вторник, 10 июня 2008 г.

Back From the Brothel

I NEVER THOUGHT I would be sitting at a table full of women comparing their daily quotas of paid sex. Linda, a former top madam in Australia, who once grossed $30,000 per week, remarked that in her days on the street the "girls" serviced around five clients a day; now they have to accommodate ten to fifteen. Juanita, from Costa Rica, looked shocked. "Fifteen? I did a hundred a day, on a double shift! The men lined up outside the door and we had only ten minutes with each one."

I was attending a conference of 45 Christian groups involved in ministry to women in prostitution, with 30 countries represented. Ostensibly, I was interviewing the ministry leaders, but they mostly stayed silent. Instead, former prostitutes themselves told heart-breaking stories of degradation and transformation.

Juanita, for example, was sold into sexual slavery by her own mother at the age of four. While other children went to school, she worked in a brothel, earning for her mother the higher rates paid for young girls. Eventually she had two children of her own, whom her mother took from her. With no education and no other skills, she continued working in the brothel, in the process becoming addicted to alcohol and cocaine.

One day a customer grew enraged when she wouldn't do what he asked, and hit her on the head with a baseball bat. She lay in a hospital bed, desperate. "I got on my knees and pled with God. I wanted somehow to escape prostitution, to become a real mother to my children. And God gave me a vision. He said, 'Look for Rahab Foundation.' I didn't even know the word Rahab." She found the organization's phone number, though, and a few days later Juanita showed up, bruised and bandaged, at Rahab's door.

"I need help," she said, sobbing. "I'm dying. I can't take it anymore." A kindly woman named Mariliana took her in and told her about God's love. "I couldn't believe the hope on Mariliana's face," Juanita recalled. "She smiled and hugged me. She gave me a clean bed, flowers in the room, and a promise that no men would harass me. She taught me how to be a real mother, and now I am studying a trade to live for the glory of God."

Of the estimated 25 million women who work in prostitution worldwide, the vast majority, like Juanita, come from developing countries. Some are bought by traffickers in places like India, Thailand, the Philippines, and the former Soviet Union, and installed as virtual slaves in strip clubs and brothels in Asia and in Western Europe. The United Nations estimates that 4 million women are trafficked worldwide each year, more than a million of them younger than 18.

Sandra, from Australia, told a story more typical of wealthy countries. "I knew I was beautiful because in school guys always wanted to sleep with me. So why not charge for it? I signed on with a pimp, and for six months it was great. He put me in a nice hotel, and I had more money than I could imagine.

"But then I got addicted to drugs and alcohol. I cannot tell you how unutterably lonely I began to feel. I sat on my bed and watched Tv all day until the men came in at night. I had no friends, no family. I lived with a deep sense of shame. For a solid year I never got out of bed, I was so depressed."

Sandra found her way to Linda's House of Hope, a Christian organization run by the former top madam. "I'm still struggling, after six months off the streets. I got addicted to the power and money, as well as the drugs. Yet I know what God wants for me. I need to be healed."

A tiny woman from Thailand, where a sex trade flourishes infamously, spoke next. "I know. I was such a sex addict that-I am so ashamed-I tried to rape my own sons." She paused to catch her voice. "It isn't easy to be healed."

No, not easy, but possible. In the next few days I heard remarkable stories of healing and transformation. The very names of the ministries hold out a promise of hope: New Life Center, Scarlet Cord, Project Rescue, Lost Coin, Hagar's Project. I asked the group how many prostitutes would honestly like to get out of the business. "All of them," they replied.

"I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you," Jesus announced to the religious authorities of his day. After puzzling over that provocative statement, C. S. Lewis concluded, "Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: The proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger." After hearing stories from women who have come out of prostitution, I had to agree.

Hard work

Sorry to be pompous so early in the new year, but this book illustrates pretty much everything that is wrong with modern publishing. The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl began life as a blog (which, for the uninitiated, is a web diary) that was read by 15,000 people every day. This particular blog being about sex, there was soon a big fuss about it in the newspapers. And this fuss being mostly about how amazingly popular the blog was, there was soon a hefty publishing deal. "Despite wild accusations, [the author's] identity remains a secret, and her career as a call girl continues," pants the press release for the book. "It has already been sold in 15 countries." In other words, perhaps the papers could please help jog a few memories (and sell a few books) by cranking up their efforts to find Belle de Jour all over again.

Why, I wonder, has no one stopped to consider that what catches fire on the internet will not necessarily combust between two hard covers and a pretty dust jacket? The whole point about the internet is that 90 per cent of the stuff on it is disposable. You read it, then you forget all about it. While a person might be happy - thrilled, even - to read a 600-word diary entry every morning before they settle to work, it does not follow that he or she will want to read exactly the same stuff over 294 pages. It's a simple matter of pace.

This is not to say that, in years to come, the internet won't throw up a new James Boswell or Samuel Pepys. Most of the time, however, online "discoveries" must be nurtured - and edited - just like any other new writer. Merely reprinting their existing efforts verbatim, as appears to have happened in the case of Belle, will not wash. Belle is sparky; she has a voice. Yet her ramblings, for all their occasional sauciness, read like little more than the idle jottings of a girl whose mornings are free. Quotidian is the word that comes to mind. Not only is her narrative repetitious, it lacks any kind of climax, which is rather ironic in the circumstances. Add to this unenticing brew one's inevitable suspicions about the enterprise, and what you are left with is a rather apt feeling of grubbiness; I'm afraid you read this book for one reason, and one reason alone.

