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A look at the sex trade in east Idaho from women who work it

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“Melissa” spent 18 months working as a prostitute in eastern Idaho. She sat down with EastIdahoNews.com to talk about how prominent it is in eastern Idaho. Watch an edited version of the interview above. Melissa’s voice has been changed in the video to protect her identify.

EDITOR’S NOTE: All of the prostitutes interviewed by EastIdahoNews.com for this article have had their names changed to protect their identities.

IDAHO FALLS — Most men who visited Melissa weren’t the kind you’d expect would pay for sex.

Nevertheless, Melissa had a wide range of clientele — single and married business owners, doctors, politicians, teachers, law enforcement, and even religious leaders. All of them were willing to disrobe in front of a stranger, in an unfamiliar place, to satisfy their emotional or physical need for sex.

“There were times on a Sunday at noon when someone was supposed to be in (a church) meeting, and they’d show up in their suit and with scriptures,” Melissa said. “They told people they were ministering to someone at the hotel.”

Instead, the men would negotiate a sex act, place money on the table, have their fun and leave — hopefully before church ended.

Experiences like this weren’t abnormal for Melissa, who spent 18 months as a prostitute in east Idaho.

“This is happening during times that family members may assume the client is on a lunch break, or running errands or in a church meeting,” she said.

The brief, often 30-minute to 1-hour trysts, are risky for the client. Not only is patronizing a prostitute a misdemeanor crime, but the men risk destroying their families, reputations and careers.

And yet, according to Melissa and several other prostitutes interviewed by EastIdahoNews.com over the last six months, the risk is often worth the payoff for most johns. John is another term used to refer to the clientele of sex workers. Repeat customers make up an enormous part of an average prostitute’s clientele.

That is the root of the problem, Melissa said. The demand for sex — both from those who sell themselves freely, and from those who are trafficked — is high, largely because the consequences of buying a person for sex are relatively low.

“You can’t just point fingers at the escorts,” Melissa said. “This is a bigger issue than just the escorts. (Prostitution) wouldn’t be here if people weren’t patronizing these escorts.”

Things are changing in Idaho though, as efforts are underway in the Legislature to discourage people from seeking out paid sexual experiences.

But the problem is still a long way from being solved.

Melissa’s story

The thought of selling her body for sex had never crossed Melissa’s mind.

She was in her mid-40s at the time, living a typical upper middle-income life. She had a successful husband and several adult and teenage children who were active in school and sports. She owned a home, had a respected career and had earned several graduate degrees.

She didn’t fit the hyper-sexual stereotype of a prostitute. Melissa looked and sounded like the average busy mom that lives next door, the kind of person you’d expect to see at church or a PTO activity.

And yet for 18 months, Melissa traded her professional attire for lingerie and secretly posed provocatively for online ads so men would pay to have sex with her.

The life change happened seemingly overnight — the result of a difficult divorce.

“I had never thought about anything like this,” Melissa said. “But you’re thinking about keeping your power on and putting food on the table and … my moral compass was tempted … it suddenly sounded like that could help me get back on my feet.”

Melissa had a friend, a middle-aged male business owner, who showed her personal ads he used on Craigslist and Backpage. He suggested that money could be made by selling herself online.

Melissa hesitantly agreed and the business owner, who EastIdahoNews.com is not identifying to protect Melissa, set up her first meeting with a stranger at a local hotel. During that first encounter, there was physical contact between her and the man, but no sex was involved.

Melissa got $500.

“I didn’t go into it thinking I’d make hundreds of thousands,” Melissa said. “I just needed to make ends meet … it was, ‘I got some money, so let’s pay a bill.'”

The ability to pay bills was enough to entice Melissa to continue the relationship with the business owner. Melissa took semi-nude photos of herself and gave them to her now-pimp. He bought classified ads on Backpage for Melissa, advertising her as an escort. He set up the encounters, bought the hotel rooms, and even took her to appointments. They split the commission.

“The two main resources are Backpage and Craigslist,” Melissa said. “People that are seeking this type of recreation know exactly where to look, the wording is very specific … there is definitely a lingo … and people know what to look for.”

