The Double Life of Prostitution in America


Around Thanksgiving 2006, the bodies of four female prostitutes were found decaying in a drainage ditch along an abandoned roadway outside Atlantic City, NJ. Since its release in March 1990, “Pretty Woman,” a Cinderella morality tale about a streetwise hooker starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere has grossed nearly $465 million in worldwide theatrical ticket sales (not counting ancillary markets) — and cost only $14 million to produce. One can only wonder whether the four dead prostitutes ever saw the flick.

In America, money matters. Relative personal security, emotional stability, interpersonal civility and the belief that tomorrow will be better than today are middle-class conventions, taken-for-granted luxuries denied those living from day to day. No matter what fantasies Hollywood fills the heads of women (and men) with, living a precarious life is merciless. And, not surprising, a good number of our fellow Americans fall off the edge only to end up like the Atlantic City victims.

Prostitution is as American as apple pie. It has been a part of the social fabric since the earliest British settlers first colonized the Atlantic Coast. While often tolerated as a necessary evil, prostitution has rarely been regulated or accepted as an economic feature of civic life. It is either constantly denounced by preachers, politicians and others in authority or turned into a caricature, a glamorous indulgence of commercial exchange. For the good of these women and the thousands of others who are forced to sell their bodies, its time America got beyond this false polarity.

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The bodies of the four murdered women were found on a desolate stretch between the Black Hawk Pike and the Atlantic City Expressway near the East Coast gambling mecca. The victims were Molly Jean Dilts, 20; Tracy Ann Roberts, 23; Kimberly Raffo, 35; and Barbara Breidor, 42. To date, no progress appears to have been made capturing their killer. Each woman’s story is not unlike that of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of other women with similar life stories.

According to press reports, all of the women were white and, while each had confronted the legal system, only three of the four had previous prostitution records. All suffered drug addiction. Trying to minimize risks to potential Atlantic City gamblers who have no trouble securing companionship from hotel call girls, Atlantic County Prosecutor Jeffrey Blitz emphasized that three of the four had high levels of drugs in their systems: Breidor’s heroin level and Raffo’s and Roberts’ cocaine levels were “exceedingly high.”

With rare exception, like a compassionate story in the “New York Times” [December 5, 2006], little is made of the desperate lives of these women, of how they slowly but inevitable fell off the edge. Each women came from a relatively secure, workingclass, if not middleclass, background. Dilts grew up in Black Lick, PA, but seems to have fallen apart with the recent losses of loved ones; Roberts grew up Bear, DL, and was an Atlantic City exotic dancer who got hooked on cocaine; Raffo, a Brooklyn native who came to Atlantic City from Pembroke Pines, FL, was a waitress who drifted into prostitution after succumb to crack; and Breidor, who grew up in an affluent Philadelphia suburb, was a waitress who got hooked on painkillers and moved down the drug ladder while hustling.

In keeping with the myth of the happy hooker, a year or so ago the media celebrated a very different story than the four dead-end Atlantic City hookers. This tale was about “Natalia,” a 25 year old woman from Montreal, who was featured in a cover story in “New York” magazine and appeared on CNBC and CNN.

Working trough the NYC Confidential escort agency (which later was busted by New York’s finest), she got up to $2,000 an hour and could gross $25,000 a night! She received 10-out-of-10 ratings from the politicos, captains of industry and pro athletes who used her services.

“Macleans” magazine reports that Natalia got into the life while trying to hold on. “I was raised in a good family, with good morals,” she insists. “But I was stuck in a bad position and had to find a way to take care of myself.” She was recruited by Jason Itzler who ran NYC Confidential and was eventually arrested on charges of money laundering and promoting prostitution.

Nevertheless, Itzler’s escort service offered her access to a prescreened clientele of upscale men. As she found, “the guys were really nice, they treated me well. We’d talk a lot about their lives.” She admitted, “I have no regrets. Ö I’m pretty happy with all the choices I made.”

The story of Natalie, like that of “Pretty Woman,” is part of the happy hooker mythology. It’s the glamorous cover story for the ugly reality of commercial sex. These stories join the growing body of popular media celebrating acceptable, wink-and-a-nod prostitution. HBO documentary shows like “Taxi Diaries,” “Real Sex,” “Cathouse” and “Pornocopia” regularly profile the lives of such sex workers.

