If you're researching auto repair on the Internet and stumble across www.stlasp.com, you might well hit your Web browser's back button before noticing anything amiss.
"St. Louis Auto Specialists," the banner proclaims, "brings you information on St. Louis auto racing."
Read on, though, and you'll raise an eyebrow. "This site is for entertainment purposes only. It is a place where users can post fantasies or stories for other members to view.... The information on this site is intended for adult audiences only, by definition, in the state of Missouri, you must be 18 or older to view the information on this site...."
These folks must really love their cars!
Beyond the homepage, it quickly becomes evident that "STLASP" stands for "St. Louis Adult Service Providers" — an entirely different kind of body work. Here the "providers" are prostitutes — or, if you like your euphemisms, escorts — and their customers are "hobbyists." STLASP is the virtual forum in which they discuss everything from gardening to philosophy to how they prefer one another's pubic hair to be groomed. They alert each other to possible police stings and scam artists in the "erotic services" section of Craigslist. And customers — seemingly all of them men — write and post lengthy reviews of their experiences with the call girls.
An escort herself, the site's creator says she founded STLASP in June of last year after moving to the St. Louis area from Southern California, where she'd been involved in a nearly identical online community. She found that the message board not only made her job safer by allowing her to screen her clients, it also created a tight-knit network of the region's online escorts, providing a forum for them to share knowledge, including concerns about potentially dangerous johns.
"I'm trying to educate the women and give them a chance to feel safe and feel a connection with others that are in the same industry," says the woman, who agreed to be interviewed for this story on the condition that she not reveal her real name and that she be referred to as "Mac."
"There's a lot of power in numbers. I'm trying to educate them to be as independent as they can and make smart choices."
The idea of escorts on the Internet is nothing new — the oldest profession has long embraced 21st-century technology. But according to Stacey Swimme, co-founder of
sex worker-rights organizations the Desiree Alliance and the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Mac's site is part of an emerging national trend: Prostitutes have turned to the Internet and small, independently operated message boards as a means of empowerment.
"From what I've been researching about the sex industry over the past 25 years, that is the biggest change," Swimme says. "Providers are talking to each other. That is a force to be reckoned with. That is where political power comes from, is that sort of community-building."
STLASP's "Reviews" section contains more than 7,000 posts. Many are based on a review template in which "hobbyists" share their experiences with local providers.
Did the ASP's photos accurately portray her?
Was she punctual?
Did she pressure you into tipping?
And, of course: "Activities between consenting adults (what did you do)?"
The reviews are peppered with abbreviations and jargon. An escort might be a "FOTC" (fuck of the century) or a DFE ("dead fish experience"). When johns say "CMD" (carpet matches drapes) or "Hardwood Floors," they're referring to their date's body hair, not her taste in interior decorating.
While phrases like "She spoke French without an interpreter" and "We took a trip to the Mediterranean" carry one meaning in a newspaper travel section, on STLASP they refer to oral sex without a condom and anal sex, respectively.
Reviewers may wax passionate: "I would advise you to take your vitamins, drink lots of fluids, eat your Wheaties, and get plenty of rest before your date," one recently wrote. "She will wear you out."
Or merely state the obvious: "The massage is not therapeutic, not a professional style, muscle-relaxing type massage. But if you enjoy a very pretty girl spreading lotion all over your body, you will be pleased."
The practice of posting online reviews of escorts dates back about ten years. David Elms, creator of The Erotic Review (www.theeroticreview.com), claims his Web site was one of the first to encourage men to provide feedback about their clandestine encounters. Reached by phone in his Southern California office, Elms explains that he got the idea after being ripped off by a call girl.
"It was a way that people could be held accountable for their actions in this industry," Elms says. "Now girls prefer that they find clients on The Erotic Review. It already tells a guy all the juicy details, so he doesn't have to ask stupid questions."
Elms says his Web site, created in 1999, now attracts more than 300,000 visitors a day, and that half of the site's users log on more than once a day. He collects information about each person who registers an account and says the average hobbyist is between 35 and 55 years old with a median income of $80,000.
