X RATED: DC’s Underground Sex IndustryDC's red-light district is gone, and the strip-club scene is pretty tame. But the sex industry is going strong. Using the internet, it has gone underground, and police warn of coming turf wars. Written by Chris Vogel | Published on November 1, 2005 Tweet Share
It's Tuesday evening, and the tourists have said goodnight to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. At the end of the Mall, the dome of the Capitol shines like a moon. Almost in its shadow, seven blocks away, is a neighborhood few tourists have reason to visit. Lining the streets beneath the noise of I-295 is a mixture of auto-repair shops, chainlink fences, and taxi-cab companies. A bouncer sits on a stool outside a building at 900 First Street, Southeast. The awning reads NEXUS GOLD CLUB. Parked cars line the street. Inside, the VIP balcony is filling up, and the downstairs lounge is teeming with businessmen trying to show clients a good time. Scantily clad women hobnob with customers, exchanging pleasantries and cruising for tips.
A young woman in a sheer blue dress and high platform heels introduces herself as "Sugar." Tan and lean, she says she is a 29-year-old graduate student who's just wild enough to take her clothes off for money.
"I know that guys look down on me and see me as just this hot chick without a brain," she says, "but it doesn't bother me. I know I'm smart. This is just one part of me, and I'm having a lot of fun."
Sugar says she grew up in a Bethesda neighborhood off River Road and graduated from an area college. "I can't tell you my real name," she says, "because my parents don't know I'm doing this."
On stage, she sheds the dress and is left wearing a baby-blue garter and the platform heels. Her dance moves are not elaborate. She looks a bit bored. Men approach her to slip dollar bills under her garter. When the R&B song she's dancing to ends, she puts her dress back on and is replaced by the next dancer.
Sugar says she began stripping on a dare three weeks earlier. She and some friends were out at another strip club when Sugar–a little drunk, she says–started talking to a dancer on stage. The dancer dared her to go up, and "Sugar" was born. She danced for a few minutes and got $25 in tips.
"Why do I do it?" Sugar muses while rolling her long blond hair around her wrist. "Because I'm crazy."
But not crazy like a Fanne Foxe, some old-timers might say. Today's strippers, like Sugar, may have toned bodies, but they're about as exotic as cashiers at a suburban mall. Most say stripping–or dancing nude–is a means to an end. A stripper can easily take home more than $1,000 a week, according to dancers. Stripping may not make many résumés, they say, but it may help pay for the credentials on them.
Gone is the old red-light district along DC's 14th Street, where neon lights led the way to peep shows, go-go clubs, and burlesque halls and where the late congressman Wilbur Mills, an Arkansas Democrat, fell madly in love with Fanne Foxe–the "Argentine Firecracker"–then fell out of power when she fell into the Tidal Basin.
The gaudy downtown clubs have been replaced by office buildings; the striptease acts have given way to in-your-face nudity. As a result of laws that keep new strip clubs from locating in DC, the only X-rated action that remains in public view is a handful of clubs that feature nude dancing. The rest of X-rated Washington is now largely out of sight–a flourishing underworld of escort services and massage-parlor brothels.
Thirty years ago, you could walk through DC's red-light district and take in Jell-O wrestling and 25-cent peep shows. Prostitutes walked the streets and hung out at clubs; conventioneers could pop into "model studios" off the street for an intimate but anonymous $125 encounter. There was also burlesque, with big-name headliners like Blaze Starr, who performed in sequined outfits and plumes of feathers, and comedians who filled in between acts.
Wilbur Mills met Fanne Foxe at the Silver Slipper on 13th Street. One October night in 1974, Mills and Foxe and some friends were driving around in a Lincoln when US Park Police pulled them over near the Tidal Basin for speeding. In a panic, Foxe leaped into the Tidal Basin. Soon after, Mills sought help for a drinking problem and resigned as head of the House Ways and Means Committee.
By 1986, the neon demimonde that thrived in the blocks around 14th, H, and I streets had vanished. New laws and tighter restrictions have kept X-rated Washington from making a public comeback.
