The Dismal Science


Did Eliot Spitzer get caught because he didn’t spend enough on prostitutes?

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal.

The first thing that grabs your attention about the sex scandal involving New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is, of course, the client. But, there’s another aspect to the story that should raise eyebrows: $4,300. That’s the bill Spitzer incurred for his dangerous liaison at the Mayflower hotel. Who would pay that much, and could you ever really get your money’s worth?

In fact, $4,300 is not an altogether alarming sum of money in the high-end sex market. Spitzer got a bargain—and that may have been his downfall.

In many so-called global cities, like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, sex is part of a lucrative service sector that has developed for those with expendable income. Soliciting a prostitute can be as pricey as hiring a personal chef or finding a private school for your kids. In New York, it’s not hard to find sex workers who charge $10,000 per “session,” which can last for 15 minutes or two hours (jokes aside).

Although you can still drive through neighborhoods where prices aren’t nearly so high—in New York, the average rate for intercourse is around $75 if you find a street-based prostitute—the biggest changes in recent years have occurred at the upper end of the market. Cities that cleaned up their red-light districts, like Chicago’s West Side or Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, pushed the sex-work trade indoors—to the Internet, to strip clubs, to escort services. These indoor sex workers created a larger, less publicly visible market that tends to serve the middle and upper classes.

I found this world by accident in 1999, when I started interviewing sex workers in Hell’s Kitchen, Spanish Harlem, and other New York neighborhoods that were points of entry for newly arrived immigrants. I expected to hang out on the streets, but in fact I had to enter apartments, public-housing projects, strip clubs, bars, and brothels to locate subjects. What I found was women checking voice mail or sitting behind computers watching their online ads and e-mail accounts. This was the sex world that New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani helped to create when he drove prostitutes off the streets as part of his effort to make the city hospitable for upper-end residential development and tourism. While it’s hard to say whether the total number of prostitutes increased, the Giuliani strategy did expand the indoor market: the white-collar workers who may have visited a street prostitute now and then quickly discovered a discreet, online, and referral-based world of higher-priced sex workers. The higher end of the market exploded.

The new “indoor” sex worker differs from the older prototype. In the past, sex workers tended to view their role as part-time “survivors”—selling sex to keep up a drug habit, to pay rent, or to eke out a living until something better came along. Pushed indoors, some became “careerist.” They were professionals offering a legitimate service, like nursing or counseling; they looked at their work as partly therapeutic. These indoor workers stay in the game for longer periods of time because they find a level of autonomy and flexibility that the legitimate economy often does not provide. They’re also less likely to be targeted by cops, social workers, or clergy, all of whom work to get street-based prostitutes out of the profession. The street-based prostitute tends to leave the job after six to nine months, returning when money is tight or drugs need to be purchased.

At the lucrative end of the market, I have found it useful to think of three tiers of women (men constitute only about 10 percent of high-end prostitutes). Spitzer was paying for “Tier 1” sex workers: Fees usually range from $2,000 to $5,000 per session; women come in all ages and ethnic stripes; they rigorously guard their health and watch for STDs; and most have a high-school degree but have limited work experience. They can promise you discretion, but most work through escort services that are routinely under surveillance. In practice, this means buyer beware.

“Tier 2” includes women who charge up to $7,500 for a session. These women tend to be white, they may have a college degree (or be actively enrolled in school), and they usually require a referral before they will take on a new john. They also have a small, exclusive clientele, sometimes as few as a dozen men whom they service. Unlike Tier 1 workers, they do not rely on escort agencies, so they keep all of their money.

Finally, there are the “Tier 3” sex workers, who can charge in excess of $10,000 per rendezvous. They may have only four or five clients, and they typically charge their clients an additional monthly surcharge for their various needs—rent, clothing, medicine.

Both Tier 2 and Tier 3 workers can typically do more to safeguard a client’s privacy. There are no guarantees, of course, but they tend to shun contractual relationships with agencies that advertise their services. There is less of a paper trail. They typically will only take a john via a referral, and even then, they may require that the john “date” them for weeks before deciding to offer up sex. I have heard of Tier 2 and 3 sex workers who vet prospective clients for months, sometimes hiring a private detective to see if the john is stable—psychologically and financially. As a former attorney general, Spitzer must have known all this.

What high-end clients pay for may surprise you. For example, according to my ongoing interviews of several hundred sex workers, approximately 40 percent of trades in New York’s sex economy fail to include a physical act beyond light petting or kissing. No intercourse, no oral stimulation, etc. That’s one helluva conversation. But it’s what many clients want. Flush with cash, these elite men routinely turn their prostitute into a second partner or spouse. Over the course of a year, they will sometimes persuade the woman to take on a new identity, replete with a fake name, a fake job, a fake life history, and so on. They may want to have sex or they may simply want to be treated like King for a Day.

Melissa is a 38-year-old white woman living in Hoboken, N.J. (She asked that I not use her full name.) I met her in 2002, when she was in Hell’s Kitchen trying to get her sister to stop turning tricks in local bars. Instead, she ended up entering the sex trade herself. She felt unable to advance in her corporate job and grew tired of watching men with less experience receive promotions. In the words of elite sex workers, she is currently “on retainer” to a partner at a Manhattan law firm—I love the irony of the phrasing. She receives $10,000 per month, which usually translates into three meetings. “The last time I met him, I gave him a bath,” she told me. “I told him he was the most sensitive man I’d ever met. I never tell him he’s a piece of shit; I make him feel like superman.” Melissa estimates that she has sex with him about once a month, but as often he will simply masturbate in front of her.

Although women may charge more for their services in New York, there is a burgeoning high-end sex market in most global cities, and men from the financial sector are an important part of the clientele. Spitzer got caught, but it is actually quite rare for either sex worker or client to be apprehended; usually, it’s the low-end folks who get their pictures on the police department’s Web site. While the street-based prostitutes I study report getting apprehended four to six times per year, the majority of higher-tier women seem to have relatively little trouble with the law.

This doesn’t mean the elite women have a great life. Melissa and other high-end workers routinely experience physical abuse at the hands of their clients—on average, they report getting abused twice per year, which is better than the six times a year that street-based workers report but still, clearly, troubling. Escort services (usually owned by men) often charge Tier 1 prostitutes various fees that reduce their take-home pay. If they work as independent contractors, as Tier 2 and 3 women tend to, they have to fight their clients to get paid on time. Plus, their lives are cash-based—they can’t plan for the future or make any real investments.

The moral of the story, I suppose, is that even in the black market, you can find a glass ceiling.