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Tricks of the Trade

Hookers and the Heat:

  • Police statistics on local prostitution
  • Police and prostitutes have differing opinions on the state of sex work in Santa Cruz

    Dr. Wendy Chapkis, a UC-Santa Cruz sociology and women's studies professor and an activist for sex workers' rights, believes these women represent the majority of prostitutes. "Most women aren't on the streets, aren't addicted to drugs and aren't HIV-positive," she explains. "Most work in less visible forms of prostitution, like out of their homes. You don't know about them unless you pick up the Great Exchange or some such weekly."

    Welcome to the world of Bambi, Brandi and Candy, of Tawnee and Desiree. Their working names promise fulfillment for the man who wants it spicy and naughty or young and sweet. But behind such seductive monikers exist women who hardly fit the Tinseltown image.

    Tiffany volunteers for her church twice a week. Andi has just completed the coursework necessary for her drug and alcohol counseling certificate. Magdalena is an outspoken political activist. Their reasons for choosing to work as prostitutes are as varied as their lives and personalities. Yet they are united in one telling aspect--they refuse to be labeled by either the Moral Majority on the right or feminists on the left.

    Like Mother, Like Daughter

    If one follows the arguments on nurture versus nature in determining a child's outcome, then Andi's career path was mapped out while she was in the womb. In her case, genes and upbringing both may have led her into an ostensible life of crime. Andi's mother was a prostitute, as was her grandmother. A step-grandfather began sexually abusing Andi when she was two years old, just as he had abused her mother. Alcoholism has coursed so fiercely through this family's bloodlines that it is difficult to identify one relative who hasn't been damaged by its effects.

    So, when she was offered a chance to work the farm camps around the Sacramento delta area--straight sex at 20 bucks a laborer--she jumped at the opportunity.

    She was 16 years old.

    Now 38, Andi has somehow escaped the usual ravages of time, much less what society expects her particular occupation to visit on her. She usually tells her johns that she's 25, which no one would doubt. With flawless olive skin and full lips, she bears a passing resemblance to Sandra Bullock. She agreed to meet at a local bookstore and coffeehouse to talk about what started her hooking in Santa Cruz. The short answer is that she followed a friend in the business down here from Berkeley and liked the area. But of course, that's not the whole story.

    In many ways, Andi falls directly into the groove of many of our most cherished beliefs about sex workers. There is childhood sexual abuse, a history of her own drug abuse and alcoholism, and an almost psychic ability to choose boyfriends she would be quick to qualify as "lower than whale shit." Although she has had the same boyfriend for more than a decade, Andi will be the first to tell you she can't stand men. She stays with him, she explains, "because he didn't try to fuck my daughter when she was growing up."

    But, somewhere during the conversation, she starts punching her way out of the neat pigeonhole reserved for women like her. She logs a lot of time in this bookstore during her off hours and just picked up Robert McNamara's In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam . Andi shows up to the interview with her own bottle of mineral water--she no longer drinks alcohol or coffee. She eats only natural foods and supplements her diet with juice fasts. Any addict will tell you that nicotine is the hardest to kick, and Andi's still working on cutting loose those Marlboro menthols. Then there's the weight-training she used to do each day, but she's had to ease back on that. "My tricks didn't like the muscular look that well," she shrugs.

    Andi and her friend from Berkeley service men out of a tidy apartment on the Santa Cruz Westside. Neither lives there full time--the friend stays with an elderly mother who requires full-time care, and Andi spends a few days each week back in Modesto with the boyfriend. In addition to her Santa Cruz clientele, Andi puts in a few evenings a week at a San Jose massage parlor. But she enjoys her little home in Santa Cruz and in between calls can be found outside with her gardening gloves on, planting a few zinnias or impatiens.

    Working out of the San Jose massage parlor as well as her Santa Cruz apartment has given Andi enough experience to compare the regional quality of tricks. "They're nicer here," she says of the Santa Cruz clientele. Like Zack, a new customer she saw last night.

    The routine is the same. After seeing her ad in the paper, they call. "They always ask what I look like and how old I am," she explains. Sometimes they want to know what she will wear for the appointment. If they are disappointed that Andi refuses to wear lingerie, instead opting for blue jeans and sweatshirts, they don't let on.

    If there is still any doubt about what kind of massage to expect, the price--$100 for a half-hour--should be self-explanatory.

    After more than 20 years in the business, she has had only one threatening client and that was at the massage parlor. She is much more worried about the police than she is about johns. She knows how to spot the legitimates. "They always act submissive and look embarrassed," she laughs. They also know enough not to ask any dumb questions when they strip off their clothes and lay on the bed.