In the early 1990s, DC placed a freeze on liquor licenses for nude-dancing establishments. "If you owned a place, you could keep it and you could sell it, but you couldn't move it," says Jack Evans, city councilman in Ward 2, the downtown and close-in Northwest DC area where most of the strip clubs are. "It protected all the existing clubs, but you couldn't get a new license. It was a compromise between eliminating them and letting them expand. And we didn't want them to expand."
The law was amended to allow clubs to relocate within certain areas, but they must be more than 600 feet from any residential building and at least 600 feet from another strip club to prevent the kind of concentration that marked DC's 14th Street.
The freeze on licenses gives DC club owners job security–it prevents national chains like Scores and Larry Flynt's Hustler Club from moving in. Those chains–and thousands of independent clubs–constitute a big business boom. The 3,800 "adult cabarets" in the United States earn about $15 billion of a $75-billion worldwide legal adult-entertainment market, according to Angelina Spencer of the Association of Club Executives. "This is one market that remains strong nationally and sees regular growth year after year," Spencer says.
There are 20 licensed strip clubs in DC; three are advertised in Northern Virginia–one in Crystal City and two in Springfield; and just over a dozen operate in Prince George's County. There are none in Alexandria or Montgomery County, police say.
The six largest markets, Spencer says, are Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. There are about 40 major strip clubs in Atlanta, she says. "Even a conservative estimate of the economic impact of such clubs translates to . . . far above the economic impact of the Braves, Hawks, and Falcons combined," she says.
Despite possibilities for increased tax revenues, Evans says, the District is not looking to allow more clubs. "It's just an issue we don't want to visit again," he says. "What we have is working."
What DC has is a handful of clubs that range from glitzy showrooms like the Nexus Gold Club to places that feel more like neighborhood bars–albeit with women dancing nude. Several even serve good food.
The best-known club is Camelot Show Bar on M Street downtown, where the decor is classier, the dancers are more attractive, and the mid-fortyish clientele is older than elsewhere. Not far away, Archibalds on K Street has the feel of a local pub. At happy hour it's packed with a mix of whites and blacks, often including a few women, all of whom chat amiably; the nude dancing almost seems secondary.
The Royal Palace, a short walk from Dupont Circle, inside looks at first like a bingo hall; both the clientele and the dancers are racially diverse, and the atmosphere is friendly. Good Guys on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park feels like a party: The music is more rock 'n' roll than R&B, and the dancers, who have more tattoos and piercings than elsewhere, actually use the pole in their acrobatic performances. Across the street, JP's is a utility strip club–nude dancers, a younger crowd of regulars, and a dark but hospitable atmosphere.
Across the Potomac River in Crystal City, just off Jefferson Davis Highway, the Crystal City Restaurant looks like a sports bar. There are pool tables, video games, and dozens of flat-screen televisions showing sporting events; an electronic board displays the starting time and point spread for upcoming games. Near-nude dancers perform on two stages. Unlike in DC, dancers must wear G-strings and pasties that cover their nipples. The atmosphere is relaxed. Men wearing everything from suits to shorts and T-shirts sit at tables eating and drinking and watching TV, handing out dollar bills as the dancers walk by after finishing their acts.
As with the clubs in DC, police say the Crystal City club seldom generates trouble. "The complaints we get there are about clients being intoxicated," Arlington County detective Rick Rodriguez says.
That's not always the case in Prince George's County, where clubs are located in industrial areas and a few residential neighborhoods. Patrons say there's an anything-goes atmosphere in some of the clubs, and the scene can be more rough-and-tumble than in downtown DC and Virginia.
DC's strip clubs attract their share of out-of-towners, but most patrons are local, club owners say. "Conventioneers are a bonus," says one, "but the locals keep us in business. I'd say conventioneers maybe make up 25 percent of our customers."
"We get a healthy number of people who get sent to us by their hotel concierge and cab drivers," says another club owner. "That's the way most visitors find us."
Club owners also say business is pretty much the same no matter which political party is in power. "Republicans, Democrats, they all come," laughs one owner. Says another: "I'm sure President Bush hates us, but having a conservative in power hasn't affected our business."
DC's gay strip clubs are decidedly different. Instead of being scattered, the gay clubs are in one location–off South Capitol Street, Southeast, in cavernous warehouses. Far from feeling like neighborhood bars, the gay clubs are explicitly sexual.
