For five years, Joslyn Stevens worked in the prosperous shadows of Salt Lake City's sex industry, selling companionship to lonely hearts as an escort and a sugar baby.
Offering a paid-girlfriend experience for older men, she had quietly navigated the nuanced legal waters of higher-end sex work in Utah. Promoting her good looks online through social media platforms, she worked hard to be just well enough known to keep the money coming, and just anonymous enough to stay out of trouble.
Then, on Sept. 24, 2014, Gawker revealed that disgraced New York politician Anthony Weiner, who was in the midst of a campaign to rehabilitate his philandering, dick-pic-sending image, had a lone favorited tweet on his official account—a thigh-to-neck shot Stevens had taken of herself, with the hashtag #WCW for "Woman Crush Wednesday."
"I love myself," the rest of the caption read.
The reporter named Stevens as the woman and posted her account's bio: "Filling in for your wife since 2001. Indulge your sexual fantasies by having an affair."
Stevens, who says she's never met Weiner, suddenly found herself a topic of discussion on local and national media.
"It was just unexpected," the 32-year-old says. "I was trying to figure out how to use it to my advantage."
Before she could parlay it into something of value, though, her 15 minutes were up.
With the benefit of hindsight, and some hard times, Stevens now has a better idea of what she could have done with that fleeting moment of fame. She'd use it as a platform, both for building her brand as a high-end escort and for helping people understand that sex work isn't always about exploitation.
Sometimes it's about empowerment.
Sometimes it's something in between.
But Stevens and others who work in Utah's bustling cyber-actuated sex scene believe that the best people to sort out that ambiguity sure as hell aren't the moralizing men who run the state.
After all, they say, those guys are often their clients.PROGRESSIVE AGENDA
A passionate activist for both progressive values and legal prostitution—and a former Democrat who was briefly part of a Utah progressive caucus—Stevens says she once aspired to be a political writer, a craft she's dabbled in, even after she was immersed in the world of sex work.
In a March 2014 piece titled "Corporate Welfare and the Minimum Wage" on the progressive website Common Dreams, Stevens explored the socio-economic realities surrounding the lack of congressional will to raise minimum wage.
"How is it that no one working a full-time job at minimum wage can afford a two-bedroom apt. in this country?" she wrote. "Single mothers, like myself, are also the poorest and most at-risk of falling into deep poverty."
Stevens says she grew up in generational poverty, where "nobody ever fucking has anything, everybody is always poor and nobody manages to escape that cycle."
And so she decided—on her own accord, she stresses—to free herself with sex work.
That's a decision with which Midvale resident "Rebel" can relate.
While Rebel's multiple tattoos tell a complex journey of challenges, struggle and change, her soft yet masculine voice and almost demure handshake suggest both warmth and a steely strength.
In late 2015, the 27-year-old transwoman—who requested her name and that of her pregnant partner be withheld for safety reasons—reached a similar epiphany.
When Rebel learned her partner was pregnant, she realized that the $350-$500 weekly paychecks she was getting from working for a trans-friendly concrete company was far from sufficient to meet her family's needs.
"I would never be able to save enough for the baby," she says. But having worked in the sex industry before, both as a man and a woman, "I know what I have. I know that people want my looks. I have a very unique corner of the market cut-out."
A transwoman's body, she says, "is a commodity; it's the most fetishized demographic around." What she terms her androgynous, punk, tattooed, anarchistic look, "works really well." On a good week, these days, she can rack up $2,000.
Stevens and Rebel burn with ambition, though at opposite ends of the candle. While Stevens is trying to raise seed money to develop her fledgling lingerie accessory business, Rebel is hustling between webcam gigs, out-of-state porn shoots and out-call escort jobs, while working toward launching a Salt Lake City escort agency.
Rebel places free ads on the controversial Backpage.com, which carries millions of adult entertainment ads, to generate business.
"My face is all over Backpage," she says, and the result is a constant flow of inquiries, most of which she says she turns down.
It's not yet 9 a.m. on a recent Tuesday when her phone buzzes with its first text of the day. "Do you do lap dances?" the hopeful client asks.
Her phone "is always going off," and with such a volume of possible work, she can be selective. "I don't have to go out and suck dick for $20 or $40," she says.
