Selling sex

By Micheal Kudlow

“What happens in the black market is worth examining because of the way fortunes are made there, lives are ruined there and the vicissitudes of the law can deem one man a gangster or a chief executive (or both). If the market does indeed embody the sum of all human wishes, then the secret ones are just as important as the ones that are openly displayed.”

-Eric Schlosser

When speaking about prostitution, the verbal assaults are always passionate but rarely accurate or unique. Prostitutes are disease-carrying psychopaths, the argument goes. They’re all addicted to crack cocaine. Their customers are lonely drifters better suited for a straight-jacket than suit and tie. They squander their pathetic earnings on drugs and alcohol. They are a black eye on civilized and progressive society. This conventional wisdom is also subject to conventional ignorance. While our culture views prostitution and all acts around it as immoral, it’s easy to miss the precise reason for the condemnation.

When I met Alexus over one year ago–late one night at a convenience store adjacent to downtown’s sex trade–I was not only taken aback by her immense beauty but also by her innate ability to defy the presumptions carefully branded on the industry. Not addicted to drugs, not psychotic or dangerous, Alexus had found a successful way to pay her two mortgages on the residential properties she owns in Calgary. At 20-years-old Alexus had lived a life similar to many of us. The product of a broken home and divorced parents, Alexus ended up in a circle of people whose primary businesses were criminal. Selling drugs, stolen vehicles and, of course, the sex trade were the diversified entities she knew best.

“It is all about the money,” she told me. “That’s why we are here. We make more than lawyers, doctors and most people.”

She wasn’t lying. The upscale prostitutes of a major city’s high-track–in Calgary it is located on 3rd Ave SW–command an hourly rate of $600. They often work five days a week, pulling in at minimum $1,000 a night, tax free. Simple arithmetic shows high-track girls can make over $200,000 per year. Not bad considering Alexus is 20 and lacks a high school diploma.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize those who say money doesn’t matter usually have very little of it. Furthermore, everyone has a price and those willing to exchange certain aspects of their life for significant sums of money are by no means exclusively found in short skirts and thigh-high boots. Look at the miner willing to perform extremely dangerous work to support his family, the oil rig worker being separated from loved ones for months, the meat packer employee enduring one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, the politician sacrificing her privacy for office or the Halliburton truck driver moving to Iraq. Life is about trade-offs and we function on a system of incentives and consequences where compensation is assigned based on the value of the work performed and the toll it may take on prospective employees. For ongoing suffering, $600 per hour sounds like fair compensation.

The law on prostitution, although essentially well-intentioned, is wholly ineffectual. Section 212 of the Criminal Code prohibits “living off the avails of a prostitute” and Section 213 prohibits interfering with traffic while hooking. Section 213 also prohibits communicating for the purposes of prostitution. Naturally, the parties involved don’t take these rules very seriously.

“The police are a joke,” Alexus remarked. “They ID us to make sure we are 18 but nothing else.”

With a history surpassing all industries except farming, prostitution–even in its most virulent and venal formsĀ­–is here to stay, regardless of what legislation is conjured up to stop it.

When I was younger and more romantic I thought of the law as an organic function of the people, made high upon a hill and transmitted by those wearing funny hats and eloquent in Latin. Now, I prefer not to hear how laws are made. Today, laws on prostitution are treated like an expired jar of mayonnaise in the back of a fridge, they’re never opened or touched.

Like the religious right, I believe in moral absolutes. At the very least, I believe in two of them articulated by theologian Paul Tillich: the absolute concreteness of every situation in which a moral decision is required and the command to not treat a person as a thing. Peering at prostitution via a cost/benefit analysis may be taking these absolutes too far, as the problem with prostitution isn’t the customers nor the service providers, but the money managers: the pimps.

Research on pimps is scant; unsurprisingly they’re reluctant to answer questionnaires or fill out surveys. But it doesn’t take extensive research to tell you they are parasites. They harm others in the process of their survival. Operating under a veil of secrecy and mystique while being glamourized on television and throughout mainstream hip-hop, the pimp has become a North American icon. Brutal, forceful, charismatic, intelligent and manipulative, the pimp is the modern incarnation of Machiavelli’s Prince. Pimps take Machiavelli’s teachings to heart, gaining absolute power over their subjects by acquiring capital in both fear and love. Pimping is about control and while there is physical abuse, controlling the mind is far more lucrative.

The pimp’s methodology is nefarious, but predictable. Starting by dating an attractive girl with low self-esteem, the pimp develops a loving relationship among two parties with disparate bargaining power. When the female is infatuated–pimps are charismatic, after all–they move in for the proverbial kill. Pimping is nothing more than an unnatural and illegal extension of an abusive boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. If she initially resists the notion, the final measure is simpler than getting her addicted to crack cocaineĀ­–which will substantially reduce her earning power. Instead, get her pregnant. The need to care and provide for a child will quickly supplant any other reservations, causing an immediate adoption of the pimp’s proposal. Once the girl is in the business, turning back is a difficult option. Like anything else, they get used to difficult work, and taking home $1,000 a night is an effective way to induce chronic amnesia.

Even though the girls take home the cash, make no mistake, the pimp gets all the money. There is no such thing as a commission, percentage, cut, kickback, or dividend. After a night of soul-wrenching work the money manager receives all the night’s wages. The key to pimping is to convince the girl, at least rhetorically, that it’s her money too. The pimp handles the money like a talented hedge fund manager, telling the girls their future is in his hands and is his primary concern, imploring them to trust him with their money.

