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With two kids and no job, Z. needed money fast, and she realized that selling her time — and, in some cases, herself — online was her best option.
Because of the Internet, escort and sex work has changed since the days of standing on street corners. It has become more nuanced, and — in many communities — it more easily flies under the radar.
Z., who asked to remain anonymous to protect her business, said she started working as an escort about a year ago in the Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill area.
Her first weekend working, she made $7, 000.
Z. was reached through the website Backpage.com, an online advertising website that includes an “escorts” section. She said she has plenty of success on the website and repeat clients.
The work does not always involve sex or sexual acts. Z. said she often just sits and talks with a man or goes out to dinner with him.
“Most of the guys that I deal with are older, professional guys, and they literally just want a companion, ” she said.
Sex workers no longer have to hang out in public to find clients. Websites like Craigslist and Backpage.com provide opportunities for people to advertise their services, and these have contributed to the blurred lines of sex work. Offering companionship as an escort is legal, but it often indicates prostitution is occurring.
“It’s obvious. Everyone knows that (sex) is what goes on. Not all the time but yeah, sometimes, ” Z. said.
Policing prostitution hasn’t caught up to technology. Capt. Chris Atack, spokesman for the Carrboro Police Department, said the industry’s online presence creates difficulties for the police.
“Unless somebody tips us off, we don’t have personnel to be searching online for stuff like that, ” Atack said.
In Carrboro, the police department made three arrests in August 2011 in a sting operation at the Abbey Court Condominiums, which is now the Collins Crossing apartment complex, after receiving several calls from residents.
Since then, there have been no more reported incidents of prostitution at the complex, and Atack said the number of calls in general from that location has decreased since it changed management.
Lt. Joshua Mecimore, spokesman for the Chapel Hill Police Department, said prostitution is a difficult crime to catch. He said most incidents and arrests for prostitution are the results of complaints.
He compared prostitution to drug distribution and use because people who are involved in the crime are less likely to report any wrongdoing. Prostitution, like drug use, has been called a victimless crime.
“Most crimes aren’t like that, ” Mecimore said. “But when there’s no physical evidence, no known witnesses, the way you investigate that has to be different.”
According to records from the Chapel Hill Police Department, there have been three arrests for prostitution since 2001 — two in 2004 and one in 2005.
Two of the prostitution incidents were reported at the Red Roof Inn, on Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, said Mecimore. The manager of the hotel could not be reached for comment.
Z. said other women choose to work for companies that offer escort services, instead of advertising themselves online. According to the Yellow Pages, there are seven escort companies that serve the Chapel Hill area.
One of these companies is called Abalonia’s Escorts. The woman who answers the phone, who identified herself as “Stephanie, ” said interested clients can call to request companionship with escorts. She said clients pay based on the amount of time spent with the escort.
“She is his companion for that time, and they may go out to eat or out for a drink, ” Stephanie said. “Some girls give massages, some will cuddle or kiss like a girlfriend, it is her choice.”