Chelsea Lane was a freshman at Reed, the esteemed liberal-arts college in Portland, Oregon, when she first became interested in sex work. Someone in her humanities class had a Tumblr about being a prostitute, prompting a lively debate among fellow students over whether they could ever sell their bodies. “I started reading sex workers’ blogs,” Lane explains. The women behind the blogs sounded confident, financially secure. “And within Reed, it was like, ‘That’s cool. That’s edgy.’ ”
Lane describes herself as “fat and hairy” and is so pale she almost glows. She grew up poor but “had a zero-trauma childhood” in a conservative Northern California town. “My parents were the most supportive,” she says. “They’ve been married for 35 years and still love each other. They did tell me I’m beautiful and awesome.’ ” But she still felt insecure about her body and about sex. “They’re your parents, so they don’t say, ‘You’re a beautiful sexual creature.’ Because that’s creepy and weird. There’s a disconnect between thinking I can do anything in life versus thinking I’m beautiful physically.” Lane, who had lost her virginity to another virgin at Reed in what she describes as “really disappointing and bad” sex, started contacting the sex-work bloggers, asking if curvy girls could be strippers. “I didn’t feel attractive or wanted, but these ladies told me that everybody has beauty and that there is someone out there who will appreciate it — who’ll even pay for it.”
The more she learned, the more appealing sex work became. She had visions of going to grad school and liked the idea of having wealthy men fund her education. Later in her freshman year, she posted a personal ad on a sugar-daddy website. She met her first client at a hotel. “The sex was really bad,” she says, “but he was a decent guy. He was in his mid-40s. He told me that I was the second person he’d ever slept with, other than his wife. He put the money in my purse. As soon as I got in my car, I counted and was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s $300!’ At this point, I’m 18 and working at Sears. I was excited.”
From there, sex quickly became a side job. She’d meet about ten clients a week, making $1,000 to $1,500. “The first several months of me escorting was like, ‘I relish their worshipping my body.’ It’s amazing. There have been two clients throughout my entire time that made me feel dirty, and that’s because it was obvious they didn’t see me as a person. But that was two out of hundreds.” And anyway, she says, “I can think of personal partners who treated me like that.”
She has her own Tumblr now. On her first anniversary of escorting, in February 2015, she wrote that, at 20 years old, she is less isolated, better paid, in contact with “wonderful” people, and “getting laid on the regular.” Her story has been added to the body of personal accounts that changed her own perception of sex workers years before. “They’re people,” she says she realized then. “Not sad drug addicts walking on the street.”
The stereotype of prostitutes as streetwalkers is indeed somewhat dated in the United States, where for decades an estimated 80 percent have done business indoors. More recently, the internet has fostered unprecedented acceptance of sex work among the public, as it did for Lane, with sex-workers-rights hashtags and grassroots social-media campaigns that make visible women who are working by choice. Sites like SeekingArrangement.com, which connect sugar “babies” with sugar daddies, technically forbid prostitution, but have also helped normalize sex work; currently around a million U.S. college students have accounts with the service, according to the company. In 2012, 38 percent of Americans thought sex work should be legalized; last year, amid growing support for legalized marijuana and increased personal freedom, that number went up to 44 percent.
The issue made news last summer, when Amnesty International, one of the world’s most prominent human-rights organizations, voted to campaign for the decriminalization of all aspects of sex work, from buying to selling. After two years of research and deliberation, it said, it had concluded that full decriminalization would better empower and protect sex workers. In response, more than 300 human-rights-organization representatives, writers, activists, and actresses including Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep signed a heavily footnoted letter arguing that full decriminalization would lead to an increase of involuntary sex slaves, “who are mostly women,” and “support a system of gender apartheid” in which resourceless females become objects of consumption. These opponents to decriminalization support the “Nordic model,” which punishes buyers, brothels, and pimps but not the sex workers themselves, a system pioneered by Sweden that has since been adopted in some form in Iceland, Norway, Northern Ireland, and Canada. The idea is to ultimately end the trade without harming the women, who are seen as its victims, by targeting the more powerful economic agents, namely men.
