(First published in the November 21, 2018 issue of City Pages)
A local sex worker says the stings are a waste and ruin lives. Police say they’re trying to combat trafficking and other crimes
If you met “Sandra” on the street, you wouldn’t have any clue about what she does for a living.
She’s tall, attractive, but an otherwise unremarkable woman in her late 30s. Sandra (not her real name) lives in a small town in Marathon County, has a nice house, insurance and a retirement plan. She comes across as smart, confident and business minded. In fact, she has a bachelor’s degree in business. And she earns a living as a prostitute.
City Pages spoke with Sandra on condition of anonymity because of the illegality of her profession, but we verified her identity through multiple means to confirm she is who she says she is. That included interviewing her in person, and matching her face to those in profiles promoting her escort services, both in Marathon County and in Nevada where she has worked at a brothel.
Sandra reached out to City Pages in response to news reports that a Wausau School District administrator, Michael Schwei, 62, had been busted in a police prostitution sting in Rothschild, and on Nov. 3 resigned from his job as the district’s human resources director. “[These stings] are by and large NOT supported by our community… and do nothing but make prominent members of our community lose their jobs, sometimes their family and friends, and also at times their reputation and stance in our community,” she wrote in a message.
In that type of sting, police officers pose as prostitutes online and arrange a meeting with the “John.” Those busted for solicitation usually are given just a municipal citation (as Schwei was); sometimes it results in a criminal misdemeanor, depending on the officers’ discretion. Other stings are meant to bust the prostitute.
Rothschild Police Chief Jeremy Hunt says his department conducts stings whenever personnel have time, on both client and provider ends. They’ve arrested or cited both locals and out of town people.
The overall goal is to address sex trafficking and its victims. Hunt says it’s hard to say who has been trafficked and who isn’t; many people arrested aren’t keen on being cooperative with police agencies.
According to Hunt, the department has issued 34 citations for prostitution, either as sellers or buyers, since 2014, the year the village adopted an ordinance related to prostitution. That includes eight citations in 2016 and again in 2017, and 11 so far this year. Eight people were arrested for criminal charges under the prostitution statute since the stings started. Hunt says all eight women arrested for prostitution were charged; buyers were cited or charged based on whether they were a perceived as a threat to the community, Hunt says.
“I’ve been in law enforcement 20 years, and we didn’t see that in Rothschild,” Hunt says. “Now with social media they can now run a business at the touch of a finger on a smart phone.”
Other criminal offenses, including drug charges, often accompany the prostitution busts, Hunt says.
That’s also true of the Wausau Police Department and its stings, says Wausau Police Captain Todd Baeten.
Baeten says they conduct stings periodically and that they are pre-planned, with dedicated staff and equipment. Whether they choose to issue a citation or criminal charge to offenders is handled case by case, Baeten says, and can also depend on whether there are other charges such as drug offenses, traffic violations or fraud. “We want to change behaviors,” Baeten says.
The sting of prostitution
Human sex trafficking—when vulnerable people are coerced into working as a prostitute— is a problem in Wisconsin and throughout the nation and world no doubt. According to statistics from the Human Trafficking Hotline, 64 cases of human trafficking were reported this year in Wisconsin, and sex trafficking is typically the most common. And the number of reported cases in Wisconsin is continuing to grow each year.
But Sandra says not all sex workers are victims. She says she has what she wants and is happy with what she does. So are all the other women she sends and takes referrals from. Sandra estimates there are 10 to 15 “professional” sex workers operating in the area, and she’s connected to others throughout the state.
She says the stigma of sex work does not apply to her. There is no pimp in a car waiting to beat her up and take her money. She isn’t on drugs and living in squalor waiting for her next fix.
She also describes her customers as decent people. In fact, she’s more worried about them getting busted in a sting than she is worried about herself.
Sandra says many of her clients are widowers, plus men who are socially awkward and find dating difficult, and those in sexless marriages who don’t want to get divorced or have an affair. Some are just between relationships.
If a customer is not referred to her by another sex worker, she requires a full name so she can research them, confirm they’re real, and check them through online court records to keep herself safe. She tests herself regularly for sexually transmitted diseases.
Sandra says she takes one to two appointments per day, and takes Sundays off. Appointments can be anything from one or two hours to entire weekends or even full vacation trips — what some might call the girlfriend experience.
Sandra says her profession should be legal and the shaming of sex workers and their customers only makes it more dangerous. But it’s against the law and police say their stings often reveal other crimes such as drug offenses and fraud, and they find human trafficking, though prosecutions are scarce.
Crime statistics are usually not hard to find. The FBI keeps great records of statistics such as murder, rape, property crimes. The Wisconsin Department of Justice also provides access to those stats, and keeps others as well.
But statistics around prostitution are harder to come by. A search of court records system for all charges related to prostitution available in the system in past year yielded no stats even when searching statewide.
According to a 2012 report from Foundation Scelles, reported in Business Insider, there are an estimated 1 million prostitutes operating within the U.S. The trade brings in $14.6 billion per year in the U.S., according to Havoscope, a research firm dedicated to compiling black market data.
