Thursday, May 8, 2008
The death last week of Deborah Palfrey, the “D.C. Madam,” put a sad end to the story of a businesswoman who fought the system and lost. After offering her phone list of Washington, D.C.’s elite clients to anyone who would publish it in exchange for legal defense money — and seeing the subsequent “apology” of Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and resignation of Deputy Secretary of State Randall L. Tobias — the 13-year madam was convicted by a federal jury on all counts she faced and was sentenced to 55 years in prison.
Unlike outlets like Salon who still insist on calling Palfrey a “female pimp,” reactions on blogs have been overwhelmingly sympathetic. Political group blog Liberty Guys called Palfrey’s situation, “A victimless crime … until the government steps in … She never harmed anyone by supplying willing female companions to willing clients … I guess now the feds can claim that prostitution does indeed claim victims.”
The business of prostitution is indeed legal in certain parts of the United States. Recalling the Prohibition days (13 years during which the sale, manufacture and transport of alcohol were banned nationally and alcohol-related racketeering, crime and corruption were rampant), we could say that Palfrey had the unfortunate situation of being caught providing services in a “dry state.”
According to Karly Kirchner, a San Francisco escort and high-level contributor to popular sex work blog Bound, not Gagged, Palfrey’s death and the senselessness surrounding the entire situation have been felt both locally and nationally. Kirchner explains,
“Providers everywhere have been struck with this news. Whether it was suicide or murder, this is a terrible tragedy. It’s been too much for some to handle. I’ve noticed that several women have taken down their sites, announced that they are no longer seeing new clients and/or announced that they will no longer participate in community boards since Palfrey was found dead. We’re all talking about Brandy Britton, who was once employed by Palfrey and was also found hanged last year. Lots of people are commenting about how sad this is, providers are very deeply affected right now. Others, in addition to solace, are expressing rage at the hypocrisy. And some of us are scared. Once Palfrey’s agency was shut down, those clients surely moved on to other agencies or independent providers. Some people’s businesses exist exclusively to service the powerful and elite just like Palfrey did. Her death is a wake up call in a lot of ways.”
Kirchner tells us that despite the anger, sadness, and confusion among the nation’s sex worker communities, it’s mostly still business as usual with clients. “Most of us and our clients are not professionally impacted. This situation has made very few clients afraid to seek services, although at least one woman told me that she feared her business was slow because of Palfrey’s death being all over the media.”
I talked to Kirchner after Palfrey’s private suicide notes had been released and plastered all over Fox News. Even now it seems that the sex work communities are never going to be able to trust information about Palfrey that didn’t come from her directly — especially the circumstances surrounding her death. “Most of the discussion happening on message boards and in private circles of both providers and clients is the same everywhere: People are debating whether there could have been foul play.” Kirchner continues, “Other people are calling those people conspiracy theorists. More neutral people are saying things like, “I wouldn’t usually believe a conspiracy theory, but this is just too fishy.” It is being discussed everywhere, though.”
Regardless, sex work organizations across the United States are focusing on larger issues around Palfrey’s death, and have issued a formal statement as a group, saying: “We — prostitutes, strippers, pro-dommes, porn stars, sex experts and allies — extend our sympathies to all of those hurt by this most recent chapter of the ‘Pink Scare,’ in which oppressive legislation and social stigma partner to generate hysteria around what, for us, can prove to be simply a decent way to make a living. The circumstances surrounding Ms. Palfrey’s death suggest that Americans reconsider the current state and federal policies that govern sex work, as well as the stigmatization and sensational treatment of those who participate in this industry.”
How the sex-work world works is a fascinating mystery to many; never is that more obvious than when a so-called sex scandal hits the headlines. And the story of the D.C. Madam unleashed a multitude of scandals, with many opportunities for stigmatization and sensational treatment — namely of one “female pimp.” When the stories break, suddenly, we’re awash in hypocritical Senatards and double lives a-plenty. Only recently have sex workers been given a voice in all of this. Most likely, that’s because now they have blogs and vlogs and MySpace pages, so when some sensationalized media monger calls porn star Sasha Grey a “victim” or “poor little girl” — again — media consumers can now Google up Grey’s vlog and decide for themselves. When Grey was featured on “The Tyra Banks Show” with other sex workers, by the end of the episode Banks was seen comforting a 16-year-old prostitute on stage who was sobbing and obviously a broken person (at least while on the show). Meanwhile, Grey sat in the audience being ignored after she wouldn’t admit to some “deep seated” issue as the catalyst to entering the porn industry. Afterwards, with her video camera, young Web-savvy Grey had a much needed and sobering last word on the media stigmatization she suffered.
