
out a book called Whores in History from the women's
studies section of the Central Library and was suddenly
overwhelmed by the urge to become a hooker.
Her very first time was in April 1998. He was a
small-town salesman in his 40s, married with children, who
responded to an ambiguous ad she took out in the WW
personals. They met at the Days Inn near Portland State
University. She went for the professional look: an Anne
Klein business suit and a briefcase. Her heart was pounding
as she strolled into the hotel lobby. "It was like a scene
from Raging Bull," she says. "I'm the boss, I'm the
boss, I'm the boss."
She went up to his room. They made small talk for a few
minutes, and then she laid out her proposal: $250, two
hours, anything you want. Somewhat to her surprise, he
agreed. And suddenly, the last excuse, the last chance to
back out, had vanished. It was real. She wasn't just
thinking about it, she was doing it. Strangely, she felt no
anxiety, no awkwardness. She simply got up from her chair,
kneeled in front of her client, and started to unloosen his
Since then, Lisa reckons she has seen somewhere between
200 and 300 customers--she's lost track of the exact number.
She rings up 20 billable hours in a typical month, averaging
$200 per session, which works out to roughly $4,000 a month.
Of course, she's got considerable business overhead: massage
therapist, psychotherapist, naturopath, rent, advertising
Because she does not walk the streets, one of Lisa's main
challenges is maintaining a client base. Unlike other
practitioners of the service industry, prostitutes can't
easily take advantage of "word of mouth" advertising; their
clients seldom discuss their experiences with others.
Instead, Lisa relies on her ad in Exotic, which
includes her pager number--key to the operation because it
forces potential clients to leave some information about
themselves. If they sound sane, sober and respectful, she
calls them back. "If they leave a message like 'Hey,
sweetheart,' I don't even bother," she says with a shrug.
The initial conversation is invariably strained. Lisa
tells callers she has blonde hair and blue eyes--both
selling points--and describes the shape of her body,
although she eschews measurements, which she considers
demeaning. She asks if they would like a "massage."
Her callers, of course, want to know what the "massage"
involves. And here the conversation becomes an intricate
pirouette, because Lisa never confirms on the phone that she
provides what is euphemistically known as "full-service" or
"full-contact" work. In essence, her clients never know,
until they show up on her doorstep, whether she is going to
have sex with them--which is of course what virtually all of
Sometimes, men call and ask if she'd like to go out to a
restaurant or to see a movie. She usually turns them down.
"That's an emotional issue," she says. "That's not my
Her department is fantasy.
Preparing for the encounter involves a ritual that would
be the envy of a samurai warrior. She puts her favorite
music on the stereo--today it's Beck--makes sure the room is
clean and the sheets are fresh. She steps into the bathroom,
flicks on the light, stares at the mirror and sets to work.
First, the shaving: armpits, legs, bikini line. Then some
makeup: a little coverup for the blemishes, some mascara,
lipliner and lipstick--but nothing ostentatious, because a
painted face sends all the wrong signals.
Next comes the diaphragm--a crucial piece of equipment.
Not only does it serve as backup in case the condom breaks,
but the lubricant reinforces the impression that she's
enjoying herself. Now a little perfume: She prefers a dash
of Zino Davidoff under the arms. Finally, she squirts lemon
juice on her hands. If it stings, she knows she's got an
open cut and will need to use finger cots.
Then she slips into costume: bra, panties, and an
immodest dress. Fully suited up, she changes the music to
something soft and sexy, like the Cowboy Junkies, turns the
lights low, lights a stick of incense and fires up a
cigarette. She might wolf down a Clif bar to keep her energy
up--she can't work on a full stomach.
When a visitor knocks, she pops an Altoid in her mouth,
peeks through the blind and opens the door. Now the room is
warm and dark and fragrant. Lisa the Artist, with the
upbeat, quirky persona, has become Lisa the Hooker: playful,
flirtatious, husky and dressed in a blue velvet dress cut
short enough to rouse Lazarus from the dead.
