Older Stories: Sex, Lies, and Craigslist

by Ginny Mies on June 29, 2006

After a few days of correspondence via email, Abigail* determined that it was safe to go out on a date with Phil, a businessman who described himself on his Craigslist ad as having “worldly tastes and gentlemanly manners,” as a man who was looking for a woman to spoil with his wealth. Armed with some mace and a cell phone, Abigail got into the limo he ordered to pick her up from her friend’s apartment in Brooklyn. The limo dropped her off at a restaurant in White Plains, about an hour north of New York City. Phil looked nothing like the “bronzed playboy” he described in his ad but more like a human frog—not that his appearance mattered to her. She wasn’t looking for a boyfriend.

Over the next few months Phil paid for Abigail’s rent, trips, bills, and other expenses. She moved from her friend’s sofa to a loft in a posh neighborhood in Brooklyn and all of a sudden had all the time she needed to do whatever she wanted. She had become professional arm candy for Phil. Somehow she managed to avoid having sex with him though he propositioned her many times. “He frequently tried to get me to sleep with him, but after a while it just became part of the game. Whenever he was drunk I’d end up at home with him worrying about whether or not this would be the time I’d definitely have to ‘put out,’” she recalls.

***

Has the Internet has revolutionized the sex industry?

In this era of networked communication, sex workers, like Abigail, have more control over their jobs. They can find clients independently, from the safety of their own home, screen them, and set their own boundaries. But the Internet doesn’t necessarily make their jobs safer.

At the peak of her success as an escort, Abigail used her paycheck from Phil to fly out with her girlfriend to California to visit me. Abigail was lucky in that Phil never tried to hurt or rape her. However, the emotional damage she experienced was dangerous enough. On the surface, she seemed happy, but inside she was falling apart. Her depression was not only destroying her relationship with her girlfriend, but it was destroying her physically and mentally.

***

Abigail grew up in a small, rural community in Maine and was raised Roman Catholic. She was active in her church as an alter girl until she was about 15. She had known she was attracted to women at a very young age and began to realize that it was a waste of time to participate in an institution that constantly told her that she was going to Hell, no matter how much time she spent praying and studying scripture. She left her family around the same time she left her church because in her mind the two were interconnected. At age 22, Abigail, now 23, moved to New York City to start new life.

I met Abigail through mutual friends in California, but I had been a longtime reader of her various blogs before that. Her sharp humor and knowledge of all things obscure immediately intrigued me and we became good friends. Her stories about delving into the world of sex work piqued my interest, not only because of what she was doing, but also because of how she went about finding the work.

***

Though very skilled in Web design and other tech work, Abigail had trouble finding employment when she first moved to New York City. She knew about paid fetish work and thought the idea was interesting. She admits that she is lazy, so the idea of a job where she could make a lot of money doing very little work, according to her own schedule, was very appealing.

She turned to a community based Web site that is popularly used as a tool to find jobs: Craigslist. Craigslist, in fact, can be used to find just about anything one desires: a date, a random hookup, a house, and even a dog.

Skipping over the job section, which didn’t exactly have what she was looking for, she started to browse the “erotic services” section, which is featured on the front page of the Web site. The ads typically describe the services the women offer in code to throw off police who monitor the forums. Still, the code is mostly made of up acronyms, acronyms that obviously indicate what the women offer and what they charge. The ads usually include a picture of the woman in a provocative pose and a phone number (most likely belonging to a pay-as-you-go disposable mobile phone) where they can be reached. The forum consists mainly of escort agencies’ spamming ads or independent women offering various inexpensive services.

The next place Abigail looked for work was the “men seeking women” forum, commonly referred to as the m4w forum. This became a goldmine for Abigail. On the surface, it appears to be a dating forum. “Open minded man seeking open minded woman for LTR (long term relationship).” “Married Black professional seeking Japanese woman for discrete relationship.” But as Abigail combed through the lists, she also found a different kind of ad—ads posted by older men who were seeking younger women that mentioned some sort of financial support. For example, “Successful generous businessman seeks an attractive female age 21-34. I will provide financial support. Please be discreet.”

Abigail feels these ads are fairly common because of the large number of lonely men living in New York City with surplus incomes. These men offer an “allowance” to younger girls for a no-strings-attached relationship, but the trick, according to Abigail, is to convince them to accept not having sex. “That part is really difficult,” she remembers.

At the time of her job search, Abigail noticed a repetition of keywords contained in these ads: “benefactor,” “daddy,” “support,” “patron.” Craigslist has a keyword search function, which made it easy for Abigail to sift through the postings she wanted. She avoided responding to those with words that implied she would have to sleep with the men, words like “companionship” and “intimacy.” In the ads people can post one or two photos, but for the most part they’re text based, meaning each word must be scrutinized to figure out exactly what the person is looking for.