Looking for the silver lining, I asked Kirchner if she thought there could be a positive outcome in anything surrounding Palfrey’s death. She replied, “This is another issue being discussed among (sex work) providers. Some of us are hopeful that people will be outraged by this to such a degree that it will inspire new action and new voices working to improve the lives of sex workers. But most of us are skeptical, putting our heads down and focusing on our personal needs right now. I’m hopeful that if we can all be supportive of each other while we’re recovering from the shock and create accessible support systems for sex workers who are moved to action, then it is likely that we’ll see more providers becoming vocal about the injustice of prohibition.”
Commentary by Ann Woolner
May 9 (Bloomberg) — Deborah Jeane Palfrey chose death over prison, where she would have spent years for laundering money and racketeering as the D.C. Madam.
She called herself the target of a “modern-day lynching” in a note she wrote before hanging herself in Florida last week.
Was Palfrey a victim of puritanical laws criminalizing a harmless and inevitable business? Or, however undeserving of death, did she earn those years behind bars for profiting off the sale of human flesh to pleasure others?
There are those who argue that Palfrey’s prosecution and the call-girl scandal that drove Eliot Spitzer from office were outrageous wastes of taxpayer money bringing unfair, even tragic, results.
They contend the sale of sex is inevitable, so you might as well legalize it, clean it up and tax it. Bring it out of the shadows to protect prostitutes and clients against disease and brutality. Mobsters and traffickers would have no place in a legal enterprise.
The problem with this argument is that none of it is true. Prostitution isn’t so inevitable that it can’t be curbed, as evidenced by creative attempts to do so.
Prostitution, in fact, has victims and plenty of them. It is a rare working girl who hasn’t been beaten, raped, robbed, coerced, exploited, trafficked or essentially enslaved. Often they enter the business barely teenagers who have been sexually or otherwise abused
Those ills aren’t eased by legalizing or regulating it. Places that have tried it found that de-criminalizing the flesh business encourages human trafficking and boosts the presence of organized crime, according to studies. There is no drop in brutality, either, and some indication it increases.
“Anyone contemplating such a move has to accept that it means an expansion of the sex industry — both the legal and illegal sectors,” concluded an exhaustive 2003 study by the London Metropolitan University.
“Legalisation is a `pull factor’ for traffickers,” says the study, “A Critical Examination of Responses to Prostitution in Four Countries.” Those countries are Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Legal brothels beget illegal brothels to the point that the unlicensed venues far outnumber those that are government- approved. Both are staffed at least in part by girls and women shipped in from poor circumstances and essentially indentured to whoever brought them in or works them.
And where adult prostitution flourishes, so does child prostitution. That is on the rise in the Netherlands, the most liberal of the nations studied.
Only in Sweden, which took a different approach, did a change of law help.
That country in 1999 made it legal to sell your own body for sex, and criminal to sell someone else’s body or to buy sex.
The idea is to attack the demand for prostitution and stop those who profit from other people’s bodies. This reverses the usual approach, which lands the prostitute in jail while letting the john and the pimp go.
For the Swedish prostitute, there are substance abuse and other programs to help them leave sex work without punishing them. And by going after johns, law enforcement has a way to leverage their cooperation toward finding traffickers.
The law has sliced in half the number of street prostitutes and cut the number of customers by 80 percent, while foreign women have essentially disappeared, according to the 2003 study.
A key to success is an attitudinal shift. In Sweden, prostitution “is officially acknowledged as a form of exploitation of women and children” which is “harmful not only to the individual prostituted but also to society at large,” the government said in a 2003 fact sheet on the issue.
That philosophy is anathema to women who say they should be free to choose sex work and don’t need rescuing based on some paternalistic notion that they are victims. But those who have chosen to enter and stay in prostitution constitute a relatively small portion by all indications.
Even high-end call girls experience more violence, more drug addiction and certainly more degradation than the average woman.