Belle de Jour, in so far as we know anything about her at all, is from the north, Jewish, and a well-read graduate. She is also keen on sex. Having moved to London after her degree, she failed to land a job and, much more easily than you might imagine, slipped into working for an escort agency. She likes the work. She likes the freedom it gives her, and the opportunity to dress up, elaborate underwear being very much her thing. She even likes her clients. Occasionally she posts her CV to some more suitable employer, but these efforts are distinctly half-hearted. Belle is nothing if not pragmatic. "My mind made the calculations," she writes of the first time she is paid for sex. "Rent due, number of days in a month, net profit from the night out. I thought I should feel a pang of regret or surprise at being used. But it was nothing like that."

So what do we learn about life on the game? Thrush and cystitis are a problem, obviously, and the top-class call girl is compelled to wax more often than you or I floss. She must also be enthusiastic, agile and aware that anal sex now comes as standard on the menu of any hooker's delights. For safety reasons, she should always ring the office once she is in a taxi and on her way home. I expect you are wondering about the book's dirty bits (come on, be honest). Well, once you are used to the idea of the more outré acts a prostitute may perform - self-fisting, anyone? - these quickly come to seem as titillating as watching the drum of a tumble-dryer revolve. Like any girl, Belle has lovers (some know about her "career", others do not) and a gang of pals. But perhaps because she is determined to protect her identity, these creatures don't live on the page. The same, alas, goes for her clients.

What Belle does best is reveal the scant, prosaic motivations of men who pay for sex; and it is this lack of embellishment that finally convinces you of the authenticity of her strangely banal document. As she asks one client, a bestselling author: "Wasn't it Dashiell Hammett who said you don't pay a call girl to do what she does, you pay her to leave afterwards?" Her customers are not losers, and rarely are they kinky. Mostly, they just want the same things all men want, only quickly, effortlessly, without all that risotto and Sauvignon, without any clever talk or gooey eye contact. I suppose what I am saying is that the sex in The Intimate Adventuresis - well, of course it is - transactional. In the end, though, this is what strangles the book at birth. A deal is a deal. Take away the whips and paddles, the lubricants and glass marbles, and what you are left with is an account book. Funny that a publisher wrote her a fat cheque, I presume, without noticing this.

Performance art

As a member of the younger of the two professions that are the focus of this book, I am not naive enough to be ignorant of the connection between them. The casting lots of Hollywood studios, full of actresses flaunting themselves in their Sunday best, are a sharp reminder of our fleshpit expendability. And one of my colleagues recently told me of a "meeting" with a producer that began with him stepping out of the shower with a towel hanging loosely around his groin. (Oddly enough, she never did tell me what happened next.)

Women first climbed on to the stage in Britain following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The profession offered women a means of escaping marriage or domestic drudgery without having to sell their bodies to fend off financial ruin. (Economic independence is still one of the joys of what can be an angst-ridden vocation.) And yet actresses were commonly seen as whores. In her riveting study of the interplay between the two professions, Kirsten Pullen places actresses and whores firmly on the ever-present stage of society - and reminds us that it is not only prostitutes we remain ambivalent about, but theatre and film workers, too.

Pullen sets the whore-like qualities of actresses -- the eroticism of cross-dressing on stage, their undressed "availability" backstage -- against the real life of an 18th-century prostitute, Margaret Leeson. In her memoir, Leeson described and justified her fall from grace, painting a vivid picture of a decadent Dublin. In one section, she described how she once offered a client a proportion of her ten-guinea fee for every orgasm she enjoyed. By dawn, she had returned only one guinea.

As ever more women took to the stage in the 18th century, they found themselves playing vulnerable heroines or repentant dolts - versions of "female" that may have pleased male audiences and warned women against transgression, but which had little to do with their lives. It wasn't long, however, before women took on more transgressive parts. Although at first women in "trouser roles" -- that is, playing male characters -- were little more than an excuse for men to admire the female physique, actresses were soon competing with men for serious parts. Pullen tells the story of Charlotte Charke, who rebelliously played Macheath in The Beggar's Opera, and of the American Charlotte Cushman, who is shown cross-legged and comfortable in her daggered belt as Romeo. Putting on trousers was a way of reaching for freedom. On occasions when I have had cross-dressing roles in Shakespeare, I have felt myself to be part of a tradition of boundary-pushing, of theatre's forward movement.

It was not until the 20th century and the rise of Stanislavsky's school of "realism" that acting finally became respectable. Art began to be drawn from life, and the theatre -- in America at least -- was upgraded to a "moral instrument". No longer were actresses assumed to be whores. Pullen, though, has a good stab at demonstrating the reverse: that a whore is also an actress. There are undoubtedly elements of performance in prostitution -- it is, by its very nature, an improvisatory event; a prostitute has to adapt to a client's imagination; and her behaviour and dress are likely to be at odds with her normal self. Pullen points out that, just as an actress might not feel up to playing Lady Macbeth six nights a week, a whore isn't always in the mood. She quotes one sex worker who complains of having to shower before seeing a client, of having sex with him in the shower, and of returning home to wash -- whereupon she has to explain to her room-mates why she always has wet hair.

However, it seems to me that acting and prostitution, despite sharing a territory of dressing up and performing, are profoundly different. For the prostitute, the purpose of the "lie" is to fool the client. The point of acting, on the other hand, is not to disguise truth but to discover it. Over the centuries, the reasons for acting have changed, and this has been to our benefit. I fear that the reasons for whoring have stayed the same.

WHORES WHISPERER

From a personal letter by an unknown author written in the early twentieth century in Nüshu, a rare form of modified Chinese that has been used exclusively by women for hundreds of years in a district of Hunan Province. Writings in Nüshu were always in verse. The last woman proficient in Nüshu died in September. The letter was translated by Cathy Silber and will be included in her forthcoming book, Writing from the Useless Branch: Text and Practice in Nüshu Culture.

