The Wages of Sin
Monday night is a slow night at Club Madonna. As a dancer named Yvonne counts the tips in her garter, it dawns on her it might have been better to catch up on her sleep in her hotel room tonight. Having arrived from Australia by way of Japan less than 72 hours ago, she feels the jet lag weighing her down, and a $50 night is making her feel worse. It seems as if since landing at the airport she just dropped off her bags and went straight to work. The 24-year-old stripper has yet to lie out on the beach or walk around Lincoln Road, taking in the scene. Despite her weariness, when the DJ announces the free lap-dance special, Yvonne, in a tight, shiny minidress, slinks through the club with leggy pizzazz.
Yvonne's accent sounds exotic as she stops at cocktail tables, offering her talents to the paltry group of characters assembled tonight. Crusty codgers sit in the shadows, their eyes bulging at a creamy blonde who twirls topless on a brass pole. At one table overweight cigar smokers send a buddy to tip one of the girls. A couple of skinny Latino homeboys wearing chunky sneakers, mushroom haircuts, and baggy shorts elbow each other and squirm in a back corner booth.
The dancer works the crowd with the broad smile and accommodating manner of a customer-service rep. Her fellow performers -- clad in thong bikinis, nighties, and high-rise platform shoes -- fan out to coax the men to the second floor. The club is forgoing the regular $25 lap-dance fee during the special, but the girls still can make $10 to $15 per dance in tips. Perhaps Yvonne is overdressed, or maybe her approach is too abrupt, but of the fifteen girls on duty, she is the only stripper still in the main room. As she sits in a love seat discussing her Miami expedition, it is clear she'd rather not be upstairs wiggling in the lap of a stranger. "I don't mind dancing naked up there; it's no big deal," she admits while sipping a ten-dollar cranberry juice. "But what I really hate is the begging. Sometimes you have to beg them for a lap dance."
Yvonne suddenly realizes she's a long way from home, and the lousy tips in her garter make her consider going back early. But she's determined to wait a few more days. She knows there's a bundle to be made dancing at a strip joint in Miami during the tourist season. At least that's what her two girlfriends who've made the trip twice before seem to think. Yvonne brushes a wisp of frosted hair away from her eyes and considers what she left behind for her excursion to the American subtropics: her boyfriend, her family, and her steady gigs as a sound engineer for local rock bands. "If it doesn't get better by the end of the week, I'm going back," she sighs. "It doesn't make sense to be here spending more than you make to get by."
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But by the time Sunday rolls around, Yvonne is still in town dancing at the club. She won't go into details, but she and her friends decided to stay in South Beach for a few more weeks of the season. The trio came to make money, and the evenings have picked up at the club. Together they have made hundreds of dollars per night. Miami during the winter, they say, is as profitable as it gets.
Sex and tourism go hand in hand here. From mid-December through April, Miami Beach hotels, nightclubs, and eateries buzz with throngs of hipsters, models, and horny visitors. On Lincoln Road the usual jumble of Spanish accents is peppered with sounds of foreigners who don't speak the native language (although their English is pretty good). But snowbirds and pleasure seekers are not the only travelers to make it to South Florida's strip of sand and sun when temperatures drop around the world. Each year hundreds of migrant workers attach themselves to the seasonal exodus to make a buck in the skin trade.
Workers such as Yvonne know they can make quick cash when tourists come to town. Whether they dance at strip clubs, work in underground brothels, or advertise as personal escorts, they know they stand a good chance at making good money, or at least getting an all-expenses paid vacation in Miami. For Yvonne stripping is part of a spontaneous adventure she embarked on after becoming bored with the daily grind in Sydney. For others, though, a jaunt to Miami is business as usual.
