Jess Lang is sitting in a classy south Minneapolis pub eating a plate of cheese fries on the eve of Easter. Her thick red hair is tied back in a loose ponytail. She brings up Ishtar, the old Mesopotamian goddess of war, love, and sex, and repeats a popular but debunked theory about the origins of Easter.
She winks and lets out a throaty laugh that envelops the room in a warm, lush vibe.
Jess Lang is not her real name. It’s not even the name she uses as a Minneapolis escort, earning around $200 an hour giving erotic massages to both men and women. She asked that City Pages not use her real or assumed name because just the day before, she had announced online that she was finally going “full service.”
The response was immediate: On that night in early spring, she made close to a thousand dollars massaging and having sex with her clients.
A conversation with Jess shifts fluidly from bawdy confessions (“I suck cock like a champion”) to insightful ones. “Men and women out there are hurting,” she says. “I see where things are missing that we need to address, and aren’t, as a society.”
She talks about her life before becoming an escort — twice divorced, former fundamentalist Christian. She divulges her real name, demands secrecy, then admits most people who know her wouldn’t be surprised to learn of her profession.
Jess seems like the furthest thing from a desperate girl selling her body under the coercion of a pimp. She is a self-professed outlier in this business, a middle-class escort who loves what she does and makes good money doing it.
Yet Jess might not be as uncommon as she believes. She’s part of a growing international alliance of sex workers calling for the rest of society to understand their work, decriminalize it, and give them the same labor rights as people in other jobs.
“You know what? I just happen to like sex. I like making money, and I really like getting to the core of somebody’s need, really finding out what’s going on inside that leads someone to me,” Jess says. “I don’t know why I am the way I am, but why can’t I just be that?”
The woman who would eventually become Jess Lang was born on the West Coast in the mid-1970s. She spent the first nine months of her life in a shack on the beach with her hippie parents.
Jess was 3 years old when her parents joined a motley caravan of gypsies tree-planting throughout the American South. She remembers running around naked in a campground they shared with a dozen other families.
But the family split up early. Jess stayed in the South with her mom, and her dad moved to the Midwest. Her mother did therapeutic massage. Dad found religion.
After failing her first semester of college, Jess moved in with her father and joined his church. The fundamentalist congregation abided by literal interpretations of the Old Testament. They offered the order and discipline 18-year-old Jess craved.
“Honest to goodness, from day one this has been my testimony: I wanted the Bible to be true and I wanted to have a manual, an idea for how to have a more stable situation.”
She dove into daily Bible study and regular, five-week seminars on the books of Daniel and Revelation, prophecy, and the end of days. She sought stability in a marriage within the congregation. Although she had been sexually active in college, Jess went through a re-birth in her church. She waited to have sex with her first husband until their wedding night, a tradition he insisted upon to cleanse her from her past.
But not long after their wedding night, the foundation of Jess’s marriage began to crack. Her husband was controlling — sniping at her for being disorganized, and then disappearing to watch porn online. Meanwhile, Jess’s own sexuality was bursting at the seams. She filed for divorce after just four years.
She started dating a man from the same church. Instead of waiting for marriage, she had sex with him a week after they began dating. The relationship with this man, who would become Jess’s second husband, was the beginning of her sexual awakening. First came a better sex life at home. Then Jess started dabbling in online sex forums and fetish sites. She posted nude photos of herself. She sought out swingers and fringe groups who found anonymity and community on the web.
But all that newfound freedom brought its own set of problems. Jess’s husband discovered her online persona through a shared computer. When they fought, he would threaten to expose her interest in kinky sex to their fellow church members. When they divorced, after 15 years of marriage, he pressured Jess to give him full custody of their two children, promising to out her as a deviant if she didn’t comply.
“He hit me pretty hard with the pictures and sex stuff when we were going through the child custody part,” Jess says. “And I never felt that that was a shameful thing. I don’t think my body is shameful.”
Jess left the marriage and the church. Those first couple of years were tough. She was still battling for custody and living with friends. She had no money and relied on her only marketable skill: massage therapy.
That quickly changed. In 2012, Jess met a woman, an escort, who invited Jess to accompany her on one of her regular client visits. They went as a pair to the home of a disabled man, where they spent the afternoon making out and laughing. Jess kept her underwear on, but went down on the other woman while the man watched.
“What stuck in my head was, I could express myself with my body and with my passion and get paid for that,” Jess says. “It was good, just having fun. And it was really disappointing to know that something that comes so naturally to me, that it’s illegal.”
Only a year after finding her calling as an escort, Jess met her current partner over a beer. Jess wasted no time telling him what she did for a living.
