Ladies of the net
Looking for used furniture, part-time jobs or illegal prostitutes?
“Damn, if I think of it, I’ve probably had thousands of clients!” says the 21-year-old prostitute and recovering crystal methamphetamine addict.
Sitting at a kitchen table, Nikki seems ever-so-casual about her profession. She takes a drink from a bottle of beer. She slouches back when she laughs—mostly laughing at her own situation. Then she leans forward, exposing a bit of cleavage, runs her hand through her blond hair and smiles. She looks almost innocent.
“I started tweaking my senior year before high school,” says Nikki, who agreed to an interview only under her prostitution alias. “I graduated with an honors diploma … but I was tweaking. I had a drug problem.
“The first drug I did, I popped a pill … I started popping pills like Ecstasy Christmas break my senior year. Around that time I started doing coke and crystal. Not so much crystal. More coke than anything.”
Nikki was 17 years old then, living with her mother in suburban Sparks.
She had one of the highest grade point averages in her class.
She had been sexually active for quite some time. She once had a bet with two male classmates on who could be the first to have sex with 50 different partners.
She quit counting.
She graduated with her honors diploma.
“It was probably more around the time I graduated that I really started getting coked out,” says Nikki. “That was basically the six months before I started being a ho.”
The next three years of Nikki’s life were filled with abuse—both drug abuse and physical abuse.
A dime a dozen
As a prostitute in Reno, Nikki has a lot of competition.
She advertises herself on reno.craigslist.org. under the “erotic services” section—an option found under the headline “services.” A disclaimer on the erotic services section reads, “Human trafficking and exploitation of minors are not tolerated—any suspected activity will be reported to law enforcement.”
However, underage prostitutes often sell themselves on Craigslist, says a Reno police employee who chose to remain anonymous because she was not authorized to speak to the press. She says girls often advertise themselves as 18- or 19-year-old women, “and they’re actually 14, 15.” It’s a situation ripe with blackmail possibilities for unsuspecting johns.
“It happens all the time,” the dispatcher says.
Anywhere from 30 to 60 ads offering sex for money are posted on reno.craigslist.org daily. Some prostitutes post multiple ads per day, while others only post an ad every few days. Often prostitutes from California come up to Reno and advertise themselves online.
Most of the ads work the same way: The prostitutes write a couple of sentences of dirty talk, then list their prices, put down their phone numbers and post a picture of themselves, usually naked and sometimes exposing their faces.
(Prostitutes usually have a separate phone line strictly for prostitution.)
Craigslist isn’t the first website to harbor prostitutes. There are dozens of sites catered to the industry. But Craigslist is different. Other sites charge membership fees—so anyone on that site is there specifically to find a prostitute. Craigslist, which is basically a giant free online billboard of classified ads, doesn’t require a membership or charge any fees. It just requires users to enter an email address to post an ad. And johns looking to hire a prostitute don’t even need an email—they just dial the number listed on the classified advertisement the prostitutes post and tell the prostitute where they live.
It’s almost as easy as having a pizza delivered.
A similar but much less active section exists on Craigslist for male prostitutes.
There are a lot of code words. “Kisses” or “roses” or “hugs” mean dollars. Some prostitutes appear to believe that saying “250 roses per hour” is less incriminating than saying “$250 per hour.”
Usually, Craigslist prostitutes offer 15-, 30- or 60-minute sessions. Many ads charge more for “full service” than they do for “erotic massage.” The former means vaginal intercourse and the latter means oral sex.
Nikki charges $150 for half-an-hour and $250 for a full hour, which is about standard.
“Greek” means anal sex and usually costs extra. “G.F.E.” stands for “girlfriend experience,” which means the customer doesn’t wear a condom during oral sex. That usually costs extra, too.
Of course, that can also spread sexually transmitted diseases.
When women describe themselves as “independent contractors,” that means they don’t have pimps. Pimps are often responsible for many of the crimes associated with illegal prostitution—like drugs, assault and theft.
Nikki has a pimp to whom she refers to as “a manager.”[page]
Right side of the tracks
Josie “Ginger” Spadoni is an independent contractor. She is a sober, well-educated and mannerly 48-year-old woman. She is not ashamed of what she does, selling her body—or “renting,” as she calls it—and she speaks about it candidly. She has worked in brothels and now plies her trade on Craigslist. Ginger, who resents the profits made and tactics used by brothel owners, is a rare exception to the stereotypical Reno streetwalker.
Sitting on a black leather couch in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment, Ginger takes phone calls from her second phone line, her work line, during an interview. Her apartment is stocked with books with titles like Freedom Ain’t Free and Perfectly Legal Ways.
A wet bar stocked with liquor in fancy bottles stands ready in the corner of the living room.
