ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca’s side streets are not lined with women in neon clothes and high heels. There are no queues of nervous men waiting in their cars. There are no shady strip clubs.

[do_widget id= text-55 ]

One could be forgiven for believing that prostitution does not exist within our 10 square miles.

Yet, every day, more than a dozen women in Ithaca offer sex to paying customers and use the earnings to fuel drug habits, provide food for their children, or save up for a life after prostitution, according to interviews with multiple local prostitutes conducted over several weeks by the Ithaca Voice.

Women often advertise their services online, meaning that Ithacans can remain oblivious to the burden, and at times danger, that local prostitutes endure daily to make ends meet.

“Where before, this maybe happened on a street corner, now it’s often hidden and the transactions are done online,” said Tiffany Greco, education director at the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County.

Ithaca’s prostitutes are not isolated on the fringes of society only to emerge after dark. Ithaca’s prostitutes live with us, shopping at the same stores, walking the same streets, and drinking the same coffee, but they are forced to hide what they do because they fear being shamed, judged, or arrested.

These women have attended school and held steady jobs, but say their dreams have been crippled by addiction, poor decisions, or unstable families, leaving them with only one option for income: having sex for cash.

Nikki, 21, viewing the website Backpage.com, where some of Ithaca’s prostitutes advertise their services.

One woman, who goes by the name Nikki, is 21 and began working as a prostitute earlier this year. Though she has made up to $1000 in a day, Nikki said those days are very rare, and that the strain on her body and mind can be overwhelming.

Between the ages of five and eight, Nikki was raped repeatedly by one of her aunt’s foster children. When she was 13, her father’s best friend raped her. “My whole family believed him,” Nikki said. “Nobody believed me.”

Sometimes, Nikki said, prostitution brings back those same feelings of being forced to have sex when she doesn’t want to.

But Nikki says she has to keep going. Soon after she began, her house burned down, severely hindering her ability to search for another job that pays as well as prostitution.

“I don’t enjoy doing it, honestly,” she said, “but it’s not just supporting my [drug] habit, it’s supporting me. It’s keeping food in my mouth and clothes on my back.”

Another prostitute in Ithaca, who goes by the name Deidra, said that it is stressful to be at the mercy of her customers’ whims. “It doesn’t matter if it’s three o’clock in the morning or three o’clock in the afternoon,” said Deidra. “If I get a call, I’m kicking everyone out and telling [the client] to come over.”

See related: Four things I learned while reporting on prostitution in Ithaca

Deidra, 40, began working full-time as a prostitute in April, and said she now averages about $200 a day. She said most of the money is either sent to her four children and five grandchildren or used to buy heroin and crack cocaine.

Deidra said the job has distorted her view of what sex means, and that, since March, she has not had sex except in exchange for money.

Recently, she invited a former boyfriend to spend the night at her house, but sex was the last thing on Deidra’s mind. “I was trying to tell him, it’s all about money to me, it’s a job,” she said. “There are no emotions involved.”

Although she knows women who have quit the prostitution business and eventually married, Deidra worries that she won’t be able to do so: “I don’t know if I’m going to ever be able to have a boyfriend and be able to have that connection after doing this,” she said.

Part I: Backpage and the police

Occasionally, Deidra will walk around State Street to meet men, but she and other women have taken their business online to websites like Backpage.com.

Backpage is similar to Craigslist in that it allows users to post advertisements for goods and services. Unlike Craigslist, however, which shut down its adult section in 2010, Backpage was estimated to host 70 percent of all online prostitution ads in the United States in 2012.

Within the “escort” category of Backpage’s Ithaca website, one can find sex ads thinly veiled as offers for body rubs, strip shows, or promises to “leave no client unsatisfied,” often next to pictures of women in their underwear.

A screenshot of the escort section of Backpage’s Ithaca website (ithaca.backpage.com)

One woman who works as a prostitute in Ithaca calls herself Solo CJ. She is 25 years old and has been using Backpage for about a year. While being interviewed for this article, CJ received a text message from a potential customer that read, “Hey I saw your ad and am interested in a body massage.”

Backpage’s adult section has recently come under national scrutiny. Earlier this summer, Visa and Mastercard stopped processing transactions from the site after pressure from a Sheriff in Chicago.

