Sunday, June 1, 2014

Private Dancer

I rarely engage in the global discussion/debate about sex trafficking.  Nicolas Kristof of the New York Times writes frequently about the topic and when he discusses the problem as it relates to America I am all ears.  And of late I am glad I stayed out of his global histrionics  as it appears as like many in the history of the New York Times, he was played by a "fabulist" with regards to this issue.

To that I say - join the club there Nick and why don't you wander up the street a bit from the paper's headquarters to this joint written about in your paper?   There is your sex exploitation right there.

All the hysteria about Santa Barbara, which is apparently still going on, and again I stay out of it seems to ignore the real problem - women being enslaved to men as sexual depositary's.  Really that is all women "forced" into prostitution are, human semen banks.  Oldest profession or sickest?

This is like the Wire right down to the dipshit middle men who is simply the street supplier while the real dealers aka Pimps hide in clean well lighted places.  You want misogyny?  This is it.

A Strip Club in Manhattan Proves That Vice Is Hard to Kill

MAY 30, 2014

After night falls in the theater district, a burly bouncer takes his post in front of an unmarked red door, revealing nothing about the secret attraction that lurks behind him.

Men in the know approach him furtively, flashing private invitations on their smartphones that promise access to the club: a noir tableau with gilded mirrors; shabby red couches; and a couple dozen women waiting in various stages of undress, just bits of leopard print, fishnet and lace. The lighting is dim and the space so cramped that bodies press against bodies even when cash is not changing hands.

The clients sip cocktails from plastic cups, while the women slink around, striking up light conversations that float amid swells of laughter and bass-heavy music. The small talk inevitably builds toward one suggestive question: Do you want to go to the other room?

One night a week, a small but growing list of mostly professional men gather in this seedy space, steps from the lights of Broadway. Drinks flow. Inhibitions crumble. And if an agreement is made to retreat behind a private curtain, nearly anything goes.

The club, known informally as Bliss Bistro, is like an underground lap dance party. For those who pay enough money, the experience is more like that of a brothel — a rarity in the Internet age, where prostitutes and sex traffickers use sites like to conduct business.

Beginning in the Giuliani administration, strip clubs have been under attack in New York City, pushed to the city’s industrial edges by restrictive zoning. And Times Square’s transformation into a tourist-friendly zone has long been complete. More recently, opponents have used state liquor laws to shut down the clubs and their attendant illegal industries of drugs and prostitution.

But Bliss shows how an illicit strip club can still operate underground at the city’s heart, trading on the allure of mystery and exclusivity.

The New York Times was introduced to the club by its owner’s lawyer and was allowed to visit under the condition that Bliss’s location would not be revealed and that both its clients and those who worked there would not be identified by their full names. In conversations with patrons and workers during four visits to the club over the course of a month, the reporter identified himself as being from The Times.

The red door opens on Thursdays around 8 p.m., but the crowd is thin and the mood dreary until 9. The women who arrive early pace the floor looking forlorn, or lose themselves in their phones. Other women arrive, forming a steady parade into a bathroom, otherwise out of order, to change clothes. Then the patrons begin to arrive in packs, many already drunk. A man with a big smile tends bar in one corner, and the crowd buzzes around him.

In one darkened room, people mingle; in the second, the women disrobe. Men sit back on couches, often side by side like passengers on the subway, groping the topless women as they work. There is no stage at Bliss. There is no pole. Farther back, sets of heavy black curtains hang from the ceiling, forming the walls of the private areas.

Tony, a strapping 24-year-old from the South Bronx, runs the place. He has been in the business since he was 17, he said, when a friend from his neighborhood asked if he wanted to work security at an earlier incarnation of the club. He was already moving in underworld circles back then; Tony said he had sold wholesale quantities of heroin that he bought on the cheap. “I was lucky enough to be in the family where my uncles and family got stuff fresh off the dock,” he said

His boss, Chummy, a high-stakes poker player, liked him. He was honest, and when there was trouble Tony could round up some neighborhood muscle.