Ziegfeld's and Secrets is a combination showroom and strip club. Ziegfeld's is the showroom, a large hall where drag performances are held on a wooden stage surrounded by cocktail tables and chairs. There's a bar in the back. Through a glass door to the right of the bar is Secrets, the strip club, where muscular men dance naked on stages and on the bar. About a dozen televisions show hard-core gay pornography. Dancers allow patrons to stroke their genitals–a practice almost never seen in the heterosexual clubs.
Allen Carroll and Chris Jansen have owned Ziegfeld's for almost 30 years. They opened the first gay club in the warehouse district south of the Capitol. Now there are some half dozen gay strip clubs, theaters, and bathhouses in the area. But not for long. The new baseball stadium will carve up the area and force at least six clubs, including Ziegfeld's, Heat, and the Follies Theatre, to vacate.
"They're destroying a community," Carroll says. "[Gays] have been coming down here for 30 years, and they're all worried to death. Customers in here are always saying to me, 'You've gotta open another place. What are we going to do?' "
Councilman Jack Evans acknowledges that the gay clubs in the area face a difficult situation. "No one has come up with a credible solution to the problem," he says. "The dynamic there is it's close to downtown, it's isolated, and there's a concentration, so it works. There's nowhere else in the city where we can re-create that. The land doesn't exist."
"I want to open another place," Carroll says, "but where can I take my license? I don't want them to just stick us in some neighborhood and have to work on gaining acceptance again. . . . I'm hoping they'll be lenient with license and relocating laws with us and take into consideration how long we've been here."
At the Bada Bing strip club featured on HBO's The Sopranos, sexual favors are traded, drugs are readily available, and gangsters gather to plot their moves.
One DC manager says the only relationship his club has to The Sopranos is that "they showed people drinking Grey Goose vodka at the Bada Bing, and immediately Grey Goose sales went up more than 100 percent. . . . In any business you have some bad apples, but the club owners here make real good money, and there's no reason to do anything extracurricular."
In the old days, the "extracurricular" was standard. "The country was looser," an owner says. "There were fewer laws and less enforcement. You even had [then-mayor] Marion Barry accused of doing cocaine at the This Is It club in the mid-1980s. Washington has changed. The most important thing I tell my managers is that we have to keep our license, so we can't do anything that would cause us to lose it."
It would be naïve to think that Washington strip clubs are free of drugs and prostitution, but they are not readily evident. DC's Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) has been monitoring only one establishment and that because of violence, not sexual activity.
Sergeant Mark Gilkey, the DC police detective in charge of the antiprostitution unit, says police get involved primarily when they receive complaints from citizens. "We've done several investigations of clubs over the years," Gilkey says, "but that doesn't seem like a high-problem area. The clientele for clubs is totally different than it used to be. The clubs have cleaned up considerably."
The law broken most often in DC clubs is the one requiring that dancers perform on a stage at least three feet from the nearest customer. According to ABRA director of operations Jeff Coudriet, it is technically a violation for a patron to go up to a stage and slip money in a dancer's garter while she performs. But Coudriet acknowledges, "It's so historically done here that we look the other way on the tipping issue. . . . For the most part, DC is pretty clean."
Dancers themselves have something to do with that, says one manager. "It does happen that girls will go home with a customer, but the girls police each other because it makes them look bad. It makes the guys think that all the girls will do it because one girl is doing it, and the majority of girls don't want that stigma."
And drugs? "We still have drug problems with girls, but even five or six years ago it was a lot worse, and we're cracking down on it more. If we catch a customer using drugs, we'll kick him out. There are ten people who will fill his spot at the bar."
Says another manager, "If I see a girl who looks like she's on drugs–you know, falling asleep or drooling–I say something to her. Of course, they always deny it. But I tell them I don't care if they're doing it or not, you look bad, and people will always assume the worst. So I tell them that if they look or act this way again, they're gone. And of course the ones who have a problem will always f— up again, and we have to fire them because you just cannot have that."
That strip clubs are no longer the places to go to find sex doesn't mean there isn't a sex industry here. Says one regular at a strip club, "If you're looking for sex, you go to the street, the escort services, or massage parlors."
