I Am Self-Surrendering to Prison Today, Which Seems Like a Fitting Time To Discuss How I Feel About Legalizing Prostitution

Believe it or not, I actually do not support it.
Publish date:
January 2, 2015
prostitution, prison, Manhattan Madam

I'm self-surrendering today to serve a prison sentence of two years -- not for prostitution but for accepting payment for prescription pills I gave to a friend who turned out to be a government informant.

I deeply regret my actions that led me here, and I believe that one of the best ways to prevent others from making the same mistakes that I have is to be as honest and open as possible -- about everything. That is why I'd like to talk about the legalization of prostitution.

Many people think that because of my past I would automatically support legalizing prostitution. I was a madam. I made money off of sex. The girls who worked for me did so willingly and were treated well. I thought this was a viable economic option for all of us.

In hindsight and learning from my experiences with a broader range of women in the sex industry, I do not support legalizing prostitution.

What I do support is the decriminalization of the women who practice it.

My friend, Julissa Brissman, was murdered by the Craigslist Killer while working independently. This man, Phillip Markoff, was caught with trophies (personal possessions he kept) from dozens of other working girls he hired and victimized. These women were too scared to go to the police. He could have been stopped if our system was designed to protect the safety of the sex workers he victimized. So this subject is one that matters quite a deal to me.

But we must be realistic. Prostitution will always exist.

There are many escort agencies similar to mine that existed before and after mine was in business -- NY Confidential, Emperor’s Club VIP and Anna Gristina’s Agency, just to name a few. Then there is Eros Guide, one of the main advertising websites for escorting, and right now there are 407 ads of women wanting to work in the NYC area. Cityvibe has about the same number of listings. There is also backpage, however, it is not as relevant since the site requires no commitment and is very inexpensive to advertise. These other sites are expensive to get in to ($250-500 per month in NYC) which shows that these women are serious and committed to making money this way.

I share all these examples to underscore just how many women want to do this work. And they deserve the same rights as every other woman. They deserve the right to call the police when someone hurts them without fear or judgment and to have that crime taken seriously.

But I still do not support legalizing prostitution for the simple fact that I believe that legalization would limit a woman’s freedom over her own body.

I have grappled with my feelings on this for many years. Perhaps I am a hypocrite. I did not abuse the women who worked for me and I tried to provide a non-judgmental avenue for them to make money and set their own boundaries in regards to their bodies. My internal struggle is my own to bear and I’m not here to justify my actions or condone them.

Here's why I feel that I was different. I did not work with anyone who was forced to be an escort. But this would not be the case if prostitution was legalized everywhere. And if we legalize prostitution under the auspices of controlling the sex industry to keep it safe, we will end up fundamentally controlling the women working in the industry.

Legalization would put people, businesses and the government in a position of power over a woman’s body thus limiting her freedom of choice and what she can do with her own body.

Women working in the industry could be forced to do things they don’t want to do, have certain types of sex for money and deal with awful clients because someone else is making the rules. The floodgates would be open to any Tom, Dick and Harry to open a business and set rules for the women working in it taking away their ability to make boundaries and forcing them to do things.

And that is something I do not agree with.

This is not to mention that the government would be involved and expanding the government's control over women's bodies and what happens inside of their bedrooms is something that scares me.

We have legalized prostitution in Nevada. Most people think this means Las Vegas. Prostitution is actually illegal in Las Vegas but it is legal in Nevada in counties with populations of less than 400,000 -- and if you have a brothel license which costs a couple of million in some locations. There are health checks and taxes paid. Sounds pretty decent right?

Wrong. First off there is no price minimum at most places because the owners are in the business of making money. So girls come in off the street and do everything for $20. Since you are outside of a major city in a town like Pahrump, a good chunk of your business comes from truck drivers. So, this is not much better than working on the streets and it sets a bad precedent.

The women who work in Nevada must go to the brothel and check in, getting medical clearance before working. You cannot leave the brothel for weeks at a time because you have been medically cleared so you are stuck there. They make you sign a contract and if you try to leave you have to go through three - five people to get out because they try to convince you to stay and then charge you a couple of thousand dollars for breaking your contract.

The brothel takes 50% of your money including tips. You also have to pay a fee for room and board. Of course you are working 12-18 hour shifts. You have to use their car service to get to the brothel and pay for your own medical exam. You start out $300 in the hole on your first night.

The brothel owner determines how the girls interact with clients. Most of the time the girls are required to wear lingerie and line up in a row so the client can choose who they want to spend time with. The girls have to stand around in bras, panties and heels and flirt with the client so that he can assess them and their bodies and decide who to book.