Of course, “it’s not just women” in the industry, points out Barb Brents, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “But so much of the anti-decriminalization argument is about the symbolism of protecting women.” In the open letter, men were mentioned only as consumers and peddlers. Brents chalks up the relative disinterest in male sex workers — with the notable exception of last year’s federal raid on Rentboy.com — to the “gendered norms of sex: Men are active and have a tireless sexual drive. Women are passive and don’t.” Savannah Sly, the president of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA, a national grassroots advocacy network, calls the “hysteria” around “women and girls, women and girls, women and girls” a strategy for justifying “the war on whores.”
The debate has highlighted a rift among feminists, pitting two deeply held beliefs against each other. One side argues that women should be free economic agents, capable of making choices in their own self-interest, empowered to own their sexuality and use their bodies however they choose. If Chelsea Lane wants to become a sex worker, why shouldn’t she be allowed to do it legally? Those on the other side believe that the Chelsea Lanes of the world are a tiny fraction of sex workers and that many who “choose” this life are not choosing freely or choosing at all. And, even for someone like Lane, how can that choice ever be untangled from society's persistent cultural misogyny and inequality?
But for both sides, the issue boils down to whether decriminalization makes women safer. The little research that exists doesn’t definitively settle the dispute. Some studies show that legalization, as enacted by Germany and the Netherlands, is associated with higher rates of trafficking — people being coerced or conscripted into sex work against their will. Decriminalization advocates, along with some researchers, argue that this is due to onerous regulations that can unintentionally push sex work to underground markets. (In Nevada, where prostitution is “legal,” but only in strictly regulated brothels, there were nearly 4,000 arrests for prostitution in 2014.) Some studies have found that the decriminalization of selling, but not buying, sex has led to less street prostitution; other studies have not. There’s research that finds that criminalization leads to more abuse of sex workers and research that finds an overwhelming number of sex workers want out, are traumatized, and suffer from addiction. And other research that doesn’t.
One area where there seems to be a lot of consensus is in sex workers’ desire to be able to seek the protection of the law without fear of prosecution. A 2012 report by the U.N. cited research that found an “overwhelming majority of [female sex workers] interviewed wanted sex work to be legalized or decriminalized.” Many other current sex workers, from the Caribbean Sex Worker Coalition to swop to the 50,000 members of Calcutta’s Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, agree.
Chelsea Lane does, too. Lane was adamant that she didn’t want to contribute to the “white happy hooker” narrative: “So many people think sex work is only acceptable if you do it because it’s fun and empowering,” she says. “And I’ve seen this other set of dialogues, on Tumblr mostly, where sex workers are saying, ‘No, it’s a job like any other, and we don’t necessarily enjoy our jobs, but we still deserve safe working conditions.’ Personally, my self-esteem is soaring. Sex work really allowed me to grasp hold of my sexuality and to embrace myself.” But even if she weren’t so white and happy, she maintains, it would still be her right to do it. “I used to love Anne Hathaway. She’s still classy, but maybe I have like ten less respect points for her.”
This was, by and large, the response of sex workers all over the internet after the open letter to Amnesty International was published: We don’t need anyone else to speak for us—much less privileged actresses who are far removed from our experience. But advocates on the other side say there are plenty of sex workers who do need someone to speak up on their behalf, because they are marginalized and essentially voiceless. The argument is whether it’s condescending and paternalistic to let others decide what’s best for sex workers, or irresponsible not to.
Reagan is not a white happy hooker — she is not white, for one, and her feelings about sex work are complicated. “When I first started doing this, I was raped,” she says. “That’s what I mean when I say working in this industry is bad for your personal life. Because I was in the industry, I knew this could happen. I didn’t like it by any means, but it didn’t traumatize me the way that it probably should have.”
