Shades Of a Gray Area: The Sex Trade In Brooklyn Today

Home Brooklyn Life Shades Of a Gray Area: The Sex Trade In Brooklyn Today

Photo by Christian Pichler

What comes to mind when you read the word “prostitute”? If your first image is a scantily clad female on a street corner—maybe scrambling to support a drug addiction—you’re not alone, but your view on the sex industry is largely outdated.

While streetwalkers certainly do still exist, including in Brooklyn, the sex industry today is much more complex than most people realize. It is certainly more diverse, notes Crystal Jackson, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at John Jay College. She sums it up: “Huge diversity in terms of class—working class, middle class. They might work online, in indoor venues. Individual workers range in terms of race, sexual identity, gender identity.“

The sex trade is a great, gray area, is often hidden, and it is hard to get any exact numbers or figures on it. But it is also a gray area of many shades, which cover a wide range of human experiences. And like any industry, it is shaped by forces in society, such as gentrification, globalization and new technologies.

That includes prostitution in Brooklyn, once known for its seedy red light districts, where the sex trade today has taken on new forms. In this story, The Brooklyn Ink looks at how waves of sexual supply and demand have shaped the sex trade, and the social and commercial forces that propel those waves.


From Manhattan, with love

When a pocket-sized guidebook to all the best brothels in New York City was published in 1870, the anonymous authors would not have dreamt of including Brooklyn in The Gentleman’s Directory. The well-established brothels were all located in Manhattan: “Mrs. Girard keeps a fine parlor house at No. 9 E Fourth Street. This establishment is well furnished, has seven lady boarders, who are all handsome and agreeable. This is a first class house, and kept very quiet and orderly.”

But the Johns of the time were warned to stay clear of distasteful houses: “[…] It is a third class house where may be found the lowest class of courtezans. It is patronized by roughs and rowdies, and gentlemen who turn their shirts wrong side out when the other side is dirty.”

Before 1910, the sex trade was not well established in any of the outer boroughs, so the guide focused on the red light districts around Broadway in Manhattan (West 27th Street was quite the favorite, with 23 houses earning a mention). In the introduction to A Gentleman’s Directory, however, the authors ostensibly maintained that they really did not expect their readers to be in the market for anything at all: “Not that we imagine the reader will ever desire to visit these houses. Certainly not; he is, we do not doubt, a member of the Bible Society […] But we point out the location of these places in order that the reader may know how to avoid them […]”

This type of openly accepted, winking double standard dominated the public attitude towards prostitution until the early 20th century, according to Timothy J. Gilfoyle, Professor of History at Loyola University, Chicago. In his book City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution and the Commercialization of Sex 1790-1920, he explains that prostitutes were an integrated part of urban life and active participants at social events in theaters and dancehalls, where they would often meet clients.

While socialites quietly accepted the presence of prostitutes, the official explanation was that prostitution was a dark and evil force, something that existed in “other” areas of New York. “What was talked about as two opposite worlds would in fact overlap and intersect in cultural and leisure spaces of the city,” Gilfoyle writes.

But then “everybody got more moral,” says Brooklyn historian John B. Manbeck, referring to a largely successful anti-alcohol and -prostitution campaign, led by the so-called Committee of Fourteen in the early 20th Century’s New York. The new Puritanism pushed the sex trade underground—to the outer boroughs, where the prosecution of prostitutes was less rigid.

Tricks turned to Brooklyn, where the sex industry was not neat and orderly. In fact, the new Brooklyn brothels may very well have been visited by gentlemen who would turn their dirty shirts inside out.  “It was generally a more violent area than the red light district of Manhattan,” Manbeck explains.

Industry characterized much of Brooklyn at the time, bringing sailors and laborers into the area, who would feed the sex trade. The sailors were usually on shore for a few weeks, where they would get drunk, start fights and often target gay prostitutes or sometimes the religious preachers who stood on street corners decrying alcohol consumption and prostitution. Coney Island was particularly disorderly and famous for “a variety of prostitutes, homosexuals, black and tan houses, about two blocks of everything you might want,” says Manbeck. “Rich, young guys would wander there for the thrills.”