Stevens doesn't like Backpage. "You can put yourself on Backpage and charge $80 an hour," she says. "That's where the fucking cops are. I would never use Backpage. It's notorious for low-end sex workers, guys who get ripped off and catch a disease there. It's not where you want to be if you care about yourself as a client or a sex worker."
Unlike Stevens, Rebel draws the line at having sex with clients. "I very, very rarely have sex with anyone," she says. "If I do, it's because I want it, not because they bought the rights to it."
Inherent in the women's disagreement, though, is a fundamental truth about empowerment in sex work. In contrast to a lot of jobs, what you do and where you do it is completely up to you.
The stories behind why people go into sex work, whether forced or by choice, are as diverse as any other profession, vocation or work, says Lindsay Gezinski, an assistant professor at the University of Utah's College of Social Work.
Gezinski, who has spent the past five years researching the ways people enter into sex work in India and Nepal, is concerned by the current political conflation of sex work and trafficking, the latter having become a high-profile topic in Utah after Attorney General Sean Reyes' 2014 foray to Colombia to help rescue children from sex-slavery with the nonprofit Operation Underground Railroad.
"Everyone agrees trafficking is awful, but I think it's dangerous to conflate the two," Gezinski says.
What she says she's found most prominent in her research is that people enter sex work because of "an inability to find something else," be it employment or housing. In that way, it isn't much different from any other job that people do because there aren't many other great options out there. Take away the moral judgments and concerns about sexually transmitted infections and violence, and the only real difference is that sex work tends to be dominated by female workers.
In Utah, "we hear a lot about moralistic claims," Gezinski says. "The prohibitionist movement is interested in making sex work illegal, stamping it out."
But women who choose to go into sex work, she says, are often mothers—like Stevens and Rebel—who prioritize their children over themselves, and would much rather have workers' rights than be "rescued."
"I don't think any efforts have been made to address the systemic issues behind people entering sex work," Gezinski says.
Job creation. Low-income housing. Substance-abuse treatment. Mental-health services. In a state where sex work is underground, failure to address these issues is dire, Gezinski says, especially since sex workers are scared to approach law enforcement if and when they are assaulted.
"The emphasis should definitely be on workers' rights, even if you don't agree with prostitution," she argues. "We should move to protect workers' rights in order to decrease violence, STIs and increase safety."
In some ways, Stevens and Rebel couldn't be more different, particularly given how Stevens focuses on the high-end girlfriend and sex worker experience, pulling in an average of $3,000 a week during a brief, troubled stint at a Nevada brothel, while the latter embraces what she describes as the "trashy" internet world of webcams and crude, self-made porn.
Yet both entered this line of work to provide financial security for their family, a comfort denied them by minimum-wage work. Both passionately defend their freedom to pursue sex work, even in such a conservative and repressed environment as Utah.
But while both find empowerment—and even some pleasure—in what they do, Stevens' journey after the Weiner revelations took her to the lonelier corners of the industry at several brothels, and Rebel acknowledges there's "some truth" to the notion that sex work can be degrading.
Sex work, regardless of the advertising platform, is rarely safe, says Salt Lake City Police Department's Detective Carlie Marston. While she's had reports of men being robbed by workers, the bulk of crimes relate to women being sexually assaulted.
Technology has benefited sex workers in terms of free advertising and exchanging information about dangerous clients, but it has also led to increased law enforcement surveillance of online prostitution. The Salt Lake City Police Department's Organized Crime Unit declined to discuss its approach to policing Backpage in detail, but Marston says that women there—unlike, say, those working State Street, North Temple or the mostly downtown no-tell motels—"are not doing this to support a habit. The majority of girls are all money-driven."
Marston's colleague, Detective Elizabeth Johnson, wants the focus to be on "the problem we have with local girls being victimized by men who are taking them from state to state," citing August 2015 federal indictments in Utah of two women and six men who were engaged in multiple child sex-trafficking activities.
What also worries Johnson is that the publicity surrounding sex-trafficking might actually have resulted in minors voluntarily entering sex work, having realized there's a market for underaged sex workers. She says they run into high school girls "making money doing this. We try everything we can to get them out; they often don't have support at home, or bad family lives."
Many sex workers, Stevens says, including herself, have not experienced trauma working in the industry, yet are ignored by critics of prostitution who prefer to focus on abuse and trafficking.
"If we don't have sexual-trauma issues, they don't want to hear from us," she says. "They ignore our voices for the victims, but there's two sides to this industry. It's not just women who have bad stories to tell. I'm well aware I can quit and go home and work at McDonald's. I don't want to."