He recalled an episode when “a skinhead guy” was about to confront Chummy over an unpaid debt. “They was coming guns blazing,” Tony said. “I brung a little crew. Basically over time I proved I was willing to go the distance, earned the trust and worked my way up.”

At its peak, Chummy’s club was open four nights a week and making $30,000 a week, Chummy said, and Tony was taking home a small cut. Eventually, Tony took over the business. About three months ago, he opened up shop at the current location, which he found with the help of a friend who holds similar illegal parties for gay men.

He said that he tried to manage the club as if it were a completely legitimate enterprise, and that his biggest threats were robbers and undercover police officers.

“I go into it thinking that this is legal,” Tony said during an interview at a diner in the Bronx. Many of the details he shared that day, like his account of selling large quantities of heroin, could not be independently verified. Far from being reticent, he was eager to talk about what he saw as his accomplishments in running the club. And he seemed confident that he could stay a step ahead of the police.
“I’m not shaky, I’m not looking out the window,” he said. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to do — arranging the girls, checking in on staff — like it’s a real business.”

His business model is simple. Men pay a cover charge at the door, usually $40. Women have to pay a $60 tip to the house by the end of the night, but keep the proceeds from lap dances. If they agree to take a man to a private area, they keep two-thirds of what is essentially a rental fee for the space — $200 for every 20 minutes. The women keep 100 percent of whatever they charge for services rendered behind the curtains.

In the hours before the club opens, Tony is glued to one of his smartphones, making sure that everyone on his list of more than 3,000 men knows that the party is on and that enough women will come.

“It’s ridiculous stress,” he said. “Your heart’s pumping. Where the girls at? Where the guys at? Are we going to make enough to break even?”

On a good night, 50 to 100 men show up, and 30 to 40 women.

When it is crowded, the women approach men with a soft touch on the arm or by asking, “Have you been here before?” Others make coy glances from across the room. The men approach, too, sidling up to women whom they like or have met before.

Tony said he relied on word of mouth to recruit new women. Some are professional strippers. Others, including a small number of college students, have less experience. “A lot of girls are scared because they don’t want anybody to know about it,” he said. “I let them know it’s underground. We can be discreet. I let them know they won’t get in trouble. They don’t want anything to do with the police.”

Tony said he did not force women to do anything they did not want to do; he estimated that slightly less than half of them accepted money for sex. “I let them know all the time: What happens in the room is between you and the guy,” he said. “There’s nothing required, so don’t ever let the guy tell you that. Everything is cool.”

He prides himself on treating the women kindly. “I’m like the 1 percent, because in this business, all guys are messed up, mean, aggressive, yelling,” Tony said. “I’m calm. I let them know we’re working together.”

On a recent night, Alexis, a stripper who usually danced at a club called Headquarters, took a moment to talk. She was 22, lighthearted, and wearing a bull ring through her nose. She said she liked Bliss better than other clubs because men know they have to pay. “They can’t stand around and watch,” she said.
Of Tony, she said: “He’s cool. He respects us. One day I didn’t have the house fee and he said, ‘O.K. that’s fine.’ ”

A petite woman from Queens, who called herself Hazel and said she stripped at the Hustler Club, was weary but flirtatious. During a break from working the floor, she said she liked Tony and the quick and easy money she could make at his place. She said she recently charged a man $400 for oral sex, adding that he was wearing a condom.

Others like the place less. “I was looking to dance,” said a young waitress, leaning against the bar, who identified herself as Kiara and said she had heard about Bliss on Craigslist. She was new to the club, fresh-faced and vivacious. She said that Tony was “never gross” but that some of the patrons were. “What I found was a lot of guys who wanted to have sex,” she said. “I want stripper poles. There are no stripper poles here.”