Women buy sex, too, of course. And then there is the matter of same-sex prostitution. But the most prevalent and likely the most abusive form occurs when men buy sex from women. We will save for another time the other permutations.
Audaciously, Sweden hopes to eliminate prostitution and encourage other nations to follow suit.
Impossible? A 13-year-old program in San Francisco aimed at johns arrested for the first time offers five hours of classes in how prostitution can hurt them, the community and the prostitute herself.
That changed attitudes and, more dramatically, conduct, according to a new study conducted for the Justice Department by consultants Abt Associates Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The recidivism rate was signficantly lower for those completing the so-called School for Johns than for first-time offenders who didn’t take the course. In fact, consultants at first didn’t believe that finding, says senior researcher Michael Shively.
“We tried to make it go away” by applying various theories and statistics to challenge the results, he says. But “the quality of the data and amount of the data is very strong,” he says. It leads to only one conclusion: education keeps some men from returning to prostitutes.
“I don’t think anyone would expect it to go away completely,” he says. That “doesn’t mean you throw up your hands and make it legal.”
There are too many victims for that.
(Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg news columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Ann Woolner in Atlanta at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Updated: May 9, 2008 00:04 EDT
May 08, 2008
Categories: Bad behavior
On the same day that Rep. Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) admitted to fathering a child with a woman who is not his wife, the Senate ethics committee has dismissed without prejudice a prostitution-related complaint against Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).
The ethics committee “dismissed without prejudice” the complaint, which was filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, on the grounds that Vitter’s alleged involvement with “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey occurred before he ran for the Senate; that he was never criminally charged; and that “the conduct at issue did not involve use of public office or status for improper purposes.”
But the committee stressed in its letter that its dismissal of the complaint should not be seen as “personal approbation or acceptance” of the conduct alleged. “In fact, if proven true, the members of the committee would find the alleged conduct of solicitation for prostitution to be reprehensible,” the committee wrote.
Palfrey, who was convicted earlier this year on felonies including racketeering and money laundering, died of an apparent suicide last week.
By Susannah Breslin
May. 05, 2008 | On May 1, Deborah Jeane Palfrey, better known as “the D.C. Madam,” was found dead in a shed located behind her mother’s Tarpon Springs, Fla., mobile home. Apparently, Palfrey, 52, hanged herself from a metal beam with a length of nylon rope. When her 76-year-old mother, Blanche Palfrey, called 911 just before 11 a.m., the emergency operator asked if her daughter was still hanging from the rafter. “Yes,” said the madam’s weeping mother, who had regularly accompanied her daughter to court the month previous, “I can’t move her. I’m 76 years old.”
Palfrey’s was one of a recent spate of high-profile political sex scandals, from Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s toe-tapping routine to the fall of New York Gov. Eliot “Luv Guv” Spitzer. It was also another chapter in our ongoing fascination with prostitution — that mysterious and yet still little-understood profession. (Palfrey entered the business as an escort. Later, she became a madam, claiming she was “appalled and disgusted” by the way women in the sex business were treated.) Sex may be everywhere these days — heck, adult movie star Jenna Jameson’s autobiography, “How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale,” was a New York Times bestseller — but what life is really like inside the American sex trade remains a mystery. Mostly, Americans have been fed one of two myths about sex workers: the “Pretty Woman” story about a hooker with a heart of gold, or the Jezebel tale about a woman who leads moral men astray by virtue of her sexual wiles.
In more recent years, thanks to a growing number of call girls, strippers and other sex workers using blogs to tell their stories in their own words, we’ve seen a more complex and nuanced tale. And it’s one we don’t seem to be able to get enough of. HBO and Showtime are launching competing series focusing on working girls — “Sex and the City” creator Darren Star is turning Tracy Quan’s “Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl” (which began as a column on Salon) into a dramatic series for HBO, while Showtime will begin airing the U.K. series “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” based on the blog turned book by Belle de Jour, next month.
Though Palfrey’s death is complicated, not to mention controversial, it does offer us some insight into the experience of sex industry workers, who bear the burden of a double life and the toll of secrecy. I contacted three women, currently chronicling online their past and present lives as sex workers, to speak to them about their reactions to Palfrey’s harrowing tale and how sharing their own stories might keep them from a similar kind of darkness.