Reagan — who is not really named Reagan (her name has been changed, as have the names of almost everyone in this story) and who has “been 29 for like five years” — tells me this as she drives west across the state of North Carolina one Friday night after dark, toward the more rural areas where she prefers to work. In cities, “if you have an overabundance [of workers], you have to fight for a price and market yourself in a different way or cheaper, and I’m not about cheap,” she says, barreling further away from her home in Charlotte. “Like with any other business, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you look for a need. There’s not a lot of black girls out here.” Most of the time, Reagan’s job is surprisingly mundane — identifying the markets, assessing rates, doing cost-benefit travel analyses. Her wardrobe is low-key: “I probably look like a schoolteacher,” she says.
The night she was raped, Reagan had gone by herself to meet a client. “It seemed like a nice area, and it was my first time there, and it was close to downtown.” She’d used Priceline to find the hotel. “I get there, and it’s a dump. I thought, I’ll just do this one appointment, and I’ll go to a better area. When the guy came, he robbed me at gunpoint, and then he decided he wanted a little action.”
Reagan was not aware of the decriminalization debate until I mentioned it to her, but despite her mixed feelings about sex work she believes it should be legal. Her opinion is influenced by what happened that night. “When I called the cops, they were just like, ‘Ah, okay.’ They didn’t do anything. I don’t dislike cops — they’re just doing their job — but if the law allowed them to be more accepting, maybe they could help more people. If I were ever to get raped again, I wouldn’t call the police. At all. For what? Because of the profession that I chose to work in, you are considered less than. It’s almost, ‘You asked for it because you work in this industry anyway. You’re already having sex with people — what’s the big deal?’ ”
Raised a Southern Baptist, Reagan “didn’t come up in the lifestyle,” and says she freely chose this line of work. “I probably have better degrees than a lot of people,” she says. “I do this part time, and I double my salary as a paralegal.” That’s why she does it. “I’m not saying there’s not a lot of drug addicts who do it and people who’ve been victimized. I know for a fact that lots of people who work in the sex industry were molested. I was not. For the most part, the girls on the internet have probably never walked the streets. That type of hustle I wouldn’t even understand. Either you really devalue who you are or you’ve really been beat up in life to hustle for $20.” That’s what the street workers, who local police say are almost exclusively substance-addicted trauma survivors, charge in the Blue Ridge Mountain town where she’s headed. Reagan charges ten times that, per hour. “When I first started, I charged $400. There’s no way in hell I’d screw somebody for $200. I don’t actually offer sex anymore, but I used to. Because I don’t offer sex” — she does erotic massage, domination, “touching” — “I’m okay with these rates now.”
Reagan stopped offering sex to clients to appease her boyfriend. They recently broke up, “but I think we’re working on it, so I chose to give up the sex part of it.” But she didn’t want to give up escorting entirely, even though it gets to her sometimes. “Some things don’t matter if it’s illegal or not; it’s about the ethics. I’m probably the most ethical prostitute who ever was. I didn’t want to know if [clients] were married. I made them take off their ring — I don’t wanna know because I feel bad. There are days when I think, Jesus, is all I can offer in life sex? I wasn’t raised that way. So what the hell brought that across my mind? It’s very degrading.” Reagan’s clients don’t make her feel that way; it’s the message she gets from everyone else. “It’s taught from a very young age in America that this is not acceptable behavior.”
A month before this conversation, Reagan was arrested. This, she says, is the worst thing that’s happened to her as a sex worker. “It traumatizes me more to walk into a man’s hotel room and think he’s a cop than that he’s gonna rape me. I’m more concerned about a criminal record. I almost have a panic attack every time I walk into someone’s hotel room.” She worries that if she ever left her job as a paralegal — or if her employer found out about the arrest and fired her — she wouldn’t be able to get another straight job. “It’ll never go away. I definitely hurt myself, in a sense. I sacrificed some of the other things I wanted to do later in life. I’ll never be able to work for a company. I’ll have to build my own.”
