The Double Lives of High-Priced Call Girls

March 16, 2008

Faith O’Donnell is a full-time video artist and a part-time prostitute who sees herself as little different from the legions of ambitious New Yorkers who harness the Internet to hawk their corporeal assets, in her case for $500 an hour.

Ava Xi’an sells real estate on Long Island, and turned to selling herself when her father, who lacks health insurance, needed heart surgery. She started with how-to books from, raised her rate upon realizing it might make men treat her better, and is currently on a $45,000 weeklong “date.”

And Sally Anderson, an unapologetic feminist who advertises herself as a dominatrix with a holistic approach to pain, is available evenings after her day job at a graphic design firm, willing to travel to Boston, Baltimore or Los Angeles for the right price.

They are three young women practicing the 21st-century version of the oldest profession, inhabitants of the secret world of the high-priced call girl that was thrust into the spotlight last week when Gov. Eliot Spitzer was identified as one of 10 clients of the Emperor’s Club V.I.P. caught on a federal wiretap. None are involved in the case — though Ms. Xi’an said she interviewed with the Emperor’s Club and was turned away for lack of a modeling portfolio — but they provide a glimpse into the prostitution industry, a sprawling and rapidly growing underground universe that in the last decade has almost wholly migrated online.

Streetwalkers in fishnet stockings may be the most visible prostitutes, but they are estimated to account for perhaps one in five sex workers, said Ron Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University who is an expert in the field. Most prostitutes, he said, work at massage parlors, brothels, escort agencies or, increasingly, on their own.

These days, men can pore through Web sites filled with client reviews and user ratings for thousands of prostitutes. Searches can be narrowed by hair color, age, body type or behavior — someone offering “GFE,” or girlfriend experience, for example, will act adoringly.

Theirs is a world of mirrors and fantasies, double lives and fake names; the three women told their stories on the condition that they be presented by the names they use in the sex world, but provided their real identities so details could be verified — and they were. Undoubtedly, their willingness to speak publicly came with unusually upbeat perspectives on prostitution, which for many women is devastatingly exploitative. Experts say that even the highest-paid call girls report being beaten up one or two times a year, and that the risk of diseases is enormous.

While it is impossible to know exactly how such a shadowy enterprise operates, what is clear is that sex is being sold for high prices.

And when it comes to price, Ms. Xi’an shared a secret. When someone pays her $1,250 an hour, he gets exactly what he would for $200, her rate when she started out. The difference is psychological, she explained: “The more somebody pays for you, the more they’ll respect you.”

“Tell a guy you’re $100 and they’ll treat you one way — tell them you’re $1,500 and they’ll treat you better,” Ms. Xi’an said in a telephone interview from her home on Long Island. “I’ve heard a lot of girls saying, ‘Is this girl getting $5,500 an hour because she’s more beautiful? Is she doing something I don’t?’ The answer is no. But that girl is able to look a guy in the eye and say, ‘This is what I’m worth, and this is what you have to pay if you want me.’ And you have to be able to do that, and believe it.”

‘Peace in My Mind’

Ms. Xi’an, who tells clients she is 26 but admits to having shaved a few years off, grew up in Queens and earned degrees in psychology and finance at a prestigious university in the South. She was a “club kid,” dancing and partying into the wee hours, poured into shiny black bondage wear that hugged like a second skin. Men kept begging to hire her as a dominatrix; eventually, the offers became too rich to resist.

After graduation in 1999, she moved back to New York and became a real estate broker, while also working in various dominatrix “dungeons” throughout the city. “There was really, technically, no sex involved,” she said. “But it is a sexual experience.”

Four years later, as her uninsured father faced a triple bypass— the operation cost $95,000 and the hospital demanded a $35,000 deposit — Ms. Xi’an concluded that selling actual sex would be more lucrative, with many more potential clients. She told her parents the money came from real estate holdings.

“It was a desperate moment,” she said. “But I made peace in my mind with what I had to do.”

She bought books on being an Internet escort, and pored over manuals about innovative sexual techniques, though she found most customers wanted run-of-the-mill activities. She thought working for an agency would be safer because it would screen clients and know where she was when they were together.

But most agencies take a 50 percent cut, she said, and her first employer farmed her out on Craigslist for $200. Her first client lived in a project on the Upper East Side, and afterward refused to pay.

She quit the agency after a week, signed up with a higher-priced one, and also started booking clients on her own. She said that she carefully screened men, talking to them at length by telephone, cross-checking their addresses and telephone numbers, calling to verify their employment. Within a year, she said, she was charging $1,250 an hour.

Sex, Ms. Xi’an insisted, is a small part of her services; she is attentive, compassionate, a keen listener. She said she had five or six regular clients, most of them professionals in their mid-40s, with a daily rate of $8,000. She said she earned about $200,000 a year, and filed taxes, claiming the income as real estate proceeds.

