Hookers.com

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Jan. 28 2000 3:30 AM

Hookers.com

How e-commerce is transforming the oldest profession.

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In the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, high roller Richard Gere is able to secure six full days of Julia Roberts' sexual services for $3,000. Nowadays, (at least here in Los Angeles, where the movie was set) a first-class hooker costs considerably more than $500 a night. One big reason is that, like all other businesses, the oldest one is being utterly transformed by the Internet. And it's changing in ways that ought to transform the way we think about it as well.

Recently, I had the experience of escorting "Veronica" through the main dining room of Spago. She is a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, and heads turned as she poured across the room, her dress speaking to every man there in the international language of bugle beads. Veronica is apparently no stranger to Spago. She and the maîtresse d'hôtel exchanged knowing smiles as we were seated. And when she's not there, she says, she's often at the Peninsula, the Regent Beverly Wilshire (the Pretty Woman hotel), the Four Seasons, and so on. She lives at the beach. She drives a Mercedes S420. She doesn't ask what you're having before she orders foie gras.

Actually, Veronica was "escorting" me. In her early 30s, Veronica's been an "escort" for four years now but only recently listed herself on the Web. Her ad featured a picture of her more or less in a black pantsuit, along with this text:

Veronica

Professional intelligent and sexy

I'll make a great impression on your behalf

All with the elegance and grace of a true lady

Available for intimate evenings and corporate affairs

Shopping or a round of golf, I also ride and fly

Whatever your pleasure

I'm happy to be by your side

There was no mention of price. A day or so after I e-mailed a query to the address listed, I got back this e-mailed response:

Hi Scott,

Let me remind you that I am an escort, I require a one time introductory fee of $500.00. $500.00 per hour and $2,500.00 for the evening.

If this is acceptable to you we can set up an appointment.

Yours…..Veronica

Within a few days we were at Spago.

(A note on method: Slate paid Veronica's $500 introductory fee in return for an interview, conducted in public, and nothing else. She's a businesswoman who gives men what they want for a price. I wanted an interview. In fact, I was being paid to conduct it. Why should she give it away for free?)

I discovered Veronica's ad on a site called LA Exotics, one of the most active and extensive in the Web's burgeoning Rent-a-Woman world. When you go there, you find, superimposed over a photo of a naked woman getting ahold of herself, an exquisite menu of options: Massage Outcall [ they come to you ], Massage Incall [ you go to them ] (Blonde), Massage Incall (Brunette), Daytime Delicacies, Afterdark Angels, Escorts (Blonde), Escorts (Brunette), Entertainers/Strippers, Fetish/Alternative, and Personals. (The difference, if any, between a "massage" and an "escort" is beyond the scope of this article—let alone what "personals" could possibly be in contrast to the other offerings.) There is no category for "interviews," but there are separate listings for redheads, women of color, and tantric sex. To reassure wary horn-dogs, many of the clickable thumbnail pictures carry a little badge indicating that the site has verified that the woman in the shot is really the woman you'll meet. (Except for the digitally blurred eyes, Veronica's picture looks almost exactly like her.)

Veronica paid LA Exotics $100 to list her for a month. She says she got more than 250 phone calls off that, which produced three new men who've hired her at least once, and who, she predicts, will be added to her stable of regulars. In business terms, three out of 250, or 1.2 percent, is her "yield." Apparently prostitution is like the magazine business, where a low yield from solicitations can nevertheless be profitable, depending on renewals. Veronica claims that the ad produced several other qualified customers who are now on her waiting list. She says her regulars are all married, all over 35, and all "high-end corporate," except for some NBA players. Of the newbies, she says, one lives in San Francisco; one in Portland, Ore.; and one in New York. If they come to her, they spring for everything, including one of L.A.'s deluxe hotels and her omnipresent clothes and jewelry needs. If she goes to them, it's more of the same, plus a first-class plane ticket for the trip. She says she only works two nights a week. If true, and if she gets her posted rate, that's $200,000 a year for less than half-time work.

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.

If the expansion of cyberhooking came only at the cost of traditional prostitution, this would be an easy case to make. But it's harder because, obviously, some percentage of cyberjohns would not otherwise visit prostitutes at all. That is, legalizing cyberhooking wouldn't just draw more people to the high end—it would also increase the total size of the prostitution market. The only answers to this point are: 1) like all voluntary transactions in a capitalist system, the trade of sex for money gives both parties something they want; 2) cyberhooking's harm to society, as explained, is far less than in traditional prostitution; and 3) like other combinations of money, technology, and human nature that start in California (fast food and cell phones, for example), cyberprostitution is probably going to flourish anyway.

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