Under Cover
This week the City Council will try to put Lisa
out of business.


photo by Anne Reeser

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.

The 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

In 1984, 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.

Critics 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.

A court 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 for money.

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 activity."

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 belt.

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 and supplies.

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 them want.

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 department."

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 love."

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 another woman.

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. Ever."

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 menstrual blood.

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 rougher.

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 artist.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Willamette Week | originally published January 26, 2000



















search siterogue of the weekscoreboardnews buzz500 wordsNews StoriesLead Storyfeedbacksite mapsearch sitepersonalsclassifiedwebxtraculturenews