Listen here, wench, It's no wonder someone as low-class as you could lie the way you did, Since cows can't mince words. When the sum is right, no one minds if the money gets counted. When there's enough rice, no one minds if it gets measured. I live in a proper home on a proper lane, Not like you, you rutting swine. The mountain boar has a season for heat, But a hot and saucy hussy like you never quits. I've always been a proper girl, Not out whoring for free. You people are all the same--trash, A whole family full of unpaid whores. My grandfather raised his girls so well— They were the best around when they married. Go anywhere, ask anybody, you piece of trash: There's not a word of gossip out there about us. Not a single misstep from one generation to the next. But you, wench, you sure know how to lie. What you said about me in your letter! I was a precious girl upstairs, A quarrelsome word never escaped my lips. So whatever you say about me just won't stick. You should think it over: You just can't say what you said. You may weigh really high on your own scales, But in the basket, you're light as a feather. How could I possibly be like a second wife at your place? You're the one who likes being a slut, So why not come over to our house and be one here? You're just in time: your matches with our men Might as well have been made in heaven. It's so rare to find a village as fine as mine with so few children, So, cheap thing, why not come over and bear us a few? I'm sure the men in our family would be delighted: Do the paperwork to live apart from your family, you slut, and come on over So one of our men can take you as a second wife. Sluts in heat are pretty rare, But you just step out your door and you've already given birth: I don't know how many kids you've popped. You made yourself sound so heroic in your letter, but you started it: I've got grounds to write back here. Like goes with like: dragon with dragon, phoenix with phoenix, What's a whore like you doing talking to me?

SHE HAD BRAINS, A BODY, AND THE ABILITY TO MAKE MEN LOVE HER

THEY WERE NOT RUN-OF-THE-MILL WHORES. Anybody in Odessa would tell you that. Clients and investigators agree that you could have been in church and not have realized that you were sitting next to one of the Healing Touch massage parlor girls--they looked that wholesome. ¶ And from the day the parlor's doors opened in July 2003, it was a discreet operation. The madams, a lesbian couple named Kathy and Sharon Joyner, were experienced professionals. They chose a location between a revivalist ministry and a carpentry shop in a plain-as-toast strip mall, and they hired only three employees at a time, girls who worked steady hours and arrived on the job wearing conservative outfits. Among the first girls to work at the Healing Touch were "Melinda," a subdued 37-year-old with long brown hair and a taste for wild men, and "Paige," a sophisticated 33-year-old blonde who bore a striking resemblance to Samantha on Sex and the City. (All the prostitutes requested that I use their "working" names.) Nobody who saw these girls walk in and out of the parlor could have guessed what was really going on inside, which was attracting a steady flow of satisfied customers. ¶ But the Healing Touch could never have set off the giant sex scandal that Odessans are still sorting out today without the arrival of "Lexus," a petite former cheerleader and homecoming queen from Big Spring. The 22-year-old had walked in as a novice, like the other girls. But what she lacked in experience she made up for with a bubbly personality and the kind of girlish looks that made her irresistible to the grown men of Odessa. A consummate businesswoman, she treated clients with an unrestrained smile and animated charm, and unlike her colleagues, she could remember personal details that made each of them feel special. "She had brains, a body, a personality, and the ability to make men love her," her former boss Sharon told me. And many did. After only a few weeks with Lexus in their ranks, Sharon and Kathy didn't need any advertising beyond their one ad in the Thrifty Nickel. By the spring of 2004 Lexus had clients flying in from Europe just to see her for an hour and dozens of the most prominent men in town competing for her attention. Her personality may have been the polar opposite of the icy Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, but she attracted the same kinds of high-profile clients and kept the same kinds of secrets that could bring them all to their knees.

On May 27, 2004, as part of one of the biggest vice operations in recent West Texas history, more than a dozen Odessa officers raided the Healing Touch and accomplished just that. In the months following Sharon's and Kathy's arrests on drug charges, as rumors were leaked to the media about a prostitution investigation and the parlor's voluminous client roster, Odessa's 91,000 citizens were consumed by a controversy known simply as "the list." Everybody wanted to know who was on it. Husbands tiptoed around their wives, who in turn eyed them with suspicion. And in July, with Lexus and her co-workers having named names in exchange for lighter sentences, 68 men were in handcuffs. The roundup of former Healing Touch clients included an assistant district attorney, a city planner, the owner of an insurance company, several teachers, and a well-known rancher. One could practically hear the champagne corks popping in the homes of local divorce lawyers. The hullabaloo made even the 1973 La Grange Chicken Ranch bust seem quaint.

As of December, Sharon and Kathy had already begun to serve prison time, and the remaining men and women were awaiting trials that should be wrapped up by the end of January. Odessa seems ready to put the whole affair behind it. But prostitution has long been a part of life in West Texas; it was only the number of otherwise upstanding citizens involved that made the Healing Touch any different. In fact, if one of the parlor's prostitutes hadn't recognized her church pastor one morning when he walked in and slapped down a wad of cash, the place might still be in business today.

SITTING IN HER ONE-BEDROOM apartment in September, surrounded by framed pictures of her two small children, Lexus wore a royal-blue Bazooka Bubble Gum T-shirt and her smooth, shiny brown hair in two ponytails at the nape of her neck. She was no longer working as a prostitute, but she was hardly ashamed of her past. She looked and acted like an excited kid, her ponytails bobbing as she nodded and laughed at almost everything we discussed.

She was never a likely candidate for a job at the Healing Touch. A young, cheery wife and mother, Lexus was a born nurturer who had taken college classes after high school graduation in hopes of working in some form of physical therapy or nursing. As recently as the fall of 2003, she was giving legitimate massages at an Odessa physical therapy center while her husband worked on an oil rig. But then her company downsized; she lost her job at the same time her husband, who became ill, was forced to quit his. They found themselves with $8,000 of debt and two car payments. For a while they relied on his parents for money, but Lexus wanted to prove her financial independence. She teased him to no end for being a mama's boy. "You want your momma to pump some milk," she'd ask him, "so I can make some Popsicles out of it?" One day when her husband's friend mentioned that he knew a way she could make some fast cash, Lexus gladly accompanied him to the Healing Touch.

