This post is not for everyone. It covers human sex trafficking, drug use, and illegal sex work.
It started about a year ago. I remember the first time I noticed her. Sitting on the doorsteps of a non-descript building around 96th street and Amsterdam. I liked to walk the last few blocks on my way to school, some 20 blocks further up Manhattan.
She didn’t seem to belong here. Asian, pretty, well dressed, and crying. I felt bad just walking by. It was hard to guess her age, maybe early 20, but could be a few years younger or older. Her make-up was smeared, her hair black, and a bit messy. She smoked a cigarette. All that before 9:00 a.m.
She looked like she was on her way home from a night of partying, but there was no joy on her face, not even a sense of being tired. More the expression of someone who’s been worn out. I recognized the look. It reminded me of some of the younger escorts back in Germany, who did it only for the money. They took every job, as long as there was money to be made.
During the next few days, I looked for her. I saw her every day. Always the same look on her face, the cigarette, the expensive clothes, and that sad expression. Then I decided to sit next to her.
“Can I have a cigarette?” I don’t smoke, but it’s an easy way to make contact. She offered me one without raising her head. I thanked her and moved on. She was clearly not in the mood for talking. The next day, I did the same. Her response did not change. This went on for about a week before she began to recognize me.
Then, one morning, she asked if I had a cigarette. She had a pack, unopened, sitting right next to her. She didn’t want a cigarette, she wanted to make contact. So, I sat down next to her. That’s how it all started. As soon as I sat down, she opened the pack and offered me a cigarette. I politely declined. She lit up hers. The moment of relaxation and escape from her daily routine was palpable.
I was curious about her life, how she got to be where she was. What follows is a composite that I gathered over the course of weeks. A few pieces at a time. Sometimes just a number, an expression, or a name. On other days, she was more open, but I don’t speak Chinese and she barely spoke any English. The only reason, I believe, she even spoke with me was because I told her about my past as an escort. I showed her some pictures of me. That broke the ice.
Her name is Jennifer. That’s not her real name, but one that is easy to remember. She shows me her phone and types in her real name in Chinese, then uses google translate. Haiyan Liang (I’ve altered the name to protect her identity; maybe it wasn’t even her real name.) She barely speaks any English but is quite adept at using her phone to communicate. Her boss controls everything she does. She works at night. Starting in the early evening, after Wall Street closes, she gets picked up together with a few other girls and they drive downtown.
They are all well dressed, waiting for a call from their boss. A call comes into the driver’s phone. He puts the boss on speakerphone. The St. Regis hotel. Full Service, all night. He wants Jennifer to go. She needs to report everything to her boss. It’s all about the money.
Just a few minutes later, the driver drops her off just a block away from the St. Regis. One of the best hotels in Manhattan. Not the place where you would expect to find the sleazy underworld of Manhattan to have its home. She walks the block, goes up the stairs. The Hotel staff knows her already. They know the drill. All she has to do is show them the room number on her phone. They call up, then accompany her up the elevator to the 16th floor. That’s where the suites are. She knows most of them.
She is an escort, the kind of escort that doesn’t book ahead. Where clients are not vetted. No real names are used. She doesn’t walk the street, that gets too much attention. A car with darkened windows is less conspicuous. She goes where her boss tells her. All she needs is the room number and the hotel. Names are irrelevant. She rarely knows her clients, although some ask for her repeatedly. Most of the time, her boss makes sure she goes to clients who are new. They are the easiest to scam. Or to some of the clients where money is no object. They just want a girl to fuck without hearing ‘no’. They want a piece of meat.
She knocks on the door. Not a suite this time, but still a very large and luxurious room. Right by the entrance, she glances at a sign, asking tourists to be vigilant of sex trafficking. One day, she had taken a picture and then had it translated. She showed it to me on her phone. The irony was not lost on her. The signs of trafficking fit her to the tee. Feeling insecure, constantly checking her phone, taking pictures of any money transactions and sending them immediately to her boss. Looking fearful when she receives calls. Often having a car waiting for her outside.