According to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, hotel occupancy throughout the county bumps up by an average ten to twenty percent between January and April. During February and March, nearly 85 percent of all hotel rooms in greater Miami are booked. Bureau analysts estimate roughly 2.8 million visitors come to Miami-Dade County during season, pumping about $4.5 billion into the local economy. Since most of the sex trade is underground, there is no telling the size of the industry. But in cities with a booming tourist industry, the sex trade, including massage parlors, strip clubs, escorts, and streetwalkers, creates an invisible economy easily in the millions. "It's all guesswork," says Priscilla Alexander, director and researcher for the North American Task Force on Prostitution, about precise monetary figures. With major events that bring hordes of visitors, not to mention the warm winter weather, Alexander reports, "Miami is among the most attractive cities for sex workers." And the sex business, police say, slips into high gear during the winter in Miami.
Out-of-town prostitutes and their pimps descend on the southern tip of Florida for special events such as the Super Bowl, International Boat Show, or the recent Winter Music Conference, says Miami Beach Police Department Maj. Charles Press. Although the department does not keep track of the rate of prostitution arrests throughout the year, he says, during the winter months streetwalkers and escorts keep police busy. "It's noticeable, but it's not out of control," Press observes. "Whenever there's a crowd, there's going to be prostitutes."
What is more apparent, however, is how sophisticated the street hustling has become. Pimps cruise Washington Avenue arranging dates on cell phones and contacting prostitutes with walkie-talkies while playing a perpetual game of cat and mouse with the cops. Press likens the activity to crime syndicates. "It's highly organized. They have lookouts and game plans." He adds that investigators have found that many of the prostitutes arrested during the winter months reside in other states. What's more, their arrest records show the stops they've made before coming to Miami. "They move across the country," Press says. "There are more groups of prostitutes moving in from out of town. It never used to be that way. It was always local."
But not all sex workers walk the streets. Others make a living as high-priced call girls and call boys by arranging dates as escorts. Each winter the classified pages of alternative journals, including New Times, beef up with advertisements offering male, female, and transgender companions who promise to satisfy desires for about $200 a pop. At the myriad escort agencies in town, managers scramble to find available bodies for lonely out-of-towners. The agencies connect so-called escorts with customers on "dates" that are metered by the hour. A date with an escort often precludes dinner and dancing; the time is usually spent in hotel rooms.
When business is booming, some out-of-town escorts prefer to work independently.
That's what jet-setting male escort Talvin DeMachio does. He has found that spending a couple of weeks during tourist season in Miami can be a gold mine. Since 1998 the Washington, D.C.-based call boy has included Miami Beach on his itinerary. At 30 years old DeMachio is systematic in his approach to his career, using the Internet to notify clients where he will be, when he will there, and what his availability is like. When arranging assignations he sends out e-mails informing potential clients what he will and will not do. On most trips he advises dates to call ahead because he books up quickly.
A prospective customer browsing DeMachio's Website can see exactly what he will be getting: a dark and handsome beefcake with the abdominal muscles of a porn star. Actually he is a porn star. Along with a brief biography that profiles his interests and his background, he is shown posing in various stages of undress. With a click of a mouse, the viewer reads a list of the videos in which DeMachio has performed, such as Striptease, Suck Daddy, and Live Feed. "Porn is like a big advertisement for escorting," he offers. "I definitely like escorting much better, because there is more money to be made in escorting."
Click again and you get to see DeMachio as a newborn, his senior-class picture from 1990, and a shot of him in a sailor suit from his tour of duty in the U.S. Navy. He has a soft-on-the-edges approach to a business that often is perceived as cold and seedy. And he is known among his peers as being a likeable, down-to-earth escort who, unlike other call boys, likes to hug and kiss and who gives his clients a chance to back out if they do not find him attractive. "I come to Miami because it attracts many gay tourists, and where there are gay tourists, there are people looking to spend money on escorts," he says. "Many people look at escorts and they feel sorry for them because they have chosen such a shameful life. But I do not have any regrets about what I have done with my life. I am proud of what I do. I bring joy to people." In fact DeMachio considers himself somewhat of a sex therapist, available to fulfill most desires for just about anyone.