Based on statistics from the Polaris Project, a Washington-based international organization that combats sex trafficking, the value of the sex trade in Washington is estimated at nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year.
The Yellow Pages list 133 escort services, most of which operate as outcall brothels. That's a tenfold increase since 1983. A Google search for "Washington DC escort service" yields hundreds of results. Average advertised rates range from $200 to $500 an hour. Massage parlors and "spas" offering in-call and outcall services, often sexual, advertise in the Yellow Pages, newspapers, and magazines.
More than 40 Asian massage parlors–mostly Korean–operate as fronts for in-call brothels, says Derek Ellerman, coexecutive director of the Polaris Project. Each earns an average of $1.2 million a year. More than 200 massage parlors that do not advertise–and operate largely out of private homes and apartments–serve mainly Latino clients; the average take is estimated at more than $800,000 a year.
A street pimp controlling four women can make about $632,000 a year, according to Ellerman. In September 2004, Gary "Sweat" Gates was convicted of sex trafficking in the District and sentenced to 178 months in prison. Gates controlled more than 30 women–including girls as young as 14–who sold their sexual services on the street and on two Internet sites.
Tina Frundt has large eyes and a smile that puts people at ease, useful traits in her old life that now help her in her new one. She used to be a prostitute. Now she does outreach work with prostitutes and others in Washington for the Polaris Project.
At age ten, her foster mother's boyfriend sold her for sex. Frundt later left home in Chicago at age 14 and soon met a "wonderful guy" in his twenties. They teamed up, living mainly in motels. They talked of living the good life together, of buying a home and getting rich. Then one day, Frundt says, the man told her "if I loved him, I would help make money for us."
They drove to Cleveland. That night some friends of his came to their motel room. He told Frundt to have sex with a man. She refused. They raped her. Like most women beginning in prostitution–many when they are barely more than children–she blamed herself.
Afterward, she recalls, "he said that wouldn't have happened if I would have just listened to him at first. So I took it as my fault. Instead of being angry at him for being raped, I was angry at myself for not listening to him in the first place. Right after is when he picked my clothes out, told me what to wear, and forced me to go out on the streets." Soon she learned that he was pimping several other women.
On the streets Frundt had to make $500 before she could come in for the night. When she brought in only $50, "he beat me up in front of the other girls and made me go outside until I had made the money," she says. "This is the same man who took me out to eat, listened to me when I complained about my parents, and gave me advice, but increasingly I was seeing a side of him I had never seen before. A brutal side. . . . I was scared."
One day Frundt worked from 6 AM to 10 PM without eating or sleeping. She made her $500 quota, but the pimp, still angry, put her back on the streets until 5 the next morning. When Frundt was finished, he bought her some food but locked her in a closet to sleep.
"Pimps are sadistic," Frundt says. "They train you. I've had my arm broken with a bat. After the abuse, the pimp would tell me to sit on his lap and would ask me what was wrong. When I said, 'You broke my arm,' he hit me and asked me again what was wrong. I had to say, 'I fell down.' "
A pimp usually takes the woman to a new city where she doesn't know anyone. Most of the women Frundt's organization helps are from elsewhere, she says. "They're like, 'This is DC!' and they're so happy to see the Capitol. Then, when they want to leave, where do they go? Would you go to the police who keep arresting you? No, you wouldn't."
Frundt says her story is the norm for most prostitutes, whether they work on the streets or through escort services.
"A lot of escort services are pimp-controlled," says the Polaris Project's Derek Ellerman, "and are fronts for prostitution. No one believes they're just for dates. There may be some very, very high-end services where there isn't full intercourse, but in general it's prostitution where they come to your hotel room or home. They don't escort you anywhere."
High-end escort services are sophisticated operations in which women's services can cost thousands of dollars–and the women have some freedom to choose whether to have sex with the customer.
Some services, usually advertised in the Yellow Pages and on the Internet, are run by madams; escorts get a percentage of the money they bring in. Many ads on the Internet are placed by "renegades," prostitutes who operate without any management and keep their earnings. Some pimp-controlled prostitutes who work the streets also work through agencies with ads on the Internet or in newspapers.