She gets down to business quickly. She knows she is not the kind of escort who is paid for good conversations. First the money. This is where the moments get tense. She needs to get the money for her boss quickly. No credit cards, nothing that leaves a trace. Cash is best, but not all clients have the amount of cash she expects to get for a night.
She knows her boss has only been talking about getting a girl to the client quickly. There are a number of websites, all run by the same group. None of the pictures reveal much, and those who call, don’t expect to see any particular girl. They just want to have a young girl to fuck without having to ask many questions. The rates on the website only cover the part for her boss, that’s not something new clients know. Unless she can squeeze more money out of her clients, she walks away empty.
There are a few terms she knows in English, “Your money for my boss. Not for me. You need to pay me for fun.” It’s a miserable trick. She shows up, sometimes the clients know how it works and then she can make some money. Her goal for a night is $10,000. Two thousand for her boss, and then she gets half of everything she makes after that; if her boss is happy. She’s good at asking for more money.
Cocaine helps. She always has a supply with her. Getting her clients high, drunk, whatever it takes, and always asking for more money. It’s a game of ‘Oh, Baby, let me suck your cock’, and ‘Oh, Baby, give me your money’. If she can’t get at least a few thousand extra, she may not get the next call.
Her boss sends girls out based on where he thinks the money is. If it’s at an expensive hotel or a Wall Street office, he knows that there is money to be made. He sends his best girls. When it looks like a tourist who doesn’t have more money than was advertised, then it goes to one of the girls who can’t get much money. It’s a miserable life for them. She considers herself to be lucky. She makes money for her boss and she gets better clients. She’s seen half of Wall Street.
She doesn’t have a work permit. She’s not even legally in the country. No driver’s license, no ID. Her boss has her Chinese passport, which has long expired. She’s done this for 10 years. She was 15 when she came from China to the US and immediately was used in the sex industry. She pretended to be 18. That’s been her life. She has broken so many laws since she turned 18, she’s fearful of any authority. Help groups, don’t work for her. And the signs in hotels to help identify sex-trafficking make no difference. Hotels run a business, too. As long as she brings business to the hotels, they don’t ask questions.
She has a lot of tricks up her sleeve. Cocaine is just one of them. She knows it’s a banned substance. Once her clients take it, they have committed a crime. Then she can crank up the money demands. Not with threats, but the clients know that keeping her happy is probably a good idea. She constantly calls her boss. Unless there is more money, she has to leave. Her boss speaks English and can work out arrangements for money transfers. She has apps on her phone, but all the money goes to her boss. CashApp, Zelle, ApplePay, anything that transfers money quickly.
She has a pattern. “Your money no good. Need more cash.” That’s another phrase she knows. In return, she does everything. There are no limits because the only limit she knows is what her boss says. And that limit is expressed in money, not in sexual activities. She cannot express in words what she has done; it’s not her body anymore. But with the help of her phone, it’s pretty clear that the client gets everything he wants, as long as there is enough money on the table. And Manhattan has a lot of money.
A month after our first chat. She suddenly stops sitting outside the building. She has disappeared. I don’t know what happened to her, I just hope I didn’t get her into trouble. I’m not naïve. I always knew that this ugly world of the sex industry existed, I just didn’t expect to find it right under my nose.
Sex is like drugs. The more it’s illegal, the uglier it gets. And selling sex is more lucrative than selling drugs. The same girl can bring in thousands night after night, after night. As long as she keeps her clients happy, and works in places where there are enough clients who don’t mind bending the laws to get what they want, she can keep working for years. And she has no way out. The best she could hope for is deportation back to China. That prospect is worse than any future she has here.
After ten years in this country, her English was limited to a few phrases. “Eat my pussy”, “I suck your dick”, “Oh, Baby”, and “You have more cash? Make me happy”.