In my day we called this “the choose."

And I would never have put any of my girls through that. I thought it was demeaning for them to have to stand there to be judged. I didn’t even want my girls to wear lingerie around. I preferred them to be in jeans and a cute top or a casual sundress.

Regardless of the environment, there are women who want to and willingly work in this industry. And right now, they are in harm’s way (with the exception of Nevada which in my view is a different type of harm). The police are not there to prevent crimes against them and keep them safe. They are there to prosecute them for the act of prostitution, which is a crime.

So what do we do?

Quite frankly, I don’t believe there is one definitive answer on this and there is no quick fix.

I do, however, feel strongly that decriminalizing prostitution is the first step in making this situation better. And this I support.

Decriminalization would take the criminal element out of the act of prostitution so the women working would be able to call the police when something happens to them, without the fear of being arrested.

Right now prostitutes are vulnerable victims. By giving these women legal protection it makes them less vulnerable to the people who are intent on hurting them. These people would no longer be able to manipulate the vulnerability in the system and they would be more fearful that these women would report them to the police for their abuse -- hopefully causing them to stop targeting these women.

And, by giving them legal protection the police would be forced to prosecute the crimes against these women and take these crimes seriously.

Protecting violence and crime against women and children should be our priority.

One of the most common arguments I have heard against decriminalization is that it could increase sex trafficking because it would make it easier for sex traffickers to commit crimes against women and children.

I do not agree with this.

What I am talking about are women who have willingly decided to be prostitutes and giving them rights and legal protection.

Sex trafficking is forced prostitution and exploitation. It involves kidnapping, torture, forced drug abuse, coercion and physical abuse (to name just a few). This should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And better laws should be created to protect sex trafficking victims.

Decriminalizing prostitution will not make sex trafficking a lesser crime. It will not affect it because we are talking about two very different things.

Instead, decriminalization could help free up police resources that are being used prosecuting prostitutes and enable police to go after the real bad guys (which aren’t the working girls).

I’m sure a few of you out there are screaming at me right now that sex trafficking leads to prostitution.

And to some degree I believe this is true. However these are two different issues because one is based on freedom of choice and the other has had that freedom forcibly removed.

I have a nonprofit dedicated to helping sex trafficking victims and I have helped a few dozen women try to reclaim their lives. Many of these women (and children who are now grown up) end up continuing to be prostitutes even after they have been freed.

Many of these victims have been taken from their homes and forced into prostitution by people who held them captive. I have met women who were lured from other countries with the promise of a job only to get here and have their passport and money taken, confined to an apartment and forced into prostitution. I have even met women whose family sold them to a trafficker and they grew up and continued to stay with their captor for many years (after they paid off the “debt” they owed).

If they are lucky to get out of the situation they feel ashamed to go back to their family. Some of them don’t even know where to find their family. Their self worth and trust has been destroyed.

So, they continue to prostitute because it is now normal to them. It is the one part of their lives they maintain control over. It has been their constant. And, in a weird way, it won’t fail them because everything and everyone else did.

For the sex trafficking victims who make it out there are not enough resources to help them. Only a handful of organizations exist that specifically work with these victims, yet over 600,000 are trafficked each year. The exact number of sex trafficking victims is hard to obtain however this does tell us that we have not allocated nearly enough resources to this problem (there are many more organizations for human trafficking but this includes forced labor which is quite different).

Many victims fall back into prostitution because the system is not set up to help them. They leave their captors and have nowhere to live, no family, no money, no education and no ability to take care of themselves. Government resources are scarce and our system is not designed to address the unique needs of these victims. The psychological and physical abuse these victims have endured is far greater than normal government programs can provide.

Our system again has failed us. It has failed them.

Sex trafficking is a different topic and decriminalization of prostitution for women choosing to work will not increase it. Prostitution is between two consenting adults and sex trafficking is forced prostitution.

I know there are probably a few people reading this who still think that a woman who works as a prostitute must be forced -- she cannot possibly choose this life for herself and that her freedom of choice was taken away by a pimp or by drugs.

It merits mentioning that I have remained in contact with a handful of girls who used to work for me. They have gone on to get degrees, to get married, to have children and to have great careers. One said to me at my going away party last weekend that I helped her and thanked me. She didn’t look back at her time in the industry as harmful or hurtful, but something that helped her achieve some goals.

While I might not be able to contribute to this topic because I am in prison, I hope that you have a meaningful conversation on it. Opening the lines of discussion is what this is about. You might not agree with me and a different and diverse perspective is great. But this really isn’t about me. This subject is so much bigger than one person.