Because of the Internet, escort and sex work has changed since the days of standing on street corners. It has become more nuanced, and — in many communities — it more easily flies under the radar.
Z., who asked to remain anonymous to protect her business, said she started working as an escort about a year ago in the Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill area.
Her first weekend working, she made $7,000.
Z. was reached through the website Backpage.com, an online advertising website that includes an “escorts” section. She said she has plenty of success on the website and repeat clients.
The work does not always involve sex or sexual acts. Z. said she often just sits and talks with a man or goes out to dinner with him.
“Most of the guys that I deal with are older, professional guys, and they literally just want a companion,” she said.
Sex workers no longer have to hang out in public to find clients. Websites like Craigslist and Backpage.com provide opportunities for people to advertise their services, and these have contributed to the blurred lines of sex work. Offering companionship as an escort is legal, but it often indicates prostitution is occurring.
“It’s obvious. Everyone knows that (sex) is what goes on. Not all the time but yeah, sometimes,” Z. said.
Policing prostitution hasn’t caught up to technology. Capt. Chris Atack, spokesman for the Carrboro Police Department, said the industry’s online presence creates difficulties for the police.
“Unless somebody tips us off, we don’t have personnel to be searching online for stuff like that,” Atack said.
In Carrboro, the police department made three arrests in August 2011 in a sting operation at the Abbey Court Condominiums, which is now the Collins Crossing apartment complex, after receiving several calls from residents.
Since then, there have been no more reported incidents of prostitution at the complex, and Atack said the number of calls in general from that location has decreased since it changed management.
Lt. Joshua Mecimore, spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department, said prostitution is a difficult crime to catch. He said most incidents and arrests for prostitution are the results of complaints.
He compared prostitution to drug distribution and use because people who are involved in the crime are less likely to report any wrongdoing. Prostitution, like drug use, has been called a victimless crime.
“Most crimes aren’t like that,” Mecimore said. “But when there’s no physical evidence, no known witnesses, the way you investigate that has to be different.”
According to records from the Chapel Hill Police Department, there have been three arrests for prostitution since 2001 — two in 2004 and one in 2005.
Two of the prostitution incidents were reported at the Red Roof Inn, on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, said Mecimore. The manager of the hotel could not be reached for comment.
Z. said other women choose to work for companies that offer escort services, instead of advertising themselves online. According to the Yellow Pages, there are seven escort companies that serve the Chapel Hill area.
One of these companies is called Abalonia’s Escorts. The woman who answers the phone, who identified herself as “Stephanie,” said interested clients can call to request companionship with escorts. She said clients pay based on the amount of time spent with the escort.
“She is his companion for that time, and they may go out to eat or out for a drink,” Stephanie said. “Some girls give massages, some will cuddle or kiss like a girlfriend, it is her choice.”
Stephanie said the company is selective in its hiring and only employs “high-class” women.
“There is one lady who works for us with a bachelor from UNC, one with a master’s from Duke, we have several soccer moms,” Stephanie said. “We don’t have sleazy girls.”
Stephanie added that the employees are not allowed to engage in illegal activities, such as prostitution, while on the job.
“They can do that on the side if they want, and I know there are some that probably do,” she said. “But if they do it on the job, and I find out, then they will be fired.”
Z. said she does not stay in one place for long. She is 24, but she lists a younger age in her ad because she said most of the men like younger women.
She spends time with her children during the day and does most of her work at night.
“I have kids, so I can’t sit around and wait, and I don’t have government assistance or anything like that,” she said.
Her work is not always safe.
“I have something to protect myself with because I have gotten robbed, and I have gotten beat up,” Z. said. “Once, I was put in the hospital for a month.”
Tessie Castillo, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, said the group ensures sex workers are protected against violence.
Castillo said sex workers are often exploited because they cannot contact the police when they are assaulted due to the illegal nature of their work.
“We don’t think that people should not be able to call for help because someone mistreats them just because they’re a sex worker,” she said.
Last year the organization started a “bad date” list, which lists descriptions of clients who assaulted sex workers and are distributed among sex workers.
Castillo said they do outreach on the street — primarily in Raleigh and Durham — by going to neighborhoods and motels where they know sex workers congregate. She said it’s evident the business has moved away from being out in the open.
“A lot of it has gone online, you can tell,” she said. “We used to get a bunch of people on the street but not as much anymore.”
She said the majority of the people they work with are women in their mid-20s to mid-30s.
Steve “Mannie” Manning, an outreach worker with the Harm Reduction Coalition, hands out condoms, alcohol pads for shaving, toothbrushes and other items in low-income neighborhoods and motels.
“I give them condoms because it beats paying for them. A regular store will probably charge you a dollar or whatever for a condom, one condom,” he said. “So when I come through and I’m passing these joints out for free, they are all over me.”
Manning said his work often brings him in contact with sex workers, often on Holloway Street in Durham. Manning said many don’t talk about their work, and he doesn’t talk about it unless they bring it up.
“There are other ways to support yourself, but that’s the easy way, the fast way,” he said.
An organization called Sex Workers Without Borders, founded by Jill Brenneman in Raleigh, encourages the decriminalization of sex work — or the absence of laws preventing consensual adult sex work — rather than its legalization.
“Legalization would entail government regulation of the industry and make the government essentially the pimp, whereas decriminalization allows sex workers basic human rights such as choosing to work independently or with other girls in an agency,” Brenneman, who no longer works with the group, said in an email.
The group cannot advocate for any legal change because it is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
The use of the internet also harms sex workers because their advertisement and information is always online, even after retirement, Brenneman said.
Clients can use websites such as theeroticreview.com to post reviews of escorts, listing information about the escort’s appearance, including her height, hair color, breast size and whether she shaves her pubic hair.
Brenneman said these sites are often inaccurate and are used to threaten sex workers.
“These sites are abused by clients who threaten bad reviews unless they get discounted or free sessions although most escorts will balk at the threat,” she said.
Stephanie, from Abalonia’s Escort service, said many girls choose to work for a company for protection.
“We offer security, drivers, someone is always nearby, and we are checking on you,” she said. “We also screen the clients and check where he works, where he is from and other information.”
Escort services are legal, but Brenneman said she does not believe any agency would make money if it was only sending escorts for platonic dates.
In theory, she said the services are exchanging time and companionship for money rather than sex for money.
“Although honestly, that is semantics to avoid breaking the law,” she said. “I have never known a single agency that set up dates between clients and providers in which the basis wasn’t sexual — even though the sex for money aspect isn’t discussed.”