From the sex worker's-rights perspective, Swimme has no qualms about the commodification that is taking place. She suggests that the practice of posting reviews adds legitimacy to an otherwise illicit transaction. "I think that having reviews in the sex industry to some degree makes a lot of sense," she says. "It brings it into a realm that says: This is a commercial exchange, a profession, a service."
Elms goes as far as to compare the john-escort dynamic to the purchase of expensive electronics: "It's like a consumer-reports magazine that has buyer reviews of car-stereo performance."
The quest for rave reviews and the booming business that comes with them can be hyper-competitive. One of the oldest and most popular review Web sites, bigdoggie.net, issues a twice-daily top-100 ranking of escorts from across the nation based on ratings tallied from user reviews.
The practice does have its critics. Amanda Brooks, author of The Internet Escort's Handbook, a three-part series first published in 2006 that professes to "address every question that a woman could ask before she becomes a sex worker who advertises through the Internet," points out that women can be pressured into doing things they otherwise wouldn't do, for fear of the online backlash.
"It has turned into, 'This girl is totally great, she's going to do this and this and this,'" says Brooks, who also contributes to Bound, Not Gagged, a sex workers'-rights blog. "That's a big problem, because girls will do sex activities that push boundaries, but they do them because they could get a good review and make money."
At STLASP, Mac says when she first got into the business, the creator of one review site pressured her to have sex with him in exchange for positive reviews. "He said he could make me or break me because his site was national and if I was smart I would come visit him and have an appointment with him for free," she recalls. "I told him no way."
Despite that experience, Mac remains a strong advocate of posting the critiques "for the sake of quality control." She admits, however, to having to frequently mediate disputes about authenticity and accuracy. Several times women have been caught creating fake profiles in order to post positive evaluations of themselves. Once, Mac says, a man posted a negative review that an escort later claimed was completely off base.
"I told her that she could write a rebuttal to the review and she chose not to," Mac notes.
Elms says he has confronted similar issues. "I look at the history of reviewer," he says. "If, consistently, this reviewer's history shows he's been accurate, no one has ever contested anything and he has long-term membership, then I know that this is probably pretty solid."
Then again, Elms adds, reviews are rarely two thumbs down. "When you tell a story to a couple of friends, obviously you're going to put yourself in a good light," he notes. "When you tell a story here, you're telling it to 100,000 of your closest friends. You still have the male ego to deal with."
When Mac debuted STLASP a year ago, she promoted it with a mere two posts on Craigslist. Since then an average of 50 new people per day have registered for user names. A counter at the bottom of the site's main page tallies the current membership at nearly 2,500; altogether they account for more than 19,000 posts.
Registration is free, and all that is required to access the forums is an e-mail address, a user name and a password. Fearing the site has began to attract too much attention, Mac recently posted a message saying she is considering a moratorium on new memberships.
For a site that specializes in sex, STLASP's appearance is remarkably sterile: blue text on a plain gray-and-white background. The site is divided into several sections, each of which contains its own message boards. "Administration" features a glossary of "hobby"-related abbreviations. In "Providers" users can see which women are "Available Today" and browse the personal Web pages of two dozen escorts. Most of the posts are found in the "Hobbyists" section, which features the "Discussion" board, where the men and women tell jokes, swap stories and ask each other questions about nearly everything under the sun.
Unlike other sites of its kind, STLASP is devoid of advertisements. Mac says she has invested several hundred dollars in software, server space and the domain name. She estimates that she generally spends multiple hours each week dealing with programming glitches, creating new features and moderating disputes between users. Having had no prior Web-design experience, she concedes she may have gotten in over her head with her not-for-profit endeavor.
"This does not define who I am as a person," Mac says. "It's a very small aspect of my life. The more I invest time into it, the more it becomes a bigger part of my life. And since I've been spending like five hours a night on this Web site, I'm like, 'Oh my God, it's taking over now.'"
Swimme is impressed that the mind behind STLASP is a woman's.
"I love to see when it's actually service providers who are out founding these sites," Stacey Swimme says. "It's much more common for hobbyists to create these communities. As an advocate, I'm always thrilled to support the work of individual sex workers who pioneer their own free-speech spaces."