Ginger is an intelligent, open-minded woman. She feels that prostitution done right—not necessarily legal, but right—is not a bad thing. She has nothing to gain from a story exposing her identity; and she has never been convicted of soliciting for prostitution.
“I wish it was legal in a way where you’re not helping make someone more profit on you than you,” she says, explaining her resentment of brothels. Most Nevada brothels keep half of what a prostitute earns. With the remaining half, the prostitute pays for room and board plus weekly medical tests for sexually transmitted diseases. Ginger knows how it works. She spent three years at the Old Bridge Ranch, a brothel east of Sparks.
Ginger started working as a legal prostitute when she was 37 years old. Even though she met her five-year financial goal in three years and then quit prostitution in 2000, she resented the brothel for keeping so much of her earnings. She began advertising herself on Craigslist a couple years ago, she says.
For the past year or so, Ginger has been dating a man whom she intends to marry. Her fiancé knows of her former work in a brothel but is unaware that she prostitutes herself independently on Craigslist. He lives in California. She plans to move there with him after the marriage—with her financial nest egg built with prostitution money.
Ginger knows women who worked as prostitutes for decades but don’t have a penny to their name. And even though Ginger has never met Nikki, the earn-spend, earn-spend cycle sounded all too familiar.
A means or an end?
After high school, Nikki’s drug addictions worsened. By February 2006, just six months after Nikki graduated high school, she was arrested for driving under the influence.
“I was smoking crystal, I was hella high,” says Nikki. She was in Las Vegas then, where she went back and forth with various managers, as she calls them.
“When you choose somebody,” Nikki says, “you have to be very careful who you choose.”
She’s talking about pimps.
Nikki talks the ghetto talk of a stereotypical prostitute. It’s something she picked up in the past few years.
“Right now I need some money so bad,” says Nikki, leaning over the kitchen table again. “Just because I have warrants to pay. And I owe my mom some money. I need to take care of my family.”
Nikki has been busted for solicitation for prostitution and various drug-related charges in Nevada, but that hasn’t slowed her down. If anything, it’s created a need for her to earn more money.
Nikki’s mom, Tracey, knows about her daughter’s career choice. She knows that Nikki has spent the past three years having the shit beaten out of her by various pimps in Las Vegas and in Reno. “I was fucking with some real gorillas, and they were really fucking me up,” says Nikki.
Her mom knows that Nikki spent years smoking crystal meth and that Nikki still dabbles with cocaine and other drugs.
But Nikki’s mom doesn’t want to talk about it. She’s upset when Nikki drives from Sparks to do an interview in Reno, costing a few dollars in gas. She doesn’t mind Nikki using her cell phone to take calls from johns, though. Regardless, Nikki’s mom refuses to answer any questions over the phone.
“I’ve had tricks give my mom money just because she’s my mom,” says Nikki. “I’ve had my clients give my mom money.”
It’s hard to imagine how Nikki is broke.
“I’ve been paid $1,200 for five minutes of my time [while prostituting in Las Vegas]. I’m a professional cocksucker,” she gloats. “I got skills.”
Nikki estimates that about a half-million dollars have passed through her hands in the last three years. “A lot of money I’ve spent on drugs,” she says. “But I’ve made a lot of it back by selling drugs.” The other half of the money she says she gave to “managers” to “invest” for her.
Again, she’s broke.
Her face lights up when asked what her plans in life are now. She slams her hands on the table.
“You always gotta move forward,” she says. “You can’t dwell on the past, on what you could have had. What are you gonna do now?”
What she is going to do is the same thing she started doing three years ago.
“I’m fucking around with some real bosses right now. They got Benzs and Caddies and stuff. I’ll be working for another year, maybe two years, then my money will be working for me.”
These “real bosses” plan to help Nikki invest her money, once she earns some.[page]
A slap on the wrist
Nikki and Ginger have little to worry about, as far as law enforcement goes.
Soliciting for prostitution is only a misdemeanor, no matter how many times a person is found guilty of the crime, according to Bill Gardner, chief criminal deputy city attorney for the city of Reno.
Brothels are outlawed in Washoe and Clark Counties, where population numbers are above the threshold for legal brothels. A prostitute can’t legally work outside of a licensed brothel in Nevada.
The first time a person is found guilty of soliciting, he or she can expect a fine, usually a couple hundred bucks. A state administered HIV test is required of anyone found guilty of solicitation, costing $100. First-time offenders are usually put on informal probation, which means they could serve jail time if they commit any other crimes during their probation period.
Maximum penalties can be six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.
“For the women on Craigslist, getting caught and paying the cost is the price of business,” says Gardner. “The cost-benefit—it’s a moneymaker,” for the prostitutes.
One prostitute who advertises herself on Craigslist says she makes $500 on a slow day, operating out her apartment near the University of Nevada, Reno.