Posting a “sugar daddy wanted” on its sister forum, the “women seeking men” (w4m) forum, is nearly impossible, however. Abigail posted a couple of ads posing as a younger girl seeking a “mentor” for support but every time her ad was flagged and taken down immediately. When users in the community “flag” an ad, it means they are requesting it be taken down. Users can flag ads for a number of different reasons—if the ad is miscategorized, contains profanity, or seems like spam.

***

I put Abigail’s hypothesis to test and posted two ads: one in the m4w forum and one in the w4m forum. In the m4w ad I posed as an older man looking for a younger woman to share my wealth with. This ad got no responses but was not flagged. In the w4m forum I posed as a younger woman seeking a “mentor” to support my endeavors. In exchange I would offer “companionship.” Within one hour, I received seven responses and my post was taken down.

Abigail believes women are removing other women’s postings in a fit of online rivalry. “The anonymity is the other aspect that makes it weird compared to real life female competition and backbiting and sniping…there is no one lady moving to the top of the e-heap,” she says. She also believes that women, in general, are inclined to flag “sugar baby” ads because they have a stricter opinion of the site’s rules than men have.

On the other hand, she thinks men don’t view the ads written by would be sugar daddies as threats. “They seem to realize that the women replying to those ads are not the women they are hoping to attract,” she says.

***

Abigail adopted a sexy librarian/girl-next-door persona for her clients. With her long brown hair and cat-eyed glasses, it was basically an extension of herself, but she played it up by making herself sound more innocent in her responses or as if she had never even thought of responding to an ad like that. “I’d also present myself as sexually available but hesitant due to shyness and not wanting to feel like a hooker,” she recalls.

Abigail planned to work on her writing when she wasn’t accompanying Phil, but she found escort work to be emotionally taxing. “I couldn’t always just slip it off like a coat,” she says. She likens Phil to a creepy uncle. He assumed a mentor/patron relationship with her, but there were constant reminders that he found her sexually attractive.

Abigail hated feeling like she was a piece of meat. She was worried that she was becoming lazier and dumber, stereotypical traits of sex workers, and she felt that it was going to stigmatize her socially.

***

The cash flow stopped when the IRS audited Phil because he had been using his company’s bank account as his personal bank account. He got in trouble with all of his investors and could no longer afford to pay Abigail. She tried to replace him with a few other men, but at the end of their dates, they expected her to sleep with them and each time she narrowly escaped with a cell phone call to a friend waiting for her nearby.

Abigail went back to her original plan of doing fetish work. She joined a friend who had a client who enjoyed being humiliated. “I walked around in my zaniest outfit, calling him names,” she recalls. After their session, he would take the girls out to dinner at a trendy NYC restaurant—a world away from the dominatrix dungeon where they had started the night.

Abigail also worked some fetish parties, where she had to take on the submissive role. Party attendants could dominate her in any way while she stood as still as a statue. “It was a little irksome to have someone yank on a collar around my neck or talk about my body as if I wasn’t there, but I could just think about other things and wait for it to be over.”

***

In the meantime Abigail was trying to find professional work as a Web designer. She was getting tired of doing sex work and now that she had some financial means, she felt like she could move on. As with her sex work, she sought out most of her clients via the Internet. The dangers of her Web design clients discovering her other life or her sex work clients finding about her “real” life never really concerned her. She used a number of different email accounts, fake names, and photos of herself in communicating with her sex work clients.

Abigail says she had a power over her clients, which ensured that she could keep her professional/personal life separate from her sex work. Discretion, a word commonly used in her client’s Craigslist ads, was something they valued immensely. “I also generally feel as though these people have much more to lose than I do, since I’m a chronically broke twenty-something and they’re CEOs or doctors or businessmen with families and reputations.”

Eventually, Abigail found a job doing tech support and stopped browsing the Craigslist m4w forums for work. All seemed to be going well until Abigail fell and broke her leg. Unable to walk, she had to quit her tech support job and pretty much stayed confined to her room for a couple of months, unemployed. As the medical bills, rent, and other expenses began to pile up, she started thinking more and more about returning to sex work.

After all, the Craigslist forums are only a click away.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

Ginny MiesGinny Mies is a full-time copyeditor/aspiring journalist in San Francisco. When she’s not correcting people’s grammar, she enjoys watching TV and analyzing it, writing short stories, playing the keyboard in a punk band, and going to her friends’ art shows. She graduated from the University of Santa Cruz with a degree in the history of art and visual culture and journalism.

See original at NSRC

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2 Comments

  1. Interesting story. Lots of women are resolve to that sort of work and some of them are actually putting their life in danger. As a young there are safer way to make a few bucks.

  2. Very instructing. My cousin studied engineering in N.Y. and her roomate was a part-time escort. She managed her “business” from home using craigslist, kijiji and the likes.

    One thing that struck me in your story is the women on women online rivalry statement. I don’t think that most men would even think that one fairly large obstacle to a woman offering escort services is other women.


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