Tonight, in western North Carolina, Reagan has “some things” scheduled. After a two-hour drive, she pulls up to a hotel, where she has a reservation. “I don’t intend on working in this industry much longer,” she says, walking through the hotel parking lot. “I’m working on a group home for children, and also a car lot.”
For Anna, a 22-year-old who recently moved to New York, decriminalization is a practical matter. She started a limited-liability company pretending to be a graphic designer, “because I needed a way to pay taxes. I feel really guilty evading taxes; I make a really good living. Paying taxes is also good for your future.” This way, she says, “I have an income history,” which will be important “if I want to buy property down the road or apply for credit cards.”
Anna is petite, with fine hair and delicate features and a high, whispery voice. She started working in the industry three years ago. “I listened to Dan Savage’s podcast in high school, and I remember him talking about sex work and sugar babies. So that’s how I got the idea.” Her parents were wealthy but square. “If I hadn’t been listening to those podcasts” — Sex Nerd Sandra was another favorite — “I wouldn’t have started. They exposed me to a lot of stuff and kind of made me more comfortable with sex in general.” When she moved out of her parents’ home for college, she put an ad on Backpage. “I started for fun, to make money on the side.”
Her parents found out, though, cut her off, and stopped speaking to her. “That’s when I transitioned to doing it as a source of income. I couldn’t pay tuition.” She ended up dropping out of school anyway, working full time, and she still doesn’t have any contact with her parents. “We had a pretty close relationship,” she says, sounding resigned. “It was a big deal. It was hard then, but I’ve definitely gotten over it.”
It was one of Anna’s clients who helped her professionalize her operation, suggesting she meet with another woman he patronized who could help her make a website, improve her pictures, and start making way more money. “He knew I was really young and didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I wasn’t charging very much at all, and this girl helped me raise my rates—more than doubled them.” Now she charges a $500-an-hour minimum.
For the most part, Anna likes her job. “I’ve gotten really used to it, so it almost seems much less scary than doing other things.” The biggest frustration she cites is one shared by many online businesses: “I’m frustrated with the review system,” she says. Websites like the Erotic Review let clients write their version of an encounter — like a sex workers’ version of Yelp. “I feel like one bad review could ruin your business, so that’s been stressful.”
Other than the family difficulties, Anna’s stresses seem not too different from any young person freelancing or starting a small business. She doesn’t talk about legal troubles or violent clients, abuse or addiction, nor does she have any existential issues with the work she does. “Ninety-nine percent of everyone is really sweet. I’ve only had to ask someone to leave once, because the guy was really drunk. I didn’t feel threatened. I was just a little bit scared.” Eventually, she tells me, she’ll quit escorting and use her saved up earnings to go to beauty school. “If I had unlimited money, I might work toward getting my bachelor’s degree. I wouldn’t say [being a beautician] is my dream job. It’s just feasible for me to do when I get out of escorting.” She’s not desperate to get out, though. “Overall it’s not been bad, or I wouldn’t have been doing it.”
Cherie Jimenez says that she used to say that, too. That she was fine. The 65-year-old spent some 20 years on and off in the sex trade, and to sex workers who say they’re fine, she says, “maybe for now you’re fine.” If many active sex workers support full decriminalization, this former sex worker, like plenty of others, has much more negative feelings about the industry. “It almost destroyed me,” she says. And that was then. She thinks the sex trade’s problems are only getting worse.
Jimenez, who now runs the Eva Center, a sex-work exit program in Boston, is not talking about Anna’s small-business concerns. The internet may have made it easier for sex workers to operate like independent entrepreneurs, but it also seems to have increased clients’ demands. “Men want more,” Jimenez says. “Men’s and young boys’ introduction to intimacy is gonzo porn, where you play out the fantasy of brutalizing women.” The women who come through her program tell her that the industry “is more violent because pornography is more violent. [Johns] want extra shit, or they don’t wanna do it safely.”
