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September|October 2003
The Practitioner By Benjamin Smith
The Real Harm By Gabrielle S. Friedman
Standard bearer By Fred Strebeigh
A Bigger Tent By Katharine Mieszkowski
Profiling's Gender Gap By Daniel Brook
Coming Out to America By Tyler Maroney
The Love Charm A Story By Eugene Volokh
Ex Offender By Robert J.
In Defense Of Prostitution By Heidi Fleiss as told to Nadya Labi
My Gay Divorce By Laurie Essig

In Defense Of Prostitution

By Heidi Fleiss as told to Nadya Labi

TEN YEARS AGO, I WAS ARRESTED AT MY HOME IN BEVERLY HILLS for pandering, which the dictionary defines as acting as "a go-between in sexual intrigue." In other words, I was a madam. After a jury convicted me of three counts of pandering, the verdicts were thrown out, but the government didn't give up. It made me the Al Capone of prostitution. I spent three years in a federal penitentiary in Dublin, Calif., for conspiracy, tax evasion, and money laundering. But it was the sex that got me in trouble.

When I was a Hollywood madam, I had between 20 and 70 girls working for me and once made $97,000 in a single day on commissions. My take was 40 percent of whatever fee my girls received and of any tips over $1,000. (Compare that to prison, where I made about a dime an hour cleaning pots and taking out the trash.)

When I was in the sex trade, I ran an 85 percent cash business. I dealt with the richest people on earth—men who run countries and this country's top businesses. Most of them preferred to pay in cash. The actor Charlie Sheen was one of my few customers who wrote checks, but looking back I now realize he was a class act. He paid his bills, girls liked him, and he was well-endowed.

I didn't get involved in prostitution because I needed money. I had the kind of childhood that everyone dreams about, with five brothers and sisters, camping trips, pillow fights, and marathon Monopoly games. We weren't like the Britney Spears generation—the girls today who look like they're ready to have sex at 9. I started a babysitting circle when I wasn't much older than that and soon all the parents in the neighborhood wanted me to watch over their children. Even then I had an innate business sense. I started farming out my friends to meet the demand. My mother showered me with love and my father, a pediatrician, would ask me at the dinner table, "What did you learn today?"

At 19, I began dating a 57-year-old multimillionaire. The relationship was good, but when it ended I realized that he had won every fight we had because I had no career, nothing to stand on. So I got a license in real estate. But before long, I was wrapped up in an entirely different world. I began going to Helena's, a popular nightclub in Los Angeles run by Jack Nicholson's former housekeeper, and met a bookie who later introduced me to Madam Alex, a "businesswoman" whose employees were known for their good looks and popularity. (I didn't know at the time that I was there to pay off the guy's gambling debt.) I was expecting a sexy glamour queen like Faye Dunaway in the TV movie Beverly Hills Madam. But Madam Alex was a 5' 3" bald-headed Filipina in a transparent muu muu. We hit it off.

My first john—I was then 22—was gorgeous. I would have slept with him for free if I had met him in a bar or on a blind date. We had a great night, and I made $3,000 after Madam Alex's 40-percent cut was deducted from my fee.

I'm glad I learned the business in the trenches, but my career as a hooker was short-lived. I'm not the California dream girl, and sexually, I'm lazy. The profession didn't play to my strengths, which lie in business, not bed. After Madam Alex and I had a falling-out in 1989, I decided to leave prostitution altogether and go back to college to become an art curator. (I had dropped out of junior college during my first semester when I was 17.)

So why did I become a madam? I had tons of beautiful friends and lots of great connections from traveling the world with my ex-boyfriend. One day I just realized that I could run a sex business better than anyone else I knew. My first client was a Swiss businessman who was in Los Angeles with six acquaintances. I set the men up with some girls I knew and all of them were very happy. The word spread and demand snowballed after that. I tried to stay in college and run the business at the same time, but it was too hard skipping out of class to arrange get-togethers over the school's pay phone.

I would fly girls to meet clients in St. Tropez, London, or wherever they were in the world. Just from talking to a man, I knew what kind of girl he'd be interested in.

I made sure never to send a prostitute into an unsafe situation or one where she felt humiliated or degraded. I was always conscious of how prostitution could lower a woman's self-esteem and I didn't want anyone who worked for me to feel that way. My clients were some of the richest men in the world. They wanted to look the best and live the longest. They were at the doctors regularly. I never had one girl come down with an STD, not even crabs. But I told my girls that if they ever felt uncomfortable with a client, they should call me and I would get them out of there—no matter where they were. I made my first million after only four months in the business.