Where prostitution is advertised online

Prostitution Advertisement Locations Graph
Source: Urban Institute 2014 study on prostitution in major U.S. cities

All of the former and current escorts who were interviewed by EastIdahoNews.com say Backpage is the best way to find and entice clients. Melissa engaged in more than 100 encounters during her 18 months as a escort, with most of the encounters arranged through Backpage.com.

Authorities monitor Backpage and similar sites regularly to catch prostitution, but Melissa was never arrested, charged or even challenged by authorities. To her knowledge, neither were any of her clients.

“There is always a fear of getting arrested,” she said. “And the fear isn’t just from the escort. It also stems from the client. They are fearful.”

But in the end, the numbers suggest the odds of getting caught aren’t very high.

How do prostitutes and clients get away with it?

There is no direct data on how prevalent prostitution is in east Idaho. Of the escorts interviewed by EastIdahoNews.com, two women reported taking several clients a week, while another said on a good Saturday she could see between six to eight clients from Pocatello to Rexburg and make around $900.

There is consistently between 10 to 15 personal ads for escorts on the major classified and adult escort websites every day. The ads never stay up long. Some of these ads are spam; others are police decoy accounts set up to catch potential johns.

But most of the ads are from traveling escorts or those who are being trafficked. These men and women often travel in groups around neighboring states, staying for a weekend, advertising themselves and then quickly leaving the area.

“They’re roving, and it’s their livelihood,” Melissa said. “They keep the same pictures and verbiage so they can establish a clientele. They make it definitely recognizable that it’s safe to go see them.”

As a result of the constant travel, it’s very difficult to tell how many escorts are in eastern Idaho at one time.

What we do know is that arrests and prosecutions do not keep pace with paid sexual encounters.

Prostitution arrests between 2015 and 2017

Since 2015, only a handful of prostitution arrests have been made in eastern Idaho’s largest cities.

In Idaho Falls, a single prostitute was arrested in 2018, 2017 and 2016, respectively — two were roving escorts from Oregon and one was local. The last time a client was arrested for solicitation was in 2011, when four people were taken into custody. In Rexburg no one has been arrested for prostitution since before 2015, but one person was arrested for solicitation in 2016. The same is true in Pocatello, although two prostitution arrests were made in Chubbuck.

Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Bryan Lovell said the internet has made arresting escorts and clients much more difficult.

“We’re fortunate in our area that we’ve not got prostitutes walking the streets where people can see them,” Lovell tells EastIdahoNews.com. “The internet has made it so they can do all the business behind the scenes. … so we know they are there, but the hard part of targeting them is knowing who is involved with what.”

Finding a prostitute isn’t difficult, officials say, but getting the evidence to prove a paid sexual encounter has occurred is a different story.

Idaho code stipulates an escort and a client must agree to a fee in exchange for a sex act to be found guilty of a crime.

But prostitutes claim there are some creative ways around that law.

Massaging the law

Jasmyn is a veteran sex worker who hails from Pocatello. The woman, who is in her mid-40s, has been escorting full time or part time on her own for nearly a decade. Unlike Melissa, Jasmyn is a roving worker and is still very much involved in the sex trade. She moved to Utah several years ago after her children grew up and left home. Now she visits Pocatello at least once a month to service longtime clientele.

“The clientele (in Idaho) keeps me 10 times as busy as they do in Utah, because there just aren’t a ton of escorts here,” Jasmyn said. “It’s good business here, and I make really good money.”

Jasmyn says her secret to staying ahead of the authorities is a massage license.

“That’s covered my ass a lot of times,” Jasmyn said. “If I have lots of clients coming in and out of my house, I can tell people I’m a licensed masseuse and when I get audited (by the IRS), I can show them the license.”

Jasmyn says she’s been audited multiple times by the IRS, and always keeps a “normal day job” so it appears her main source of income is legitimate. The day job also helps conceal the sex work from her youngest two daughters, who still don’t know about their mother’s profession.

The veteran sex worker says after a decade of work, she rarely takes a new client, which greatly reduces her risk of being caught or turned in.

