Should Call Girls Kiss and Tell?

On the anniversary of Eliot Spitzer’s exposed liaison with Ashley Dupre, a madam is considering releasing the names in her little black book. What ever happened to discretion? By Tracy Quan.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

On the anniversary of Eliot Spitzer’s exposed liaison with Ashley Dupre, a madam is considering releasing the names in her little black book. What ever happened to discretion?

As public trainwrecks go, Spitzergate was a doozy. This week, we observe the one-year anniversary of the resignation of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who, after a successful career busting escort agencies, was himself felled by revelations that he was a high-paying john. Ashley Dupre, one of the escorts he was seeing, feels he’s been “ punished enough.”

The real casualties of his downfall, however, are people whose sin was trying to earn a living in one of New York's more durable service industries—among them Kristin Davis, who is reported to have played matchmaker for the governor and spent three months in Rikers Island for operating an escort business. (Until one of her escorts spotted Spitzer in a local newspaper, Davis says she had no idea who she was dealing with.)

“With the service I provide comes the peace-of-mind knowing that I won't wilt when Katie Couric comes knocking for an exclusive interview,” says one escort.

Davis has just released a memoir, The Manhattan Madam, about running America's “most successful” prostitution ring. Never mind if “successful” in her time-honored profession used to mean staying out of jail. Davis, no slave to traditional values, sees herself as a trailblazing madam. And perhaps she is.

On her website, a beguiling pop-up called The Black Book Poll asks what Davis should do with her client list: “Give it to the media,” “Sell it & make my money back,” “Put it online for free,” or “Hide it & forever remain silent.”

Which made me wonder: what ever happened to the sacred cow of customer privacy that has helped define the demimonde of high-class hooking for so long?

Well, it's 2009. It's called “sex work” now. If it's just a job, a transaction like any other, does it still have to be a secret? What kind of discretion, if any, should a client now expect from a modern madam after his payment has been processed and his session has ended?

I put in a call to Natalie McLennan, author of The Price: My Rise and Fall as Natalia, New York’s #1 Escort. Natalie worked in the industry for one fast, crazy year, faced felony charges in 2005, and spent 26 days in jail before returning to Montreal. She’s a 21st-century escort whose brief career was accelerated by the Internet, but her response when asked what Davis should do with her client list is surprisingly old school: a dainty gasp.

“Hide it, of course! Destroy it!” she says. “Why destroy everybody’s life? Does she feel abused? Were they bad to her?” Natalie admits she never got past her “honeymoon” period as an escort. Her year in the life sounds dizzying, but there is nothing dizzy about her vehement refusal to name names. When shopping her memoir to publishers, she says, she was routinely asked if she would name her clients, “but naming names wasn’t even an option.” As a memoirist, she says, “I wanted to be honest with myself, but I kept everybody else’s skeletons in the closet. I was discreet about people’s identities and personal details.”

A generational world away is Janice, a madam in her early seventies who never felt at home on the Internet. I wasn’t surprised by her reaction to the possibility of Davis revealing her list.

“That disgusts me. What will she gain by it? This is coming from anger and it’s not going to make her feel good. Wives and children will be hurt. Men could lose their jobs.”

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But Davis lost her job. Where’s our concern for a woman who paid the price for everybody else’s illicit activity? Her clients—who, she says, used corporate accounts and credit cards to book dates with escorts—haven’t been punished the way she has, even though they left paper trails for the authorities to follow.

Janice is more concerned about the wider impact. "If you're unfortunate enough to get caught, ruining other people's lives isn't going to help,” she says. “If the police start arresting clients, we don’t have customers anymore! They will be so afraid, they’ll stop. I want them to believe that they’ll be left alone so they’ll continue spending money.”

Legally speaking, madams, agency owners, and telephone bookers take on a more-serious risk than do most escorts. The smart escort realizes, though, that working with agencies means taking on this risk by proxy. Even if you aren't the main target of an investigation, your life will be turned upside down if the agency gets busted.

Benjamin Nicholas, an Internet escort in his late twenties, says this is "a major reason" he prefers working independently. He doesn't want to worry about "who's keeping records and how quickly they might sell out that information.”

