Sex for Hire: Real Stories of Prostitution in America

Meet real women working in the sex trade, and those who dream of getting out.

ByElizabeth Joseph

March 21, 2008— -- For more than a week, Americans have been fascinated by the revelation that former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was a client of a high-end escort service called "The Emperors Club."

"The last time I saw him, he had asked me to write about prostitution and his work on the field," said The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof. "It's just such an astonishing act of bravado and chutzpah considering what we know of him now."

What we know now is not just a tale of one man's political fall from grace, but one that represents the lives of thousands of women collecting money in return for sex in the U.S. every day.


Long before the Spitzer scandal broke, ABC News had been investigating the multifaceted world of sex for hire, from women selling themselves to support a drug habit to closed-door negotiations in Nevada's world-famous Bunny Ranch, one of the nation's few legal brothels.

For more than two years, ABC News' Diane Sawyer and her producers met with prostitutes as they walked the streets, spoke with the johns that pay and learned firsthand what keeps this underground culture hidden from view and yet completely available to those who seek it.

Jessi, a platinum-blond 22-year-old, walks the streets in Reno City, Nev., most days and nights. She grew up on an organic farm in California and dreamed of becoming a firefighter but said her home life was unstable and caused her to leave. She said her happiest times were when she joined the Navy at 17, and the saddest times began when she was later diagnosed with epilepsy and discharged.

Soon Jessi was homeless and began using drugs. "I was shooting up 50 times a day," she said. "Toward the end, I was using methamphetamines."

It was her drug dealer who suggested she prostitute herself to make money.

"With the females, most of them don't have residence here," said Sgt. Dave Evans of the Reno Street Enforcement Team. "They're homeless, and they're balancing from place to place. Very few of them have valid IDs. They don't have jobs, so they don't qualify for citations, so they go to jail."

"Most girls here make an average of $20 -- $20 for half and half, which is both: oral and physical sex," Jessi said. "You can't be soft, you can't be nice, you can't be sweet. You have to treat everyone like they're going to f**k you over. Because they are."

Growing tired of working the streets, Jessi explored expanding her business to cyberspace.

Today, women advertise themselves in the online red-light district under various aliases.

"You could go to Craigslist, you could open your yellow pages, you could see pages and pages of ads, escort agencies and massage parlors," explained Rachel Lloyd, executive director of Girls' Educational Mentoring Services of New York City, a group that specializes in rescuing underage girls who enter the sex world.

Hiding in plain sight are hundreds of thousands of individuals both seeking and selling sex.

"The nice thing about this site is the women in the pictures are all wearing suits," Jessi said. "And so when you first get to it, you can't really tell what kind of site it is. Most of my clientele that I've met are married, and they don't want a little girl in that little red mini dress and sky-high heels to walk up to them in a bar if that's where they're meeting."

Prostitution is a two-person event, but men and women are perceived and prosecuted very differently.

"The johns do have a stake in the society. There is some risk if you're a policeman or if you're a prosecutor that if you start arresting johns, that one of them will be your neighbor, your boss, whatever else," explained Kristof. "It's much simpler just to arrest the young women."

Referring to the Spitzer situation, Kristof said, "I'm just afraid that people are going to mistake that for typical prostitution in the U.S., and you know, that is a sliver of it, but for an awful lot of young women and girls -- and girls meaning, you know, teenage girls, young girls -- it is not a choice, it's a nightmare."

But what happens when prostitution is legal? What about the women who work in the 30 legal brothels of Nevada?

All sorts of people, from businessmen to cowboys, even some women, visit the Moonlight Bunny Ranch in Carson City, Nev., for an opportunity to hire one of the women sex workers.

Christina, who ended up at the ranch after 37 foster homes and was trying to put herself through nursing school, said working at the legal brothel seemed like a dream come true.

"[Owner Dennis Hoff] told me that I could make a good living out here and that I'd be happy. I'd never go without a roof over my head. I'd never go hungry, I'd never go without money."

Another one of the prostitutes, a former nurse, said, "In here I can work four, five, six hours if I wanted to and make as much money in one day that I can in two weeks nursing."

Men spend large amounts of money at the ranch for not only sex but for what is commonly referred to as the GFE: The Girlfriend Experience. "He wants you to be his girlfriend for however long he booked you for," one prostitute explained. "Whether that's 10 minutes or 10 hours, kissing, holding hands, cuddling."

Hoff tells his employees to "fulfill those fantasies. Be the fantasy experience you know and create them. You'll be rewarded handsomely, have six figures and live happily ever after."

"My rate is $2,000 an hour for everything, $1,000 for half an hour, $500 for 15 minutes," another employee claimed.

Though licensed sex workers are legally allowed to charge for their services in Nevada, the drug culture still integrates itself into the lives of some women there.

According to a Bunny Ranch prostitute named Danielle, "A lot of the girls here do drugs. Whether it's illegal drugs on the street, coke and ecstasy kind of stuff, or whether its prescription drugs, three or four Xanax to get through the day, most of them are on something."

There are about 800 women working in legal brothels in Nevada. However, the majority of prostitutes in America are the tens of thousands working in fear of and dependency on the men who make the money -- the pimps.

"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the girls we work with have been under, or are under, the control of a pimp at some point," said GEM's Lloyd. "If we're talking about girls or young women who have been, you know, systematically abused, who have previous trauma, who maybe have run away from home and are currently in a really vulnerable situation, and this adult man who comes onto them, and promises them the world, that can be very intoxicating."

"It's like a cult where they brainwash you," said one woman who escaped the world of prostitution. "In the beginning, it's as if they're training you like a dog, but when I wanted something, I got it. If I wanted a car, I got it. If I wanted a fur coat, I got it. If I wanted to go shopping, I got it."

Kristof explains that for law enforcement, the difficulty in prosecuting pimps begins with the victim's reluctance to help. "You would have to show force, fraud and coercion, and the argument is that if the pimp is essentially a financial manager to a young woman, then that is not so serious a crime, while if he's forcing the girl to sell herself, that is. The problem is that to prove force, fraud and coercion, you pretty much have to get this young woman to testify against her pimp. That means her life will be in jeopardy, [the lives] of her family will be in jeopardy, and also there really is often an emotional bond in a very weird way between her and that pimp."

An emotional bond that another young former prostitute formerly known as Caramel knows all too well. "I thought I was so in love," she said. "You've got somebody there to take care of you, take care of your money."

Street prostitutes are obviously the most vulnerable.

Jessica, another prostitute who works the streets outside Philadelphia said, "The Friday after Thanksgiving I got robbed at gunpoint, beat in the head with a gun [and] I've been stabbed -- [I needed] 127 stitches."

"Every time you get into a car you know anything can happen. You can get raped, you can get killed, you have all different types of people out here," explained a prostitute named Audrey.

Be it glamorized prostitution with high-end escorts, poverty stricken street hookers or legal working women in the sex trade, these women all share some things in common. Sexual abuse at a young age, broken homes and addictions to drugs and alcohol all lead women to pursue lives that aid them in getting money any way they can.

During her investigation into the lives of prostitutes, Diane Sawyer asked Skylar, a college graduate turned street prostitute what it would take for her to change her life.

"I don't know," Skylar said. "Maybe watching this when it airs."

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