They parked right outside a strip mall bearing signs for the Higher Realm Ministries and the Trophy Den and stepped into the massage parlor, which had a small storefront and a shaded front window. Inside was a spare waiting room with a gray couch, a love seat, and a stack of magazines. Scented candles burned and Native American flute music played over the speaker system. Behind the front lobby were an office area and two pressed-wood massage rooms. In the very back was a second waiting room, where the prostitutes read paperbacks and played Yahtzee.

The man introduced Lexus to the Healing Touch madams: Sharon, a 49-year-old spitfire with a quick wit, and Kathy, a 45-year-old matronly redhead with a pierced tongue.

"We'll let you sit in on a session," one of them told her, and Lexus followed her husband's friend and a prostitute into one of the massage rooms. As her friend was serviced, she stood in the corner, trying to convince herself that the place was clean and friendly. Certainly, she thought, she could do this.

Afterward, Sharon and Kathy told her how the operation worked. The madams rented out the massage rooms to the girls between the hours often and six for $30 per half-hour session, with the prostitutes keeping any tips for "extras" (oral sex was $60, straight sex was $100, and anal sex was $150, while other combinations and varieties were negotiated on a case-by-case basis). "Out-calls," since they were riskier, were more expensive, ranging from $150 per half hour to $1,000 for the whole night, and Sharon and Kathy negotiated their cut for each session.

They didn't need a security guard, they told Lexus. Sharon sat at a desk near the front waiting room, and she could be tough if a suspicious customer came in and asked for a massage. "You'll need to make an appointment," she'd say with a squint, and send him on his way. Her partner, Kathy, had maintained first-rate madam status in town for more than twenty years. Before running the Healing Touch she had opened a massage parlor called Middessa Therapy; before that she had run another parlor, Rockhill Therapy, with her ex-mother-in-law. These were quietly tolerated in Odessa. Once in a while streetwalkers or massage parlor workers or johns around town got slapped with a class B misdemeanor, resulting in a $200 fine and a night in jail. But Kathy--who had been fined several times for prostitution at Middessa but never jailed--had been around long enough that she had a few lawyers among her finest clients, men for whom she felt an undeniable affection.

It had been this way for as long as anybody could remember. Locals try to argue that there isn't much difference anymore between Odessa, where oil-field employees live, and Midland, where the oil businessmen live. Odessa has gone to great pains to upgrade its image. The town has chased the once-prominent strip joints outside the city limits and promoted its new slogan, "Odessa: The Right Place in Texas." But as one police officer told me: "This is a boring town. There's nothing: no lake, no mountains, no entertainment. You got the picture show and the bars, unless you go to the topless joints." It seems no matter how hard the town tries to fight its reputation, the old saying about Odessa and its neighbor still applies: "Raise your family in Midland; raise hell in Odessa."

No sooner had Kathy and Sharon gone over their business model and explained the kind of money a prostitute could make than Lexus was ready to give it a shot. "You try it," Sharon told her, offering her a job, "and if you don't like it, you can leave. No hard feelings."

She showed up the next day, getting a few brief instructions before nervously joining Paige and Melinda in the back waiting room. The two veterans looked at the new girl and told her she needed a working name. "Let's call you Lexus," one of them said, "because you're a smooth ride." Lexus laughed and squealed, "Shut up!" but the name stuck.

THE HEALING TOUCH HAD been looking for a new employee since the late summer, when a 32-year-old prostitute named "Kelly" had abruptly quit. A mother and former waitress who had been raised Pentecostal, Kelly had worked at the Healing Touch from the beginning and had established herself as a reliable moneymaker. Desperate for cash, she was working up to fourteen clients a day, taking in $2,000 to $3,000 a week. But one day she recognized a customer in the lobby, and it hit a little too close to home. "Aren't you the preacher who gave my grandma's eulogy?" she asked. "Who baptized my son?" The man nodded, unfazed. Then he asked for a massage, and Kelly led him into one of the private rooms.

Everyone who worked at the Healing Touch was used to this kind of awkward overlap between the two worlds of Odessa. Day-to-day navigation through restaurants or convenience stores was always risky for the prostitutes, who learned to politely ignore their customers outside of work. Encounters were even trickier for Kathy and Sharon, who were both social and knew many folks around town. The madams frequently ran into couples they knew, and they'd listen to the wives give updates about their children or details about their most recent vacation, pretending that they didn't know all of the details, that they hadn't already heard the news back at the Healing Touch from the husband that very afternoon. "You just smile and ooh and aah and go about your business," Sharon said.

But after a second visit from her pastor, Kelly couldn't stomach business as usual. The next time he showed up, she passed him off to one of the other girls. Still, nightmares about her job at the Healing Touch began to wake her up at night. At work and at home, she started popping Xanax like potato chips. One day she was putting on her makeup at work when she decided to stop in next door at the Higher Realm Ministries, where she cried for hours and confessed her sins to the preacher, Kennith Hughes. She quit that afternoon and took the next bus back to her dad, in Arkansas. Hughes, meanwhile, called Crime Stoppers. "Now, I'm not a criminal investigator," he told them, "but it's strange that only women work at the Healing Touch and only men go in." A week later, Kelly herself phoned the hotline and reported the business's illegal activities, adding, "There's an assistant district attorney involved, lawyers, businessmen."

"I think they thought I was bullshitting them," she told me.