In the world of STLASP, however, "free speech" is a relative term. One of Mac's earliest posts under her "Admin" handle is a lengthy "code of ethics" that lays out rules for maintaining civil discourse. "Do unto others, as you would have them do to you," she writes. "Do not post against somebody in a rude or nasty manner.... We all have a different perspective on life and general topics so respect others and they will respect you."
The software for the forums automatically censors some content. Try to type the words "sex" or "money" into a post and they're instantly altered to "sensual fun" and "donation."
Such safeguards don't bar the site's users from self-indulgence. Women post pictures of themselves, often blurring their faces (but not much else) in hopes of concealing their identity. Men ask which local strip clubs offer "full service" and tip each other off to "UTR" (under the radar) adult establishments, such as a salon in a St. Louis suburb that offers a haircut with a happy ending. They frequently poke fun at their "Auto Specialists" pretext with threads like: "Pole position-how do you prefer to start the race."
Some exchanges border on the cerebral. Observes one user in a February post on a lengthy thread entitled "Morality, Ethics and the Hobby": "Our Western society's anti-sensuality attitude foundations were laid around 430 CE with the philosophy of St. Augustine. It can be traced further back to the Gnostic Christians rejection of the physical world and the body as well as some of the letters of St. Paul."
"My personnel [sic] morals and code of ethics calls to treat everyone with respect and human dignity in all my interpersonal encounters," reads one of the replies. "For hobbyists it means being a gentleman with providers and treating them with the utmost respect a gentlemen [sic] gives a lady. For providers it means not treating the hobbyist as just another envelope but as a fellow human being that wants to do what comes naturally."
In another thread begun in March, a poster writes, "The way I see it, indulging in this hobby is wrong. But I still do it because there is pleasure involved. I just haven't been able to cheat my inner moral compass into believing that it is OK," concluding in all-boldface, "It's wrong. Still, I do it."
In an e-mail in which he declined to be interviewed for this story, STLASP's moderator, a user Mac deputized to police the forums for spam and other prohibited content who posts under the handle "luvs2duit," described the STLASP community.
"There are a lot of very good people in here," he writes. "The fact that they hobby doesn't mean that they love their SOs [significant others] any less, or meet their obligations to the community any less, or are blatant in their choice of lifestyle."
He then requested that Riverfront Times not pursue a story about STLASP:
"Our happy little life may be seriously damaged because folks outside the community will still view us as cheaters and perverts that violate the social norms. The fact is, many of us are much happier than our repressed neighbors."
A sandy blonde in her thirties, Mac says she has been an escort for the past three years. She says that in addition to working on a graduate degree at an area university, she is her family's main breadwinner. Fearing it would jeopardize her anonymity, she declined a request to provide documents to support her purported résumé.
Before moving to Missouri, Mac says, she lived and attended college in Southern California. A single mom at the time, she began working as a stripper to make ends meet. Eventually, she says, she began commuting to Las Vegas on the weekends to work at the city's lucrative strip clubs. When she suffered a knee injury and could no longer dance, she became an escort.
She says the decision was as easy as clicking a mouse: She placed an ad in the "erotic services" section of Craigslist.
Mac had little trouble emotionally adjusting to her new lifestyle. "Actually it was kind of exciting for me," she says sheepishly. "I know that sounds funny, but it was actually exciting. It turned me on. I liked it. I was like: 'Wow, this is something really hot.'"
She is emphatic that she became an escort on her own volition, that she has never had a pimp and that she doesn't touch drugs. (During an interview at a west-county bar that lasted several hours, she didn't order a drink.)
She says she specializes in "GFE," commonly employed shorthand for "girlfriend experience." The term is loosely defined, but Mac describes it as doing anything the "ideal companion" would. Needless to say, that includes the intimate act frowned upon in Pretty Woman: kissing on the mouth. (Two GFE-related entries from the "Abbreviations" glossary: DFK = Deep French Kissing; LFK = Light Face Kissing.) It also means, Mac says, being excited to see her date, appearing to be genuinely interested in what they have to say and not rushing to leave.