In addition to her work at the Eva Center, Jimenez is a member of SPACE (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment) International, which advocates for the Nordic model, with the ultimate goal of the total abolition of the sex trade. “We have to get to where men are not buying people to get off,” she says. “It’s just a harmful practice.” She concedes that the perspective she has from running an exit program is “skewed.” The women who come to her are in absolute crisis to get out of the business, but she maintains that in general, “to use your body, to sell your body — it does something to you. Not very many people come out of it whole and in a very healthy way. Even under the best circumstances. How many young women do I talk to who have trouble having relationships?” She says the women in her program will ask her if she’s married. She says they want to know if they can experience love.
“The further you get away from mainstream life — catch a few [arrest] cases, you have no employment skills, you don’t know how to be in the world — the harder it is to get away and feel like you can do something else.” Though she was 20 and sober when she started, she eventually became a daily heroin user. “Horrific things do happen,” she says. The homicide rate for prostitution vastly outpaces any other profession’s in the U.S. The industry is especially dangerous for transgender women. Many of the staggering number of trans women who were murdered in the U.S. last year were sex workers.
Plus, there’s the struggle of “after a while just being a commodity and being a body and trying to hold onto yourself,” Jimenez says. In the case of her clients, their efforts to get out are often complicated by addiction and isolation. “They have no viable skills, they have no one to support them,” no home, no education, no résumé; about half of them have been through the system, aged out of group homes. Even with the support of the Eva Center, many of her clients take years to get a straight job.
Sex workers with, say, “master’s degrees — they know that they can do something else. Most of us don’t have that.” (But even for them, Jimenez doesn’t buy the notion of harmlessness: “Those women, do they want their children in this?”) According to the International Labor Organization, 4.5 million people worldwide work in forced sexual labor. But Jimenez says the line between being a consenting sex worker and being trafficked is not always clear. Those with boyfriends who pimp them out or beat them, or who have pimps who give them quotas, are they really consenting?
“You can’t end the trafficking piece without addressing it as a whole thing, as a sex trade. Decriminalization, which is what Amnesty is calling for, would make this an open market,” Jimenez says. “So these women that I meet, it would be legal for them to become completely exploited. The sex-workers people” — by which she means decriminalization advocates within the industry — “say, ‘You reduce us all to victims.’ And I get that. But what is it to have a good life? And be healthy and productive and contribute and have access to things? We don’t have equal access” to opportunity and education, she says. “That’s what Amnesty should be fighting for.”
Abolitionists, says Jill Brenneman, “equate everything to sex trafficking.”
That is something that Brenneman, now 49, knows about firsthand. Kidnapped and sold as a sex slave when she was just 15, she was held in a basement and raped by a revolving clientele of sadists for three years until her captor was arrested. One gang rape during that period damaged her vocal cords so severely that her voice still comes out hoarse. She later became a spokesperson for anti-trafficking organizations, ones that happened to be vehemently anti-decriminalization.
Then, in her 40s, she found herself unemployed, laid off from her career as a flight attendant, and she decided to become an escort. “What happened to me as a teenager and what happened as an adult is completely different,” she says.
It was “not really” a hard decision, she says. “I needed the money, and if anything, I went from having very little money to having more than enough immediately. I could go to the grocery store and get whatever I wanted. I could go to Starbucks every day if I wanted to. I didn’t really mind it. It is a performance. You have a set playlist, and I would literally breathe with the song. For the crescendo I would fake an orgasm.”
Some of her acquaintances couldn’t believe that she chose to become an escort, and there were moments when she couldn’t believe she was doing it either. “It sometimes triggered back to the experience as a teenager, but for the most part I really compartmentalized it pretty well.”