Perhaps the most important feature on DeMachio's Website is the posting that tells clients how long he will be in their cities. Since December he has traveled from his home in Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Antonio, Dallas, and Miami. Previously he has traveled in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, California, and Montreal. He estimates that more than 80 percent of the time he spends traveling is business-related. "I go where I know I can make good money," he explains. "For instance Houston is oil country. I know there are people who make good money there, therefore I go where I know people can afford me. I am not exactly a cheap escort." So he zeros in on wealthy areas during their most active seasons.
His ad in local gay-club guide Hot Spots Magazine drummed up more than sound business. DeMachio says his cell phone "rang off the hook," with his trade averaging three to four one-hour dates per day. He charges $300 per hour and $75 for every quarter hour afterward. For longer dates when he spends entire days with a client, his rates are solid: for a half-day date he earns $1500. A full day costs $2500, two days cost $3000, and four days or more is $1000 per day. With some of the highest rates in the business, his one-week trip in January kept him running from date to date. "Miami was extremely busy," he recalls. "I am not going to tell exactly how much I made, but I can tell you it was over $12,000 in a week." To cut down on expenses, DeMachio usually stays at neat and affordable hotels. If he goes to a club, he goes on business. If he's at a restaurant, it's not to be seen. "The idea is to make money while I'm down there," he says. "It's not to live like a star."
For top porn performers escorting often overshadows their video work in terms of the sheer amount of money they make. Others who are not as well-known may come here to make a skin flick, but they need to supplement their finances for the trip by escorting.
Among the out-of-town studs-for-hire is Manhattan-based Carlos, known to his clients as Papo. He is 22 years old with round, boyish features and a dancing dragon tattooed on his left shoulder. Since arriving this past January, his cell phone also has been buzzing nonstop, he says. For the past four years he has run a "Papo ad" in Hot Spots that has proved lucrative enough for him to return to Miami. "I come down here because it's too cold in New York," he says. "But I also come down because people fly here all the time. During the season business really picks up."
Carlos stays for about three months, then returns to New York. Even though his ad is new, he can receive up to five or six calls per day. At $200 per hour -- and he charges for the entire hour -- making a trip to Miami to work as an escort is very good business. Most of the people who call during the season are out-of-towners looking for companionship or married men who secretly desire other men, he says. "I've seen all kinds," he boasts. "It's a career, and you have to be ready; you have to be well trained to do this."
Yet making thousands of dollars in a day is not guaranteed. The ebb and flow of business is ever present in the sex trade. "It's not something you can depend on every day," he admits. "One day I can make $1000 or $2000. But then maybe I won't make that much in the next two weeks."
To keep expenses down, he stays at his mother's house in North Miami Beach. He spends time with a circle of friends, sometimes swapping clients with other escorts. If business is slow, he'll cruise hotels or gay joints where wealthy clients hang out. He scans lobbies and bars for older men with expensive clothes and accessories: Prada suits, Gucci sunglasses, and Rolex watches are on his radar. If an older potential client approaches him for sex, Carlos is blunt about the man's chances. "I tell them something like, You're 45, and I'm 22,'" he says. "If you want my ass, you're going to have to pay for it.'"
Carlos has learned the tricks that keep him from being ripped off or arrested. He screens his calls carefully. While setting up a date at a hotel, he warns clients to be prepared -- not only with cash but with ID and a plane ticket. "You need to know it's not a cop," he says. "You ask them if they are affiliated with police."
Upon arriving at a hotel room, he asks to see a driver license or passport and the plane ticket; he also takes a look at the money. He collects his fee at the end of the date. To avoid being set up, he always lets the client make the first moves sexually. "It's a business, and you have to be careful," he reveals. "There are cops around all the time." Since Carlos works independently, he accepts only cash from new clients. He takes personal checks only from his regulars. A handful of patrons make direct deposits into his bank account. "It's like a job," Carlos says. "Business is business."
In Miami Carlos expects to make thousands while avoiding the Northern frost. But New York and Miami are not his only stops. "I got a huge list of clients," he says. "I can hop on a plane and go to L.A., Miami, Chicago, or Houston and call my clients and I'm fine."
As a sex and pleasure hot spot, Miami not only attracts flocks of escorts and prostitutes, but the city exports its expert trade as well.