Stevens was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1984, the oldest of three. "I spent a lot of time alone. I've always been a loner. I have very few friends by choice."
She, her mother and brothers left Texas when Stevens was 15, eventually making their way to Salt Lake City with nothing more than a few bags of clothing. While working two jobs, one in telephone sales and another in customer service, Stevens studied at Salt Lake Community College for six years, before going to Westminster College to study English and political science. But even with Pell Grants and financial assistance, she found herself $4,000 in the hole each semester, and dropped out, with debts she's still paying off.
Her first taste of the easy money that sex work can bring, was several weeks cocktail-waitressing at a strip club. Having dated married men since she was 17, when she decided she wanted to make money from men rather than minimum-wage work, Stevens joined the Ashley Madison website, which promotes extra-marital affairs.
For a year, she had "a damn good time on Ashley," she says. She'd inform men that responded to her profile with language that made it clear she wanted someone who was generous and would spoil her. She checked the prospects out beforehand, focusing on their occupation, any criminal or sex-offender record, but still for a long time carried a box cutter when she'd go to meet them.
"I wasn't that desperate for the money that I'd set up a date and go fuck anybody. I am a mom and that's why I did it so sparingly," she says. She would meet her potential-clients in a public place, a hotel restaurant, a lobby or bar, speak to them for an hour and then, if she decided sex was acceptable, a price would be agreed and, "we would do our thing. Most of the time, I wouldn't see them again."
After Ashley Madison was hacked, Stevens shifted her approach to providing a "girlfriend experience" after she came across SeekingArrangement.com, a website dedicated to connecting sugar babies with sugar daddies (typically older men with disposable income). Here, she realized, was a platform where women could be "a lot more upfront; this is money for companionship." And so she moved into "sugaring."
There are two types of clients: splendas and sugar daddies. Splendas, named after the synthetic sugar, don't have as much money as sugar daddies, but provide with their hundreds what Stevens calls "grocery money." With work that came out of Ashley Madison, she would discuss the price for specific sex acts. "With sugaring you discuss, 'How often do you want to see me?'" she says. Options included paying per meet or receiving a monthly allowance.
Stevens has a splenda she's been seeing for two years; the first with sex, the second without. He gives her $1,200 a month. Sex itself, she says, is cheap. "They're paying for the experience they're getting. I add value to his life and he is more than happy to pay for that value and for me to give him what his wife refuses."
Not that he is a "cash slave," she says—a term for where some clients experience sexual pleasure by having their bank accounts drained by a sex worker. The term she's familiar with is "pay pig."
"I'm not a dominant person, so that doesn't fit my personality," she says. "Treating somebody like shit who gets gratification from it, I don't specialize in that."
Stevens never expected to be seeing him for so long, and says that she's developed feelings for him "to a very small degree." While she describes herself as having an intense sex drive, she's never had an orgasm with a man, whether in a non-professional relationship or with a client. "I've never come with any man. That's period."
There is pleasure to be found in sex work, she says, but to some degree it depends on having a "good" client, by which she means attractive, respectful and doesn't argue the price. "A gentleman," she summarizes. "There has to be some pleasure in it, otherwise it's extremely awkward," she says. Repeat business is a cornerstone of safer sex work. "It's extremely important in this industry. You don't want to see one-off clients. That's not good."
THE WEBCAM EXPERIENCE
Rebel has no barriers when it comes to partners. "I'm completely 100-percent carefree. I couldn't care less about gender." She appreciates everyone's sexuality. "The only genital preference I have is whatever happens to be in my mouth."
Sex work brings Rebel pleasure, particularly when she's providing her "pet service" for a "master," who spanks her or takes her out on a collar and leash to a restaurant, where she sits by her client's table, and eats food off her plate on the floor. Part of her pleasure comes from knowing that people get off on her while watching her online, but there's also a sense that her gratification is tied to, in some way, exposing the hypocrisy she sees in society's rejection of transwomen. "People aren't willing to make me feel beautiful and loved in public, but the second they get home to their computers they do anything they can to butter me up so I get naked for them."
Rebel started in sex work when she was 18, growing up as a muscular skinhead in New England. Her specialty back then was CFNM (clothed female, naked male), involving then-he stripping at parties.
She moved to Utah to go to school. Sex work, she says, was something to fall back on when all she preferred to do was drink and party, and needed some easy cash.