Sugar baby

Another tactic used by local sex workers is redefining the traditional role of a escort to avoid arrest.

Kat, an Idaho Falls woman in her 30s, uses Backpage to arrange sexual encounters with individuals or couples. She doesn’t see herself as an escort though, because she doesn’t directly take cash for sex. She describes herself as a dominatrix and a sugar baby. A sugar baby is typically a person in some sort of romantic relationship who receives cash, gifts or other benefits in exchange for being in that relationship. Sites like SeekingArrangement.com and SugarDaddy.com have popularized the trend in the last decade.

“The actual nature of my involvement is 100 percent legal, being that it is a spiritual calling, and I consider my people friends or lovers rather than as clients,” Kat said. “It makes a big difference in the light of the legal ramifications.”

She says it is common for her to collect random financial gifts from a “club of gentlemen” she has regular sexual interactions with. But she said it is their choice to “spoil her.”

Of course, local prosecutors rarely see things the same as the escorts.

“Ultimately at the end of the day, this is up to a jury of their peers,” Bannock County Deputy Prosecutor Ashley Graham said. “It boils down to semantics. You’ve got 12 people in a box and they’re going to know you’re blowing smoke up their skirts, because any reasonable person will be able to see what is really going on.”

But that’s only if it gets to court. Graham says to prosecute, there needs to be proof of an agreement to engage in sexual conduct for money, either from a witness who observed or participated, or from a video or photo of the interaction. Alternatively, a case can sometimes be prosecuted with circumstantial evidence such a financial ledger or client list. Often it’s a combination of the two.

Local sex workers are careful to protect their clients and hide any evidence. Kat told EastIdahoNews.com she uses aliases for her regulars, keeps minimal records of their interactions and uses a separate phone line given to only a select few people. She also extensively screens and is selective about new clients in order to avoid any legal entanglements.

Bannock County Deputy Prosecutor Brian Trammell said one of prosecutors’ biggest challenges is the workers and clients simply not talking.

“Sometimes you know what’s going on, but you can’t prove it,” Trammell said. “They really try to cover for each other.”

What is being done in Idaho?

The prevalence of prostitution in Idaho is a concern for many local and state officials, particularly because of the growth of human and child sex trafficking across the Gem State.

At a local level, law enforcement is actively engaged in training to better understand prostitution and the problems that appear alongside it. Graham, the Bannock County deputy prosecutor, said it’s important to remember prostitution rarely appears on its own.

“There are usually other things that go along with prostitution,” she said. “It could be drugs involved, it could be child trafficking involved or human trafficking. It’s not necessarily just someone hired to perform sexual activity where everyone is consenting. Some of these women may be being held against their will, and other crimes may be occurring alongside prostitution. That’s what makes it more dangerous for everyone involved.”

Bannock County Prosecutor Steve Herzog said prostitution can’t be fixed at a local level, but can be continuously improved over time.

“You are not going to get rid of it, and so maybe the best thing you can do is create pressure and have the people involved go elsewhere,” Herzog said. “You create an environment where the people engaged in that business will want to go someplace else. That’s about all you can ultimately hope for.”

On the state level, Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Brent Crane (R-Nampa) is hoping new laws will help fight prostitution and specifically deter human trafficking and sex slavery. He has proposed legislation that would make it a felony crime for an individual to patronize a prostitute even once. Currently, patronizing a prostitute is a misdemeanor in Idaho that becomes a felony only after the third charge.

Crane has been working with non-profit group INsideOUT in Eagle and with former trafficked prostitutes to craft anti-prostitution legislation.

“We were told the number one thing we can do is go after the buyer,” Crane said. “You can punish the girl and take her out of the community, and you can punish the pimp, but another pimp and another girl will just fill the void. You have to go after the guys who are purchasing this. We need to send a clear message that the boys and girls of Idaho are not for sale.”

During a committee hearing for Crane’s bill on Feb. 1, the representative brought a number of former child prostitutes to testify. Several young women testified johns are equally as dangerous as traffickers and frequently abuse and rape their victims. One woman described that as a child she was choked, tied up, cut with knives and then penetrated with sharp objects by an abusive john.