“Soliciting for prostitution” is the same charge for both the prostitute and the john, and the john and the prostitute are prosecuted similarly. According to Nevada Revised Statutes, those convicted of solicitation of prostitution do not have to register as sex offenders, assuming both parties were healthy, mentally capable adults.
It is a felony when a person who is knowingly HIV-positive has sex with another person and does not warn that person of their disease. Under NRS 201.205, “A person who, after testing positive in a test approved by the State Board of Health for exposure to the human immunodeficiency virus and receiving actual notice of the fact, intentionally, knowingly or willfully engages in conduct in a manner that is intended or likely to transmit the disease to another person is guilty of a category B felony and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for a minimum term of not less than 2 years and a maximum term of not more than 10 years, or by a fine of not more than $10,000, or by both fine and imprisonment.”
Cases where prostitutes who advertise online knowingly transmit HIV are rare, said prosecutors and defense lawyers interviewed.
“It’s usually a more refined group of people with less problems,” Gardner says of the prostitutes who advertise online, compared to the women that solicit on places like Fourth Street. “The Craigslist women present fewer problems for the community.”
To illustrate his point, Gardner waves a rap sheet sitting on his desk. The four-page document shows multiple charges of theft, assault, prostitution and drug-related charges. The woman, whose name was not disclosed, was a streetwalker, Gardner said.
While perhaps more refined than Reno’s streetwalkers, Craigslist prostitutes like Nikki find themselves in many of the same situations as their counterparts: with drugs, guns and violence.
It’s just a bump
Nikki contracted Chlamydia once from a boyfriend, she says, but adds that she stopped prostituting until the infection cleared.
The Craigslist prostitutes interviewed for this article all claimed they get checked for STDs on a monthly basis. Still, some admitted to having sex without condoms, which can transmit STDs.
Dennis Hof, owner of Moonlite Bunny Ranch, a brothel outside Carson City that’s featured on the HBO reality show Cathouse, insists that prostitutes who solicit prostitution online are a health risk to the community. Legal prostitutes who work in Nevada brothels are required to get a weekly STD check at their own expense. After failing STD checks, prostitutes have left the Bunny Ranch and solicited johns on Craigslist, says Hof.
“The price of illegal prostitution is too much,” says Hof. “It’s not worth the risk, for the girl or the customer.”
Caught in the act
Statistically speaking, the chances of a prostitute getting busted for soliciting prostitution on Craigslist are rare. And no johns have been targeted in online busts, according to Reno Police Chief Mike Poehlman.
“In 2007, we ran four specific operations” targeting online prostitution, Poehlman said in August. “So far in 2008, I think we’ve run two.”
“Typically what we do is arrange for a home or hotel room we’re going to operate out of,” says Poehlman, adding that police stings are usually one-day operations. When busting online prostitution, an undercover officer attempts to hire a prostitute, then the prostitute is arrested once she agrees to have sex for money.
In contrast to the six online sting operations since 2007, the Reno Police Department has done 33 stings targeting street prostitution. Johns and prostitutes alike are targeted in street stings, Poehlman said.
Gardner said that alleged prostitutes are usually arrested on the spot, though some are just issued a citation.
Ginger was caught up in a sting operation once. But by using vague language after the undercover officer offered her money for sex, she wasn’t convicted of the crime. A check of her court records shows only one offense: disturbing the peace.
Nikki’s court records show charges of solicitation of prostitution and other drug-related charges in Las Vegas. The Reno Municipal Court confirmed that Nikki also has a warrant here for failing to appear in court in March on a charge of consumption of alcohol by a minor.
Even though Ginger has never met Nikki, she agreed to be interviewed in hopes of communicating a message to young women like the 21-year-old prostitute. The message: Be safe, be smart, be sober, and don’t be taken advantage of. Ginger speaks passionately when talking about what many prostitutes go through—or put themselves through.
Ginger has never been beaten up by a client. And she’s never had a pimp. She pities girls like Nikki, who begin prostituting at 18 years of age for drug money and can’t break the cycle.
“The ho game, we have such fast-paced money—it’s just as addicting as drugs,” says Nikki.
Sitting on the black couch, Ginger reiterates her point that prostitutes can make more money working independently—and illegally. She thinks illegal is better: More pay. No taxes. No boss. No regulations. For the vast majority of illegal prostitutes, illegal also means pimps, drugs, jail time, risk of deadly disease—even death.
The john who hires the illegal prostitute also accepts risks not associated with legal prostitution. He may get the prostitute for a cheaper price by cutting out the middle man, but he loses the safety net of a government-regulated profession.
Nikki has no exit strategy. She wants to be a pimp herself someday, though she doesn’t use the term.
For now, she’ll keep prostituting herself on Craigslist. She’s posted more than 50 ads since August. Nikki also recently started “walking the track"—working as a street prostitute. She needs the cash.
She has warrants to pay.
And she owes her mom some money.