By Maya Dollarhide
(LifeWire) — Eight years ago, Natalie McLennan, a leggy brunette, moved to New York City from Montreal to pursue an acting career. At a cocktail party, she met Jason Itzler, the self-proclaimed “‘king of all pimps” and owner of the now-defunct New York Confidential escort agency. When Itzler suggested McLennan, then 28, work for him, she decided “dating” guys beat waiting tables while she continued looking for acting gigs.
By 2004, McLennan was earning around $2,000 an hour, sometimes more, seeing “two to three clients a day for at least two to three hours each.”
When it came to catering to the needs of her well-heeled customers, “I was always on call.”
Natalie — known as Natalia — had hit it big; in July 2005, she was profiled for a New York magazine cover story. Three months after the interview hit the newsstands, the agency was shut down. McLennan was arrested for prostitution, spending 26 days in jail.
Thirty-year-old “Celeste,” who didn’t want her real name used, says she started turning tricks in Minnesota at 15. For her, prostitution was a job, not a path to a celebrity lifestyle. In a good year, the young wife and mother saw up to four clients a day, men she describes as “just guys, like the ones you see at the supermarket or fixing something in your house” and earned up to $300 for 30 minutes of her services. She found her customers through online personals, chat rooms and telephone talk lines for singles.
“I needed that money. I had debt, credit card debt. Then later, when I had a child, I needed the money to pay for food and things for my baby,” she says. In May of this year, Celeste says, she decided to quit for good after a client, a doctor, hurt her during sex. “I figured he of all people would know the limitations of a person’s body, but he didn’t and I thought I was going to die.”
McLennan and Celeste represent two sides of an industry that perennially generates headlines and pop culture buzz. Tabloid tales of high-priced call girls and politicians — like former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer — have heightened interest in TV fare such as Showtime’s “The Secret Diary of a Call Girl.” There are also reports of a new series being developed for HBO based on the novel “Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl” and a proposed MTV reality series starring Spitzer’s favorite paid date, Ashley Dupre. Watch why Spitzer resigned, but was not charged »
While these moments in the sun tend to glamorize prostitution, women in the sex industry and those who study them say a prostitute’s real life can also be difficult and dangerous. What’s harder to get agreement on is whether the sex industry victimizes women.
Risks and rewards
When Celeste met her first pimp at a gas station hang-out, she was vulnerable and alone. Her family had neglected her, she says, and she was often the target of psychological abuse. She “didn’t have enough self-esteem” to say no when her new boyfriend suggested she work for him. “He was very handsome and smooth,” she says. “I wanted him to like me and be my boyfriend. I was living on my own, mainly, and he took care of me.”
McLennan, on the other hand, felt more in control and says she enjoyed aspects of her former job, especially the money and the opportunity to “party with rock stars.”
“I never felt that I was a victim, as opposed to the girls on the street,” says McLennan. “There was definitely anxiety at the beginning, but it got easier almost immediately because the agency’s clientele mainly consisted of successful, well-mannered business men. We were marketed as princesses and the men who hired us treated us as such.”
Celeste was not so lucky. “I was always afraid, every single time,” she recalls. “I did this for 15 years and I never stopped being afraid. The job isn’t like in the movies.”
Victims or not?
McLennan and Celeste both say working for a high-end escort agency or as a call girl is preferable to working in the streets because the money is better and it’s less risky than walking the streets. Researchers, meanwhile, are divided over whether the sex industry victimizes the women.
“Prostitution causes deep psychological harm,” says Melissa Farley, Ph.D., a research and clinical psychologist and founder and executive director of the nonprofit group Prostitution Research and Education in San Francisco. “The words that are said to these women on the job, the names they are called by their [customers] and pimps hurt them emotionally. They are frequently abused physically. Not to mention that the shelf life of women in prostitution is short — if women manage to stay alive in it, they don’t last a long time.”
Farley, who spent two years investigating eight legalized brothels says, “Nevada brothels are scary, scary places.” Her research, which she self-published in “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections,” found that 81 percent of the women in brothels don’t want to be there.
Others disagree and contend that by legalizing prostitution in the form of brothels, women in the sex industry can gain a modicum of legitimacy.
Brothels, a legal solution
Sociologist Barb Brents of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has spent the last 10 years researching the legal brothel industry in Nevada. She disagrees with Farley’s position that all women working as prostitutes — even legally in brothels — are victims.
Most women working in brothels, Brents says, are doing it for the money, like any other job. “You have women coming in from low-paying service jobs… who decide to work in a brothel because they need more money to make ends meet,” she says. “Then you have former prostitutes, women who want to get away from stress of working illegally. Then you have the ‘professionals,’ women from the legal porn industry or former dancers who see their work as a profession or a calling.”
While Brents agrees that abuse and violence can and does occur in the sex industry, it rarely happens in legalized brothels, she says. “These women can leave their jobs. They can walk out the door and quit. They are not prisoners there. And most of them stay because the money is good.”
Fifty-year-old Marisol, who asked that her real name not be used, works at Donna’s Ranch, a legal brothel in northeastern Nevada. At Donna’s, sex workers have access to medical care, are regularly tested for HIV, and have the option of refusing a client. For Marisol, however, it’s the money that makes being a sex worker appealing.
“It’s a job. I am a single mother and this job allowed me to pay for my daughters’ education, our mortgage and our car. I could not do that working at Wal-Mart.”
Getting out, or trying to
Still, the women interviewed for this article agree that even under the best circumstances, being a sex worker isn’t a job that they want to pursue forever. Retirement seems like a good idea to ex-call girl McLennan, who says she is happy to be done with that part of her life, in part because her short prison time was an eye-opener to the risks of her profession. Still, her experiences provided for her: She is writing a memoir, “The Price” (Phoenix Books), due out in November.
She’s also planning to set up blog “where I can offer other girls advice and guidance. I have made a lot of bold choices in my life but I think many of them have been misguided.”
Celeste wants to volunteer to baby-sit at the non-profit where she once received counseling and comfort. “A lot of women there have babies or young children and they need someone to watch them while they get help,” she says. “I want to be able to give back to the organization someday.”
For now, Celeste is concentrating on raising her daughter. But despite the harm and fear her last client caused her, she still hasn’t changed her phone number — the one that keeps her attached to her former clients. Without that number, she’s officially out of business.
“I keep meaning to change it,” she says, “but then I think, what if I need to earn some money fast? It’s hard to let go.”