Stress Warning: The content of this story includes graphic depictions of sexual violence.
She’s clothed in a purple hoodie over a gray top; her hair, dyed red, rests in a ponytail over her left shoulder; she wears a septum piercing, as well as a stud in her right nostril; her hazel eyes are calm and relaxed; and her smile is big and friendly. She receives few second glances while working the register at her retail job, and, for the most part, looks like a typical young woman.
But last night, she stood out as someone quite different from the cashier who earlier in the day had asked if you’d be using cash or credit. Last night, she was Amber; and as Amber, she took center stage. Adorned in a lacy black negligee (and adorned briefly, at that), Amber danced and twirled under the multi-colored lights at one of Eugene’s classier gentleman’s clubs. “I enjoy dancing,” she says. “It’s not like the stereotypes—the things you see on TV … not the [club] I work at.”
Depending on where you are in the world, sex work is viewed in a variety of ways. Strip clubs, for example, are more acceptable in Oregon than in other states, such as Arkansas and Utah. With 63 different venues, Portland is locally referred to as the strip club capital of the Beaver State. However, Springfield, with its smaller population, ranks number one in the US as the town with the most strip clubs per 100,000 residents. Springfield and Eugene share a total of six clubs for nude entertainment.
After discussing the exotic dancer occupation with a woman she knew from middle school who had recently started dancing, Amber decided to give it a try. She applied for the position online and submitted a photo—her senior photo from high school. The interview process was simple, and the only thing differentiating it from any other job interview, she says, was the request to try on an outfit. She wasn’t asked to show off any moves, though she had gone over her childhood ballet maneuvers before arriving.
“Growing up, my family did not talk about sex,” she says. “If it came on TV, you’d change the channel—[sex] was super hush-hush.” She won’t discuss her new job with them either, which is challenging because she still lives with them. Yet, Amber says that the real problem isn’t one of awkward conversations; it’s one of ethics. “The situation with my parents is most uncomfortable because I have to lie to them about what I’m doing,” she says. “It’s relatively simple working the two jobs and living at home, the hard part is having to lie to my parents about what I’m doing.”
However, Amber has made her decision to dance; and for now, it works. “I definitely don’t plan on making this my life career choice,” she says. “But just for the time being, I don’t have a ton of direction right now. So, it’s nice to just have that money and save up for when I go back to school.” Amber attended two terms at a community college after graduating high school in 2013, but decided to take a break because, she says, “I have no idea what I want to do.” She is interested in the sciences and horse riding—things she doesn’t discuss with her exotic dancing co-workers.
The muscle control required for horse riding has been tremendously helpful with her dancing, she says. And though she does admit to worrying about her appearance, she views exotic dancing as something that ultimately empowers her and boosts her confidence. She says that she finds her “energy-zone” and tells herself, “I’m really sexy, and they’re enjoying this.” She adds, “Mostly, I don’t want to look stupid.” Amber says that she’s earned $350 in one night (four to five hours of work)—the highest amount for her so far. Other dancers, she says, have been known to make substantially more.
With an estimated 400,000 dancers spread out among 4,000 US strip clubs, the average annual earnings for an exotic dancer are anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000. The clubs themselves are estimated to earn $3.1 billion annually, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. On a busy night, “It gets pretty cutthroat” among the women, she says—and the competition for tips isn’t friendly. Interestingly, she says the biggest tippers are the ones you’d least expect. The most shabbily-dressed patrons will sometimes end up being the most respectful and highest tipping of her customers. Judging people based on how they look, or what they do for employment, is not something that Amber approves of.
“I don’t think you can judge people,” she says. “I’ve noticed that whenever people are mean or derogatory, it’s usually because they have their own issues.”
Crystal is an escort. Not to be confused with a prostitute, an escort will usually work for an escort service, which can be advertised online at websites such as backpage.com. As a part of being employed by this service, escorts are required to sign a contract stating that they will not engage in coitus with any of the customers, or have any direct sexual contact with a customer’s sexual organs. By definition, an escort’s primary job is to act as a date for the customer. Occasionally, this will be as harmless as keeping the customer company, or literally escorting them somewhere. Most often, the service an escort will provide is called a “sensual massage”. These massages are normally given in the nude.
For one week in May 2014, 21 unique escort adverts ran in the Eugene-Springfield area on backpage.com, fewer than in Portland by hundreds. However, based on the nature of escorting, reliable facts and statistics about the actual job are generally flawed and difficult to confirm. Most of what is known about escorting comes directly from the mouth of an escort. And though the distinction between an escort and a prostitute can be ambiguous, the legal definition of “escort” allows them to not only advertise, but also maintain their businesses without police interference. Crystal contends that many escorts follow the law. She did as well, for a time.