Among the streetwalkers in Brooklyn, “a lot of the girls were immigrants,” he adds. “They were hungry and didn’t know what to do and would go out on their own,” sometimes with the protection of a pimp, sometimes without.


From Manhattan, with Love, Vol. 2

Fast forward to the 1990’s, which saw a round two of prostitution being pushed out of midtown Manhattan. During the city’s so-called crack epidemic, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani decided that midtown, Times Square especially, needed a makeover, so the middle class could be brought back there. Prostitution was pushed further north in Manhattan, and south—to Brooklyn. “Their idea was just get them out of there,” Manbeck explains.

Arrest records show the scale of these changes, as the number of prostitution-related arrests in Manhattan in 1985 far outnumbered those in any of the other boroughs. A total of 14,541 arrests were made in New York County, compared with a mere 1,455 in Brooklyn, where Coney Island, Crown Heights, Park Slope and Gowanus took the lead (In comparison, 1,463 arrests were made in Queens, 2,253 in the Bronx and just 117 in Richmond County, or Staten Island).

This picture starts dramatically changing around the early `90’s, when the Midtown South precinct went from 3,830 arrests in 1983 to just 224 in 1993. Midtown North (where Times Square is located) went from 3,244 arrests in 1985 to 246 arrests ten years later, in 1995. While numbers dropped in Manhattan, Brooklyn’s Flatbush, Sunset Park, East New York and Bedford Stuyvesant all saw an increase in the late `80’s and early `90’s.

It is important to note though, that arrest records are not a simple indication of how many prostitutes work in an area but, just as much, the degree to which the police target them. Some experts further say that police arrests tend to mainly reflect the easily visible street prostitution, while other segments of sex workers and Johns go unnoticed.

The numbers quoted here are based on total arrests for prostitution, patronizing a prostitute and loitering for the purpose of prostitution (arrests for the latter are much higher than any of the two former).


Gentrification comes to Brooklyn

Old timers say there used to be a good number of used condoms floating about in the murky waters of the Gowanus Canal.

“Seriously, when I was there, it was a pretty dilapidated area” says Robert Loebenstein, about the stretch of 3rd Avenue in Gowanus where he worked in the 1970’s, as superintendent of the Old Brooklyn Powerhouse. “Seedy, more than anything else. You wouldn’t want to walk there at night by yourself.”

But that’s just what streetwalkers did, as 3rd Avenue became a big truck route around 1970, according to Manbeck. The 78th precinct, Park Slope and Gowanus, had some of the highest numbers of arrests for prostitution in Brooklyn in the 1980’s, topping at 913 arrests in 1981.

Today you only rarely see condoms in the canal, or any other signs of the trade that used to generate the hurried disposals of gooey rubber. Instead, the neighborhood now displays art galleries, restaurants, new businesses, and a general change in demographics since the mid to late ´00’s. Around the same time, the area experienced a dramatic drop in arrests for prostitution, from 223 in 2002 to just 5 in 2007 and 22 in 2012.

Still, as recently as June 2012 the local police force was urged to do something about the stubborn problem of prostitution in Gowanus at a 78th precinct community council meeting. The Park Slope Patch quoted a member of a local community group: “Our concern is not just the safety for residents of the block, but also for the women engaging in prostitution.” In recent years, the issue of prostitution in Gowanus has been debated now and again in the neighborhood, with differing opinions on how prevalent it really is. There is no doubt that the sex trade in the area is nothing like what it used to be, though.

About streetwalkers on 3rd Avenue, Peter Endriss, a baker at the Runner and Stone Bakery and Restaurant, says, “I have never seen any and I’m one of the bakers so I am here at odd hours.” Matt Fisher, another worker who is awake on 3rd Avenue when most people are not, as part of the staff at Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue, said he has seen what he takes to be a prostitute, but very rarely. “At one point last year I did see that. I saw one. Nowadays, we get out of here at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning and it’s definitely not—I hate to use that term but it’s not a stroll. It is different now, it has changed. There’s less of that.”


Neighborhood tensions

Although little research exists on the issue of prostitution and gentrification in the US, a British research paper from 2007, which looked at sex work in five gentrifying British cities, suggests that tensions and resident pushbacks are big factors in why prostitutes disappear from an area.

