Yesterday, the New York Times interviewed one of the Colombian escorts whose services were paid for by a Secret Service agent during last week’s Summit of the Americas in Cartagena. She felt that she’d been portrayed as a typical streetwalking prostitute, and she insisted that her own approach to the “oldest profession” is much more up to date:
“It’s the same, but it’s different,” she said, indicating that she is much more selective about her clients and charges much more than a streetwalker. “It’s like when you buy a fine rum or a BlackBerry or an iPhone. They have a different price.”
In Colombia, where I’m from, these escorts are called prepagos, or “prepaid women,” a phenomenon that exploded in Colombia in the late ’90s. After inciting some mild outrage, the term and the profession quickly infiltrated popular culture. The popular perception in Colombia is that prepagos don’t do it out of necessity; the escort involved with an agent was charging about $800 for the night—or $1.6 million pesos, an especially large sum in Colombia.
Many of these escorts have professional websites and popular Twitter accounts. They take credit cards and offer free delivery. Often they come from affluent families and have been to college, which they market as a prized and rare asset. One of the websites, Las Universitarias, or “College Girls” (that link is not safe for work, in case you had any doubt), whose slogan is “beauty and culture in bed,” offers the option to translate the site into English. These services are offered mostly in larger cities like Bogotá, Cali, and Medellín; prostitution in more remote areas is much more driven by displacement due to poverty or violence. (Colombia has the second largest population of internally displaced people in the world, behind Sudan.)
The infrastructure behind the prepago industry is massive and problematic, with ties to both corporate and drug money. Telenovelas about escorts and drug lords, like Sin Tetas No Hay Paraíso (No Heaven Without Tits), have proliferated in Colombia in recent years, gathering huge audiences. Drugs are Colombia’s curse, and beauty, especially feminine beauty, is an obsession in Colombian culture—even more so than it is in the United States. Colombia is known to be a plastic surgery haven, where children as young as 14 get breast implants. Miss Universe and Miss Colombia are the most watched shows on TV year-round; soccer matches are their only real competition. It is not uncommon for finalists of the Miss Colombia pageant to go straight into jobs as newscasters.
Prepagos have become enormously popular in Colombia, and though there is still public shame in the country about what they do, very little has been done to curb the industry; this collective resignation is not unlike the attitude toward prostitution in general. Women from all socioeconomic backgrounds have the option of prostituting themselves, and for a wide range of reasons that are constantly changing. It’s in this context that high-paid escorts, flaunting their wares on professional websites and on Twitter, thrive.