Pandering for Fun and Profit

Welcome to Sonya's world, where the clients are grateful, the money is good, and the risk is minimal

These buzzwords are the heart of escort services' appeal. Just ask Joe Gersten, Miami's most notorious john. In April 1992, police say, he got naked with streetwalker Tracy Sheehan in a Biscayne Boulevard crackhouse. The ensuing scandal drove him into exile. If he had instead employed a "discreet" or "trusted" escort service, Gersten might still be a local blowhard instead of a "political prisoner," as he calls himself, in Australia.

Discretion aside, escort services attract a certain type of man. "It's the complete lack of responsibility," asserts Ann Brittain, director of women's studies at the University of Miami. "You don't have to send flowers afterward. You don't have to send cards or wash behind your ears or even be nice. The complete lack of responsibility allows men to enjoy whatever their fantasies may be. To them there is a near-complete lack of consequences."

Apparently the demand for irresponsible fantasies is strong enough to draw many ambitious entrepreneurs to the field. It's also an easy vocation to join. All a person needs is a cell phone, a modicum of salesmanship, a bit of start-up cash, and a willingness to endure some risk. "I think it's as easy as getting BellSouth to put a phone line in your house and getting your sister to go on a date," says Jamie Benjamin, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represents several escort services.

In return the business can quietly generate thousands of dollars each week as part of a lucrative and largely illegal underground economy. The Beacon Council, Miami's economic development organization, compiles no research on the industry, even though millions of dollars are spent on escort services each year in the business community the council represents.

"Miami -- much more so than a city like, say, Cleveland -- is a popular place for escort services," reports Jeffrey Douglas, the California-based executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, an adult-entertainment-industry trade organization. "It's a tourist city, and it has an international airport. Any time you get those two variables together, you are going to get escort services trying to meet the demand."

The services are ostensibly legal. Everyone has the right to pay another person for "companionship," which is the technical term for the service provided. Of course companionship is often a thinly veiled euphemism for prostitution. So blatantly sexual are the services advertised in newspapers and the phone book that BellSouth's Midwestern sister, Ameritech, no longer accepts escort ads in its Yellow Pages. For that matter, neither does New Times, a recent policy change enacted independent of this story.

Prostitution, of course, is illegal, and has been for a long time. Yet enforcement of prostitution laws is a low priority in South Florida. Police in Broward County raid an escort service about once a year. Raids are even less frequent in Miami-Dade County, where no major arrests have been reported since 1994. "That department is kind of in disarray right now," a Miami-Dade Police spokesman notes. "Try the City of Miami Police instead."

As the largest city in Florida, Miami deals with its share of prostitution. City police direct most of their resources toward street-level hookers, though, rather than prostitution shielded behind escort services. "We used to have a specific vice unit, but because of the need to send our limited manpower out on patrol, we had to stop doing that," says Ofcr. Willy Moreno. "We would handle it if we were getting complaints, but to be really honest, I haven't heard a lot of complaints on that matter. Then again, there is plenty of crime going on out there on a daily basis that we're not aware of, so it doesn't surprise me."

Sonya's daughter is a twelve-year-old who enjoys the benefits of a mother with flexible hours. This flexibility manifests itself in rides back and forth to school every weekday. "'My mommy's a madam,' she tells her friends," Sonya says. "She thinks it's like a musician or an actor or something. She's too young to know better."

Although Sonya notes she is careful never to conduct business when her daughter is at home, she says she actually got into escort services for the sake of her child's financial security. She is quick to add that she entered the field with the intention of leaving after two years. "I figured that by then I'd have made enough money to set up myself and my daughter for life," she recalls. "After that, why take the risk?"

That was two years ago, and she insists she quit the business completely with the new year. Largely because of her decision to quit, late last year she invited New Times to meet with her at her bordello (actually a condominium unit) to observe her operation. It was an invitation loaded with caveats. She blocked interviews with any of her clients. All but one of her escorts were off-limits for even a conversation. Her family and her friends could not be contacted, including all four of her ex-husbands. Much of the information gleaned for use in this story, therefore, comes from only one source: Sonya herself.

"I am a dating service," she maintains. "I fill a need. I listen to a client on the phone and get as much information out of him as I can as far as what he's looking for. Then I get him from point A to point B. What goes on after that I don't know."

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