When Jenna Jameson, the “Queen of Porn” and a former stripper at Las Vegas’ Crazy Horse Too, published her autobiography, “How to Make Love Like A Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale,” it became a best seller. A handful of other personal memoirs add to this mythology. Among these are: “Callgirl: Confessions of an Ivy League Lady of Pleasure” by Jeannette Angell; “Diary Of A Legal Prostitute: Nevada Brothels” by Michelle Maverick; “Working: My Life as a Prostitute” by Dolores French; “Been There, Done That” by Carol Snow; and “Cop to Call Girl: Why I Left the LAPD to Make an Honest Living As a Beverly Hills Prostitute” by Norma Jean Almodovar. Each reiterates a similar tale of selling one’s body, having kinky sex and writing a book to cash in on the story.

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Prostitution in the U.S. is older than the nation. Grietjen Reyniers is considered to have been New Amsterdam’s — thus, New York’s — first “bawd” or “doxie.” And, as Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, “That hard-to-be-governed passion of youth hurried me frequently into intrigues with low women that fell my way.”

The hey-day of prostitution was between 1880 and 1920 concomitant with the rise of the U.S. as an industrial, urban nation. It was time in which heterosexual prostitution was transformed from a business into a factory system. During the early 20th century, numerous local governments attempted to (either formally or informally) regulate it, and there were approximately one hundred and twenty-five “red-light” districts operating throughout the country. Among these were San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, Denver’s Market Street, Baltimore’s Block, Chicago’s Levee and New York’s Bowery, Five Points and Tenderloin. The most famous district was New Orleans’ Storyville, a regulated zone of legal prostitution, drinking and gambling that operated between 1898 and 1917.

With the rise of the 3rd wave of evangelicalism and the Progressive movement in the decade preceding WWI, a frontal assault on prostitution got undertaken. It culminated in 1910, in the middle of a “white slavery” scare, with the passage of the Mann Act that outlawed interstate sex commerce, and the closing of red-light districts under the requirements of “war discipline” prior to the U.S. entry into the War.

But is also witnessed the arrest, forceful medical testing for syphilis and/or imprisonment of some 30,000 alleged prostitutes who were considered “domestic enemies” undermining the war effort. And, lest we forget, it saw the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 that not only halted alcohol consumption, but fostered the “speakeasy” culture that laid the foundation for modern organized crime.

The period between the onset of the Depression and the conclusion of WWII witnessed a significant decline in public prostitution. However, the pendulum swung back as the post-War consumer revolution got underway, launching a new sexual culture. As two sociologists of the day, Charles Winick and Paul M. Kinsie, note, “prostitutes and madams report substantial more customers who are seeking oral satisfaction (ëmuff divers’ or ëface men’).” Writing in “The Lively Commerce: Prostitution in the United States,” they argue that “[t]he trend toward greater orality has been continuous, with a substantial increase after World War II.”

Today, Nevada remains the only state to have legal whorehouses. Prostitution was decriminalized in the early 1930s and formally legalized in 1967. By the late-90s, there were nearly forty legal brothels ranging from the famous Mustang Ranch (which recently closed) to cribs in and around Beatty, Carson City, Elko, Ely, Reno and Las Vegas. Today, at a license fee of $135,000 to $5 million, there are thirty-six legal bordellos across the state. Each legally employs between one and fifty female prostitutes and, together, they generate an estimated $35 to $50 million annually.

A 2005 University of Las Vegas study by Kate Housbeck and Barbara Brents found that in Southern Nevada, twenty adult shops and thirty strip clubs were operating. Clark County had approximately 100,000 registered erotic dancers; about 2,500 worked daily and 4,000 perform on the weekends. As the authors note, “Las Vegas is the symbolic center of the sex industry in the United States.”

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Prostitution has reemerged as a growing local and national political concern. Stories like that of the four Atlantic City victims and of the upscale hooker Natalie frame a deeper debate as to how to deal with an apparent increase in commercial sex throughout the country.