    "I throw the rubber on 'em," she gestures with her hand, "and jump on." And, there's always--always--a condom for both oral sex and intercourse, no matter how much they offer her to have sex without one. "I use those armor-plated Trojan Golds," she says.

    Andi hasn't encountered much in the way of kink in Santa Cruz, certainly not like in San Jose or the Bay Area. She recalls running into one of her co-workers as she was coming out of a cubicle at a Berkeley massage parlor. "Oh, I see you just had George as a client," Andi said to the other girl. When asked how she knew, Andi pointed to the girl's blood-spattered stiletto heels. "Everybody knows he likes his dick stepped on."

    One of the reasons Andi is willing to talk today is because she's getting ready to leave Santa Cruz and head on back to the East Bay. It's not the commute she minds, and she genuinely enjoys working out of her house rather than a massage parlor. "But, I'm paranoid of getting busted all the time here," she admits.

    So Andi will pack in her wares, fold up her tent and move on. She will miss Santa Cruz, but she has a few things pulling her north. Upon receiving her drug and alcohol certificate, she was offered a job in an East Bay drug treatment program. She will supplement her income from the drug program with a few nights a week at a Bay Area massage parlor.

    There is also a new granddaughter. On the advice of a therapist, Andi told her daughter, now 16, what she did for a living when her daughter was about 13. "I still regret telling her," she sighs.

    Because the girls at the massage parlor were dying to see the new baby, Andi brought her daughter and granddaughter to work one day. "My daughter kept looking around, going, 'Ooooh, oooh, how can you stand doing this?' " Andi recalls. Ironically, it was about two days before National Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

    Asked if she thinks that her daughter will follow in the family business, Andi looks sad for a moment. "I'm worried about her," she admits. "I don't want her to, because I don't think she's emotionally set up to do it. Besides, this business is for lazy people."

    She pauses, then adds, "But that's why I did it for so long--I'm lazy."

    Victims or Caregivers?

    Women like Kathy Miriam will tell you that Andi's problem is not that she is lazy, it's that she represents the most literal victim of men and society's exploitation of women. Miriam is a Ph.D. candidate in UCSC's History of Consciousness program and has been active in anti-pornography campaigns as well as programs to counteract violence against women. She wants to make it clear that she is not criticizing women who make the choice to work as prostitutes.

    "My question," she asks, "is what kind of system creates this as a choice for women? I question men's 'need' to put women on the market for commercial sex. I see that as a power issue." Miriam believes prostitution helps perpetuate a sexist, racist and ageist ideology. "Men want more than just services, they want services from someone who fits the feminine ideal of young and good-looking. It tells women that when they reach a certain age, they are no longer valuable."

    Miriam, ultimately, would like to see prostitution abolished. "I don't want to live in a world where sex is commercialized," she says. To this end, she sees sex workers as victims. "Prostitution isn't here because women choose to be prostitutes. It's not like they ask themselves, 'Should I grow up to be a prostitute or should I be a brain surgeon?' "

    So, women like Andi are victims of a culture in which they have little choice but to sell their bodily allures, Miriam contends. As victims, therefore, sex workers should not suffer any legal consequences for their actions. But when it comes to criminalizing the men, Miriam is emphatic. "Oh yes, absolutely--pimps and tricks should be made accountable for what they do."

    Like Miriam, Magdalena is an outspoken political activist for women's issues. She also is in the business that Miriam seeks to abolish. Most words used to describe her--hooker, prostitute, sex worker, whore--are all too emotionally loaded for her tastes. She will tell you--and just about anyone who asks--that she is a "sexual caregiver." At 48, she also chuckles at Miriam's contention that prostitutes must sell youth and looks. "The big lie is that you can only look one way to be acceptable," she says.

    Magdalena is the quintessential Santa Cruz woman. She arrives at Gayle's Bakery in Capitola driving an aging Volvo stickered with "Magic Happens," and bounds out wearing a brightly colored jogging outfit. "Make sure you mention that my hair is gray," she says proudly. With blue eyes sparkling behind glasses perched on the tip of her nose, Magdalena looks more like a favorite aunt to hunker down over peppermint tea with than someone who charges a hundred bucks an hour for intercourse or oral sex. She never wears lingerie, heels or makeup, nor does she attract a clientele that expects those feminine amenities.