But Kelly wasn't lying. From the beginning, even before Lexus showed up, the parlor's clients were not young men sowing their oats or truck drivers pulling over to the side of the road for a quickie. Those who stopped in at the Healing Touch were the kind of men you'd meet at a Rotary Club luncheon. Some were older, like the septuagenarian who finished a threesome with two prostitutes by telling Sharon, "This is simultaneously my biggest waste of money and my best use of it." But more often they were married Odessa professionals aged forty to sixty. For them, the Healing Touch was almost considered an errand, part of their routine. In the middle of the day, on the way to the bank or the drugstore, they'd stop in for a half-hour visit. "God, I had no idea how much a man needs to be told he's studly," said Sharon. "You'd be surprised how many times I'd hear the girls chuckling over how so-and-so came in and spent fifteen minutes flexing in the mirror and asking, 'Do you think I'm fat?' Oh, absolutely not. Men need to feel important. And sometimes family and pressure at work and aging takes that away from them." These men included Scott Tidwell, a well-known lawyer who stopped by now and then, and Lee Hadden, an assistant district attorney who was a weekly regular despite the fact that his wife was considered to be one of the best-looking women in town.

And in truth, Hughes's claim that the Healing Touch might be more than an honest-to-goodness massage parlor was not earth-shattering news to Jesse "Chuy" Duarte and Mike Tacker, both detective sergeants and supervisors in the Odessa Police Department's Narcotics and Vice Unit. Duarte, a tattooed, soft-spoken cop with salt-and-pepper hair, and Tacker, a redhead with cropped hair and brown eyes, had met Kathy back when they had busted her during a drug raid at her house in the early nineties. They were aware that she was a madam by trade but generally left her alone. Tacker explains, "You get a misdemeanor versus a meth lab next to a day care? You have to pick and choose." Duarte said the only remarkable characteristic about the Healing Touch, from the outside, was the business's one-thousand-foot proximity to a school zone. And it wasn't until the investigations unit began getting flooded with calls that they felt compelled to check it out. "I received ten or fifteen tips on this place a day," said Duarte incredulously, leaning forward over a table for emphasis. Tacker grinned with amused bewilderment. "We got more calls on this place than any other prostitution place I've seen," he said.

Duarte and Tacker sent an undercover agent in for a massage, but he was no match for Sharon. She deftly sent him away with instructions to get a referral, laughing into her sleeve as he walked out the door. The officers realized that if they were going to bring the Healing Touch down, they'd need something bigger. And when a source accused the madams of dealing drugs, they knew just what to look for.

In November, with the help of the FBI, the Odessa police installed a surveillance camera across the street from the parlor and began to man the monitor from the police station around the clock. The officer on surveillance duty wrote down license plate numbers and names of recognizable figures, zooming in on the Hummers, Jaguars, and Mercedes for a better look. Members of the narcotics crew would walk past the monitor on the way out of the office and shake their heads and groan as they watched men who owned major businesses in town, men they knew well. "I had been best man at one client's wedding," an officer told me.

A few weeks later, on her first day at the Healing Touch, Lexus took home $700. It was good enough money to keep her coming back. Within a week she was pulling in $200 to $1,000 per day working the ten-to-six shift Monday through Friday. She drove the hour-and-a-half commute between Big Spring and Odessa, returning home each night to cook dinner, draw her kids their baths, and give her husband (who believed she was working as a legitimate massage therapist) a kiss good-night.

And initially, at least, she took pride in her work. "You have to know how to give an actual massage," she told me, reminding me that she had been formally trained in that skill. "You have to get in there and rub on them. When they leave, their back should feel better... You have to use your elbows."

And she understood that the job took more than physical labor. "I didn't see myself as a prostitute," she said. "I was a friend. I always said, 'I'm not a prostitute. I'm customer service.'" She laughed, straightened her back, cocked her head to the side, and clarified this idea in a tone of mock seriousness: "Customer service rep." She said she counseled her clients on ways they could reengage their wives in a relationship. Many of them told her things like, "I wish my wife would call me when she was thinking about me." If Lexus was unsympathetic to these complaints, she always felt free to swat them on the shoulder and tell them they were "being an ass." "You need to buy your wife some flowers," she'd say. And they would.

Her work ethic did not go unnoticed. Clients who used to ask for the blond bombshell Paige were now asking for the bubblier Lexus. And hardly anybody went for the all-business Melinda. "Bless her heart," Paige said. "Melinda would always talk about her problems, and nobody wanted to hear them." ("Customers didn't really like my attitude," Melinda admitted to me.) That Christmas, clients were already giving Lexus bonuses of up to $1,5o0. They'd ask her to go on vacations, even beg to be her sugar daddy.

Kathy and Sharon, meanwhile, were hearing reports from their in-the-know clients that the police were hoping to infiltrate their operation. But the two madams figured that as long as they could keep the cops from getting into one of their massage rooms, no prostitution charges could be made. They figured they were facing misdemeanor charges at the most; they had no idea there was a drug investigation going on. And with wealthier and wealthier clients showing up by the day, they continued undaunted.

Like all good businesswomen, they also wished to increase productivity. They knew that the industry was changing. Sharon put a computer in the girls' waiting room and had them post their photos and contact information on an international adult-entertainment Web page. Within each profile, the site listed the tricks a girl was willing to perform, how much she charged, and reviews that tended to read more like testimonials. The evaluations poured in from Healing Touch clients. "Oh, God, I checked those reviews!" Lexus said, laughing. "I hated them. Some of them were such lies." Within a few weeks, Lexus was so popular that the Web site's administrator requested a limit on her customers' postings because the inundation of reviews was crashing his server. Thanks to the exposure, Lexus began taking "out-calls" with men from as far away as Germany. "They came in from New York, Colorado, San Antonio," she said, grinning her big cheerleader smile. "I was like, 'You want me?' and they were like, 'Yeah!'" As much as she liked the attention, the job took its ton on Lexus's family life. 'Where were days," she said, "when I went home and thought, 'You can't kiss these kids after what you've been doing,' and it was hard. I'd go home and tell myself, 'You're doing it for those babies.' If they wanted those little Shocker tennis shoes, they had them. That was the only way I could justify going there every day." But the money wasn't just going to the kids. Lexus began using cocaine. Before long, she was snorting up to $250 worth of powder a day. She lost weight, dwindling to a boyish 98-pound frame. "The cocaine made this job a lot easier," Lexus said. But her relationship with her husband grew strained. Once, he asked if she did "extras" on the job, and she looked over at him and wanted to admit everything. Instead she laughed and shot back, "Why, do you want one?" Unlike her eager out-of-towners, he dropped the subject.