Brenneman describes herself as “a very strong proponent of decriminalization,” as long as the paid sex is “between consenting adults.” For one, she thinks the resources that go into arresting sex workers would be better spent pursuing traffickers like her enslaver, who was arrested on unrelated charges — she was discovered and freed by chance. And like Reagan, she thinks that if sex work weren’t illegal, she could have gone to the police when a client got violent. Once, when Brenneman was working for an escorting agency, “they sent me on a bad outcall to a federal air marshal. Soon as I got there, I saw his graduation stuff on the wall, and I was like, ‘Oh, no; they sent me to a cop.’ ” She says he asked for anal sex. “That wasn’t part of the deal. After 15 minutes, he said he was going to get a drink and came back with handcuffs and a trash bag and forced it.” She had to go to the hospital because he gave her a concussion. The need for protection from law enforcement is a frequent argument of decriminalization proponents. In one survey of New York City sex workers, 27 percent reported police had used violence against them.
Aside from Jimenez, Brenneman was the oldest woman I talked to. She had the distance of having been out of the game for a few years and had had some truly terrible experiences while escorting. I also learned during the course of our conversation that she’s dying. She has a rare blood disease; in May 2014, she was given a year to live. I asked her if she had any regrets.
“I do, I do,” she said. “The first two years, I didn’t charge enough.”
Can we, should we, let sex workers speak for themselves? No matter how young? Or how disadvantaged? Or what they’ve been through?
“Who’s to say a sex worker’s life isn’t fine?” says Jimenez. “I was there once. I can say that.” But more than a dozen current and former sex workers I interviewed, some of them selected randomly off the internet, were in favor of decriminalization. I contacted Jimenez specifically because I knew she was against it and no one else had made the argument.
Skylar, a 20-year-old New Yorker, technically fits Jimenez’s description of women who do not exactly choose sex work. She was orphaned at a young age by drug-addicted parents and became a sex worker because she couldn’t figure out another way to get money for food. She had a boss, whom most people would consider a pimp, and she had no control over clients — or services, if she wanted to get paid. Also, she was a child, with children of her own.
“I was about 15,” she says. “My foster mother was giving me $5 a day, just enough to get to and from school, not to get lunch.” The decision to do sex work “came from not being able to do things with my kids, wanting to buy things but not being able to.” Skylar had had her first child at 13. When she was 14, a friend of a friend asked her if she wanted to work at dancing parties thrown by a guy she knew. “She introduced me to the guy, who is now incarcerated because he was trying to solicit 12-year-olds online, and when I got there, he was like, ‘Yeah, well, we do dancing parties, but if you want to make extra money, you’ll do x, y, and z.’ So he took my body measurements and took pictures and they ultimately decided that I was a good candidate for full-service escorting.”
Skylar knows this reads like a cautionary tale, yet she doesn’t consider herself a victim, and she didn’t consider herself a child at the time. “Young women who have survived trafficking, that doesn’t fit my experiences,” she says. “At 15, I wasn’t a 15-year-old. More like a 21-year-old. My circumstances after having a child were totally different from average 15-year-olds’. It’s a certain level of responsibility that you have to have. Although being a sex worker probably wasn’t my No. 1 pick at 15 years old, that’s what was open to me. That was the only option I had because, what, Payless is going to hire a 15-year-old who’s going through school and has a kid?”
Skylar didn’t think of the man who was running the business as a pimp, either. They had their disagreements — “he didn’t like the fact that I didn’t want to engage with him when I was in school” — but he wasn’t abusive, she says, and he never took money from her. “The guys went through a website to select girls. So he got paid from them visiting the website, and then once I was sent to the clients, the client was responsible for paying me.”
That’s where problems would arise sometimes. Clients would refuse to pay the agreed-on amount, or they’d leave because she would try to place limits on what they could do. Two out of five clients would leave, she says, because she didn’t seem young enough. “I was only 15 at that time, but I looked a lot older. I had babies by then, so I had stretch marks.”
Skylar quit escorting for a while, after she found a high school that had a jobs program. But by the time she graduated, she had three kids to take care of, so she went into business on her own. Now, she sets the boundaries when she enters a client’s room. “Be aggressive with them,” she says. “Because if you’re not aggressive with clients, they’ll just think they can take advantage of you. The moment you let them step up on even the littlest boundary, then it’s like they think that they can overpower you. The power should always be in yourself.”