    Magdalena began working massage parlors in the early 1970s. Digging into a slice of poppy seed cake, she explains that her reason for joining the ranks of sex workers was because, "I was a single mom and I wanted to be a full-time mother more than anything." As a social-work major in college, "I always knew I wanted to take care of people," she laughs.

    Extremely articulate, Magdalena enjoys shattering the stereotypes about her business. She also takes issue with feminists like Miriam who insist that prostitution is never a conscious choice. Far from being coerced, Magdalena--like Andi--saw this profession as a path that could provide considerable income and independence. In fact, she encourages other women to consider it as a career alternative. "Isn't it interesting," Magdalena muses as she sips her cappuccino, "that one of the jobs allowing the greatest income and control for a woman is also the one deemed most reprehensible by society?

    But," she concedes, "to be in this business, you have to let go of fitting in. You're going to have to forget about looking for either Mr. Right or social approval."

    For Magdalena, her work is inextricably entwined with her spiritual path. "All acts of pleasure are acts of faith in the eyes of the Goddess," she believes. She sees her work not only as a spiritual calling, but as a form of service to the community. She believes men come to her for pleasure, attention and touching as much as for getting their rocks off. "Behind every man is a being who wants to get good quality attention," she states flatly.

    Magdalena sees herself as a caregiver and a healer. Often, the men who seek out her services may be what society would consider sexually unattractive. Men who are grossly obese, mentally retarded, scarred, wheelchair-bound and elderly--all have sought out Magdalena's services at one time or another. For her, it is an opportunity to nurture another human being.

    "All kinds of gentlemen seek pleasuring, and it's not because they are bad people," she believes. "I am so appreciated by these men--and it feeds the soul. I know I'm in the right place at the right time." Far from feeling degraded, Magdalena draws much self-esteem from prostitution. She brushes back a stray lock of silver hair. "It's not only been a source of money, but a source of accomplishment. I've been a channel for healing for many men."

    Another stereotype Magdalena questions is the dangerous aspect of her line of work. Out of "literally thousands" of encounters, she has had only two--as she terms them--"off-the-wall" experiences. She also is curious about why other women working from their homes are so afraid of law enforcement. "I've never had a fear of the law. One thing about Santa Cruz is it's quite hospitable to independent workers. It's a pretty tolerant area."

    Magdalena ultimately feels that what she does is a necessary service and she would like for Miriam and the rest of society to understand that. "There is a lot of anger directed at men who can get sex on demand," she says. "But once you accept that this is a legitimate need, then sex workers can gain some empowerment and control over their work."

    Wendy Chapkis actually agrees with both Magdalena and Miriam on certain points. As author of Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor (Routledge), to be published next spring, she has studied sex workers extensively. Like Miriam, Chapkis believes women choose sex work because of a lack of other choices. Because it is an industry of mostly women workers and male clients, Chapkis also agrees that prostitution fosters the attitude that women are to be used for sex. But the professor also thinks women like Magdalena are on the right track in figuring out a way for sex workers to find some amount of empowerment and control.

    "There's a whole lot wrong with sex work, but I don't think the way to challenge it is to abolish it," Chapkis says. "I think a reform of conditions and attitudes need to change. One of the problems of prostitution is the problem of stigmatized sexuality--of society trying to police consensual sexual activity."

    A Man and a Woman

    The haunting strains of a piano concerto float out the windows of an expensive townhouse in Campbell. At the sound of the doorbell, an attractive young woman with platinum hair cascading in ringlets down her back gets up from the baby grand parked in the middle of the living room. Now 24, Tiffany has played piano since she was three, and plays well enough to have won a full scholarship to her hometown university. She still practices a few hours a day between classes, shopping and servicing men.

    Class valedictorian in high school, Tiffany enjoys the challenge of furthering her education and takes a few college courses every semester. Drunk only once in her life, Tiffany cannot claim substance abuse as part of her history. The family tree, according to Tiffany, always grew pretty straight--no alcoholics, no child molesters, no dysfunction--just old-fashioned, Midwestern religious folks.

    What ushered Tiffany into a working girl's life was a problem whose solution required a fair chunk of money--Tiffany was once a boy named Craig.

    "I grew up in a town of 700," she explains, as we drive to a Santa Clara Valley restaurant for lunch. "At first I thought I was gay, because I didn't understand the concept of being born a woman in a man's body." We walk in through the bar and although Tiffany is dressed demurely in a sun dress and sandals, conversation hushes as mostly male eyes turn appreciatively toward her.

    While some transsexuals have had difficulty making the gender change look authentic, Tiffany is clearly not one of them. She has lived as a woman for four and-a-half years and has been taking hormones for two, long enough to grow breasts and hips and remove the last vestiges of facial hair. The operation itself is scheduled for the end of the year.

