Thoroughly Modern Madam:1Thoroughly Modern Madam
an interview with Rebecca Rand
by Carol Leigh
copyright 1993, from Gauntlet, Issue #7, "In Defense of Prostitution"
First of all, Rebecca, how do you like to be thought of, as a madam, as a business owner or what?
I think the notion of madam is a little old fashioned and it brings to mind the idea of a house, and the owner of the bordello has control over the women who live there because they become not only workers but borders and the owner becomes in loco parentis. That's not the modern day model. That's not what happens. They come in. They work eight hours a day. They go home. Six or seven hours a day at my place. So it's an employer/employee situation. And you end up taking more responsibility maybe than certain employers because the stigmatization and the illegal status of prostitution greatly affects the labor pool you have to draw from. It has a tremendous influence and it's going to dictate that you're going to have personnel probelms or difficulties that someone else won't have.
What about sex business entrepreneur or agent? I know Dolores French of HIRE in Atlanta, a friend of yours, emphasizes that her employers in at escort agencies are agents, like talent agents on show business. Were your employees independent contractors?
Well, I'm in the middle of a big controversy with the IRS, and that's kind of a technical question. If it were a legal business, they would just be employees, but it's not and that means that it would be highly risky for me to keep all the money paid by my customers and write checks to women once every two weeks. You couldn't do that, and the reason you can't do that is forced by the illegality of it. I don't keep records of my employees because it wouldn't be safe either of us.
So, let's cover your case from the beginning. When did you start working?
I've been working as a prostitute since 1972 in the twin cities and I bought a sauna two years after I started working, so I had owned and worked in a sex business for almost twenty years at the time of the big attack. I had already been to prison once. What had happened during those twenty years, they kept increasing the penalties, which is what you do when you're trying to stop some type of behavior that can't possibly be stopped by oppressive means. You can't get the kid to eat the peas, you have to beat him harder. Drug wars are the same thing. So they are upping the penalties. Prostitution and prostitution related crimes, if they do not involve force as very low in terms of sentencing guidelines. If you are promoting prostitution, that's a felony, but a felony that you would get probation for up to the sixth offense. Which is the lowest crime on the guidelines and I knew that. The first time I went to prison because I violated probation by going back to my business and so I was sentenced to a year in prison.
The reason I ignored it is because I didn't take it seriously. I mean, I'm living in a city with twenty massage parlors that are all open and operating. People are working as prostitutes every day, seven days a week and nothing ever happens and part of the reason I went to jail is because I'm an activist. And because I rub their noses in it. And I thought it was a pretty upstanding thing and that they really had more dangerous people to fill up the prison with than me. So I didn't think that they would do it. I just went back to my business. I continued to work. And part of it was that I was drawn there because this is my life blood. This is what I care about.
I worked really, really hard for it. I put in huge numbers of hours. I thought about it all the time. I cared about it, in a way that somebody wants their restaurant to be the best restaurant, to have the most interesting menu and perfect service and I wanted my massage parlor to be like that. I cared about it. And so, I was drawn back to it. And I had these personal motivations. I was drawn to it any maybe I was rationalizing. I thought, "Oh, these people don't really want to put me in prison." It was just silly. I ended up going to prison for a year, but even though I'm in jail, the business keeps operating and the other women are free to go to work every day, and the manager, my right hand woman, just ran it for me, until I came back. Right before I went to prison, I'd just bought another place. So I had two businesses. So all life went on fairly calmly for a number of years, as it does. This is how it works in prostitution. It's very spasmodic. Nothing happens, then something occurs, whether somebody decides to hold a nominating convention in your town, or whatever, something happens or a certain person gets elected mayor with a streak of Puritanism running through them, but something will occur. Well, one of the things that occurred in Minnesota was that we got a racketeering law based on the federal law and those laws allow the government to confiscate the property of a person engaged in an ongoing criminal enterprise. They were written, originally, for the federal government for the Mafia, as a means for getting at organized crime, and they subsequently began to be used mostly against drug dealers. I never worried about that law, because there are no federal laws against prostitution, so because I have never been even remotely involved in anything else, I'm not into loan sharks, hot goods, or drugs or anything, so I never worried about it because it didn't apply to me. Well, they wrote a state law based on the federal law, they're called baby RICO acts, and the Minnesota Racketeering Act is sort of like the federal act except it says that anyone who is guilty of breaking a state law in an ongoing business is guilty of racketeering and you can take all their money and all their property. I was the first person they used it against. I think it came about somewhat accidentally. What happened was, St. Paul decided to crack down on massage parlors and the way they did it was for about two or three weeks was to position uniformed police officers outside the door of your sauna, and in St. Paul there are seven saunas. They would post the cop outside the door and they would talk to the customers as they were coming and going and say, I'm Officer Friendly and I'm just doing a survey here. Can I take a moment of your time and ask you some questions. Have you been here before? I couldn't do anything. Anybody can stand on a street corner and ask questions. But the fact that they were in uniform was somewhat intimidating.
Did you want to respond or try to organize?
Our first response is "What they hell is going on here?" There had been a law written that allowed the city to close down any business that had three or more misdemeanor convictions on the premises. They could use it selectively. Of course if there were three shoplifting conviction in department store, that law would allow them to close down the department store as a public nuisance. They would, however, not choose to use it. If there were three prostitution convictions in a motel, because the police use the hotel to call people from an escort service in a sting operation, they wouldn't close down the hotel. They would choose to use this laws against massage parlors and against X-rated bookstores. These stores are places where they arrest a lot of gay men. So those are the places the law is used. So our first thought was that they were going to try to use this law on us. First they had decided to do the survey. Now the time I had been in St. Paul, which was eight years, I had one prostitution arrest.