She takes as many precautions as she can. At first contact on the phone, she listens to clients’ voices to see “if they’re saying things that are weird” or give her “that feeling” in the pit of her stomach. Before agreeing to meet them, she Googles their addresses and looks at their houses. (Anna also requires the info on clients’ driver’s licenses, or two references from other “reputable providers.”) She makes sure a friend knows where she is. For the first meeting, “I have a driver, so when I say, ‘Okay, your session is 45 minutes,’ then I will open the window and show them that the car is parked right outside their house. That’s the way of putting them into the mind-set that people care about me.”
She considers herself very lucky. “I’ve never really walked into a situation that was super, super terrible,” she says. “I don’t wanna make it seem like I know for sure that this person is safe, because safety is, like, not real.”
After high school, Skylar enrolled in college, but she got arrested right before orientation. She was jailed overnight and assigned to a program for sexually exploited children — she was 17 at the time. Attendance was required for getting the arrest off her record, and it conflicted with her class schedule. “I had to drop out of school to finish the program,” she says. “Being arrested and being put into this particular program that was designed to help me actually damaged the life course I had set for myself.”
Escorting is still not Skylar’s No. 1 pick for a job. “I’d much rather make great money helping my community and changing laws and changing people’s lives than dealing with my clients,” she says. “I hate clients. They suck. I don’t care about their life, I don’t care about their daughters, I don’t care about their wives — I don’t care,” and she hates having to pretend to. “It’s a lot of emotional labor.”
For now, she works in community organizing but continues escorting to pay the bills. “When I get into the apartment that I want, when I have cars, when I can do anything and everything for my children that I want on my own,” she says, “that will be my end date.”
In the meantime, she keeps her client list small. “I do not feel like it’s safe to advertise on Craigslist or Backpage anymore. That’s pretty much all cops, and legit I can’t get arrested again.” Besides, her current clients already know her and want her. “No matter how young I am, some clients are like, ‘Oh, you’re not foreign, you’re not from Japan, you’re not European — you’re black. You’re regular,’ ” says Skylar, who is half African-American and half Puerto Rican. She says her rates are “average” — she’s charged as low as $80 for a service, though her highest and preferred fee is $200 per hour. “Prices,” she says, “are about privilege.”
These days, Chelsea Lane works in the Bay Area and charges $400 an hour and $2,000 a night. She has a slick website with professional photos. She’s attending a nearby college and works at a corporate firm in addition to seeing clients. Doing both makes her “busy, busy, busy all the time.” She’d drop the day job, but, she says, “I don’t want to have a gap on my résumé.” Financially, she doesn’t need both incomes. “My salary more than pays for living expenses. Escorting income is to reach my savings goals: tuition, law-school tuition, and travel.” Plus, she enjoys it.
She does notice a difference in her private life. “When I have sex with personal partners, it’s robotic at first. When I’m with a client, I am super enthusiastic and loving it most of the time. But with a personal partner, I realize I don’t have to do those steps, or if I don’t like something, I can say that.”
It’s been most disruptive to her relationship with her parents, whom she came out to in January 2015. “They were devastated. They consider themselves hippies, but they’re weirdly conservative in so many ways. They think sex is something super special, and that’s not how I see it at all.” At one point, she stopped speaking with them for a month or two. “But my mom was like, ‘I’m your mother, damn it; we’re gonna have a relationship.’ ” Now, she doesn’t talk to them about her work. “They’ve convinced themselves I’ve stopped. They don’t want to talk about it at all. I wish I could continue to educate them.”
Lane hopes to become a lawyer and represent other sex workers. “I despise the stigma attached with my work, though the upside to that is that I’ve found I’m really passionate about sex-work-rights activism,” she says. She thinks she’ll probably have to stop before law school. “If I’m a lawyer, there’s some ethical questions,” given the current laws. But if she could, if the laws were to change, she would like to keep escorting, if for no other reason than to push herself to meet people. “I see myself doing it for the rest of my life.”
*This article appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.