    By age 18, Tiffany had found a vocabulary for the confusion in her life. She also discovered that a partial solution--surgery--would cost at least $10,000.

    On a visit out to the West Coast, she met another transsexual who was hooking to make money for her final operation. So, two years ago, she moved out here and put an ad in the Spectator, a regional sex tabloid, offering her services for $150 an hour. On a good month, she says, she can make $10,000.

    But despite the impressive cash flow, Tiffany hates what she is doing. "It goes against every moral fiber in my body," she says in a soft lilt, picking at the corners of a chicken sandwich. And, the work has taken a toll. She sees her therapist on a regular basis. She just lost a relationship with a "wonderful" guy. Totally heterosexual, he loved Tiffany and wanted her to have the operation, but could not accept her turning tricks to earn the money for it. Tiffany could not get him to understand that she was not cheating on him.

    "If I wasn't doing what I was doing, you wouldn't meet a more monogamous person," she says primly.

    Tiffany tried to take her own life less than six months ago. In her case, the more tragic stereotypical sex-worker themes--self-hatred, self-condemnation and an abnormally high rate of suicide attempts--have become reality. For this woman born in a man's body, who unhappily makes her living in one of society's most reviled professions, there are just too many secrets to keep inside every day.

    What has she learned about men in these past two years of hooking? Like Andi, enough to decide that she doesn't like them very much. They're all liars, as far as she's concerned. It bothers her that so many married men seek out her services. There is something that gnaws at her core when she is on her knees before a trick while his two perfect children look on from a framed picture on the bedside dresser.

    One time, Tiffany was servicing a man in his bedroom when his wife walked in. "She started calling me all kinds of whore and slut," she recalls. "Then, I stood up and she saw my penis." In the stunned silence, Tiffany calmly picked up her clothes and walked out.

    She is not sure what motivates men to purchase sex from a transsexual, but it makes her job easier. "Usually, they're so worked up at the thought of seeing my penis that it doesn't take much on my part to get them to come," she giggles.

    Most of the men want to kiss her but she'll have none of that. She daintily dabs a speck of mayonnaise from her lips and explains, "Kissing is something special. I mean, they're strangers!"

    They tell her about their lives, their families, children and problems on the job. Many want to date her, to see her again under more romantic circumstances. One man wanted to take her to an IBM company picnic. Although she lives in constant fear of being arrested, she counts sheriffs, San Jose policemen and one U.S. marshal among her clients. She has only had one threatening client since she got into "the life," a man who did not know he was buying the services of a transsexual until she undressed.

    Like most sex workers, Tiffany has developed a sixth sense about potential tricks. Her ad draws 20 to 25 calls a day, of which only a few will be returned. She doesn't respond if they sound "sleazy," nor will she give an explicit answer to the question "What will you do for $150?" The answer is always, "What do you want for $150?" In this complex shell game of words, buyer and seller eventually decide if a transaction will take place later that day or week. Although there is much more demand for her unique services, Tiffany restricts business to three appointments a day.

    Just a few more months of this and Tiffany will be out of the life, she assures me. She hates it--she tells her therapist every week how much she hates it. Maybe, after the operation, she'll be an interior designer or study computer programming or be a nurse. She hasn't really decided.

    But, a brief review of economics begs the question--if the operation costs ten grand, about what she makes in one month--why has it taken two years to get the money together? Well, there was the boyfriend who put a damper on the business, then there are living expenses, and she really wants a nest egg for after the operation. Or maybe it's too damn hard to walk away from all those tax-free dollars.

    But of all the women interviewed, Tiffany may well be the one who leaves the biz sooner than later. Maybe two years isn't long enough to get hooked on what some still say is the hardest easy money a woman can make. Magdalena has a new boyfriend who doesn't like what she does, so she's going to get out "very soon." Andi is too, as soon as she can figure out how to get legitimate with the IRS.

    Andi drains the last of her San Pellegrino and fires up one more Marlboro for the road. She leans back and a little bit of softening belly peaks out from beneath her blouse. She has been asked about her dreams, her hopes for the future. For a moment she looks perplexed, for it is not a question she has permitted herself to dwell on. She finally looks up and, focusing somewhere over my left shoulder, permits herself a small smile. "I'd like to work at the Betty Ford Center. That, and have a beautiful home in Malibu."

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From the Nov. 16-Nov. 22, 1995 issue of MetroSantaCruz

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