Jan. 28 2000 3:30 AM


How e-commerce is transforming the oldest profession.

(Continued from Page 1)

Unlike Veronica, Anne Marie (not her real name either), a late-20s 5'9" blonde with cover-girl cheekbones, had never worked as a hooker pre-Internet. She has only recently taken up the escort game, as a way of supporting her graduate studies at a top Los Angeles university. Anne Marie pays $100 a month to list with another large Los Angeles-based site called Cityvibe. And she pays a Webmaster about $1,000 a year to maintain a Web page of her own. She also has the San Francisco market on an Australian-based Web site called Worldwide-Escort.com, which gets almost all its traffic from Yahoo's "Adult Services" listing. From all this, she figures she gets about 700 cybervisitors a day. She started out charging $4,500 a day, with a two-day minimum, but the response was so good that she has since given herself a raise to $5,800 a day, still with a two-day minimum. When I met her, she was wearing an expensive-looking man-tailored gray suit and occasionally consulted her brand new Sony Vaio.


Like Veronica, Anne Marie markets herself as providing a complete high-end experience. She's like Woody Allen's "Whore of Mensa"—except that she also puts out. She calls her Web site "educatedescort.com." The pictures of her there are pretty but fully clothed. Her text is well-written and laced with humor. Her FAQ ("Frequently Asked Questions") page includes: "What are your services for the $5,800 per day? I sit and read Thoreau and eat plums and fresh cherries in the hotel."

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Going cyber helps immensely with the process of sifting through those 250 prospects for the three good customers. An offline hooker spends much of her vertical day on the phone, tied up with weirdos and hang-ups and prank calls and people who are trying to grind down her price. "I prefer e-mail for the initial contact," says Anne Marie. It's a less awkward first move, she says, and people show a bit more of themselves when they write, which helps her avoid undesirables. And her Web site contains a lot of information about rates and conditions that automatically deflect lots of men who (in Veronica's haughty phrase) "only thought they were serious." Even with these efficiencies, cyberhookers still spend a couple of hours a day working the phone—but with a higher rate of return than their offline counterparts.

Anne Marie gives good stories, some of which may even be true. She says that before she ever met her very first client, a married Australian decamillionaire in Los Angeles for a few days on business, she got a FedEx package from him: $9,000 in cash. And there's the German investment banker who, unbidden, sent her a gift certificate for a Los Angeles day spa while they were still nailing down the logistics for her weeklong trip to see him in Europe. She played me a message left on her voice mail from a self-described Silicon Valley geek about to retire, who wanted to know what her annual fee is.

Just as Amazon.com has gotten people buying hardcover books who previously stuck to paperbacks or didn't buy books at all, the Internet is expanding the high end of the prostitution market, both relative to streetwalking and in absolute terms. It has done this in several ways. First, many of the buyers in this market are spending cybermoney. Anne Marie says that it's not unusual for the initial call to her to come from a woman—the executive assistant of some "dot-com baby"—who proceeds to ask her about her bra size and her height as if she was ordering the boss a new hard drive. It turns out that computer zombies with tons of money and zero social skills are a natural clientele.

Second, Internet marketing promotes an aura of quality: It feels so much more "classy" than cruising on Sunset or thumbing through the "adult services" ads in the free weeklies that litter the floors of video stores and 7-Elevens. And men will pay a premium for perceived specialness.

Third, there's what you might call the eBay effect. Before the Internet, there must have been people who wanted to sell Scooby Doo lunch boxes and Star Wars phaser props, and people who wanted to buy them, but how could they connect? Likewise, 10 years ago, even if I'd had the inclination and the $2,500 to spend on vaginal variety, I wouldn't have had the faintest idea where to turn. But now, thanks to the Web, exchanging dead presidents for live girls couldn't be easier. And if, as I tend to believe (don't you?) there are more men who would pay to be "escorted" than gorgeous women willing to provide that service, then the Internet will pull more buyers than sellers into the high-end market, thereby inflating prices.

Cityvibe's Alex (I don't know his last name) is one of the Webpreneurs hoping to be the Jeff Bezos of all this. Like his chief competitor, LA Exotics, his three-person company, operating inconspicuously from the same Los Angeles block as a private grade school and two religious academies, lists about 300 women a month in Los Angeles and maintains sites in several other cities around the country. A 30-year-old Cal State Northridge biz grad, Alex drives a 1999 BMW M3. When I meet him, he volunteers the names of several celebrities who've called escorts via listings on his site. He says he gets about 11,000 visitors a day. He recently spent $14,000 for a one-month campaign of spots on the Los Angeles broadcast of the Howard Stern Show. The ad was read by Stern himself. (The Stern ad rep I spoke to vehemently insists that the show believed the ad was for a dating service and explains that it was pulled after show staffers belatedly went to the site.) Alex's plans for the site include adding streaming video and a search function. "You put in that you want to find a blonde in the 310 area code, with blue eyes, between this and this height …"

Another advantage of cyberhooking: Since going online with his service two years ago, Alex has never heard from the cops. An LAPD vice officer tells me that his division, which covers the West Los Angeles locale of many e-hookers and of at least one major listings site, has never conducted an investigation of e-prostitution. Nor, as far as he knows, does it plan one. After all, Alex insists, his service is like the Yellow Pages or the LA Weekly, or New York, all of which run page after page of ads for obvious sex-for-money outfits. "We're an advertising agency," he says. "We're getting paid for placing ads. That's all we do."

In the business world, this is called "disintermediation" or, colloquially, "cutting out the middleman." Somewhere between Alex and his girls, the traditional roles of the pimp and madam have disappeared. There is no violent control of the women, and they don't have to fork over most of their profits. The physical security that the traditional pimp used to provide to his girls has been replaced by the physical security provided by high-end hotels, the traceability of e-mail, and by the generally less violence-prone clients to be found toward the top of the economy. Neither Veronica nor Anne Marie has ever been ripped off or hurt by a client. And neither, by the way, is particularly worried about STDs or AIDS. They get regular checkups, always use condoms and, besides, they both point out to me, at these prices they're seeing a lot fewer men than many of their single "amateur" girlfriends. Indeed, both say that more often than you'd think, the "date" is all about companionship, and they don't even have sex with the guy.

In short, e-hooking can bring women the autonomy, control, wealth, and lifestyle that all Webpreneurs lust after. It is far safer than its unwired predecessor. It is far less socially obnoxious to those of us not in the market—cyberhookers do not crowd my sidewalks, cyberjohns do not cruise my streets. No pimps or madams means no prostitution rings controlled or fought over by crime organizations. This adds up to a form of prostitution much less vulnerable to many common criticisms. And maybe the law should reflect that reality—although laws against traditional pimping, pandering, and street solicitation should remain on the books (and be more vigorously enforced), maybe we should think about making cyberhooking legal. The law already makes similar distinctions: Smoking is illegal in most public places but legal in your own home and elsewhere. By drawing lines like this, society gets the biggest payoff in reducing undesirable behavior for the smallest costs arising from limiting freedom, enforcing the law, promoting corruption, and so on.