Crystal is not the stereotypical Hollywood-movie-version of an escort. And, according to her, most other escorts aren’t either. “Escorts are fat, thin, plain, beautiful, old and young,” she says. “We are not all model-perfect by any means.” Crystal, 43, has long brown hair with streaks of silver. Her large brown eyes can be seen through thick-lensed, gold-rimmed glasses. Her skin shows a few wrinkles, but otherwise looks soft and well taken care of. Her stature is small, along with her frame. She looks more like a stereotypical librarian than a woman who provides sensual massages. Though her customers vary in age, the MILF, or Cougar fantasy provides her with a lot of business from the younger men, she says. This has only become a marketable selling point for her after 10 plus years in the business. “Men have this weird idea that we’re all cauldrons of insatiable lust,” she says. “Like we live in black lingerie and think only of sex. They’re stupid.”
In her late 20s, after earning a liberal arts degree, she arrived in Eugene at the University of Oregon to enroll in the philosophy graduate program. While there, she met a male student who introduced her to gambling and drug use. A 2011 study published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, indicates that during the study, “Self-esteem had a meaningful role in the individual’s tendency to addiction … and prostitution.” Crystal admits that during this time of her life, her self-esteem wasn’t extraordinarily high. “I never even normally went to bars,” Crystal says. The gambling addiction, more so than the drugs at first, took hold of her and didn’t let go. After another student publicly exposed her addictions, “My reputation suffered, and everyone gossiped about me … I became really depressed and did poorly in school,” she says. “I ended up not passing the Master’s exam and had to leave.”
At this point, Crystal felt alone, she says. She had no idea what to do. “That was basically why I became an escort,” she says. “To pay for this [gambling addiction].” She estimates losing about $500,000 over 20 years of gambling. “I tried to live a double life as best I could,” she says, “and in my private life I got more and more withdrawn from close friendships. In this business, you learn to not trust people.”
After years of following the established escort rules, she finally succumbed to the monetary temptation that coincided with offering a little more to her customers. For an extra $200 tip, Crystal began accommodating her customer’s carnal desires. “There’s nothing worse than being poor,” she says. “There is nothing more degrading. It is definitely better to be an escort.” Although, that sentiment appears to be waning. “I am getting too old to be doing this,” she says. “I have to think of an exit strategy.”
After years of gambling, drinking and drug abuse, Crystal checked herself into rehab two years ago. “After I got sober,” she says, “I realized how much better I felt. I couldn’t believe I had ever walked around in a fog. And the gambling! I can’t believe I was ever that stupid.” Now, she looks forward to doing something other than escorting. Unfortunately, she has no idea what that will be. “It would be hard to switch to a nine to five job now,” she says. “They say it would be better to work at a 7/11 and live in a dump. I don’t think so.”
Her obstinate opinion on the value of affluence makes it hard for her to reconcile ever giving up a guaranteed source of income. Because she is an independent escort, all her earnings remain with her—she’s made $1000 in one night, she says. The work is easy, for the most part, she says. There are good nights and bad nights like any job. But for Crystal, one thing remains constant: There is always someone looking for a Cougar.
“I think, in some ways, I am very different from most women in the sex industry,” Crystal says. “But in other ways, I fit the profile to a T. Certainly, I was older when I started—and educated—but I was naive and lacked self-esteem, and was easily taken advantage of. The women in this industry are so vulnerable. They are like sheep ready for slaughter.”
According to the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance’s Human Trafficking Project, “Oregon’s location on the I-5 corridor, as a major link to Seattle, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, makes it attractive to human traffickers … As many as 300,000 American children and 20,000 foreign nationals are trafficked in the United States each year, primarily for commercial sex purposes.”
Jes speaks candidly about her experience. If ever it was difficult for her to relive her history or speak about her life, it doesn’t show now. Her voice is bright and friendly. She acknowledges the challenges of her current work, as well as the pain she’s gone through to get to where she is today—the pain she’s gone through. The words don’t properly convey the emotion that is stirred when looking her in the eye.
At four years old, Jes says three teenage boys who lived in her neighborhood began sexually abusing her. “I didn’t use the term rape, though there’s nothing in my mind that doubts it was rape,” she says. “From a four-year-old’s perspective, they were showing me love.” Jes says that an education should be provided to children at the earliest age possible to ensure they understand things such as rape. She posits that the boys who did this to her were reenacting a behavior that had been shown to them. By the time she was five, she was capable of achieving an orgasm as though it were nothing at all, she says.