In her current sex work, Rebel has "done so well lately that I've got to a point where I'm starting to produce [porn] on my own," filming "a trashy blow-job scene," or through the auspices of an out-of-state production company, performing in "gangbangs and bondage," the kind of internet material she says she most enjoys making.
Rebel's cyber world has several facets. Her webcam shows are scheduled from 8 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday through Saturday. She appears topless and in panties, and chats with visitors. "I sit there, roll around, look pretty, talk to people," she says. "Then one will go, 'I'm horny, want to go private?'" Those who go private have to pay $3 a minute, for which they might be treated to intimate spectacles. The trick of camming, she explains, is to keep people watching, especially since the company that provides her streaming service takes 70 percent of her earnings.
"There's tons of ways to make people stay," she says. One involves going cam-to-cam, so that she can see the person she's performing for, convincing them that she wants to watch them orgasm. She also has an act involving self-penetration, which she terms her "magic trick," to entice clients to spend more.
While other young women might believe that they would "marry rich" after meeting a man through sugaring, Stevens knew that those who pulled in $10,000 a month from a sugar daddy were very, very few. "For the vast majority of us, it's really fucking hard," she says. "No matter how gorgeous you are, at the end of the day, the man knows that he's still in control because it's his money and you are easily replaceable." Where the control comes for the women, Stevens says, is in ending the relationship.
In fall 2015, Stevens met a white, Utah-based, late middle-aged businessman on Seeking Arrangement. Initially, they hit it off.
"You are sexy and beautiful. You could be a model," the man texted, according to several pages of communication Stevens provided City Weekly with. He paid for flights to New York and Los Angeles, hotel rooms and spending-money, only for the relationship to implode six weeks later in a welter of recriminatory and bilious emails relating to discussions of his financial support for her business plans, she says.
It was while walking around Salt Lake City with her personal lubricant, lingerie and toiletries in a green Whole Foods shopping bag, that Stevens hit on the idea of developing an elegant holdall to carry intimate accessories. For now, she says, until she gets enough money, her dreams of developing her lingerie accessory business are on hold.
After so many years of getting to know Caucasian, Utah men, Stevens doesn't hold back when asked to characterize them. She wraps her knuckles on the table, rolls her shoulders and goes to work. "Most of the men I've seen are Mormon, go to church every Sunday, swear up and down he's committed to his religion and, on the side, he's fucking me."
Rebel shares a similar experience. She says that if a transwoman wants to make good money "selling ass, the best way to do it hands-down is get on Backpage at 4-5 a.m. on a Sunday morning, post the dirtiest ads you can, and you can stay busy all morning." That's because, she says, a Mormon husband with an itch to scratch will take his family to the Sunday meeting, feign illness, then either meet the sex worker at his house or a hotel. "The LDS crowd want it more, but for somebody like me that turns down sex constantly, they're the easiest people to assert that type of thing with." That's because, she continues, "they've been taught to love before sex." So she tells them, "'I'm not a hooker, I'm an entertainer; I'm here to make you comfortable.' I appeal to their scruples."
SURVIVING IN THE SEX TRADE
Rather than try to find another wealthy sugar daddy, Stevens decided on a more volume-driven approach to sex work—she applied to work at a Nevada brothel. She flew down to Nevada to work at one establishment, but left after six days, angry at her treatment by the owner and the lack of business, and went to work at the Mustang Ranch in Storey County.
In her first weeks at the Mustang, Stevens was buoyant. "There's a lot of girls who come to the brothel and they leave, it's not for them, they're traumatized," she said during a short weekend break in Salt Lake City after a few weeks working in the Silver State. "I think being narcissistic and a loner helps me to do what I do because I care about myself."
Brothels help to legitimize sex work, Stevens argues, ensuring safety to some degree for both clients and workers. Each week, the workers are tested onsite for STIs, including HIV, and condoms are mandatory.
At times, Stevens was ecstatic with brothel life. "Fucked one of the hottest guys ever last night and had a damn good time," she shared on Instagram. At other times, it was too much. "Fucking tired and bored," she also posted. "Ignore me." Brothel work is not for the faint-hearted. For 12 hours each day, seven days a week, workers are available for the men—and sometimes women—wanting to "party," the brothel euphamism for sex.