Melissa Gira is a San Francisco-based sex worker and Valleywag reporter who last year co-founded Bound, Not Gagged, a group blog written by and for sex workers, because of the Palfrey case. Tired of so-called experts speaking for sex workers in the mainstream media, Gira created the site as a forum where working women could express their opinions, reactions and frustrations. The day the blog launched, Gira found Palfrey’s phone number, called her and spoke with her briefly about the project. “I was shocked she picked up the phone, she knew what a blog was, and she wasn’t immediately distrustful,” Gira says.
Upon hearing of Palfrey’s death, Gira felt a jumble of emotions: confusion, anger, sadness. “Her story represented our story,” she says.
Gira is angry about the way female sex workers are vilified when stories like these go public, while the men involved “go back to their job or they quietly leave.” From among the 15,000 names in Palfrey’s potent little black book, only three boldface names surfaced: Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, a married Republican and father of four who apologized for his “very serious sin” and kept his job; U.S. ambassador Randall L. Tobias, who as Bush’s “AIDS czar” had publicly denounced prostitution and resigned after his outing; and Harlan K. Ullman, a retired Navy commander known for developing the shock-and-awe doctrine and who told Brian Ross of ABC News that he had gotten only massages from the women involved, not had sex with them, and stated that the experience was “like ordering pizza.”
“If I was in her position I would have papered the walls of that shed with the sheets of my client list,” says Gira.
Although Gira is frustrated by the media’s relentless representation of sex workers as victims, she is also suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Palfrey’s death. It has been a question circulating since: Did Palfrey actually kill herself? In fact, Palfrey had stated in numerous interviews with members of the press that she would rather commit suicide than return to prison. Washington, D.C., writer Dan Moldea, who got to know Palfrey while considering writing a book about her, told reporters that Palfrey had told him, “I am not going back to prison. I will commit suicide first.” At the time of her death, she was awaiting her July 24 sentencing, and authorities in Florida have reported that several suicide notes were found at the scene. Either way, Gira says, Palfrey’s death has had a “chilling effect” on at least some sex workers, who, now fearing for their own lives, are more reluctant than ever to reveal themselves.
Another sex worker I spoke with, who writes online about her call girl experiences but requested anonymity for this story, was pained by the news of Palfrey’s death as well as the related older news of the death of University of Maryland professor turned call girl Brandy Britton, 43, who killed herself in January 2007 while awaiting trial on prostitution charges. Britton was a one-time employee of Palfrey’s; after Britton was found hanging in her living room, Palfrey pronounced, ironically: “I guess I’m made of something that Brandy Britton wasn’t made of.”
The call girl I interviewed was struck by the emotional stories behind these public deaths. “The first thing I thought about was the incredible isolation that both of them probably felt,” she said. “Because you’re doing something that’s perceived to be so morally wrong that you’re immediately outside society, as a prostitute or a madam. You’ve got this secret life or a compartmentalized life, and then to be pushed out there and villainized — I can only imagine the incredible isolation they must have felt.”
As a sex worker, she went on, you live a “double life.” A madam whom she worked for before she went freelance was intensely paranoid, “crazy,” prone to anxious late-night phone calls. “It got to her. She would call me up and panic, thinking they were out to get her. It was the psychology of sex work, the fear of being outed.”
When the call girl I spoke with worked at an agency, she says, she was kept isolated from other women. Then, when she started writing online about sex work, all that changed. “I know the moment I started blogging about it at length, I started connecting to other women online. It made a huge difference. I stopped feeling alone. I stopped feeling like I had to hide everything from anybody. It felt as though I had a connection to the outside world that I didn’t have before.” After all, sex work is not easy. “You have these very intimate connections, but you’re totally disposable with clients. You’re a ghost moving through their world.”
Palfrey’s story, she says, is “heartbreaking,” but at its core, she believes, Palfrey’s final act reveals more about America than the madam. “It’s sort of unsurprising that somebody like Palfrey could feel driven to suicide — because of the shame of being in the sex work world.”