For her services, Mac charges anywhere from $350 an hour to several thousand dollars for a weekend or multiple-hour stay.
"I'm a like a therapist," she explains. "Sometimes I'm a mom, sometimes I'm a wife, sometimes a slut, sometimes I'm a girlfriend, a sister. Sometimes people just need someone to care. So many people are just unloved. There are times when I have an appointment when I feel so good because I feel like I've been able to touch somebody emotionally that maybe hasn't been touched in a long time."
Asked directly whether she enjoys what she does for a living, she responds, "I think that I do like what I do most days. I make the schedule, I work when I want to work and I don't when I don't. I choose to do my job, I don't have to. That's a big deal in this industry.
"If you're not sound emotionally, this industry will tear you down," she adds. "There are definitely days where it's maybe not a good day, where I feel like it's affected me more. But those are few and far between. If I'm having a bad day, it's not a good day to be working. I think for some ladies, that can be a pitfall."
Mac says her spouse knows about her profession and approves of it. But, she adds, "My biggest fear is always my kids finding out. Everything else is just things that I can take care of. But that will never leave my child if they ever found out. I could never take that back."
Stacey Swimme says many women use Craigslist as a jumping-off point into prostitution. The anonymity the site affords users, coupled with the fact that it's free, popular and easy to use, combine to render it about as close as America currently comes to the decriminalization of sex work.
"I think of Craigslist as training wheels," says Swimme. "When a girl wants to work in the sex industry, she ought to able to contact a local union and ask, 'What kind of materials do I need? What training do I need?' Since that's not available, Craigslist is the easiest way."
It was the lack of resources for women starting out in the field that spurred Amanda Brooks, a Dallas-based former call girl, to author her Internet Escort's Handbook.
"Craigslist is generally people who haven't really studied the business, so they end up taking a lot of risks," Brooks says when reached by phone. "Often they don't screen [their customers], which is very unsafe, and the men who surf Craigslist generally aren't your better clients. And police have been busting girls on there ever since it started."
"I didn't screen my clients at first," Mac says of her early Craigslist experience. "I was really naive, I didn't know how to really protect myself. I didn't know about a lot of message boards [like STLASP]. I didn't know any of this, so I was taking a big risk." Now she requires potential clients to fill out an online form that includes home and work phone numbers — which she calls to verify their identities.
One of STLASP's most popular forums is devoted exclusively to discussing Craigslist's "erotic services" pages. Hundreds of posts come from users asking their peers to verify that a particular ad isn't a fake or a police sting. Another forum, "Alerts," is devoted to pointing out "Robs" — escorts who show up intending to blackmail a client.
"I take all posts [on Craigslist] with a grain of salt," one user recently wrote. "There is so much drama and cut throat [sic] practices on there that almost everything on it is BS."
Mac says she has gone out of her way enforce standards to make her site different from Craigslist. Anyone who types in all-caps, can't spell properly or relies too much on Web shorthand — all trademarks of the red-light section of the San Francisco-based classifieds site — is banned. (One of the longest-running threads on STLASP is devoted to the unintentionally hilarious misspellings and mistakes that appear on Craigslist. (Two highlights: "I'm available all mourning" and "Super Bowel specials.")
As Craigslist, chat rooms and social-networking sites have skyrocketed in popularity, they've increasingly become the focus of academic research. Social scientists have begun to study how the anonymity afforded by the medium affects human behavior. Not surprisingly, some researchers have examined online communities that focus on sex.
In a paper called "The Gender Dynamics of Online Sex Talk," presented last year at the European Gender and Internet Communication Technology Symposium at the University of Helsinki, Chrystie Myketiak writes that "[s]ocial expectations and norms work to keep sexuality and sexual topics that, though culturally ubiquitous, are considered bad taste to openly discuss. On the Internet, people face fewer consequences for deviating from dominant social norms and can explore topics in ways that seem confidential and anonymous."
Myketiak, who is working toward a Ph.D. at Queen Mary University of London, reached her findings via "a qualitative analysis of more than two years of conversational [chat] logs" on an Internet forum.