It is not uncommon for sex workers to be pushed out of residential areas, agrees Audacia Ray, a former sex worker herself, and executive director of the peer-led organization The Red Umbrella Project, which presents the stories of sex workers to a public audience to combat stereotypes and fight discrimination. “Police pushback doesn’t happen before residents have made phone calls” she says. And since street work is very visible, she adds, police officers know where prostitutes are but will rarely decide to go after them unless someone in the area has been complaining.

Resident pushback does not just happen in gentrified areas, though.  Audacia Ray mentions recent resident complaints about sex workers in Hunts Point, the Bronx. But new residents may find these kinds of things particularly problematic, says Lama Hassoun, Senior Research Associate at the Center for Court Innovation, who has done research in prostitution and worked with victim agencies: “You might not be able to tell before you move in there—you’re probably not driving around the neighborhood at night. “ She adds that the discovery of prostitution in a neighborhood can seem problematic to new residents, who are not aware that it may have existed in the area for decades.

A report from The Urban Justice Center’s Sex Worker’s Project on street sex work shows that some sex workers in New York are aware of resident attitudes. One woman, referred to as Mandy, said “Oh, yeah, that’s why there’s a lot of police now because there was a resident meeting maybe two months ago because, you know, once it is daylight […] they’re taking the kids to school and they’re constantly calling the police […] I like usually to be out of here at a certain time.”

Just as it was a hundred years ago, public attitudes towards prostitution are part of what shapes the industry. And visible sex workers tend to be associated with greater problems, says Audacia Ray, who adds: “It’s a misconception that prostitution brings more crime into a neighborhood. It’s not true, it doesn’t bring more violent crime.”

Still, while resident pushback may be a significant factor in how gentrification changes the sex trade, it is just one element within a complex process.

For one thing, client bases are likely to dwindle when neighborhoods go from industrial to residential, as many Johns prefer discreet transportation hubs, according to the Brooklyn DA’s sex crime division. At the same time though, the trade does tend to linger in areas where it once had a stronghold. “If a John comes to see you once a week, he’s not going to know that you’re gone and where you’ve gone to” explains Lama Hassoun, “it’s like any business, it would be hard to move.” She says that even the clearing of Times Square was “hardly done overnight, it was a long process, probably at least ten years,” and adds that  “In Manhattan, people think it’s high end but there’s still areas with old fashioned street workers.”


Conscious choice, necessity or force

Some within the sex industry identify as sex workers, equal to workers in other industries, and emphasize that they have made a conscious career choice. Then there are those who have entered prostitution out of some level of necessity, where it is less clear-cut to what extent there really was a choice.

Rosetta Menifee is an HIV training assistant with the Erie County Department of Health and for years, she has been involved with the Brooklyn DA’s Project Respect, which teaches arrested Johns the consequences of the sex trade. She regularly stands up before a room full of men, who have all handed money to someone, expecting a sexual service in exchange, to tell them about her past on the streets of Manhattan.

Menifee, who was last arrested for prostitution in 1993, when she used to work on 86Th and 2nd Avenue, says prostitution was and is still largely poverty driven. “You can start all sorts of initiatives to clean up a neighborhood but the powers that fuel prostitution, poverty and a lack of opportunities, that doesn’t change. It’s just going to move somewhere else. And it’s going to stay in areas where people are already suffering. It’s a problem that’s being pushed around,“ says Menifee. She adds that, contrary to gentrified areas, people within underprivileged areas are not going to pick up the phone to complain about prostitution because, “it’s just another issue on a plate of many concerns so how do you prioritize?”

Arrest records suggest that street prostitution does move from privileged to less privileged areas. As numbers dwindled in areas like Gowanus and Park Slope during the `00’s, they started rising in Brownsville, East New York and areas of Bushwick, which are peaking in numbers now.

Brooklyn had the highest numbers of arrests in all of New York City in the early 2000’s, but has since been overtaken by Queens, some years also by the Bronx. Manhattan’s numbers have dropped way below those of the outer boroughs since 2000.

Menifee further says that, while new technology has changed the industry for some, old-fashioned street work has not died out because of it. “With younger ones you see a use of technology, but it might be more lucrative and easier to just go to the streets,” she says.

Technology has however strengthened other markets within the sex trade, including human sex trafficking. An area of the sex industry, which Menifee says, the public has become increasingly aware of in recent years, because of more media attention.