On a recent night, Tony advertised in his texts and emails that he was welcoming a special guest, a porn star. She arrived early, sporting immense, surgically enhanced breasts, and mingled by the bar for a while. A round, older man with black hair told her that she was beautiful. She told him the price for time in the private area, and they dipped behind the curtain together. Other men lined up waiting for a turn. Tony apologized to the few who missed out when she left early.

“This is the future,” said a 61-year-old man, gesturing effusively toward the scene around him. He added, “You need to titillate both ends, if you catch my drift.”

The man, who said he was a derivatives lawyer from Manhattan and declined to give his name, said he had talked with a woman who was a student of design and neuroscience. “Don’t put the economic imperative right in my face,” he said. “It’s all about the je ne sais quoi.”

On another night, one of the women, a Columbia University student who called herself Naiad after a water nymph from Greek mythology, floated around the room in an airy silk robe over matching undergarments. It was her second night at the club. She asked men, “What’s your story?” When they asked her the same in turn, she told them she was a mermaid from the waters of Riverside Park.

“I only grow limbs in the nighttime,” she said. “And I enjoy what being a woman below the torso offers, because I don’t take it for granted as much.”

A man asked her to go to a private room after a couple of dances.

“It was really weird having sex with someone I didn’t know and had zero attraction to,” Naiad said later. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, what’s going on?’ ” But the $250 she said she had earned helped with her unease; she has since returned.

“I want to eat good food and pursue life’s pleasures and have it come from my own work,” she said, adding that she did not want to ask her parents for money. As an international student, she cannot work legally off campus.

“It’s not a brothel where everyone is beaten up,” she said. “Everyone is there by their own free will.”
It is hard to know what kind of financial pressures or other issues might encourage the women to trade sex for money. And how much power women in sex work actually have has long been a subject of debate.

“Some people find sex work empowering and some people find it very disempowering,” said Sienna Baskin, a director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, a provider of legal and social services. “It’s also important to recognize that people engage in the sex industry for a variety of reasons in the same way that people engage in all kinds of work for a variety of reasons. It might be the best option for them at that time.”

Rachel Lloyd, founder and director of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, an organization that helps women and girls in the sex industry, worked in the sex trade herself. “What I do know,” she said, is “that very rarely are women with economic options, no history of trauma or abuse and real opportunities and choices getting into the commercial sex industry.”

“If you would have interviewed me at that point I would have said I was fine and this is my choice,” she said of her experience of sex work. “That was my reality.”

But her perspective changed when she left the life. “You kind of have to be like, ‘I’m O.K. with this,’ because if you stopped and thought about it, it would really mess with your head.”

By the early-morning hours, most men have stumbled home. The women dance together to the music, in front of the bar, on top of the bar. Tony counts his cash on a landing in the stairwell, jumping whenever the door opens. He pays the floor manager, another man who keeps time outside of the rooms and the man who accepts money at the door. He pays a few people hush money. He usually goes back to the South Bronx with a wallet stuffed with cash: $2,000 or $3,000.

“I want everybody to be happy,” he said. “I don’t want anybody storming out with a grudge, because then I’m worried about them picking up the phone. They can send a little blue and white car through. That puts us on the radar at the precinct.”

Last year, there were 1,869 arrests for prostitution in New York City; of those, 326 were in Manhattan. There were 145 arrests for promoting prostitution, which includes operating a house of prostitution, but only 18 in Manhattan.

Tony recalled one instance when a customer, upset that he could not get in without paying the entry fee, called the police and falsely reported a shooting at the club. “Mad cops pulled up,” he said. He had workers wedge a sledgehammer behind a door, then he hurriedly collected the computer and headed up to the roof.

Not long after they got up there, they could hear laughter on the street below. The police, finding no evidence of a shooting, had left without entering the club. “It wasn’t a raid,” Tony said.

When he thinks the police are on to him, Tony said, he will find a new location. He is currently considering space in the financial district.

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