The ad read: "VOICEOVER ACTRESSES WANTED $$."
I was in my 20s when I spotted it in the community newspaper, in need of cash and a chance to launch my career. So off I went—to an audition at a posh townhouse in midtown Manhattan. I stepped into an elaborately decorated living room to find five women in skimpy outfits, lounging on couches.
I was a little alarmed, but also intrigued. What exactly is going on here? The manager led me into a bedroom, urging me to make myself "completely comfortable." By the time she made it clear she meant "naked," my new suspicions were confirmed: The "voiceover" job was a euphemism for "receptionist in a brothel."
I want to say I was appalled and stormed out, but this was at the height of my punk rock, stick-it-to-the-man stage. And the compensation was extraordinary. I took the job.
I soon realized that being a "receptionist" encompassed other duties: I answered the phone, greeted clients, sat them in the main lounge, and poured them drinks. They chatted for a few minutes before choosing one of the women, or, in brothel-speak, one of the "girls." I also handled all monetary transactions, stocked the liquor, oversaw laundry delivery, collected weekly doctor's notices, and kept the supply closet stocked with tissues, baby oil, condoms, and other goodies.
I loved working there, actually. Not only did I make fantastic money, but I enjoyed the female camaraderie. And the taboo nature of the brothel appealed to me.
Occasionally, I got pulled into a session—strictly as a voyeur. Some clients wanted another woman to watch them. If no one else was available, I'd step in and cheer the participants on from the sidelines.
One afternoon, our resident dominatrix was running late. Her client had already arrived, and he was getting antsy. She called and barked at me to "get him started." I looked in the closet where she kept her accoutrement: latex cat suit, flogger, paddles? I was way out of my league. So I improvised—I ended up making him crawl around the room with a garbage pail on his head.
The job had some undeniably sordid aspects. Degenerates called to breathe heavily and masturbate just to the sound of my voice, even though I told them I was not explicitly a sex worker. Wives called to cry and tell me I was a whore.
And then there were the customers who pushed to see me, only because I was not available. They'd look right past five sex kittens clad in lingerie and stilettos and point at me—in black jeans, an oversized Ramones tee shirt, and Converse hi tops.
"I'm not available, sir, I'm the receptionist," I'd tell them.
Was our operation legal? No. According to what I was told, we supposedly had an "arrangement" with some police that made us immune to law enforcement. But that ended up not being true. One afternoon, three clients who had been there before came in. After a drink in the reception area, all three disappeared into bedrooms with girls.
After a few minutes, there was a lot of commotion in the hallway. They'd gotten undressed, but now all three were dressed again, and came out of their rooms claiming to not have enough cash.
I was immediately on high alert. All three of them simultaneously realized they needed to hit an ATM? Something was very wrong.
The prevailing belief in the business was that if clients got undressed before discussing money, you were safe. A police officer could not disrobe or it would be considered "entrapment." Unfortunately, you don't get the opportunity to debate the legalities of entrapment when three undercover cops yell, "We're the police, and this is a raid! Get against the wall, now!"
We were led outside in handcuffs and driven to a detention center in downtown Manhattan. They put us in a filthy holding cell with 40 of the scariest looking women I had ever seen.
The owner of the brothel had hired us all a lawyer. The six women I was arrested with were out in 24 hours. I was not.
Eventually, I learned that answering the phones was considered "promoting prostitution." Unlike prostitution itself, which is a misdemeanor, promoting prostitution is a Class-D felony. As such, I spent four of the worst days of my life in that filthy, frightening, urine-stinking holding cell.
After I got out, I had to make several nerve-wracking appearances in court. I was grilled endlessly on details of the brothel—details I had no knowledge of. Ultimately, I was fortunate enough to have the arrest expunged from my criminal record.
And thus ended my nefarious career as a phone girl in a brothel.
Activists for sex worker rights believe that sex work is just work–not a crime, nor a form of oppression. They believe it is a personal service and should be treated as such. One school of feminism even sees sex work as empowering.
But the fact remains that many sex workers have experienced trafficking, abuse, rape, and other nightmarish scenarios. Anti-prostitution activists say that prostitution can't be treated like any other work due to obvious gender politics and systemic inequality. They claim that even in the absence of outright trafficking people do not freely decide to become prostitutes. They are driven to it by desperation and lack of opportunity.
The vast divide in opinions exists partly because of the differences in the industry itself. Street prostitution and high-end escort services have some similarities, but operate under diametrically opposed conditions.
Despite sharing a brokenness–from absentee fathers or other traumatic childhood experiences—the women I got to know at the brothel certainly weren't uneducated drug addicts without marketable skills. They were multi-dimensional, and seemed to be making the choices they wanted to make. They were housewives, students, or aspiring artists who appeared to be making a free choice to use their bodies to earn a living. They appeared strong, independent, and forward-thinking. I also never saw any explicit, on-the-premise signs of them being physically or mentally abused.
Despite the consequences, I don't regret my year as a receptionist for an elite brothel. And while I wouldn't take that job today, the women I met gave me the opportunity to challenge a robotic cultural script about prostitution—and come out the other side stronger, smarter, and savvier. Now I have a few extra tricks up my sleeve.
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