Miami-based escort Abby has a small independent practice sexually satisfying her regular clients. But in the past year she's found a new groove in the industry that takes her to different cities for days or weeks at a time. The niche is a network of female-owned and -operated bordellos scattered across the United States. Last year Abby made thousands of dollars during short trips to modern brothels in New York City, Pittsburgh, and Raleigh.
The madams, Abby says, do not advertise. Instead businessmen are referred to the houses personally, and the girls who work them can make hundreds of dollars per hour. The madams swap girls throughout the year, as the business depends on cultivating a variety of sex workers. Most of the girls on the circuit are not from the towns in which they work. "The women who own them are always calling each other up asking, Who you got? Who you got?'" she explains.
When she arrives at a destination, Abby signs a contract agreeing to see clients for a specific period. Her travel expenses are paid, but once at the bordello, she pays rent. She's free to roam around a city, but if she is late making a scheduled rendezvous, she is fined. A girl could be blacklisted from the circuit if she is found using drugs or stealing. "You can't fuck up. If you fuck up, they're all over you," she points out.
The people who run the brothels provide sheets, towels, and linens. Other staples, such as sodas or underwear, are sold at extremely inflated costs. Abby has learned to pack her own amenities. Thigh-high stockings, which she can buy for five dollars, typically are sold for twenty at the bordello. A can of soda costs her $3.50. "I only drink water now," she says.
The bordellos have proven to be a comfortable place for Abby to work, but she prefers to remain in charge of her own business. She advertises in New Times and keeps steady appointments with her regulars. "The better way of doing things is to be on your own," she says. "Traveling the circuit is exciting because I can be independent. Although people don't think so, I'm in control of my mind, my body, and my money. Unless I'm in a fashion district." Abby's weakness is shopping malls. She has spent more money than she cares to remember on hats and lingerie and perfume. When she's not on dates, she spends time doing hair and makeup for friends or helping her mother sell flowers at flea markets.
These trips have inspired her to travel more frequently. "I'm a gypsy; I'm a butterfly," she boasts. "In a couple of months, I'll probably take off." When the winter season begins to wane in Miami she says she will most likely work in Orlando. Why? "Because tourism is always good there."
While Miami is known among sex-service providers as a promised land during tourist season, others who once breezed through town only for the winter have decided to establish permanent homes here. Sebastian grew so comfortable in Miami three years ago, he decided to stay. At first he traveled between New York and Miami, but over the years he was lulled by the palm trees, the warm Atlantic, and a steady stream of good clients.
So good, in fact, that he was given a new Mercedes-Benz by a South American client he had dated for only three months. With other clients as well, cold hard cash may not be exchanged right away. Some make direct deposits into Sebastian's bank account or just give him his own credit card. "I don't like the word sugar daddy," he says. "I prefer to call them my benefactors."
Although his business picks up when tourists hit town, he will not chase the season around the world. He does not, however, stay put. He travels when his clients want to meet him for brief encounters or weeklong vacations. "I lead a private life and don't get into the club scene," he says. "While the other boys are out there at the clubs or at the gym, I'm at home making money."
He regards his clientele as a way to augment his salary from his full-time job as an office clerk, and also as an investment in his future. In the next ten years he hopes to own a condominium in a South Beach high-rise. "Escorting is a job. A part-time job," he says. "It's not something I need; it's something that's helping me achieve my goals. Eventually I'm going to hit 35, and the looks aren't going to be there. If it's something I can do, I do it."
In coming weeks, as the crowds begin to dwindle, so will the sex industry. The hookers who advertise will revert to a local clientele, and the globetrotting workers such as Yvonne and Carlos will be scouting summer spots for their next money stop. Talvin DeMachio is spending early spring in San Antonio and Dallas, returning to his home base for a few days, and then he's off to Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco. "I feel lucky I can travel around the world and do what I do each day and make my own schedule," DeMachio says. "Anyone in this world can be successful; they just have to find what they are good at. I am good at pleasing people and putting smiles on peoples' faces. I have always wanted to be successful ... and I am."
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