You mean they don't make the rounds at the parlors and bust people regularly?
Well, they do, but I avoided it. My people were trained exceptionally well. I was really good at that.
I always hear that you have to bribe police to avoid arrests. Was that ever expected of you?
No, I never did that. I've never paid anyone off, ever. The thought would never cross my mind. I would never do that. But some people do. I talked to a madam who told me she did. Maybe in other cities? Of course, I suppose it goes on, and maybe it goes on here. I personally have never been approach by anyone who expected my to do it.
So, anyway, I don't know. I'm trying to figure out what's going on, and I can tell it's going to be bad. And then some politician makes an announcement, we're going to close down all the saunas in town. So, now, the next thing, we have cops, nice friendly cops in uniform, sometimes they sit in their cars, and they'll stop a guy driving by. Sometimes they stand out in front and they have a questionnaire. And we decide to approach it by telling our customers just to say no thank you. Just say no to the cops. We ran an ad in the forum, which is the adult newspaper that we're allowed to advertise in, that most of the customers would read that we had our lawyer write and the title of it was JUST SAY NO TO COPS. It was to inform people of their rights. When a police officer stops your, you are not required to answer any of his questions. You are required to identify yourself and that's it. But the police have intimidation on their side. The just say, well, would you like to talk to me here, or would you like me to stop by the house later. I mean, that's all they have to say and the guy will tell him anything. The truth is, he's not going to go to their house. He doesn't even threaten them. He just says it in a real casual way.
So we tried really hard to educate the clients. We told them to be very polite and say, sorry, I'm in a hurry, I don't have time to talk to you now. Catch you later. Or, I already talked to the guy yesterday. I have nothing more to say. Or whatever. Basically what happened, they were also counting customers, and they were astounded by the amount of business we were doing, because we subsequently got targeted as the place to go after.
We were open from 8 in the morning till 4 am, so even if you have a lot of business, it's not real noticeable, because it's over so many hours, so that people might see a guy coming in or out every half hour, twenty minutes, but it doesn't look like a crowd. Well, when they started counting they realized that we were making more than what the other six places together were making. So, I think that they went click, click...This is a good case for the racketeering law. She has some money.
I think that their original objective was to close it down by using the business nuisance law, but when they counted the customers, they thought, well we should use the racketeering law. We could pick up some cask, here. And I think that, because the first raid that we had, six or eight cops come crash through the door, and at the time, the head of the vice squad was a woman, Nancy DiPirna.
A woman. Oh, no!
She's cool. We were just mystified because there had been no prostitution enforcement in the last years. So I got an attorney and called a meeting of the other sauna owners. These people are worse than hookers. They don't talk to each other. Their idea is that if somebody gets knocked out of business, it's so much the better for them. It's like trying to organize farmers or hookers. But they did come to the meeting and I said, "I think this is what's happening. So I said, I don't know if they'll go after all of us together or they'll pick somebody out. But I'm kind of feeling very confident, because if they're going to use this business nuisance law, what it means is that they close the building down for one year, but you don't forfeit the building. So all it means is that you have to have some money to move.
But that's no problem. I had lots of money. I could buy building up the yin yang. Heck, I'd buy another one, fine. I spent a lot of money on what I had and it was really nice. The second edition, each room had it's own bathroom.
Weren't you worried that they would go after you for pimping?
Pimping is a minor felony that I would get probation. I didn't care about that.
That's interesting that you say that because a lot of women I know are very afraid of being charged with a felony.
I already had a felony. I didn't care about it, but I did care about them putting me out of business. And I have put alot of money into the building that I have and I have worked very hard to establish a great clientele there, so I do not wish to be moved, so I will do everything I can to avoid getting three convictions in one year, to the point that I train the people really well. I pay a lawyer to fight a bad case. If they get a good case and they're no way out of it and the woman wants to plead...I mean I always try to get people not to plead guilty, but if, for her own reason she wants to, it's like, fine, you can do that, but you can't do it within a year. I mean, I could have two people plead guilty within a year. After that, if anyone gets arrested, they cannot, and it's to the point that ..I mean these are just misdemeanors, so they can not extradite you from another state...I was even willing to go so far as to relocate somebody in another state and pay to have them move there and pay to have them live there, and retire until the year is up.
I mean, I have it all figured out and I'm willing to go to great lengths here. But the first line of defense is to not get an arrest at all. It's not that difficult to do, because prostitution involves money for sex, and if you remove either element it is no longer prostitution. So all that's really necessary not to get a prostitution charge is to not charge anybody you don't know, so if a stranger walks in and you have sex and you never allow him to talk about money and you have sex and you just ask for the money afterwards, the police are pretty much up shit's creek about trying to make a prostitution bust.
But police will do that all the time, have sex with a woman, pay for it, then come back another time and bust her. That happens everywhere.
No. Not in St. Paul, they can't. And I was willing to do that because I knew it would be such bad PR for them if they had to go to trial. The police aren't really looking to do that because, mostly, they can go into a place and say, "I want a blow job. How much will it be?" and the girl says fifty bucks and they bust her.
So it was like a big legal game that went on. But I never for a minute expected this racketeering business. So they got a search warrant. which we eventually challenged. It was a generic search warrant that said such and such a place is known to be a place where prostitution goes on. Now, I hadn't had a prostitution bust, not in eight years. But they got a search warrant saying that there was a place of known prostitution. And all the search warrants were the same.
You'd think you could have had it thrown out based on that.
Well, one place did. It actually never came up for me. So they came over, kicked the doors down and terrorized everybody. And took the rubbers out of the girls purses, and take the daily sheets (I would only keep records for one day at a time.) They took things like we would rent videos at the stores. We would change them all the time. There were TVs in all the rooms, because it shortens down the session.
It definitely makes it easier.