“I remember saying, ‘so I do massage’ and he said, yeah. Then I said I actually do a little more than massage, and he goes, yeah. Then I’m like, my clients are really happy... and then I said, I suck dick too, and he’s like okay,” Jess says. “I remember the look on his face, he was completely unfazed. I just knew that this was gonna go fine.”
“I didn’t care,” says Michael, her boyfriend of the last three years, who asked not to use his real name for this story. “It’s not a profession or industry that’s ever bothered me, you know, from consenting adults.”
Both Jess and Michael have two children and share custody with their former spouses. The children don’t know the details about Jess’s work and neither do their respective ex-spouses. As far as they know, Jess is a masseuse and Michael is in IT. They share a nice house in Minneapolis and have invested in small businesses, as well as savings plans for retirement and her children’s college.
When Jess comes home, Michael is usually waiting for her with a drink or dinner. They quarrel good-naturedly and touch each other lovingly during conversation. They lead a normal life, they say, and there is no reason for anyone to suspect any different. Jess heads to her studio, Michael heads to his computer with a mug of coffee, the kids go to school. The mortgage gets paid and life goes on.
Yet the nature of Jess’s work always looms over them. They both refused to use their own names for this article and are careful about the kids finding out, or neighbors, or the rest of their extended families.
Or, of course, the police.
The bottom line is this: Accepting money for sex is illegal in Minnesota.
But there are important distinctions the state draws between pimps, patrons, and providers, as well as between minors and adults. The police could come and arrest Jess in her studio, but as long as she is not engaging in sex for money in public, and as long as there is no “third party” or pimp involved, the chances of that happening are slim to none.
That doesn’t mean what she does is legal; selling sex for money is a misdemeanor and carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $1,000. But the state focuses much more of its resources on the trafficking of minors and, above all, the traffickers themselves.
And ever since prostitution stings at massage parlors were discontinued last year after three cases in Hennepin County were dismissed due to police misconduct, the city has come to rely on licensing fees and regulations to combat brothels.
So, in effect, Jess’s business slips through the dragnet. Both Jess and her partner also believe her position in the industry and her detailed screening process insulate her from criminal charges.
“For the police, she is off the radar,” says Michael. “She doesn’t exist. The other girls of her caliber, on the same level, aren’t on the radar either. They’re not hurting anybody, they’re consenting adults, they have their own place, you don’t have a ton of traffic so there is nothing to tip anybody off.
“I don’t think cops are stupid,” Michael continues. “They’re not trying to go after people who are obviously not hurting anyone. They want to go after the pimps; they want to get the bad guy. And we’re not it.”
The Minneapolis Police Department sees things differently.
“Although this ‘independent worker’ wants to portray this as a business relationship between consenting adults with no minors or third parties, she is part of the systemic problem of trafficking,” MPD wrote in a statement to City Pages. “The Minneapolis Police Department doesn’t turn a blind eye to these transactions. In our efforts to combat human trafficking, we look at all cases of prostitution as part of the overall trafficking model.”
Minnesota is unique in that regard. Most of the United States separates prostitution from trafficking, and regards pimps, patrons, and sex workers alike as criminals. In Minnesota, prostitution and sex trafficking are linked under statutes that culminated in the Safe Harbor Law, passed in 2011, which put into effect the No Wrong Door plan.
The plan calls for a statewide network of safehouses and regional navigators who are trained to identify and help rescue trafficked minors. The law also designates women under 18 who are trafficked as victims, not criminals, and puts in place stiff penalties for those who are caught trafficking women of any age.
“Our laws challenge this idea that prostitution is a harmless crime, or just a business negotiation,” says Beatríz Menanteau, staff attorney for the Advocates for Human Rights’ Women’s Program. “Sex trafficking is a human rights violation and a crime, and that notion is built into our legal framework.”
It’s difficult to get a clear picture of the sex industry in the Twin Cities. Not only are most sex workers reluctant to reveal themselves, but the numbers are constantly shifting. The statistics include data sets as disparate as the trafficking of minority, Native, and immigrant women; state-by-state surveys on the exploitation of women under 18; surveys on escorts and women who post ads on internet sites; and the number of arrests for prostitution and soliciting prostitution in any given county over a period of time.
Just a glance at the Twin Cities Backpage ads for escorts includes mothers from the outer ring, pairs of escorts ostensibly traveling from a different city, “barely legal” petite girls (known as “spinners”), and “mature, busty” women dressed in bondage leather. Many pepper their ads with declarations like “no black men under the age of 40,” or “all donations are for time and companionship only,” and “by contacting me you agree that you are not affiliated with any form of law enforcement.”