Bree Daniels, a former call girl who named herself after the prostitute who helps a private detective catch a call girl killer in the 1971 film “Klute,” blogs at One Shady Lady about the three years she spent as an escort in New York and California. Or at least she blogged until recently. (Her boyfriend isn’t crazy about her blogging in the present tense about her past life.) She launched her site after the Spitzer story broke because she was sick of the way sex work and sex workers were being depicted in the media. “I think I was feeling extremely angry at all the misinformation and the double standard that it’s acceptable for boys who will be boys, but women who do this are basically like the devil’s minions.” Instead, she says, “I wanted people to understand more about the business from someone who had been in the business.” Daniels worked in the corporate world before getting into escorting for the money. “I think there’s a misconception that women in the business are all sexually louche, and that we’re damaged. When I started I’d had sex with eight people.” In high school, she could have been voted least likely to become a call girl. “Most people always said I looked like a librarian.”
When Palfrey was indicted, Daniels wrote her a letter. “I wrote to her when it all broke out last year, just saying if you hadn’t made a copy of your records, you should leave them with everyone you know, just in case.” The dangers inherent to sex work are very real, Daniels underscores. “You can lull yourself into a false sense of security, and then when something happens, you realize that you’re totally expendable, that nobody cares. You feel so powerless. And I think a lot of women just choose not to think about it — because it’s the only way that you can get through it and do the job.” In the beginning of her escort career, before setting out on her own, Daniels worked for a madam. “I came to two realizations,” she says about that experience. “I could do what she was doing myself and keep all the money. And the second thing was if I turned up dead, she would be calling up her Mafia buddies to have my body dumped in Jersey. She didn’t care about me.”
Madams — who are, essentially, female pimps — can be “the most mercenary individuals on the planet,” she says. She adds, however, “Not all of them are that way.”
In the end, Daniels quit the business because she was “burned out.” Sometimes, she misses the camaraderie among the women she worked with in the sex business. “They say there’s no honor among thieves, but there’s a lot of honor among these women. And that to me is the best thing that I take away from all this.”
Melissa Gira, for one, is optimistic that one day Americans will see sex work as real work and sex workers as real people. After all, she says of Palfrey’s death: “I don’t think this was a suicide of concession. If anything, it’s ‘You’re not going to take me alive.'”
— By Susannah Breslin
Call girls speak out about the suicide of Deborah Jeane Palfrey and the complicated truths it reveals about their lives.
By Susannah Breslin
Palfrey’s was one of a recent spate of high-profile political sex scandals, from Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s toe-tapping routine to the fall of New York Gov. Eliot “Luv Guv” Spitzer. It was also another chapter in our ongoing fascination with prostitution — that mysterious and yet still little-understood profession. (Palfrey entered the business as an escort. Later, she became a madam, claiming she was “appalled and disgusted” by the way women in the sex business were treated.) Sex may be everywhere these days — heck, adult movie star Jenna Jameson’s Continue reading
Fox 5 Orlando is reporting that a woman found dead in her home is Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the “DC Madam.” Authorities are reporting that her death may be a suicide:
Police were called to the home of DC Madam Deborah Jeane Palfrey’s mother on Thursday to investigate her apparent suicide.
Police have confirmed that the dead person is Palfrey who was 52.
Palfrey was dubbed “The DC Madam” by the national media after her arrest for allegedly running an upscale call girl ring in the nation’s capitol.
The AP reports that the DC Madam suicide apparently took place at her mother’s home and that she left a suicide note:
Police in Tarpon Springs, Florida say the body was found in a shed near Palfrey’s mother’s home Thursday morning. There was a suicide note, but police did not disclose its contents.
Although local reports confirm it was Palfrey but refer to her death as an “apparent suicide,” and the AP reports the death as a suicide but call the deceased “a woman believed to be” the DC Mada, FoxNews.com is reporting that local officials confirm both Palfrey’s identity and her cause of death:
“It was her, and she’s deceased,” said Frank Ruggiero, a public information officer with the Tarpon Springs Police Department. “There’s no question that it was a suicide.”
In June 2007, one of Palfrey’s former escorts, University of Maryland professor Brandy Britton, committed suicide after being arrested. At the time, Palfrey said of Britton:
“This is a woman who was divorced, who was trying to raise two, ah, high-school children, college-age children,” Palfrey said. “Great job title, the great position, all the respect in the world, but she wasn’t making enough money. So she decided to do a little moonlighting.”
Palfrey added, “And she was publicly outed, is a good way to put it, she was absolutely humiliated. Ah, she couldn’t take the humiliation. Her whole life was destroyed. And she, she just, ah, ultimately committed suicide.”