However, independent escorts could also be tempted to sell out for a book deal or talk-show interview, especially when their clients are closeted gay men. In 2006, Benjamin lambasted Mike Jones in print for outing televangelist Ted Haggard: “Your leap from paid crotch monkey to gay-rights crusader certainly doesn't impress your fellow sex workers,” he wrote. Benjamin feels the same way today, perhaps even more so, “after some of the 'scandals' to come down the pike,” and that includes Spitzer. “There's self-pride in knowing that no matter how good the offer, you're not going to give up information on who you've seen. It's part of the package deal: With the service I provide comes the peace-of-mind knowing that I won't wilt when Katie Couric comes knocking for an exclusive interview.”

Lisa, who advertises on the adult website Eros Guide as an independent escort, isn’t as dogmatic. “I can understand how Kristin may feel with the government on her case, and I think she should weigh the pros and cons.” But she echoes Benjamin’s concerns when she says, more than once, that just hearing about Davis’ pull-down menu “makes me feel more confident about going independent. When I hear about agency owners having these problems, I know I chose the right path.”

“I saw her on TV,” says Nadia, a thirtysomething call girl, discussing Kristin. “She’s pissed and I don’t blame her.” Nadia has her own private customer base and has never advertised online, so I don’t expect her to identify with Davis. Yet she’s adamant about the ex-madam’s right to dangle her clients’ names in the media. “She gave up a ton of money and went to jail. You don’t want to piss someone like that off.” Nadia says, “Look, it doesn’t matter what kind of work you do. She worked hard for that money, and it pisses me off that they took it.”

Nadia is surprised to learn that others in the industry disapprove of Kristin’s plan. “ Her name was revealed, and other girls’ names were revealed. If I, physically and emotionally, were in her shoes, which I am not, I would probably do what she’s doing.”

Nadia and I used to work together, and I don't quite believe she would do that to her own customers. Still, I'm not shocked by her reaction. Unable to imagine betraying my former clients, I’m equally unable to judge someone else who spent three months in jail. That’s something I’ve never had to face. Nadia concedes that she, too, “doesn’t believe in naming names on a personal level.” In other words, though she respects Davis’ right to do so, she wouldn’t name her own clients.

The sex industry has its emotional hierarchies. If you assume it's all about price, or street versus Internet, think again. Some take pride in dehumanizing the customer more effectively than other escorts, while there’s a converse snobbery about being classy enough to think of your clients as real people.

To make things ever more complicated, many buy into both ideals: never entirely emotional about, nor entirely detached from our customers. This ambiguity comes into play when sex workers argue about the Manhattan Madam’s online Black Book Poll. Our reactions are contradictory, as we’re pulled in both directions.

Underlying this quandary is yet another ideal -- a universe where madams, call girls, and escorts can afford to comport themselves like spiced-up saints. After being hit with federal charges, mammoth legal fees, and having your assets frozen, can our ideals (and our discretion) survive unchanged? Virtue at such times starts to look more like a privilege than an obligation, and 21st-century America is not Belle Epoque Paris, however much some escort sites might try to evoke the latter.

The Internet, for escorts and their clients, holds risks and opportunities that used to be associated with the street. Now that the risks are changing, maybe the rules are changing too. What does an exposed and prosecuted madam owe to old-school ethics?

I asked Natalie whether johns like Spitzer walk away scot-free because of gender or class. “There’s a little of both,” she said, “but it’s mostly about class and power because you can buy your freedom. When I heard that Spitzer wouldn’t face any charges, I was so angry, I flipped out. He upped the sentencing for johns from three months to one year! He was AG when I was charged with promoting prostitution.”

Even Benjamin’s policy of total discretion blurs when it comes to crackdowns. “When government intercedes, it's a whole other issue. Am I willing to go to jail for 10 years to keep my client list in secrecy? That's a question I can't answer so easily.”

The industry at every level, from Craigslist to the street, has become a target for law enforcement, and those who work in it never know when this academic question might morph into a real-life dilemma.

It may be unthinkable to expose your clients for the same reason that ratting out a co-worker or manager is unthinkable, but many sex workers will privately forgive Kristin Davis for treating her own customers to a little rough justice.

Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl, set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Her debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl, are international bestsellers.