This debate is driven by Christian conservatives’ efforts to limit sexuality to marriage and is embodied in Bush administration domestic and foreign sex policies. It is also fueled by a rising concern over the global sex slavery trade. Equally important, it reflects the rise of ever-more anonymous means to connect for both commercial and noncommercial sex through the Internet, phone services, weekly newspaper ads and other means. Finally, there is a growing recognition by many localities, whether Atlantic City or San Francisco, that prostitution is a “victimless crime,” a commercial enterprise, which requires an enlightened approach to dealing with the hookers. Relying on CIA research, the State Department estimates that sex trafficking is an $8 billion international business. The government estimates that approximately 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, of which 80 percent are women and girls. It also estimates that about 14,500 to 17,500 find their way to the U.S. and that one-third of these are children; advocacy groups argue that the number of U.S. victims is much higher.

Trafficking victims come predominately from Asia, Latin American and Eastern Europe. In addition to prostitution, people trafficked to the U.S. end up working in private homes, sweatshops, agricultural fields, construction projects and restaurants. Leading destinations for sex traffickers are New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas.

Invaluable insight into the sleazy world of sex slavery is provided in a recent exposÈ in “The San Francisco Chronicle.” It found that female sex slaves work as escorts, outcall girls, erotic dancers and street prostitutes. Women are also placed in “AAMPs” — Asian apartment massage parlors — that resemble earlier cribs and cowyards, the sex factories of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast days.

The Chronicle series is based on data from the online site, The site hosts more than 55,000 reviews of Northern California sex workers. The reviews are used by johns, but also by area police to monitor the sex scene. The Chronicle estimates that there are at least ninety massage parlors where sex is sold — with more than 700 Asian female sex masseuses — operating in San Francisco.

Like myredbook and craigslist, a growing universe of online sites provides people with easy access to the fantasy of their choice. Industry pundits estimate that between 100,000 and 400,000 sites are pornographic and many of these offer easy access to the sexual service one most desires. And “altsex” at Google groups is a virtual cornucopia of illicit desires.

Since the first British settlers colonized America, each subsequent generation has played out its own version of the nation’s profoundly ambivalent, deeply unresolved attitude toward sexuality. This ambivalence is rooted in a false assumption that too much sexual freedom results in a decline in personal morality and an increase in sex crime. This ambivalence is reiterated today in the confusion between a fictitious consumer hedonism pushed by Hollywood and an informed consensual eroticism that fosters not only a healthy sexuality but self-confident participants — participants who can say “No!”

America has witnessed a decline in crime, including prostitution, over the last decade — even though the prison-industrial system, with the complicity of elected officials, keeps building more prisons and, with judges, keeps giving out ever-harsher sentences. FBI data for prostitution arrests in 1999 was 92,200; by 2004 it had declined to 87,872; and by 2005 it has fallen to 84,891 — a nearly 8 percent decline in six years.

But life for those at the edge, the proleteriat of the sex industry, is dangerous, if not horrendous. A 2004 study in the “American Journal of Epidemiology” of the murder rate among prostitutes from 1981 to 1990 found that an average of 124 hookers were murdered each year in the United States. One can only wonder if the rate will change with the new millenium.

One should not forget that the nation’s most notorious prostitute killings were committed in the Pacific Northwest by the Green River Killer. In pleading guilty in 2003 to the murders of fourty-eight prostitutes, Gary Leon Ridgway told a judge he targeted street walkers “because I thought I could kill as many as I wanted to without getting caught.”

Like everything in America, class structure configures prostitution in its own image. And for the sex proleteriat, little has changed since the hey-day of prostitution in America at the end of the 19th century. Working in New York in what was then known as a “50-cent brothel,” three women reported having intercourse over a two-week period with 120, 185 and 273 men, respectively. Another sex worker reported having copulated with 49 men, while still another woman, working in a brothel on Delancey Street, reported having had sexual encounters with 58 different men in one day. These examples do not seem either isolated or exaggerated. Nor does anything seem to have changed over the last century.

Finally, as a sad commentary on the disposability of sex workers in the U.S., at around the same time as the discovery of the Atlantic City victims, five prostitutes were found murdered near Ipswich, England. The UK police immediately mounted a major, country-wide manhunt and media blitz, and quickly caught the two apparent perpetrators. Two months later, the Atlantic County, NJ, authorities have nothing to report.

DAVID ROSEN is completing the manuscript for “Perversions: America’s Secret Passion for Deviant Sexual Pleasures” and can be reached at


David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out