While some see Backpage as facilitating an illegal business, others contend that the website is one of the most effective tools for police departments to moderate and identify prostitution.

Liz McDougall, general counsel for Backpage, said that every ad in the adult category goes through an automatic filter and then is reviewed by a human moderator both before and after it is posted to the site.

McDougall said that if Backpage were to remove its adult section, “We would be pushing the issue into the shadows again, and maybe people would feel better because it’s less visible, but the reality is that it would be much more difficult for law enforcement to intervene.”

Local law enforcement does appear to be monitoring the online marketplace. Nikki said that while she was in custody for charges unrelated to prostitution, police officers at a local department asked her to identify women pictured in Backpage ads.

Nikki said that, although she refused to put names to the faces, she has since stopped using Backpage, fearing that her picture would be shown to others in custody.

Many other women live with a deeply-rooted fear of law enforcement. “I don’t worry about creeps, I worry about cops,” said Deidra. “I worry about, one of these times, they’re going to set me up.”

Recently, Deidra’s worry about being arrested was so great that she risked her life to avoid calling the police.  When, earlier this year, she informed a man via text that he would need to pay for her services up front, he responded by saying that he would stick a gun in her mouth.

Because her line of work is illegal, Deidra chose not to alert anyone and, instead, hedged her bets that the man was bluffing. Fortunately, she never heard from him again.

Other prostitutes echoed Deidra’s sentiment when they spoke to The Voice, saying they fear arrest more than violence from customers.

For example, one woman who calls herself Lala said that because undercover police officers are not allowed to touch prostitutes during a bust, she always makes a client touch or grab her body as soon as she meets him.

Despite prostitutes’ fear of law enforcement, arrests for prostitution and related charges have declined nationally every year since 2005. According to a website run by the U.S. Department of Justice, Tompkins County has recorded six arrests for prostitution and related charges between 2000 and 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

Part II: Pimps

Police departments throughout the country monitor Backpage to find prostitutes, but many are more focused on minors prostituted against their will by pimps and sex traffickers.

Children of the Night, a privately-funded organization based in California, has worked to rescue children from sex traffickers since 1979. Its founder and president, Dr. Lois Lee, said that Backpage has “bent over backwards” to promote her agency’s reach.

She said that Backpage is one of Children of the Night’s biggest donors and also allows them to run ads on its escorts page for free (“Tired of Turning Tricks? Pimps Don’t Care. We Do!”).

Prior to the free ads, Children of the Night rescued one or two women each year from pimps. In 2013—the first year of running ads on Backpage—the organization rescued 61 women.

Most of the Ithaca women who were interviewed for this article said they work independently, but two women identified a man, who asked to be called Danny, as a pimp.

Danny, 34, denied taking any part of the women’s profits, saying instead that he only introduces them to the business. When asked what he gets out of that arrangement, he said, “I get to be around gorgeous women all day and enjoy the fruits of my labor.”

Danny said that he has encouraged “tens of women” to start having sex for money. “Most of these girls is lost: addicts, single moms struggling, or whatever,” he said. “My only job is when I see them, and I believe in them, I talk to them and teach them to do better.”

A promotional poster from Children of the Night, which rescued 61 women from sex traffickers in 2013.

In 2014, Eric Oliver, pleaded guilty to sex trafficking, allegedly coercing women and girls as young as 15 to work as prostitutes. Prosecutors said he was part of a prostitution ring operating in Syracuse, Watertown, and Ithaca.

Oliver, 31, is currently serving a sentence of 6 to 12 years in the Attica Correctional Facility, and did not respond to a letter requesting an interview.

Greco, of the Advocacy Center, said that pimps and sex traffickers often try to build trust and make women depend on them for drugs, or even for basic needs such as food and shelter.

See related: Sex trafficking in Ithaca: Understanding victims and their abusers

“When you look at the list of … risk factors for being approached by a sex trafficker or a pimp, really you’re looking at things that make people vulnerable,” said Greco. “Sex traffickers are looking to exploit that vulnerability in someone, which is pretty disgusting.”

The Advocacy Center’s biggest goal is keeping women safe, said Greco, whether that means letting them stay in one of nine beds at the center’s safe house or even relocating them to another community.

Part III: Why they do it

Greco said that most women who seek the Advocacy Center’s help identify as victims of sex trafficking. According to the women interviewed for this article, though, the vast majority of Ithaca’s prostitutes work for themselves.