Agencies and pimps often use a matrix of phone numbers that are call-forwarded to one another and therefore hard to track, or they use cell phones, which are difficult for police to monitor, too. Clients also can log onto the Internet and arrange to meet an escort at a certain time and place without having to talk on the phone.
"It's very frustrating," DC detective Gilkey says. "Because of the technology they're using, the cases are tougher. But we're still very proactively working on them."
Some people question why authorities should pursue what they see as "victimless" crimes. But experts note that the sex industry is rife with victims. Several cases in recent years have highlighted the dangers. This year 24-year-old exotic dancer Emily Cagal was beaten to death inside her Rockville condo. Police charged two men who worked as Cagal's bodyguards while she performed at private homes. They are accused of killing Cagal, carrying her body out in a wicker footlocker, and burying her in a shallow grave. The men reportedly stole large amounts of cash from her home.
In 2003 Teresa Howell, 42, was found dead in her Georgetown home. News accounts say the $300-an-hour escort, who used the professional name Summer Breeze, operated without an agency and placed ads in magazines and on the Internet. Police initially believed a date might have killed her but later surmised that she fractured her skull in a fall inside her home while she was drunk. Howell had liver problems associated with alcohol abuse. Howell's friends told the Washington Post that many women who do escort work turn to alcohol or drugs.
Women are not the only victims. Another case that made news was that of Bob Beckel, who in 2002 was blackmailed by an escort. Beckel, a Democratic Party strategist who ran Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in 1984, had called an escort to his Bethesda home and paid for oral sex with a $600 check. Two days later Beckel called the woman again, this time giving her a $1,300 check. Weeks later the escort was involved in blackmailing Beckel for $50,000 to keep their relationship quiet. Beckel went to the police and resigned from a US Senate campaign he was managing in Idaho.
Escort services operate relatively freely because they are difficult to get information about. "We actually know the least about the escort services," says Ellerman, who works closely with police. "For one thing, they're so decentralized, and when you have decentralized networks, they're very hard for law enforcement to get a handle on. Prosecuting an escort agency is substantial and challenging, and it won't even affect the overall system. I mean, you could take out 5, 10, 15 of them, and it wouldn't hurt the market at all."
And because escort services operate out of the public eye, citizens tend to be tolerant of them, says DC councilman Jack Evans. "People don't want prostitutes at night keeping them awake, condoms in their yard, and needles in the alley, that whole thing," he says. "But . . . an escort agency–nobody cares."
"Are escorts as guilty as other forms of prostitution?" says Detective Tom Stack of the Montgomery County police. "Yes. You hate to put things in priority, but if a juvenile is engaged in prostitution, that's a priority. Then you deal with complaints. We do pop escorts sometimes, but there are so many of them, I could lock one up every six hours."
Stack says he once arrested a 59-year-old escort in a sting at a motel who "just thought it was great people were paying her to have sex. She was making $2,000 to $3,000 a week."
Ironically, the growth in escort services has been fueled in part by successful police work. Crackdowns on street prostitution have helped drive women and johns alike to escort agencies.
In terms of public prostitution, "we're light-years ahead of where we used to be," says Sergeant Gilkey. "It used to be that you'd go down to 14th Street and there would be anywhere from 50 to 60 girls out. Now sometimes there are no girls at all. I'm not saying it's totally cleared up, but it's not the parade of girls like it used to be."
Prostitution per se is not illegal in DC. The crime–for prostitutes and johns–is solicitation, a misdemeanor. Maximum penalties for solicitation in DC are 90 days in jail and/or $500 for a first offense and 180 days and/or $1,000 for a third or subsequent offense.
Street prostitution is now concentrated in several spots in downtown DC. The most famous is "the loop" between K and L and 13th and 14th streets.
The suburbs aren't immune to the problem. On September 23 in Fairfax County, undercover officers arrested 26 people in the Alexandria and Lincolnia areas on solicitation and other charges.
Street prostitution remains the most visible form of sex trade. "I think it's interesting," Ellerman says, "because a lot of Americans will look at a place like Thailand and say, 'How can you have a culture and society that would allow its children to be sold into sexual slavery?' There's this sort of moral indignation. Yet that stuff happens every single night right here in DC. And if the media found out that a father was sexually abusing his 13-year-old daughter, it would be a monster story about a horrific crime. But if you take that same girl and sell her to multiple people who repeatedly rape her for profit, it goes from a crime to something you're unlikely to be prosecuted for."