A 15-year-old Payette girl told the committee she had been forced into prostitution at age 13 by her mother’s pimp.

“I wanted out so bad for so long. It was so hard to speak up and try and tell someone,” she said. “Many times I’d tell a grown man my age, and he was OK with it. He didn’t care. He just wanted the sex. They severely abused and raped me. It was horrible for me.”

Both women emphasized that they had been trafficked because there was a market for their bodies.

During the hearing, several representatives brought up concerns that the law could unfairly penalize prostitution cases where both the escort and the client are consenting adults.

Crane said he believes that’s a misconception about modern-day prostitution. He emphasized that no girl leaves high school dreaming about a career in prostitution.

“Individuals think a lot of the girls who are over 18 are willing in this business, but most are not,” he said. “Most are not there because they want to be. They are either addicted to a drug, they owe money or the pimp has some sort of power over them.”

As of March 22, the bill was still in committee.

What about legalization?

Despite its higher political profile in Idaho, creating harsher punishments for prostitution isn’t the only discussion out there.

During interviews with EastIdahoNews.com, several escorts expressed a desire to see prostitution legalized in Idaho, both as a way to help protect adult sex workers and to help law enforcement differentiate between encounters involving consenting adults and those involving human trafficking.

Looking back at a decade in the industry, Jasmyn admits sex work was never something she would have chosen under optimal conditions, nor would she recommend it to others.

But she is proud of what she has accomplished because of it. Like Melissa, a messy divorce left Jasmyn with a home she couldn’t afford, and three children to raise alone.

“Most of us are single moms just trying to take care of our families,” she told EastIdahoNews.com. “We have babies, the state won’t help us, and so we have to take matters into our own hands.”

Jasmyn put all three of her daughters through school, was able to keep her home and even rent an apartment on the side for the escorting — all on prostitution pay.

In her mind, escorting, despite its illegality, is a job like any other. It was the means to give her daughters a normal life.

One of Jasmyn’s advantages was breaking away from an abusive man who wanted to be her pimp early in her career. She became an independent contractor with very strict rules about accepting and retaining new clients, ensuring personal and client hygiene in her encounters and creating a list of sex acts she simply would not perform.

As a result, Jasmyn said she will have saved enough to retire from the industry in a couple years, and without ever contracting a sexually transmitted disease or seeing much abuse from clients.

Her biggest concern is for young women entering the field out of desperation, and the need for money. Often she said, desperation leads young girls into situations were they can be trafficked, or entrapped by pimps or abused by their own clients.

“There are some clients that are into some really freaky crap, and these younger escorts are doing it,” she said. “A lot of these girls just see dollar signs … and that’s really scary.”

Jasmyn would like to see classes for young prostitutes to teach them about cleanliness, personal safety, and how to not be taken advantage of. In her mind, penalizing clients or prostitutes isn’t going to solve any problem, because the underlying issues that drive clients to escorts will still exist.

At least if it were legal for consenting adults there would be clean, regulated places for sex without the risk of abusive clients or sexually transmitted diseases, she said. She also believes it would help police better focus on stopping human trafficking.

At the moment, there are no official discussions in Idaho about legalizing prostitution. Across the nation, Nevada is the only state to allow some legal prostitution, and only in approved brothels in rural areas.

Looking ahead

Melissa says her journey into prostitution destroyed her life, although in the end, things did get better for her.

Those 18 months cost Melissa her job, her standing in the community and caused immense pain for her children and extended family.

But ultimately, she had a “wakeup moment” where she just couldn’t do the job anymore.

She went to the police with information about her pimp and his prostitution ring, and she testified against him in court.

“People do things that they look back on and regret, and this isn’t who I am now … this is just a stumbling block I have to learn from,” Melissa said.

Melissa has a message for anyone considering prostitution as a solution to their problems.

“If you’re thinking about becoming an escort or a client, know that there are other things out there. Friends, clergy, people that can help you with bills. Think twice … I don’t think any situation is so bad you have to degrade yourself to do something like this,” she said. “It’s not worth the risk of tearing your life and family up, losing a job or being scorned in public.”

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