Meet “Phoebe” and “Christa,” two seniors with deans’ list standings, upper-class backgrounds, and a specialty in foot and urine fetishism. They’ve cleaned apartments dressed as schoolgirls, stripteased, massaged and peed on lawyers, sometimes together and sometimes separately. They congratulate themselves on falling short of ‘real sex stuff’ (oral and intercourse), but know that their parents would kill them anyway.
“I just feel bad asking them for money,” said Christa, whose father makes well over $400,000 a year. “It’s just really nice to be able to make a ton of money quickly and spend it wherever I want.” Phoebe has a similar guilt complex and an urge to break away from her parents, who, combined, make about $300,000 a year.
Their friend “Jenny,” a recent graduate of the University of Virginia, tried to maintain no sex boundaries but eventually decided to have intercourse with clients. “It’s so much easier to just be a prostitute. And yeah, who cares, I’m rich now.”
The three girls market themselves on Craigslist, under the “erotic services” section, as “non-pros” or “schoolgirls,” because, according to Phoebe, “being nubile sells.”
They began with lower-caliber jobs like massage and run-of-the-mill cleaning. They soon realized that they could get away with quicker jobs if they only eroded their boundaries. “It takes two seconds to pee on someone, and three more seconds to get their money and leave,” said Phoebe, “the hardest part is pretending it’s normal for me to do it.”
The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), the first program in the country to focus on the provision of legal services and policy advocacy for sex workers, compiled a March 2005 report, “Behind Closed Doors,” which surveyed New York City’s “indoor sex workers,” i.e., those not working on the street. According to the study, 48 percent of sex work has moved to the Internet.
“Internet opened sex work for a lot of women,” said Robyn Few, a SWOP director from San Francisco, “and it’s become a tool for our kids. Our kids are entrepreneurs raised in a capitalist society. We’re seeing a lot of ‘schoolgirls’ – or at least those who claim to be – using the erotic pages and saying ‘this is simple.’’’
According to Few, the police commissioner of San Francisco – Craigslist’s birthplace – recently announced on television that street prostitution had gone down 50 percent since the Internet boom in the late 90s. “It’s got to be more than that by now,” she suspects.
Whereas the anonymity of indoor sex work makes it difficult to pinpoint workers’ demographics, New York SWOP director Juhu Thukral would not be surprised by the Barnard stories. According to the March report, indoor sex workers include anyone from babysitters to drug addicts to freelance artists to accountants. Like the Barnard women, 33 percent of those surveyed had a sustainable income without sex work. “Most people would be surprised at how diverse sex workers are as a group. It’s made it easy for the middle class and people with stability in their lives to get involved with the use of the Internet, cellular phones, hotel rooms, whatever.”
How safe and anonymous are these women? Although Thukral told The Indypendent that streetwalkers are more vulnerable to work hazards, the report found that 47 percent of the indoor sex workers had been arrested through undercover sting operations. Forty-six percent had been forced by a client to do something he or she did not want to do, and 42 percent had been threatened or beaten.
The Barnard girls have yet to become one of these statistics, save for minor, “annoying” coercions from clients for sex. In fact they roll their eyes at warnings, claim they’re careful to screen their clients and draw attention back toward the new hundreds in their cash boxes. Like 70% of the workers on the report, the girls want to abandon the business eventually for legitimate career plans. In the meantime their biggest fear is neither rape nor the police, but their parents. “I don’t care who knows it. In fact I kind of like talking about it,” said Phoebe, “But if my parents find out I’m fucked.”