I wouldn't recommend prostitution as a career because it doesn't have great long-term prospects. Still, a woman should have the right to do what she wants with her body. She might have a fantasy about becoming a prostitute; why shouldn't she act on it? Or she might need to do it for a month or two because she has no family, no money, nothing. The money could help her to do something positive with her life, like start a business or go to college. I remember a girl who came to me with choke marks around her neck. She was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend and wanted me to help her get out of it. I recommended that she work at a restaurant for six months, but eventually I let her work for me. She made a quarter of a million her first time. She turned one more trick and then retired from the business to get a master's degree at UCLA.

Prostitution should be legalized throughout the United States. The laws are currently written by and for men. I've been out of the business for 10 years, but I still hear stories of men who hit women, walk out without paying, or write checks to hookers and then stop payment. It's outrageous. Here's a woman who has performed a service to the best of her abilities and to her client's satisfaction. But nothing will happen to that client because he knows he won't be prosecuted for refusing to pay for sex. They go after the women in those cases, not the men.

There is no downside to legalizing prostitution. The government would benefit by collecting taxes on the industry. And regulation would clean up a lot of crime and help to protect women. Now, there are hotshot guys who beat up prostitutes and smack them around because they know they can get away with it. I remember some girls who approached me after working for illegal sex houses, "pussy factories." You wouldn't believe what went on in these places. A girl would stay at the factory and have sex with 5 to 10 guys every day for anywhere from $300 to $700 a pop. Some of the people running the factories would threaten the hookers and force them to stay. One girl told me that some guy gave her crack every morning so that she wouldn't make a fuss.

Prostitution doesn't have to be like that. I never ran a brothel in the traditional sense. I bought a one-story ranch house in Beverly Hills from Michael Douglas in 1991, and no sex for money took place at my home (except for one five-minute blow job given to a client in the bathroom by one of my girls—without my permission—for $5,000). My home was a place of comfort where the girls could talk shop. My front door was never locked. I had an Olympic-size pool and the girls would swim and sunbathe and fight about who gave the best blow jobs. They took pride in their work.

IN AMERICA, I WENT TO JAIL FOR SELLING CONSENSUAL SEX. In Australia, I was asked to be an international ambassador of the first bordello to go on the stock exchange. The Daily Planet, founded in 1975 in Melbourne, went public last May, at 35 cents per share. One of the men who runs the Daily Planet, Andrew Harris, contacted me after seeing me on a late-night talk show and asked me to act as the company's international ambassador.

Prostitution was always technically legal in Australia. And since 1986, the State of Victoria (where Melbourne is) has become even more forward-thinking. Prostitutes can work in brothels, as long as they're not working in a residential area and the town says it's okay. And the law takes the pimps and the underworld out of the business. It prevents anyone convicted of a crime in the last five years from owning or managing a brothel. Employers can't employ prostitutes with STDs. And they can't play dumb. They have to make sure that the hookers test clean. They also have to provide condoms which, as we all know, can get kind of expensive.

The Daily Planet, initially valued at $5.5 million, has 150 working girls on its roster. Its stock has nearly doubled since May. The company supplies protective devices (condoms and dams) and makes sure the girls pass a blood check that shows they are healthy and free of drugs before they can work. The girls, who pay for their subsequent health checks, have to produce a certificate from a doctor each month guaranteeing their good health. Any sex that occurs inside the Daily Planet (even blow jobs) must be done with protection.

The Daily Planet, which operates out of an 18-room building that resembles a motel, does not directly employ the working girls and does not take a cut of what they make. The girls negotiate their fees and tips with their clients. The company makes its money by charging $115 per hour for the use of each room. Up to four girls can use a room at once, so on a good night a room can generate as much as $4,000 for the Daily Planet.

I met with about 60 of the girls when I was in Melbourne this past May. The girls ranged in age from 19 to about 35, and the best ones made about $6,000 in a week. I told them that if they wanted to get good tips, the most important thing to stroke was a man's ego. I advised them not to support their boyfriends and not to buy drugs. I said that they should figure out their earning capacity, set a goal, meet it, and then move on. There's always someone younger and prettier who will come along and take their place.

The turnover rate at the Daily Planet is high. A handful of girls leave each week, but four times as many apply to take their place. You can't stop sex. And sex for money will happen no matter what. Why make it a criminal experience?

Heidi Fleiss recently published Pandering, her memoir. Nadya Labi is a senior editor at Legal Affairs.

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