“Because of the nature of sex trafficking, it’s extremely difficult and even impossible in most cases to conduct research,” says Mary Beth Hanson, vice president of external affairs for the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. “You can’t just step into an industry that is so dangerous and violent.”
The Women’s Foundation did commission the University of Minnesota to conduct research on sex trafficking in the Twin Cities. The resulting report, “Mapping the Market for Sex With Trafficked Minor Girls in Minneapolis,” was published in 2014 and is the most comprehensive look at who is being trafficked, by whom, and for whom.
Jess is off the grid as far as the 2014 study is concerned. Her business model — an online presence, with a screening process, and a privately owned studio — was not even a footnote in the 118-page study, which focused primarily on escorts, pimp-run operations, and street prostitution.
The study found that the majority of those trafficked and sexually exploited are poor girls of color — primarily African American and Native American — and the majority of traffickers are men of color. Buyers are of all ages and backgrounds, and more than one third of sexually exploited girls experience extreme violence and degradation.
“The trauma of being trafficked has been compared to, and is considered in some cases to be even more intense, than those who have been in live combat,” said Hanson.
Although there is no reliable statistic for how many minors are sold for sex in the Twin Cities over any given period, data obtained by the University of Minnesota’s study helped inform the No Wrong Door policy: Each night, at least 50 beds in safe houses statewide are made available for trafficked girls.
The vast scope of sex trafficking in the Twin Cities was exposed last week, when a dozen people across the country were arrested in connection with a ring that stretched from Thailand to Belgium and across the United States. At least two individuals were arrested in Minneapolis after a two-year investigation involving the U.S. Attorney for the District of Minnesota and Homeland Security.
“This cross jurisdictional, international case could easily have been passed over as simply prostitution, that these women were doing it by choice,” says Beatríz Menanteau. “The harm in using that lens is very clear when we peel back the layer and see the much greater harm that was going on here.”
As this story went to press, California’s Attorney General announced felony pimping charges against Carl Ferrer, the CEO of Backpage.com. Two controlling shareholders of Backpage, which the department called an “online brothel,” also face charges of conspiracy to commit pimping. They include James Larkin and Michael Lacey, former owners and publishers of Village Voice Media magazines, including City Pages.
Jess claims the women she associates with are “incredible businesswomen with a great sex drive,” who got into the business because they knew someone who taught them what to do and how to do it. That’s how Jess got her start.
She was lucky. The escort who introduced her to sex for money charged several hundred dollars and had amassed a loyal clientele of relatively well-off men whom she had grown to trust. Jess charges $400 for an hour of full service. Backpage ads range between $150 to $300 for an hour of sex, but the fee can go as low as $80.
“But then you’re getting what you pay for,” Jess says. “A girl on a mattress in the basement of some house, with a bunch of shady dudes hanging out.”
Jess’s profile on an adult services website is accessible to anyone with a free account, but only fee-paying members are able to look at her photos and reviews, as well as a list of what Jess is and is not willing to do. Those items are expressed in acronyms like CBJ (covered blow job, i.e. with a condom) and BBBJ (bare-back blowjob, without a condom).
A prospective client’s email to “Jess” is actually received and answered by a scheduler who works from home. The scheduler, who may be working with multiple “providers,” will craft a carefully worded response determining if the client has ever seen a provider before, what type of service he or she wants, and a date and time to meet.
If everything checks out and Jess feels it’s safe, she will provide the address to her studio and meet them at the door, in her words, “with just some black lace panties on, and that’s it.”
The door to Jess’s studio opens up into a small kitchenette and a view of the interior, dimly lit and shrouded in slightly transparent black curtains. The island in the kitchenette has a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon with some glasses next to it. Further into the studio two plush chairs separate the kitchenette from the back room, where the corner of a large soft bed peeks into view.
“I like to sit here,” Jess says, pointing to the two chairs, “and have a drink and chat a bit.”
Her clients are generally nervous, or excited, and instead of getting right to the sex, Jess likes to slow things down a bit.
She likes the older clients best, the ones who’ve spent their lives in monogamous relationships, or alone, and are finally exploring their sexuality in their golden years. They have experiences and things they like to talk about. Like the old singer who made a living recording jingles for commercials. He’ll sing to Jess for a bit, and then they’ll slowly move from the chairs to the bed, undressing as they go.
Or the Santa Claus character with the belly and the beard. One night he was lying on the bed going through her box of toys, when he pulled out a metal toy and said, matter of factly, “let’s stick this in your ass.” They both laughed uproariously. Then she took the toy and did what he asked.
Another client came to her studio once and removed his coat to reveal a corset and garters. He asked Jess to put on a strap-on dildo as he bent over the bed.
“Some of these old guys really don’t care,” she says. “They’re like, ‘I don’t know when I’m going to die, so let’s get freaky right now.’”