But as the weeks drew on, Stevens became frustrated. First off, there was the money. The brothel took 50 percent of her earnings; if the client came in a taxi, the driver got 20 percent. She had to tip the on-site chef and bartender and pay for her own condoms, lube and baby wipes, and pay $40 a day for room and board.
She could find no way to take her mind off what she was doing, unless she was asleep. "You're just functioning, you don't know what fucking day it is, the days just blur together," she says. Even handling the most basic functions such as paying bills or checking on her family became difficult to handle because she had so little free-time.
Stevens increasingly struggled with lack of sleep and privacy. "You feel so isolated, you don't know who you can trust." There was an intercom in her bedroom, which left her and some of the other women uncertain if and when management was listening in. She says she was constantly asked where she was going, who she was talking to and what she was doing. "It was like an episode of Big Brother. It fucking sucked."
The surveillance, she says, is to make sure that women aren't getting paid under the table by a sympathetic client who prefers they get all the money rather than a percentage. "It's a control issue," she says. Fireable offenses include talking to other sex workers off-premises or exchanging phone numbers with clients. A City Weekly reporter called the Mustang and requested an interview with owner and developer Lance Gilman, but he did not return the call.
MY PIMP, THE BROTHEL
By late July, cracks in Stevens' toughness were starting to show. She felt burned out and was having issues with a coworker, an inevitability, she says, when you are competing for men with other women.
The ranch asked her to take a break and then come back. She returned to Salt Lake City on a Wednesday, but come the following Sunday, she had a migraine at the thought of returning. When she texted the brothel that night about coming back, a manager replied they weren't ready for her and that all their rooms were full. Stevens texted back saying she didn't want to work there anymore and would go work for the competition.
Working at the brothel, she says, "was a negative experience for me. I came away hating brothels." She came to view them as defacto pimps. "They take some of your income, they control you, even though you are an independent contractor," she says. "They're not physically abusive, but it is invasive."
Back in Salt Lake and reunited with her child, Stevens is getting ready to launch herself as a free agent, selling what she terms companionship, "a service that is very highly stigmatized and borderline legal," she notes. She is looking for wealthy clients.
"I plan on being as exclusive as possible. There's a reason you don't see a lot of Ferraris on the street—most can't afford them."
... AND FREEDOM FOR ALL
While Rebel's and Stevens' plans for their future sex work careers differ in many respects, the most fundamental lies in the longevity they anticipate. Rebel's plans are indefinite—whether that's pouncing on the next trending fetish or sub-genre of porn or making longer-term plans. She's always looking for the next angle, be it applying for a role in the currently popular Mormon-themed porn, selling panties she wore in a homemade porn clip (there are online classes dedicated to women selling recently-used panties for men to buy on the internet) or shooting "trashy Tinder dates," she says, in which women have sex with supposedly random dates.
Rebel's set up her own website, where she will be taking in 70 percent of the money clients spend with her. She'll be offering $100 monthly memberships which will provide access to all her private shows, and hopes to amass enough regulars that she and her partner will be able to afford to raise their child.
She wants to corner the market of "punky transgirls," she says. Discussions with a porn production company for a movie called Sadistic Witches—that would feature her and other transwomen—has introduced her to possible models to feature on her burgeoning website. Her eyes light up as she calculates that with over a 1,000 subscribers, she could potentially bring in over $1 million a year.
Stevens, however, wants out within the next two years. At the brothel, she encountered women working in their 60s, something that haunts her. "Looking at these women, it's depressing," she says. She compares it to an elderly person flipping burgers. "What the hell did you do with your life?"
She believes that "it's unacceptable to be past a certain age and still selling sex," and that she'd be "extremely embarrassed and disappointed in myself if at 45 I was still selling sex."
The brothel experience, she found, was based on an imbalance. "Clients come to you temporarily to cure their loneliness. There's no one to cure our loneliness." That emptiness, however, will not get in the way of her battle to escape poverty. "I can deal with loneliness. I have a child, after all."
In the leadup to the 2016 presidential election, prostitution has only deepened Stevens' political-activist-born loathing of the two-party system. When public debate turns to income and equality, "they're not addressing those of us at the bottom trying to claw our fucking way out, and using our skills to get out of it," she says. "They're keeping women in poverty, on the social services safety net. They could drastically reduce people on welfare if they'd just legalize certain things, like prostitution."
She pauses for a moment. "This is America right? Aren't we supposed to be free to choose?"