IMAGE: Screen shot of Big Doggie home page
Big Doggie
Big Doggie continues to operate more than three years after the arrests of its founders, whose cases were thrown out when police could not persuade witnesses to come forward.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 1/20/2006 7:52:48 AM ET 2006-01-20T12:52:48

Angelica is a shade over 5½ feet tall. She is in her late 20s, and she has straight brown hair down to the middle of her back. She has an athletic body with surgically sculpted breasts. She sports a few tattoos but no pubic hair, and her belly button is pierced.

For the right price — which she pegs at $350 an hour, to start — Angelica will have sex with you. She will perform unprotected oral sex, and she will usually agree to anal intercourse. She will, if you have the money, bring a second lady with her, and they will have sex with each other for your enjoyment. Or, if you wish, she will set up an S&M scene.

We know all this about Angelica because she is a professional escort, and you can read what her customers say about her on Web sites where men who purchase such services gather to review and rate thousands of working ladies like her.

There is a great deal more — very explicit and very detailed — about Angelica and what she does in her profile on The Erotic Review, the largest of the escort-rating Web sites. In its aim and practice, it essentially is a consumer guide for prostitutes and johns.

“I know from an escort’s point of view the review boards really, really help a lot, because everyone always asks, ‘Well, do you have reviews?’” said Billie, an escort in a Midwestern state whose name, like those of all other escorts cited in this report, has been changed. “If they’re bad, that’s not good, but when they’re good ones, it really helps an escort get established when she’s just starting out.”

Not all escorts sell sex. Some sell sensual massages or even actual, non-sexual dinner companionship. But law enforcement officials estimate that 90 percent to 95 percent of the escorts listed on the Web sites are selling sex. And there is very little the police can do about it, even when it is openly discussed on sites like The Erotic Review.

Pursuing ‘the hobby’
Many men make a lifestyle out of patronizing escorts. They call it “the hobby,” not prostitution, and they are “hobbyists,” not johns. They consider themselves connoisseurs of fine women, and they are eager to learn from their fellow hobbyists who will provide exactly what they want.

What they want is generally very clear: They want a centerfold model who will hang adoringly on their every word in public, then perform any sex act in any position with professional skill in private. The combination — a romantic dinner date followed by uninhibited sex — is called the “girlfriend experience,” or GFE. Of Angelica, a reviewer wrote, “The term GFE should be based on what she is.”

Before review sites came along, hobbyists had no way to protect themselves, said David R. Elms, president of The Erotic Review, which began in 1999 and claims that it gets 350,000 unique visitors a day.

“I’m a hobbyist, and I was getting ripped off,” Elms said. “There was no way to hold people accountable for their actions.

“There had to be a way to get this information out,” he said. “If a guy got ripped off or he received good service, then he could tell somebody. We treat it as something equivalent to going out on a hot date and telling a hundred thousand of your closest friends.”

Officially, review sites insist that it is just the hot date that men are paying for — in other words, companionship and conversation, not sex. Whatever happens beyond that “is purely a matter of personal choice and personal preference between two or more consenting adults,” says a disclaimer on Big Doggie, another nationwide escort review site. The Erotic Review goes further: “You can give it away for free, but you can’t sell it.”

But interviews with working escorts across the country and with review-site operators, activists for prostitutes’ rights and law enforcement officials bear out what is evident in the reviews themselves: Sex is the “it” being sold.

“‘Escorts’ — right,” said Master Sgt. Bruce C. Woodbury, head of the Vice/Morals Unit of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office in Tampa, Fla., which mounted an ultimately unsuccessful sting operation against Big Doggie in 2002 . “Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.”

For escorts, a complicated relationship
Professional escorts have a love-hate relationship with The Erotic Review and Big Doggie, where, for a monthly or quarterly fee, men can find out exactly what a woman’s customers think of her.

The sites represent the ultimate commodification of women, who are impersonally rated by anonymous men in much the same way they would judge a sports car or a racehorse. Some find it demeaning, but most acknowledge that it’s a fast, easy way to build a reliable client base.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Helen, a $350-an-hour escort in a Western state, who said she was in the business to make enough money to go to graduate school so she could teach.

“Yes, it does give you exposure that you may not otherwise get,” she said. But at the same time, an escort can find her livelihood held hostage to the whims of a customer who doesn’t get exactly what he wants, at the price he wants to pay.

“This lady spoke to a client she considered a friend, and she was apparently very upset because the guy had threatened to post a bad review,” Helen said. “I’ve personally never had it happen, but I know it has happened.”

The sites serve another purpose, too: They make prostitution a little safer, because women can challenge unfair or inaccurate reviews in forums on the sites and they can lodge complaints with site administrators.

Much more than streetwalkers or prostitutes who are controlled by pimps, a professional escort has a significant element of control, because she can screen potential clients, who already know how pricey her services are — top-dollar escorts in New York have been known to command $2,000 an hour.

That control is elevated when a client comes to her through a review site. Reviewers earn credibility by the accuracy of their reviews, so over time, an escort can essentially rate the men who are rating her.

Robyn Few, a former prostitute who lobbies to decriminalize prostitution as executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project in San Francisco, said that on a personal level, “I hate it” that women are “being reviewed and rated like some subhuman.”

But she added: “The Erotic Review and Big Doggie took some of the danger out of it. When providers have a bad client, they write about it. ... It’s one way to out the bad guys.”

Billie, who said she got at least 90 percent of her business through The Erotic Review and a similar local review site, said: “I haven’t had a bad experience at all. The people that I have seen, or whatever, they have all been professionals — really upper-class people.”

Cleaning up prostitution
If nothing else, Few and many escorts say, the success of The Erotic Review and Big Doggie demonstrate that prostitution can be a respectable business. For the first time, the women are not victims, they say — they are not walking the streets, and they are relatively protected, and they run their own business affairs.

Now it is the customer who must solicit the prostitute, not the other way around, as it has always been through history. From the safety and relative anonymity of their living rooms, highly rated independent escorts like Billie and Helen can pick and choose from hundreds of potential clients.

“I pretty much have regular clients now,” said Billie, whose ratings are consistently 8 to 10 (out of 10) for both appearance and “performance.” These are men whom she has screened and whom she trusts, and she thinks that’s why “I’ve never been cheated or anything.”

In the future, the balance of power will shift more and more to women who approach prostitution as a profession and can take advantage of advances in technology, said Few, the sex workers advocate.

“We are not going to stop prostitution. We are not going to stop it,” she said. “It is not going to be abolished. It is not going away. And the Internet has connected us around the world.”

Said Helen, the escort from the West: “Technology increases exponentially. So who knows what’s going to be out there in 10 years?”

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