There is no sign on the building in the 1000 block of Vermont Avenue in downtown DC. Customers enter through a pair of double glass doors; in the foyer a surveillance camera hangs from the ceiling. Up four flights of stairs, a wooden door bears MasterCard and Visa stickers. I push the buzzer.
An older Korean woman answers and ushers me into a pink-and-white waiting room filled with exercise equipment and weights. Without saying a word, she escorts me to a little room with a chair, a hook on the wall, and a massage table covered in terry cloth.
"Wait just a minute, please," she says.
Moments later, a younger Korean woman in a bikini enters. "House fee is $60," she says in heavily accented English. "You take your clothes off, please."
I give her three twenties, strip down to my boxers, and lie on the table on my stomach. She begins a massage.
"Where are you from?" she asks.
"Around here," I answer. "And you?"
"Korea. I've been here about ten months. It's okay."
Other than that, there is little conversation. She does not mention money other than the entrance fee or bring up anything beyond a massage. The best clue I have that massages are not the main attraction here is that the woman is not a very good masseuse–she seems to be going through the motions and waiting for me to suggest the next phase. If you don't, going to a massage parlor is not an erotic time.
My experience, however, is not the norm. Most clients don't enter asking questions about money and services; my inquisitive behavior likely caused the woman to clam up.
An unmarried Washington attorney who says he frequents an Asian massage parlor across the street from Ford's Theatre describes the experience:
"You ring the buzzer and then pay the lady $60," he says. "Then they take you to a room where it looks like the girl lives with a sink and a table. There they get you naked and bring you into a second room where they bathe you with warm water, flirt with you, and massage you. It's real comfy."
Afterward, he says, they bring you back into the first room with the table.
"They say things like, 'C'mon, I know you've got more money' and 'You have tip?' You give them money and negotiate indirectly. Sometimes I'll say, 'I only have $15,' and they'll be like, 'You very bad man.' "
The attorney says the women provide sex for anywhere between $70 and $100 on top of the entrance fee.
"They have condoms for you, and afterward they dress you and put on your socks for you. It's kinda funny."
The more than 40 Asian massage parlors in the area cater primarily to white, middle-class professionals. Like strip clubs, they are busiest during lunch and happy hour.
The concentration of Asian parlors is in downtown DC: Eight are within a ten-block radius of the White House, says Ellerman, who has a wall map in his office with colored pins showing their locations. Most are licensed as commercial massage or health-therapy centers. Their entrances are bland. Only surveillance cameras and a buzzer system let pedestrians know something is going on inside.
Asian parlors make about $3,200 a day, the Polaris Project estimates–enough to allow them to operate in high-priced neighborhoods. There is one across from the MCI Center and three near Tenth and F streets.
Most massage parlors are operated by Koreans and Latinos. The Korean parlors are part of a decentralized network that operates in practically every major city and increasingly in rural areas, Ellerman says. The parlors share information; the people who set up and run the parlors move from state to state setting up new ones.
One owner may control parlors in several states, trafficking women back and forth. Traditionally, the owner hires a brothel keeper, usually an older Korean woman. Many of the women were first prostitutes around US military bases in Korea; some married American GIs.
Most of the marriages failed, Ellerman says. "Most of the women, who didn't speak English, were outcasts in the Korean community here because they had married a GI and were in the sex industry, so they couldn't easily get jobs or support from the community. They were left with very few options and easily recruited into a massage parlor."
Some parlor workers are from Thailand and other Asian countries, but those most commonly selling sex are younger Koreans in their late teens to late twenties, brought to America with the promise of a new life and jobs at places such as restaurants. They are smuggled in from Canada and Mexico and arrive owing the smuggler a large debt. To pay it off, they are recruited into the parlors.
"When the women arrive," Tina Frundt says, "they don't speak the language, and the brothel keepers scare them. They tell the women they can leave but they'll be arrested and deported and, by the way, you have a debt on your head."
A network of Korean taxis transports the women across the country. The women use the taxis because most do not have identification, don't want to travel on planes, and can't use public transportation because they don't speak English, Ellerman says.