Members of forums like STLASP have begun to shed the veil of anonymity the Internet provides. Many sites, STLASP included, host "meet and greets" where prominent personalities on the board gather at a local pub to match faces with screen names.
"It's so odd that escorts and clients are talking and having socials," says Internet Escort's Handbook author Brooks. "That has no historical precedent. Honestly, it's a new thing the Internet has spawned — and there's nothing wrong with it."
A thread on STLASP is devoted to a recent "happy hour" gathering at Flamingo Bowl downtown. The group reserved lanes under their "auto specialists" guise.
"The great thing about an event like this is that you get to talk to folks and learn so much more than we do online," moderator "luvs2duit" wrote afterward. "The ladies get a chance to place a face and personality with the screen names and posts they have seen online. These events are a wonderful chance to break the ice."
A user observed that many of the working women in attendance didn't look much like mechanics:
"It was fun watching the non-associated males in the place and the ones walking on the street outside get whiplash from their double takes."
Not all online escort reviews are as prim and proper as STLASP. One site, usasexguide.info, features reviews of streetwalkers. There are forums devoted exclusively to "the strolls" of Brooklyn and Washington Park, Illinois, whose posts are littered with references to drugs, pimps and abuse.
On STLASP, in a January thread titled "How many providers did you see in 2007," most members said they stuck with "professional providers" — including one man who estimated that he spent $13,000 on his "hobby." Still, several users wrote that they frequently picked up women on the street.
For Mac, it's a troubling reality that she says she wants to avoid. "I don't even want to entertain the idea of reviewing streetwalkers," she says. "It's a whole different industry that I know nothing about. There's been a lot of gripes from other ladies on the board saying they don't want it either.
"I don't want to make any negative remarks toward these women," she hastens to add. "In fact, I have a lot of compassion for them. But the risks that they take are so huge that it's scary to me."
Of course, risk isn't limited to street hookers. In addition to sexually transmitted disease, the threat of local law enforcement looms for online operators.
"Escort services, whether online or not, are basically prostitution," asserts assistant United States attorney Howard Marcus, who is based in St. Louis. "Most of the women that end up working in this area are all, despite what they might say, victims. It takes a toll on your life, it takes a toll on your family life. Many have a history of alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic problems. There's typically a traumatic event, some kind of abuse, that leads them into this line of work."
Marcus says the most common charges stemming from investigations of online escort rings are money laundering and, because many sites are hosted on servers located in another state, the use of interstate facilities to promote prostitution. The latter crime carries a minimum five-year sentence and a $250,000 fine.
One St. Louis-area municipality, Maryland Heights, has gained a reputation for its tough stance on online prostitution. STLASP users report that the city frequently conducts stings on Craigslist and backpage.com.
"I don't like to see anyone [provider or hobbyist] get popped," one poster wrote last month. "But if a person is dumb enough to work out of/make an appointment in MH...it serves them right IMHO."
A spokesman for the Maryland Heights police department did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
The STLASP community takes several precautions when it comes to dealing with law enforcement. Most women require at least two "references" from fellow escorts before seeing a new customer. Some ask their clientele to use the online identity-verification services at date-check.com or preferred411.com.
Mac looks forward to the day prostitution law is reformed and references become aboveboard. "I think that there should be some regulations," she allows. "But I do think that it should be legal. I think that people should have to get a license to do it. I think that they should have regulations on health checkups and have certain guidelines so people are safe and healthy and make sure that they are not working on the street."
In the meantime, Swimme, who once marched topless around San Francisco's federal building in protest of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft's strict policies on prostitution, says women will increasingly turn to sites like STLASP as a means of protecting themselves:
"As long as prostitution is illegal, people will be dependent on these types of forums to stay safe."
Mac agrees. She and others on STLASP keep a blacklist of men who have hygiene problems or who they feel might be dangerous. One of the features on the site she's most proud of is the "Ladies Only" forum.
"We have what we call the 'woman to woman,'" Mac explains. "We talk amongst ourselves about any topic — it could be about the business or not. We're just helping each other out. If we can stay together and inform each other, there's a lot of power in that. It's like social capital.
"To me, that's what this is: We're building social capital."