Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: One former sex worker shares her darker past

With all the talk of startups and tech, Las Vegans tend to think people living and working in the Downtown redevelopment bubble are shiny, happy-faced hipsters or trust-fund kids with nothing better to do with their time than work on apps.

The truth is quite different. Despite their iPads, flannel shirts and fancy bikes, many of the people down here are just as damaged as the rest of us. Damage comes on a sliding scale, of course. But no one, not even supposed hipsters, get into and out of this life without bearing the scars of bad choices and rotten luck.

For instance, Sarah (not her real name) is an ex-high-end hooker. I’ll stop short of saying she has a heart of gold, though the few hundred thousand dollars in her bank account attest to the value men put on her looks, to say nothing of her skills.

Free of the business she plied for seven years, the 30-something is now a Downtown resident. She hasn’t had a man pay for her services for more than two years. When they did, Sarah’s rate was $2,000 an hour. She was part of an operation that plied cities on the East Coast and, occasionally, Las Vegas.

Her boss got 15 percent of everything she earned. I correct her and call him a pimp, and she shakes her head. “It’s funny to call him a pimp, but I guess that’s what he was.” He earned his cash by setting Sarah up with wealthy men who ran the gamut from owners of professional sports teams to politicians to casino chiefs.

Sarah was discovered while stripping. Flown to Las Vegas, she first had to “try out,” which didn’t involve anything sexual but meant she had to get naked and be examined. After she got the job, she was tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections.

She says she made her clients use condoms. If they didn’t like it, she would recommend another girl.

There were four tiers of prostitutes in the ring. Sarah was considered “A” stock. Then came “B” at $1,500 per hour, “C” for $1,000 and “D” for $500. Above them all were women so beautiful that they weren’t branded with a letter grade at all. They demanded fees of $4,000 per hour or more.

Despite her angelic smile, the darker side of the job is always with Sarah. She won’t talk about some of the bad things that happened to her over those years, saying only that she got through many bad nights with alcohol and drugs. Still, her matter-of-fact philosophizing about the business—these days, she says, prostitutes are being hired for sex parties at rates she would never accept—can be jarring.

Outside her Downtown home, Sarah rests her chin on one knee and smokes a cigarette. She’s been in therapy for years. Her issue with men is that she only relates to them as a means to an end. She wants to get beyond that. She’d like to get married one day. Have kids. Be at peace.

For now, Las Vegas works. She likes the low taxes and inexpensive housing. And the lifestyle. “I like it here,” she says, sipping whiskey. “It’s crazy in Las Vegas. It fits me.”

She chuckles at the fact that she walks among Downtown’s techies, the Zapponians, the Downtown Project people, with them never knowing where she’s been and what she’s seen.

She doesn’t mock them, but senses she knows more than they do about life. Those darker times weren’t without benefit. She can spot a phony a mile away, a handy tool in a city that draws hucksters like flies. She’s in business now, making money without selling her body, and plans to never do that kind of work again.

Of course, looking at her, you can’t see any of that. Sarah wears her cover well. She smiles, perhaps too much. She looks young and refreshed. She walks with purpose, playing with her iPhone, avoiding eye contact.

Talk to her and she’ll spout the same can-do, love-life happy-isms that many pass off as conversation. She’s just like me and you. Damaged but forging ahead.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover Downtown, he lives and works there. He is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded Downtown journalist, stationed at an office in Emergency Arts. His work appears in the Las Vegas Sun and Las Vegas Weekly.
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