By midwinter, Lexus had separated from her husband. She moved out of their home and into a rented townhouse in Odessa, taking her escalating drug habit with her. Now that she was living in town, the line of men willing to risk their careers and marriages for a few minutes with Lexus only grew longer. Anyone with an agenda and the knowledge of the parlor's customer base would have perfect ammunition to bring down the lot of therapy Worse for the customers, Lexus had a flawless memory: "I'd say, loved the game got How are the kids?' 'How was the marathon?' They were amazed. I could remember everything about them."

At ten o'clock in the morning on May 27, Kathy, Sharon, Paige, and Melinda were lounging around on couches in the front room of the Healing Touch, waiting for Lexus to return from the store with a couple packs of beer. When she finally arrived, she put down the cases and took a call on her cell phone; before she could hang up, more than a dozen officers had rushed in and slammed the girls up against the walls. Sharon, still unaware that the officers were investigating her for drugs, sat calmly and finished chewing her burrito. "You got some paperwork for me?" she asked.

The agents responded by handing her a search warrant for drugs based on an undercover informant's report that Kathy and Sharon had sold him seven grams of cocaine. Their search of the madams' home and business came up dry. But when the police searched the girls and their cars, they found cocaine on Melinda and Lexus. And just like that, nobody's secrets were safe in Odessa. After Paige, Lexus, and Melinda were separated, the three did what all prostitutes do: They spilled the names of their clients. When they didn't know the clients' full names, the girls would be shown pictures of men that the officers had seen on the tape; the girls would answer, "Yes, I've been with him x number of times and he wanted y done to him and I charged him z."

The officers were stunned at the girls' memories, particularly Lexus's. Despite being so nervous that her hands were shaking and so strung out on cocaine that her nose bled through the entire five-hour interview, she had a "photographic memory," said Tacker, who was still impressed months after the arrest. "At first I thought she was bullshitting, until I started interviewing the guys and the stories were identical. I'd ask, 'How many times have you been with that guy?' and she'd say, 'Nine.' Then I'd ask the guy the same question and he'd say, 'Nine.' She remembered everything. There was no discrepancy."

What puzzled Lexus was the investigators' interest Lu specific individuals. "There were many names we gave them that they didn't want, people who weren't prominent enough," Lexus said. "They said, 'We want folks we can do something with.'"

With the help of Lexus's and the other girls' statements and a client book obtained from Kathy's former parlor, Middessa Therapy, the police got to work conducting interviews. When officers brought the accused men Luto the station for questioning, 95 percent of them confessed to soliciting prostitution. Still, the matter remained relatively quiet until the June 3 edition of the Odessa American, whose headline read "Deputy District Attorney Hadden Resigns: Prostitution Investigation Implicates Dozens of Prominent Businessmen." At that point the town went crazy.

"The calls started coming," said Duarte. "'Who else is on the list?'"

The names circulating around town, based on nothing more than rumors, were soon being discussed in local barbershops, and in Odessa's offices there were endless games around the water cooler of guess-the-john. On the "wish list" were men who had nothing Lu common, one officer said, except that they were "universally disliked." The local media were demanding that the names be released to shut down the rumor mill, but the police insisted that the nature of the case required that they investigate fully, which meant that only a handful of officers were available to conduct more than one hundred interviews.

For the next two months, everybody in town was on edge, including the cops. Even innocent men grew nervous. One man with a common first and last name warned his wife, "Honey, there are a lot of men in this town with the same name as mine"

"You're right," the wife responded curtly. "And you better hope none of them are on that list."

When the arrests began on July 27, Odessans gathered around televisions to watch the news unfold. Channel 9 broke into its programming at 8:15 a.m. and carried the event live. On a morning of pouring rain, the police arrested the Healing Touch women and 68 men, along with Middessa Therapy's owner, Janet Lietz, who was arrested for promoting prostitution. In order to process the group with the utmost efficiency, they brought everyone to a large facility close to the Ector County Detention Center. By the time the police arrived with the first batch of detainees, television reporters had already set up outside. Next to the news trucks, half a dozen angry wives, clearly plotting their divorces, stood stone-faced as they taped the entire episode with home video cameras.

Inside the building, some of the men recognized each other and tipped their hats or chuckled nervously. They sat in rows and waited for their turn at one of four processing tables, which were set up alphabetically by last name. The men faced a $2,000 fine and up to six months in jail, but the standard plea offer was $1,500 and thirty days in jail, with a trial to begin in late December or sometime this month. Most of them begged the officers to hurry up and get them the hell out of the building.

But the humiliation didn't end there. The list of 68 johns was also printed in the Odessa American the next morning. Locals immediately picked off the names they recognized: A high school principal from nearby Andrews. A counselor from Lamesa. A substitute teacher. Attorneys. Ranchers and multimillionaires. Two deacons. An accountant. A welder. Even an editor at the Odessa American. Attorney Scott Tidwell, who had been a Healing Touch client but who also threw parties with his favorite Irving prostitute at Odessa's finest hotel, was charged with two counts of promotion of prostitution and one count of prostitution.