“It’s not like we’re being forced to do what we’re doing; we could all stop if we want,” said Deidra.

While this may be true for some, many women said they are captive to something just as strong as the hold of a pimp: an addiction to drugs.

Many women advertise themselves as “drug-free” on Backpage, but every woman whom The Voice spoke to described herself as addicted, most commonly to heroin.

Deidra, who uses heroin and crack cocaine, said that she wants to get on a methadone treatment regimen. Methadone is prescribed as part of a detox program to block the high that opiates, like heroin, give a user, and also to reduce withdrawal symptoms.

The nearest methadone clinic is run by Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, but the facility is overwhelmed: the current wait to enter the program is about a year.

The nearest methadone clinic for Ithacans seeking treatment is run by Crouse Hospital in Syracuse.

Many of the women who work as prostitutes have been driven out of steady jobs by drugs, obscuring their hopes for the future.

Nikki, who is also trying to get on the methadone waiting list, said that before her addiction forced her into prostitution, she used to work more than 60 hours each week at Cornell’s farms, milking cows, cleaning barns, and delivering calves.

“Once I get enough money to get a car and a place, and I don’t have a habit anymore, I will be going back to that,” Nikki said. “Until then, I have to do it [prostitution], and I’m going to do it.”

Lala, who began working as a prostitute at 17 years old, said that when she began, she rarely used drugs and was focused on saving money so she could go to school for business management.

Lala planned to stop having sex for money immediately after enrolling in school and wanted to eventually start her own clothing line. But as she began using drugs more often, it became increasingly difficult to save money, and Lala has not been able to start attending school.

Now 21, Lala recently got off parole after spending nearly two years in prison for drugs. “I hold myself back because I’m scared of change,” she said. “Sometimes, you just get comfortable with the way that you’re living.”

While Lala said she is “falling hard” into addiction, she is intent on breaking her habit and accomplishing her dreams. “I’m going to get there one day because I am very determined,” she said. “I just have to put one foot in front of the other and just do it.”

While some women see prostitution as a link to a better life, other women are too busy just trying to stay afloat to look ahead. One woman, who goes by the name Shorty Rock, is 32 years old and has been working as a prostitute in Ithaca for five years, after becoming addicted to heroin.

A banner for the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County

Her mother in New Jersey also worked as a prostitute, but Shorty tried to avoid the business when she moved to Ithaca.

Having no job, Shorty began to panhandle near Walmart, where men would pull up next to her and ask for sex in exchange for money. She eventually agreed, because it was quicker and much more lucrative than begging for cash.

When asked if she will ever stop working as a prostitute, Shorty said she didn’t know what else she could do, and would only be able to stop if she quit using drugs, which she doesn’t see happening, at least “not any time soon.”

One woman has a different view of her job: “I love to make people happy,” said Solo CJ. “My favorite part of a session is when [the client is] happy after. That’s why I do it. I wouldn’t change it.”

CJ said she has been having sex with men for money since she was 17, when she worked at a restaurant and began sleeping with her boss.

One of the reasons CJ, 25, enjoys the job more than others is because she has strict rules that make the process safer and easier: no mouth kissing, no anal sex, and condoms always, including for oral sex.

She also makes more money than most women, about $400 a day, and sometimes more than $1000. A portion of CJ’s earnings come from helping other women enter the business by sending them customers and keeping some of the cash, but much of the money she makes is spent on drugs

Although CJ made it clear that she takes pride in the efficiency and success of her business, she is also frustrated that she has to hide her job from mainstream society. “When people ask you what you do, you can’t really tell them,” she said.

“Right now, I have a habit, and [prostitution] supports it,” CJ said. “I don’t have to steal, I’m happy, and it’s everything I need and want.” She added that she wants to continue “until I’m wrinkly and guys don’t want me.”

The majority of women whom The Voice spoke to, though, said they view prostitution as a last resort, working only until they find a way out.

“The emotional part, I just have to put to the side, and I’ll deal with that when my stint in doing this is over,” said Nikki. “Until then, I have to make the money.”

(Related note: If you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking, or any other form of sexual or domestic violence, The Advocacy Center is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week at 607-277-5000 to offer free and confidential support.)

[do_widget id= text-61 ]

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs is an intern with the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at nbogel@ithacavoice.com.