As strange as it may sound, many of her of clients aren’t in it for the sex. They covet the therapeutic aspect of being with a woman, being physically touched, even just having Jess hold them.
Sometimes they just want Jess to listen to a rant about work, or marriage, or kids. Men will reveal insecurities about size and performance, or admit that they love their wives but have no idea how to please them. Jess has found herself lying on her side listening to a man go on about the miscommunication ruining his marriage. She suggested a gentle kiss or gesture to his wife to show how much he cares.
One man she gave advice to took off and drove three hours to surprise his wife, who was attending their daughter’s graduation. Jess never saw him again, which suits her just fine.
There will always be other men in loveless marriages, men who are stressed out or lonely, older men who have lived conventional lives for decades only to realize late in life they’d rather wear dresses and be sodomized by a sexy woman.
“The fact that this is such an incredible need should really be a wake-up call to our society,” Jess says. “Society needs to ask itself, ‘Why is this so popular?’”
A number of people with more progressive perspectives are asking exactly that question, and their answer is this: Sex work is not a crime; it is business or perhaps even therapy, and women should be able to do this work without fear.
“Let me use my gifts and use them safely,” Jess says.
Those perspectives have split the feminist movement into abolitionists and sex-positive activists. Both sides want to overturn oppressive, male-dominated social and cultural structures, but disagree as to how to go about doing it.
Their debates are having an influence on criminal justice systems across the world and here in Minnesota, where Safe Harbor laws remove the target from a woman’s back and new task forces focus on pimps and brothels.
An article published in March of this year in the New York Times Magazine delved into the feminist movement’s reactions to sex work and how criminal justice systems in countries around the world have responded.
“The traditional feminist argument against decriminalization is that legitimizing prostitution will harm women by leading to more sexual inequality,” Emily Bazelon wrote. “The human rights argument for it is that it will make people’s lives better, and safer.”
The article is tilted toward full decriminalization, the goal of sex workers’ rights activists. Only by respecting sex workers as a group and giving their voices credence can society be able to determine the right path forward.
In a Ted Talk given in January, sex worker and sex-positive activist Toni Mac argues for much the same. Standing before a rapt audience, Mac succinctly lists the four major ways criminal justice systems treat sex work.
The first is full criminalization, seen in the U.S. (except for Nevada, where brothel prostitution is legal in counties with a population of 700,000 or less), China, Russia, and much of Africa. The second is partial criminalization, in which buyers and sellers are not prosecuted, but third parties (pimps and brothels) can be; the third is the so-called Nordic model, in which only buyers are criminalized. The fourth is fully legalized sex work, in places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Reno, Nevada.
“If you try to prohibit something that people want or need to do, whether that’s drinking alcohol or crossing borders or getting an abortion or selling sex, you create more problems than you solve,” Mac told her audience. “Prohibition barely makes a difference to the amount of people actually doing those things. But it makes a huge difference as to whether or not they’re safe when they do them.”
The audience gave her a standing ovation.
Beatríz Menanteau of the Advocates for Human Rights’ Women’s Program is less enthusiastic. The problem with the pro-sex work anti-criminalization movement, she says, is that it is co-opted by those most able to make their voices heard. States must listen and respond to those most vulnerable in the sex industry, and create legal frameworks that meet those needs first.
“We need to ask the question, are we creating a world in which everyone has the opportunity to live safely and with dignity,” she says, “or are we allowing a system to continue that relegates entire classes and races to limited options and choices, and then forcing them to make the best of it?”
Jess prefers to focus on what she actually does and with whom she is doing it.
She shakes her head in wonder at herself sometimes — after the belly of an obese client rubbed against her clitoris and she liked it, for example, or when she discovered that she could conduct electricity with a “violet wand” and make a purple spark jump from her tongue to the tip of a client’s penis. This is a business, she repeats, and the most important thing in a business is customer service.
“One of the things I always say to a client is to be present,” she says. “The past doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist, since I am with this person. So right at this moment we are the most important people in each others’ lives.
“I see the looks on people’s faces when I tell them, right now you are the most important person in my life. Nobody hears that stuff, and it’s so simple to do. Nobody can judge you, nobody has anything to say about what we’re doing here except the two of us.”
After playing with the metal toy, Santa Claus — who likes to wear red thong underwear — asked to be tied up. Jess then teased him and brought him to the edge with an oiled body massage, neck licking, and judicious penis fondling. When it was over, the old man purred like an oversized cat and nuzzled up to Jess for the remainder of the hour.
“When he’s with me it’s so sweet,” she says. “I can almost hear him say, ‘Oh my God! I get to touch somebody.’”