The bust provided endless entertainment for those who weren't involved. "When their favorite villains didn't appear [on the list], they just knew there had to be a conspiracy," said Rick Pippins, a lieutenant at the Criminal Investigations Bureau. "They were so disappointed they didn't appear on the list that they figured there had to be a cover-up." Some people around town whispered that the sting operation was politically motivated, that members of one party or another were overlooked. Others, who took the matter less seriously, began wearing T-shirts with slogans that read "As a matter of fact, I am not on 'The List'!" and "As a matter of fact, my man is not on 'The List'!"--even "Odessa Sex Scandal 2004," with all the names of the johns printed on the back. The accused were razzed around town with comments like, "Goddam! Why didn't you tell me about that place?"

Sharon and Kathy received a year and a day in prison for the federal drug charges and two years for the state prostitution charges. The prostitutes faced an average of fifteen days in jail and a $1,000 fine (sentencing will be concluded by the end of this month). They have had difficulty adjusting to the salary of a grocery store clerk or a secretary, but they all seem relieved that the Healing Touch is closed.

When I last saw Lexus, in October, she still seemed unashamed of her past. Her family weathered the scandal well and even teased her about her involvement. When the news of the bust hit the media, her mother joked, "My baby made the front of the newspaper!" But her perky and positive perspective seemed strained as she discussed quitting her cocaine habit and going in front of a judge to get joint custody of her children. She was discouraged with her job searches, and even when she had found work, she told me, she'd been fired promptly enough to suspect that her bosses had been tipped off about her affiliation with the list. At one point, she looked at the palms of her hands with disgust when she talked about the things she had done. "I think I may have to leave this place," she told me.

But for the men on the list, Odessa is a forgive-and-forget kind of town. Time passes quickly there, just as it passed in La Grange, which is now better known for the ZZ Top song than the Chicken Ranch. One Odessa local told me, "Several years ago a county law judge was sanctioned for tying up his secretary and watching S&M tapes with her; now he writes plays for the community theater." And don't expect the parlor business to disappear anytime soon. Just before Sharon Joyner went to jail in October, she told me she'd received so many calls that she had to change her number. "Are you crazy?" she would ask, when prodded for recommendations on other parlors. "Have you not been reading the paper? Didn't I see your name on the list?"

Streetwalker Stalker

The area around Ridgewood Avenue in Daytona Beach, Fla., has always been one of the city's seediest spots. Amid the strip joints, crack houses and dive bars, prostitutes sashay in search of their next trick. But the atmosphere has turned even more menacing lately. A suspected serial killer with an apparent penchant for prostitutes is on the loose. Last Thursday night, streetwalker Tara Price stood on a corner, clad in a skintight black dress and shiny black platform boots. She was high, police say, and weeping, after a disconcerting encounter with a john. He had picked her up, driven erratically and taunted her by repeatedly saying, "There ain't no serial killer." She eventually forced him to stop, but in an ensuing struggle to escape, lost her knife--her only protection against a potential assailant. "I'm very worried … and everyone else is worried, too," says Price, 28. "But when you just want that little piece of rock [cocaine], you are going to rob or be a thief or be a prostitute to get it."

The city's prostitutes are on edge. Three women--all of whom led "high-risk lifestyles," according to police and frequented the Ridgewood Avenue area--have been murdered in the past three months. Authorities pursuing the "Streetwalker Stalker," as some have dubbed him, haven't yet homed in on a suspect. In the meantime, some hookers are arming themselves, and a few have even vowed to hunt down the murderer themselves. "We are going to get him first," one prostitute told a local TV news station. "When we find him, he is going to be sorry."

The killer first struck last December. The day after Christmas, Laquetta Gunther's body was found wedged in a narrow gap between an auto shop and a city pumping station. She was only partially clothed and had been shot in the head. Then, in January, Julie Green's body was discovered on a dirt road at a construction site. A month later, Iwana Patton's body turned up in a nearby wooded area. Both had died of gunshot wounds as well. There's no evidence so far that any of the women were abducted or taken against their will, according to police. All three had arrest records, but only Gunther had been charged with prostitution. Still, those in the Ridgewood Avenue area who knew the victims say they were hookers who turned tricks to feed their drug habits.

Amid the climate of fear, many prostitutes are taking protective measures. Some seem to have retreated into hiding; while police roundups of streetwalkers have typically yielded eight or 10 arrests, last week they averaged only three or four. Price says she initially tried to persuade clients to take her to public parking lots for sex. When most of them resisted, she opted instead to join an escort service. She hates the rules--a $50 fine if she doesn't respond to a call--but at least she feels a bit safer. Another prostitute who declined to give her name tries to limit herself only to men she knows. Beyond that, she relies on her recently discovered faith. "I've got a guardian angel and I love Jesus," she says. "He came at the right time." The Halifax Urban Ministries, which offers help to the area's homeless population, has been handing out fliers urging the women to team up. But most prostitutes have refused, arguing that the nature of the business is to work alone. If ever there were a time for a protective pimp, this would be it; yet the women in the area are largely solo operators.

In their pursuit of the killer, the cops have combed through the city's hardscrabble neighborhoods and interviewed numerous "persons of interest." They have also requested the help of criminal profiler Tom Davis of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Based on his analysis, authorities believe the stalker is a male seeking "substitute" victims who provide "a channel for the perpetrator to act upon stressors in his life," according to a police statement. "It is believed that a close acquaintance of the perpetrator is the source of causal stress in his life and that this person may become a victim in the future." As Price anxiously works the streets, she clutches a cell phone in one hand and a new knife in the other, wondering what that next car at the curb will bring.