She takes his coat, offers him a glass of water, asks if
he needs to use the bathroom. They sit and chit-chat for a
couple of minutes, while she tries to figure out if the guy
is a cop or a weirdo. Then she takes a deep breath and
begins the most stressful and dangerous part of the entire
encounter: the presentation of The Menu.
Until now, no laws have been broken, no confidences
breached. They are just two adults sitting together in a
room, with an unspoken question hovering between them. But
once she makes an explicit offer of sex for money, she has
broken the law. If the guy's an undercover cop, she's
busted. "Every time, with a new person, it's like rolling
the dice," she says.
The price for a hand job is $100. For a blow job, $150.
Intercourse with her on top is $200; with him on top, $250.
There's a $50 surcharge for cunnilingus, tacked on because
of one of the many paradoxes about the sex business.
Although her customers are paying for sex, which, for guys,
equals orgasm, what they really want from her is the
one thing she's not going to do: have an orgasm herself.
"The most annoying part of the job is when some guy comes
in and he wants to make you come," she says. "That's a big
issue, a big issue--because that's where the client and the
worker really disconnect. Now a lot of the guys who come in
here, they have no illusions about what's going on. They
know that this is my job, and if they can make me feel good,
they're happy. And a lot of them do. But they're not going
to be like, 'Hey baby, I want to make you come.' The truth
is, with a woman, if she's not in the mood, she's not going
to. You can work on her for hours, and she's just not going
to if she doesn't feel like it. And they don't seem to
understand that that isn't why we're here."
"My mouth, my pussy, my hands--those are tools that I'm
using on the job. And I enjoy using them. But once the
energy and focus is turned around, and they want to monkey
with my body--it's a whole other ball of wax."
(Two other items do not appear on the standard menu: $25
for anal stimulation and $50 if she uses a strap-on. "Some
men love that," she laughs. "But you don't want to freak
them out by offering it up front. They'll be like, 'You
callin' me a homo?'")
Once the terms of the transaction have been established
and the customer peels the cash from his wallet, Lisa turns
off the phone, puts the money in the drawer and proceeds to
give him a massage. Not just a half-hearted rub, but a
full-on, joint-cracking shiatsu.
"They come in here and they're all like Rrrhrhrhr!"--she
does a Bugs Bunny teeth chatter. "They're all turned on. 'Oh
my god, I'm seeing a whore!' They're so excited. They're all
wrapped up about The Pussy, The Pussy. They want to interact
immediately, and I want to take the energy and put it back
into their body and out of their heads."
Then she kisses them. "I can't imagine myself not
kissing," she says. "It's just rude. One of the things I do
like about the job is the affection. I can't imagine not
kissing. It's so unloving."
"I try to create for them what I really wish I could
create for myself--being in the present and in the moment
and in their own bodies and enjoy themselves. And while
they're here I try and give them--"
She breaks off, and looks away for a moment. "Love is a
sticky word," she sighs. "But I try to give them some
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, John Scott
(not his real name) is a health-care professional in his
50s, married, with graying hair and a mortgage. He has no
substantive complaints about married life. He loves his wife
and kids. He is not religious. He is, to all appearances,
just another middle-aged guy, plodding through the dull
emotional terrain of Middle-Aged-Guyville. "I lead a spartan
existence," he says. "I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't
overeat. I don't even drink coffee. I exercise--I'm all
sinew and veins. I don't indulge myself at all."
Ah, but he does indulge himself, of course. Every
so often, when the terms of some complex psychosexual
equation grow too heavy for him to withstand, he breaks down
and treats himself to an encounter with a prostitute.
John's explanation for his behavior is no more satisfying
than Lisa's. Two years ago, frustrated with his high-stress
job, he visited a lingerie-modeling establishment. He was so
nervous as he pulled into the parking lot that he forgot to
set the handbrake and barely rescued his car from gliding
down a hill.