After moving to Oregon when she was 10, her father was killed. Left alone with her mother, Jes says she lived the next stage of her life in extreme poverty. “We didn’t have much of anything,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of stability; and when my dad was murdered, that was completely gone. Now [my mom] had to go work two or three jobs to make ends meet and to provide for her and me.” Going through middle school seemingly all alone added to Jes’ desire to be seen and heard, she says. By 13, she was partying and having sex with reckless abandon.
During that same year, her mom remarried a man that Jes describes as “not very nice.” Her stepfather’s verbal abuse drove her to run away from home regularly, and at 15 years old—though she was the captain of her junior varsity cheerleading team with a 3.83 GPA—she dropped out of high school and joined the Job Corps.
After graduating from the Job Corps, Jes struggled on the streets before landing a job at a restaurant in Portland. While there, she met a man who she says, “was freaking amazing.” Jes was 17 years old and was finally getting the attention she’d sought for so long. He listened to her; he cared about what she had to say; he manipulated her. “One day he asked me, ‘If you’re already having sex, why wouldn’t you want to get paid?’” she says. “And I thought, that is a damn good question.”
Jes was sold. Waiting tables just didn’t offer the same economic opportunity as selling sex—she says that she made the decision to do it entirely of her own volition.
Her first client (or trick, as she prefers to call them) ran her over with his truck in an attempt to retrieve the $40 he’d just given her after their business had concluded. When she returned to her “amazing” man with scrapes and bruises, she got into the back of his car. He simply asked her for the money. “I didn’t even think about it,” she says. “I can remember it, as if it were as clear as day, handing him the money. With that one simple action, I lost everything.”
Jes says her new employer took away her ability to make personal decisions. From the clothes she wore to the color she painted her nails, all her freedoms were forfeited, and he began moving her from city to city. She became a trafficking victim.
“For the next 14 to 15 months,” she says, “I was turning 10 to 30 tricks a night to reach my $1000 quota.” The one time she was unable to reach her quota, she says, caused trouble for one of the girls she had been made to recruit. A young girl between 13 and 15 years old was violently beaten in order to teach her a lesson. “She was missing a piece of her skull and was lifeless,” Jes says. “I don’t know how she could have lived, but I still don’t remember what happened to her after my pimp got in my face and made me look at her, saying it was all my fault.”
Jes knew she had to get out. Her pimp’s words echoed in her mind: Once a ho, always a ho—that’s all you’re ever worth. She eventually became involved with an escort service that was run by another female sex worker, though her pimp still pulled the strings and dictated her transactions. According to Detective Brendan McGuire from the Human Trafficking Unit of the Portland Police Bureau, this is not an uncommon situation for many escorts. Unfortunately, unless a pimp or escort is arrested, there isn’t any way to verify which escorts are being coerced in their employment. Fortunately for Jes, however, after some effort—namely with help from the woman running the service—she was able to escape her pimp.
Now 18 years old with an ID that claimed she was 23, Jes continued her sex work independently. The prospect of making $1000 a day, she says, easily kept her away from any other service industry job. “It was fully my choice,” she says. “The almost three years that I was a sex worker, were some of the most empowering times of my life.” She used this time to overcome many of the traumatic issues she experienced earlier on in her life. “It finally gave me control over my body,” she says. “This is mine. I’m proud of who I am. It doesn’t matter where I’ve been. I am me, and I am worth more.”
But promiscuity comes with risks. Jes eventually became pregnant. In one day, she says, she quit drinking, abusing drugs and selling her sex. “Drug withdrawals combined with morning sickness are more intense than anything,” she says. “It’s easier to have your face caved in.” She got through it, though, and had her daughter. She’s never looked back.
A few years later, Jes met the man who would become her husband. At the time of their wedding, he was still a virgin, and had never kissed anyone until their wedding day. Now, after 10 years of marriage, they live happily together in Southern California with their six children.
Jes has had myriad jobs since her life as a sex worker, all of them achieved with the unenviable challenge of having to explain her previous work history. Eventually, Jes decided to do something understandably difficult for a person who had suffered through the things that she had. As a trafficking survivor, she decided to make a difference, and to use her experience for something greater than herself. Through her website, jesrichardson.com, she offers comprehensive training videos with the hope of educating the public to the realities of human trafficking.
“We cannot describe the sex industry by the mediums used,” she says. Sex work is complex, and Jes seeks to uncover the diversity from within the industry itself. “To say that all prostitution is trafficking, or the whole sex industry is trafficking,” she says, “completely minimizes and eliminates the voices of a massive population of individuals who are there willingly.”
But that doesn’t mean she’s willing to turn a blind eye to those who are forcibly hustled up and down the I-5 corridor, across the country, or even around the world. Trafficking—be it for sex or labor—is designed to exploit and dehumanize women, men, and children, and sex workers are too often placed under that same umbrella term. “The moral of the story,” Jes says, “is that everything comes down to consent.”