The Prostitutes' Union

Blanching at the stench of urine, stumble up pitch-black, uneven steps to the top floor, which seems to be a rooftop on which someone has constructed shacks out of brick, asbestos and plastic. A shaft of light from a street lamp falls past tenuous bamboo railings onto a figure in a glittering white sari. She crouches on the bare brick floor by the roof's edge, holding a mirror in one hand and a lipstick in another, using the light to make up. Older residents of the brothel, who expect no clients, crowd into a tiny room to tell me their stories: "I've spent my life in this hell," says Pushpa Adhikari, an ancient woman with sad eyes who was sold into sexual slavery at the age of nine. The others demur: thugs used to terrorize the brothels with nightly rapes and murders, but now that the prostitutes are united the hoodlums keep their distance. "It used to be hell--now it's heaven," corrects one woman, and even Adhikari nods.

Freeing the brothels from terror is merely a side effect of the Sonagachi project, an HIV intervention program named after the red-light district of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) where it began. Rural poverty forces millions of Indian men to migrate to urban centers in search of a livelihood; there they visit brothels, pick up the AIDS virus and take it back to their wives. Truck drivers also infect prostitutes along the major highways, India already harbors at least five million cases of HIV--the most in the world after South Africa-but it is too poor, and its health infrastructure too weak, to permit reliance on drugs. Only if prostitutes cease to acquire and transmit the virus can the epidemic be contained, and Smarajit Jana, a public health scientist, has found a way to accomplish that.

"I strongly believe that for a program to succeed, the subjects have to adopt its goals as their own," he explains. They have: the sex workers run the HIV program themselves. Jana persuaded them to form a growing collective that now includes 60,000 members pledged to condom use. It offers bank loans, schooling for children, literacy training for adults, reproductive health care and cheap condoms--and has virtually eliminated trafficking of women in the locale. Best of all, the project has kept the HIV prevalence rate among prostitutes in Sonagachi down to 5 percent, whereas in the brothels of Mumbai (Bombay) it is around 60. Other sexually transmitted diseases are down to 1 percent. Jana now works with CARE in Delhi, assisting other social workers in similarly transferring their HIV prevention programs to the people they serve. Such community-led interventions have become integral to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in its five-year, $200-million effort to combat AIDS in India.

An unassuming man with flyaway hair and a ready smile, Jana, who is now 53, went through medical school in Kolkata in the 1970s. There he organized students to collect leftover medicines and visit slums to treat the inhabitants. Medical school in India is highly subsidized, so "we felt very strongly that we were morally responsible" to give something back, Jana recalls. They campaigned and litigated against hazardous medical products, getting two dozen of them recalled. When, instead of aiming for a lucrative private practice, Jana specialized in public health and went off to run a rural clinic, his parents were horrified.

At the clinic, Jana observed that if a woman had undergone a tubectomy, for which she had received money from a population-control program, she invariably blamed any subsequent health problems on it. Circumstances having forced her into the operation, she resented it and influenced others against it. "In the short term, you can get results with such coercive methods," Jana realized, "but in the long term, the program will fail"--as, indeed, the sterilization effort did. To truly succeed, one needed not only informed consent but heartfelt consent, which meant that one first had to understand what made someone tick.

Jana would apply this insight in 1991, when an official from the World Health Organization asked him to survey the brothels of Sonagachi for HIV. By then, Jana had found his niche in occupational medicine, establishing precedents for compensating factory workers and protecting tea-garden laborers from pesticides. Jana agreed to the WHO request only after the official used the phrase "sex worker": the concept intrigued him. He opened a clinic in the area, and when patients finally trickled in, he treated and listened. The prostitutes' lives turned out to revolve around their children, which suggested how to make HIV relevant. Jana in turn explained to the women that he saw them simply as workers earning a living: "I sell services, so do you." To the prostitutes, who despised themselves no less than everyone else did, the idea was mind-boggling. "Many others came to ask if I had indeed said this. It had a ripple effect," Jana remembers. Gaining a measure of self-respect became the first step in a long process of empowerment.

Following the survey, Jana undertook to ensure that the women protected themselves against HIV. He trained a few sex workers to go around the brothels talking about the virus and distributing condoms, and he sent researchers along to take notes on everything. It transpired that if a prostitute insisted on condom use, her customer just went to someone else. Unlike AIDS, starvation posed an immediate threat, and the program seemed doomed. "Counseling, educating--it just doesn't work," Jana states. "Higher up in the social hierarchy, people are able to act on the information given to them. Not so in the lower levels."

Thinking of HIV as an occupational hazard gave him the solution: a workers' collective. "The outcome of a negotiation depends on the relative power between the two parties," Jana explains. "When an individual sex worker deals with a client, she is weak. To change the power equation, she needs the support of other sex workers."

That was not enough, however: Jana also had to loosen several layers of (coercion that perpetuated unsafe sex. He persuaded the brothel madams that keeping HIV down was in their interest. To reduce the depredations of gangsters, he invited their bosses--often local politicians--to tour the area and converted them to the cause. He lobbied the police to stop raiding brothels, because if a prostitute lost a day's earnings she was less likely to insist on condom use. He argued with syndicate leaders who controlled the pimps and who ultimately conceded to his economic logic. And finally, because society's revulsion left the sex workers feeling worthless and therefore less able to protect themselves, Jana pitted them against Kolkata's intellectuals in impassioned, face-to-face debates about morality. As the women grew in confidence, he removed himself from the scene: Jana's greatest achievement is his planned obsolescence.

Jana has added community empowerment to the known spectrum of structural interventions--that is, programs that seek to alter the forces that maintain harmful behavior, explains public health scientist Michael Merson of Yale University. The United Nations's AIDS effort holds the Sonagachi project up as a "best practice" model. Still, how well it can be reproduced remains to be seen. Meanwhile the collective has hosted three conferences, attended by sex workers from around the world (including the U.S.) who hope to learn its secret. And while I interview Jana during one of his visits to Kolkata, hundreds of women wait patiently outside, each for her turn to meet him. In their eyes, this man who reached down to help them up wears the halo of a modern-day savior.