Sex trafficking is the organized trade in humans, which is often based on forced labor, and thus described by the FBI as “the most common form of modern-day slavery.” Trafficking can be carried out on a local level, targeting local individuals and native citizens, but is also a crime that often operates internationally, as an increasingly globalized world has made it possible to move and sell individuals, often poor and powerless, across borders.

Lama Hassoun explains that trafficking is “usually accomplished through an elaborate network with many players.” And she lists some of the structural factors that enable the industry: “a demand for commercial sex” and  “increased trade worldwide,” along with ”the increased use of the internet for sex.” Although international sex trafficking has thus been enabled by modern developments and globalization, Hassoun says that the issue has been “recognized internationally, with attempts to address it, since the early 1900’s.”

Since 2009, Brooklyn has had a greater number of arrests relating to trafficking than any of the other boroughs, peaking in 2011 with 32 arrest in Brooklyn, compared to just 10, 11 and 13 in Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan.

In recent years, arrests for organized trafficking have made it into the headlines.  For example, this past summer’s massage parlor arrests in Brooklyn: “There are backaches in Bay Ridge but not enough to support 19 massage parlors,” said Raymond W. Kelly, commissioner of the New York City police department, at a news conference in July about the bust of a sex trafficking ring, where all of the arrested were from China and Korea.

No one at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office would comment on the reason for Brooklyn’s high numbers of trafficking arrests.


New players in a changing market

Gina de Palma is an independent businesswoman. Her website reads, “This site is not an offer for prostitution. Money exchanged is for time and companionship only.” An hour of Gina’s time costs $400. She is tech savvy, with her email signature including no less than seven different links to online platforms, where she can be reached. “Clients call for an appointment or email. They can call my chatline and cam,” she explained in an email.

Gina de Palma’s work methods are one example of how the Internet has changed the opportunities of the sex trade for independent workers.

In 2010, Sudhir Venkatesh, a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, set out to study the effects of Manhattan’s gentrification on sex workers, who were pushed off the streets and into the outer boroughs. He found that a new, upper-end market has taken the place of street prostitution, which, he believes, decreased by half from 1999 to 2004. Gentrification was far from the only factor. Because of the Internet, resourceful sex workers are now able to professionalize their trade by marketing their business and finding the right clients. “These women have little in common with the shrinking number of sex workers who still work on the streets,” Venkatesh writes.

Although Manhattan is still considered the home turf of high-end prostitution, the Brooklyn DA’s bust of a prostitution ring in Sheepshead Bay in 2011, showed that it is also possible to be based in Brooklyn and trade an hour of sex for anything between $400 to $3,600.

Elisabeth Bernstein, Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Sociology at Barnard College, writes in her book, Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex, that a new group of middle class, educated women entered the sex industry as an alternative to low-paid or tedious jobs in ”the Internet boom years of the late 1990’s,”

By studying sex work in a number of US and European cities, she found that the Internet has made it possible for these women to work independently—they need no involvement of a third party, such as an agency. Being based online means a minimum of police interaction, while it has become possible to target an “elite and specialized clientele” and to screen clients before arrangements are made. These sex workers are in charge of their own business, offer whatever services they like and make a good living. Often, Bernstein writes, their clientele is looking for intimate “girlfriend experiences,” which many times do not involve sexual contact at all. While Bernstein does not claim that this group makes up the majority of sex workers today, she does believe that they are a significant part of the industry.


From Brooklyn, with love

If the authors of the 1870 Gentleman’s Directory were somehow to update their booklet in 2013, it would no longer be unthinkable to include Brooklyn in a review of New York City’s sex industry. On, sex workers can advertise their services and ask clients to review them, which is exactly what Brooklyn-based Starla Blaze has done. One of her positive reviews reads: “I’ve been visting Starla every 2 weeks for a year now. This lady is the best.” This is another example of how modernity has enabled a new kind of online-aided sex trade.

A modernity which has also brought recent change to the local sex trades in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods, and made  organized trafficking both doable and highly lucrative, including in Brooklyn.

While our views on the sex trade and its workers may have been static, the sex industry has developed with the rest of the world. With gentrification, globalization and technical innovation. For better or worse.


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