The Asian parlors are generally "open," which means anyone can enter. Latino parlors are "closed"–they cater almost exclusively to Latino customers.
While Asian parlors usually pose as businesses, the more than 100 Latino brothels are almost exclusively residential, operating out of homes and apartments in Latino communities. There are more Latino parlors in the suburbs, Ellerman says, "because there is a larger Latino population there." Catering to a largely working-class population, they charge less than the Asian brothels but rely on high volume. They advertise by word of mouth.
"The standard pricing is $30 for 15 minutes," Ellerman says, "so literally women have to have sex with 20 to 30 men every day. Many of the men are abusive, drunk, and refuse to wear condoms. The conditions are horrible, and you have a much higher frequency of child trafficking. It's so much worse than the Korean brothels."
There are Korean-only operations in the suburbs, especially in Fairfax. Officer Richard Henry of the Fairfax County Police Department says authorities there have conducted 30 operations in the last 18 months on massage parlors. The operations mainly stemmed from citizen complaints. Latino brothels dominate in Arlington, operating out of apartments and homes, Detective Rick Rodriguez says.
Montgomery County has its share of underground brothels, mostly Latino and some Chinese, but it has stamped out all 24 of the commercial-front massage parlors that used to operate there by passing a law requiring that massage parlors be licensed and enforcing the regulations.
"You'll never get rid of prostitution," says assistant county attorney Jim Savage, "not even in Montgomery County. But it's not as blatant as it used to be. At least you don't have them advertised in the paper and flaunting the fact that they are operating in the open. Clearly, it's all underground now."
Detective Tom Stack says the biggest problem now is the Latino brothels. "There's too much money here for them to leave, so they've gone underground," he says. "They're a lot harder to find because they're not advertising as openly."
With a growing Chinese population in Rockville, Chinese brothels have opened up there. "They cater exclusively to Asians," Stack says, "and they are pretty hard to investigate. We don't have any Chinese officers, and they're very close-mouthed."
A trend noted by area police and the Polaris Project is gang involvement in the sex industry. Ellerman says gangs are prostituting their female members. "A lot of guys are getting out of drugs and into prostitution because there's more money and less-severe penalties," Stack says. "We've heard from informants that some of the brothels are using MS-13 guys to rob rival whorehouses. There's going to be turf wars.
"People look at it as a victimless crime, but that's very far from true," he says. "You're dealing with human trafficking, disease, girls having sex with 40 to 50 guys a day, and robberies and violence."
Gang violence seems a world away from downtown DC, where bar signs light up the sidewalks around 18th and M streets. In the Camelot Show Bar, customers are greeted by a bouncer and seated by a maître d'. Tablecloths and flowers adorn the tables. Dancers take their turns on stage, then conduct businesslike walk-bys, collecting tips from the customers.
Club owners insist that, unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, when dancers used to "party a lot more after hours," today's stripper really is the modern, empowered woman. "Stripping is a vehicle for girls to make money so they can take control of their lives and have options down the road," says one manager. But there is another side.
"The cliché that dancers are working their way through law school is total bullshit," says Ellerman. "Do you have some people in school doing it? Sure. But it's the only situation people generally bring up because it makes them feel better."
"If you talk to some women, they'll tell you it's empowering, but she's going to tell you that so you won't look down on her," says Tina Frundt. "They'll say, 'I'm just doing this to get my house,' but can they really look in the mirror and say, 'Oh, I love my life, and I'm happy'? Not one client I've ever worked with could do that."
"Oftentimes they are the same population as the people who are trafficked in street and escort-service prostitution," Ellerman says. "Often they are runaways and survivors of sexual abuse. We've had clients working at the major clubs downtown who are controlled by pimps. . . . There are a lot of background reasons for why they are at the strip club that people don't care about or know about."
Many customers are not naïve about the women they see up on stage, but they don't think too much about it.
"When I'm at a strip club," says a customer at Archibalds one night, "I don't think about how sad these girls' lives might be. I feel horny. That's the reality of it."More: People Join the conversation! Share Tweet Questions or comments? You can reach us on Twitter, via e-mail, or by contacting the author directly: Chris Vogel