The model was an attractive young woman who danced while
he masturbated. He enjoyed it. "It was surprisingly good,"
he remembers. He came back several times. And gradually, he
realized that the experience had triggered an urge that had
essentially lain dormant for decades: to have sex with
He answered ads in magazines and newspapers, including
WW. Lisa was the third or fourth hooker he visited.
"With her it was good," he says, with a wistful tone to his
voice. "Afterwards, we just laid in bed and talked--we
talked about opera. Not only is she beautiful, she's curious
and smart and easy to talk to."
Since then, he reckons he's seen Lisa a couple dozen
times and spent about $5,000 on her and other prostitutes.
Over time, their relationship grew more complex. "I got to
know her quite well," he says. "I could say anything to her.
There was a comfort level, a feeling of closeness. I don't
know how much she reciprocated. I think she did."
He persisted in seeing her despite fearsome ramifications
if his wife ever learned about the liaison. "You have to
disguise everything," he says in a conspiratorial tone. "If
you get caught, it's all over. You're toast. This would be
devastating. I don't have any doubt about it. It's a
dangerous game. But a lot of us play a dangerous game. To
some extent, that's what life's about."
"I don't own her. I don't particularly like that she has
sex with all these other guys. But I can't control that. I
have to accept it. Suppose I could convince her to be a
mistress--I'm not going there. That's just going too far. I
can't get into an entanglement. I'm not going any further.
After several interviews, it becomes clear that Lisa's
feelings about her job are more complex than they at first
appear. She is obviously fond of her clients, giving them
nicknames and recounting their idiosyncrasies like an
indulgent grade-school teacher. And she obviously enjoys
creating a fantasy world for them, one hour at a time. Some
days, when everything goes right, she feels powerful,
triumphant, gigantic, like tribes of men are worshiping her
But quite apart from the physical risks of the job--rape,
disease and arrest--there is another dimension to her work
that is not so carefree. She is selling her body. But most
of her clients want more than that for their $200: They want
a little piece of her soul.
This, ultimately, is the prostitute's dilemma: If she
remains aloof, she comes off like a battle-hardened pro,
turning tricks with no more enthusiasm than a toll-booth
attendant. But if she opens herself up, she risks her
clients falling in love with her--or worse, she with them.
To survive, Lisa must remain poised between two worlds,
the real and the fantastic, like an insect skating on the
surface of a pond. It's not an easy balance. Some days,
despite her own philosophical objections, she fakes an
orgasm--and then feels guilty about it.
And some days, after a difficult session, she worries if
she even knows what love is any more, if giving away
all those little pieces of her soul has turned her
into the commodity, something to be bought and sold like an
old Honda, every year a little uglier, every year a little
Then Lisa sinks down to the bottom of the Marianas
Trench, miles below the surface, where all she can hear is
the hammering of her own guilt and shame and doubt and the
voices shouting the same questions over and over in a
demonic chorus. "Am I lovable? Am I good enough? Is this
damaging me? Has it killed my soul?"
The city's new rules, if they ever go into effect, will
make Lisa's job much more difficult. Realistically, she
can't get a permit--"I can't keep regular business hours,"
she says. "I can't keep a log of everyone who calls." But
without a permit, she can't advertise, because the ordinance
requires escorts to put their license numbers in their ads.
Without advertising to generate new calls, her client base
is likely to shrink over time.
Some prostitutes are planning to change their business
model, place suggestive notices in newspapers or on the
Internet. Others will spend time hanging around the classy
hotel bars, with an eyebrow at the ready, waiting to
materialize next to the right kind of guest. Some will
probably go and stand on the street.
Lisa? Right now, she's thinking about quitting the
business for good, taking her savings, and trying something
really crazy, dangerous, and desperate: becoming a full-time
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Willamette Week |
originally published January 26, 2000