Prostitution is big business and the pimps are chief executives overseeing their extremely profitable operations. Their product is attractive females, their costs are minimal and the demand is programmed into our sex-obsessed culture. Strangely, prostitution is perhaps the only thing in our culture working in a capitalistic paradox: it’s legal insofar as it is free and illegal insofar as it’s not. Understanding this, pimps are consummate business men. They move their product from city to city like a traveling circus show. If there is a convention in Toronto they’ll be there. If the regulatory heat kicks up in one city they’ll move to another. When Stampede starts in Calgary they come from all over Canada and even the northern United States.

Tip-toeing around the predominance of black pimps is difficult in the vacuum of self-righteous political correctness, but the truth is undeniable. Alexus assured me she has never heard of a white pimp and further corroborated this by noting all girls on the high-track are prohibited from going with black customers out of the fear of them being potential pimps. Pimps are predominantly black; exploring why this is would require another essay. It does, however, provide an interesting and ironic juxtaposition if we accept organized prostitution as a form of slavery, an issue that will be addressed in greater detail later. Like John Hawkins in the 15th century, slavery becomes a way of life, black or white. If pimping is seen as a subculture then its promulgation within one race is not surprising as it’s passed on through the generations. Street prostitution may be predominantly managed by black male pimps but prostitution on a worldwide scale holds no such truths. In fact, many European pimps are women.

Like some of their mentors in business, pimps are rapacious and most likely delusional. After watching the breakthrough documentary American Pimp, I was struck not only by their effrontery but also by their mind-set. While not fully admitting they aren’t actually necessary in the equation, they’re all firmly convinced they provide the essential services of guidance, direction and protection. Most striking was the pimps’ rationale for taking all the money.

“You see if that bitch gets arrested I don’t go and give her 50 per cent of the bail or something,” one of the pimps interviewed in the film explained. “I give her 100 per cent, so she gives me 100 per cent too. You see?”

Needless to say, this genius doesn’t realize if she had her own bank account bail would be about as difficult for her as purchasing a coffee is for most people.

As it stands, the prostitute is essentially left with nothing. While they may live in a nice house together and possibly drive an expensive car, both are solely in the pimp’s name. The prostitute will always be fed and if she has a particularly profitable weekend– in the vicinity of $8,000, according to Alexus–she will be rewarded with a shopping spree or maybe some stolen jewelry.

However, these blanket statements can be misleading, and the truth often lies in the exception to the rule.

Around three months ago I met Nicole, a 19-year-old femme-fatale. Nicole, not only beautiful but intelligent, seemed to know more about real estate than prostitution. She spoke of how far the market will go and whether it was inflated instead of launching into street talk.

“I make around $25,000 a month,” she remarked. “Not buying houses would be stupid. Some girls spend money on clothes; I invest my money. I only plan on doing this for three to four years tops.”

When asked how mortgage approval was possible without a T4 or some form of income verification she answered with a wry smile.

“Money makes things happen, when you have $90,000 cash to put down the deal gets done.”

Nicole isn’t the product of a broken home or a poor upbringing. She greatly enjoyed telling me about the second house she recently bought in Scenic Acres. The conversation really took a turn for the unexpected when she answered a call from her dad, demonstrating her parents weren’t divorced and were still involved in her life. In fact, both are executives for local oil companies. Educated in a private school in Calgary and brought up in the lap of luxury, Nicole is a walking enigma. Although I never confirmed it, I had a strong sense Nicole was not being victimized by a rapacious pimp.

As is the case in countless examples, most high-end prostitutes operate on the duality of an irrevocable promise, of something extremely desirable in the future. Like the parent who bets the family’s savings on a mining company or the TSX, like the degenerate gambler who puts it all on black and like the many who chased the dot-com shams of the late ’90s, the prospect of fast money and instant wealth somehow binds us all. We want to be rich and we want to be rich now. In these cases, the pimp works like the clever investment salesmen gaining trust with others’ money and assuring them things will take care of themselves. Whether they do for the girl isn’t his concern, so long as they do for him.

Above all else, we function in a sphere of moral relativity and prostitutes work as an easy target for those needing to feel better about themselves. Apparently, the easiest way to validate your existence is to begrudge someone else’s and accordingly many women look to prostitutes with a patronizing disdain. Though surely there is shame and revolt in what they are doing, is it so different from the party girl working the local bar scene? The prostitute just seems more cautious (condoms at all times) and better organized. To be the weapon of a self-amelioration campaign the local bar slut must look down on the high-end prostitute. In turn, the high-end prostitute must look down upon the crack-whore. The crack-whore then looks down on the homeless person and the homeless person looks back down on the high-end prostitute.

It’s not a gross distortion to compare prostitution to the slave trade, a comparison often lobbied by special interest groups. Unfortunately, such comparisons–while emotionally loaded–are tricky. Many prostitutes consent to the slavery on an ongoing basis–she, like an abused spouse, could leave him at any time. The notion, however, gets greater support when you hear the stories of pimps literally trading girls for cars, nice ones of course. My incredulity wasn’t easily masked as Alexus told me about her good friend who was traded to another pimp in exchange for a 2006 BMW 350 I.

“Oh, it happens quite often,” she said.

Read next week for part II of Micheal Kudlow’s look at the sex trade. Prostitution isn’t a simple subject and everyone has their own opinion. Let us know what you think, send your thoughts to