She does not entertain at home, and arrives at each rendezvous in nondescript business-casual wear, a tote filled with lingerie, whalebone corsets and spiked heels tucked under one arm.

“It sounds kind of crazy, but I didn’t realize how much fun it was going to be, and how much I’d like my clients,” Ms. Xi’an said. Still, she is terrified that her parents will discover the real source of how she has paid their medical bills, and said she hoped to retire very soon.

For hers is an isolated life, with few friends knowing how she spends her working hours, and no unpaid sex or romantic relationships.

“When I’m out of the office,” she said, “I really don’t want to think about the office.”

‘People Like You and Me’

Like any thriving industry, the New York sex market offers up a great variety of products at a broad range of prices.

There are the “Big Beautiful Women,” who advertise their wares for $150, and the bottle-blonde opera-loving international swimsuit models, whose two-hour minimums will set clients back $3,000. Then there are specialists in niche predilections: the “shemales,” the latex fetishists and the entrepreneurs like Ms. Anderson, a zaftig, tongue-pierced 24-year-old who touts her expertise in BDSM: bondage, discipline and sadomasochism.

Ms. Anderson trades in degradation, shrill commands and, when desired, an empathetic ear for the customer burdened by a heavy heart. “I connect to people on an emotional and psychological level,” she said over a hearty chicken lunch at Junior’s restaurant in Brooklyn. “It’s a form of therapy, it’s creative, and the money is good.”

On her Web site, which features a gauzy image of her dressed up as a leather-bound French maid, Ms. Anderson describes herself as an unabashed pervert whose specialties include tickle torture, wax, ice, smothering and “sensory overload.” Her hourly rate fluctuates between $250 and $450.

Raised in a fancy New Jersey suburb with what she described as “very progressive parents,” Ms. Anderson started working at an S&M club in Midtown at age 18, she said. The harsh conditions — 10-hour days, with pay docked for sick days and early departures — led her to venture out on her own and to become active in the New York chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a group that works to reduce violence against prostitutes and advocates legalizing the selling of sex.

Ms. Anderson complained that news coverage of the Spitzer scandal had made prostitutes seem like damaged, depraved rag dolls. “Sex workers are people like you and me,” she said. “I’m against trafficking, but in all the years I’ve worked in the business, I’ve never met a woman who was coerced.”

She said she helped plan an event earlier this month to draw attention to the difficulties faced by prostitutes but “no one came.”

Ms. Anderson is comfortable enough about her after-hours job that she does not hide it from her parents or her bosses at the graphic design firm. She said her mother responded by saying, “This isn’t what I would have chosen for you, but I love you and respect your decision.”

She said the work is not always pleasant. Clients can be disrespectful, ignore predetermined boundaries and overlook their own hygiene. “It’s like any other job,” she said. “You have your good days and bad days.”

Still, she plans to stick with sex work for years to come. She will need the money, especially since she is planning to study social work in graduate school this fall.

Paying Student Loans

Ms. O’Donnell, 25, is a Williamsburg hipster with entrancing blue eyes who carries an NPR tote bag and might offer up a few pleasantries on the Whole Foods checkout line before turning back to her Junot Diaz novel.

She came to New York after college to pursue an acting career, and has been working in the sex industry for six years, first as a stripper and lap dancer, lately as a call girl who books her own appointments. She said she relished the time spent with her clients as much as the easy money.

“I’ve traveled to Europe, I’ve met amazing people and I’ve paid off student loans,” said Ms. O’Donnell, a talkative Texan who speaks four languages and is applying to graduate school to study visual arts. “There is no victim here,” she added, “although I can’t claim to speak for every sex worker out there.”

Ms. O’Donnell said she earned about $2,000 a week from a dozen steadies, mostly corporate executives and high-tech geeks who come back two, three or four times a month for the natural breasts, the russett bangs and the coquettish nerdiness she markets online.

Though agencies can provide security, Ms. O’Donnell said she felt safer as an independent escort because law enforcement rarely pursues individual women. Still, she goes to great lengths to protect herself from the police and dodgy clients.

Dates must be scheduled days in advance — no impulse engagements. She said she made prodigious use of Google and online databases to verify details of a potential client’s life. Sometimes she meets for a drink before agreeing to an intimate encounter.

“If they seem too needy or make me feel uncomfortable in any way, it’s not going to happen,” Ms. O’Donnell said during an interview at a Williamsburg cafe, her hands cupped around a mug of herbal tea. “I also don’t haggle over money. It’s just not that kind of business.”

Ms. O’Donnell said that she was bisexual, and that for the last two years she has been living with a girlfriend who is accepting, if not exactly thrilled, with her vocation. She said she hoped to ease out of the business in the next few years, largely because the secrecy takes a psychic toll.

Her family, unaware of how she makes money, sometimes questions her flush finances; the dissembling, and the fear of getting arrested, she said, can be stressful.

“It would be great,” she sighed, “if what I’m doing weren’t illegal.”


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