Wausau police officer Sarah D’Acquisto, who Captain Baeten says is the most knowledgeable on prostitution stings and sex trafficking in the department, says she believes roughly 85% of all women found in prostitution stings are being trafficked in some way. Many of those often don’t say initially that they are trafficked, and even when investigation reveals otherwise, they almost always refuse to cooperate in further stings against their alleged traffickers.
D’Acquisto says only three have admitted to police that they were trafficked: one said it was in the past, and now she works for herself; two others said they were trafficked but recanted the next day and charges against the traffickers were dropped.
Women working independently are often doing it to support a drug habit, D’Acquisto says, or catching side work while working as dancers. And often traffickers will either use an existing drug addiction or create one in order to maintain control over someone forced to be a sex worker.
“The stings we conduct are to look for the victims and to hold their traffickers accountable,” D’Acquisto says. “The ones that are being forced or coerced into the act.”
D’Acquisto says 8-hour stings are conducted roughly every two months. First-time offenders soliciting a prostitute are often given a municipal citation, and only multiple offenders are charged criminally.
The most recent public example involved Michael Schwei, when news of the citation issued to him for soliciting prostitution in October surfaced. The citation issued — for $1,951 — is handled through the village’s municipal court. It does not appear in online court records.
Similarly, a Wausau police sting in 2014 resulted in solicitation citations for six men, including a 68-year-old man, and a 36-year-old Wausau elementary school teacher, who soon after resigned. (In both that sting and the recent Rothschild sting, the officers were posing as adults.)
Hunt says during such stings the department tends to issue citations as long as the perpetrator cooperates with police.
In Wausau, the municipal citation for prostitution is $2,500, and police can also issue an escort citation for another $2,500.
If a criminal charge is filed, the penalties can be more severe. Prostitution is a class A misdemeanor, which comes with penalties up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine. Employing a prostitute can incur a charge ranging from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class H felony, depending how it’s charged; that could mean prison up to six years and a fine up to $10,000.
Tired of the cubicle
Sandra’s road to becoming a sex worker wasn’t terribly dramatic or traumatic. She says she grew up in another part of Wisconsin, and has a bachelor’s degree in business. She moved to Marathon County and worked in a cubicle-type business environment for a few years.
At the same time, she had an interest in fetish sexuality, and decided to try offering her services as a dominatrix. To her surprise, men took her up on it and she started doing sessions once or twice a month. “I was thinking I can’t imagine someone would want to do this with me and pay me,” Sandra says. “Shockingly I got lots of responses.”
That was about seven years ago, and it remained a “fun side gig.” Then a few years ago the allure of owning her own business — legal or otherwise — eventually led her to quit her day job and do other services full time. Being a dominatrix is now only about 25% of her business, she says. And sex is only part of what she provides, she says. Much of her job is about providing companionship, she says, and many customers book longer time frames for that purpose.
Sandra says she has never felt fearful of her safety. “A lot of it boils down to that we have this stereotypical idea of what happens based on what we see on TV,” Sandra says. “It’s not like that.”
Companionship is part of the allure, says “Bob,” a Stevens Point man in his 60s who spoke to City Pages on condition of anonymity. Bob says he started seeing prostitutes two years ago after his wife became ill. After being referred to Sandra by another sex worker, he decided to stick with her exclusively.
Bob says it’s about more than physical intimacy — he might book Sandra for a weekend trip, and much of that time is spent doing things a typical girlfriend might do. He typically books her for an entire 24-hour period, he says. They might watch a movie together or have dinner, for example. “I’ve formed a friendship with her,” Bob says about Sandra.
Sandra says she operates an escort experience. No money is discussed, and in some Marathon County communities one can obtain an escort license; others have no such license requirement. None of that covers exchanges of money for sex, however, which is illegal in every state except Nevada. None of Sandra’s marketing profiles specifically reference sex.
Sandra says she also previously worked stints at a brothel in Nevada. It was more like an actual job, with shifts and rules. Stints would typically go a few weeks. There was a lot of competition to get a spot at one, she says.
But in Marathon County, Sandra runs her business like… well, a business. Booking appointments, attracting clientele, promotion, etc. “I keep track of expenses and income like any other business; I keep track of receipts… It’s a regular business.”
Just not a legal one. Her family and friends are aware of her profession, and not all of them approve. Some think she could better use her education and intelligence. “My response is, this is my business,” says Sandra, who adds that she even reports and pays taxes, has heath and life insurance, and a retirement plan.
Outside of her profession, Sandra lives a pretty normal-sounding lifestyle. She likes camping, hiking, travel, planting flowers and gardening. She decided next year to devote more time to volunteering. “I really do love the community that I live in and want to make sure I give back more with my time and resources to helping others.”
Why did she reach out to City Pages? Sandra says she feels that sex workers have a stigma, and that she wants the community to know about someone “educated, professional and intelligent who chooses this work.”
She describes the police stings as a waste of money. The stings make her worry for her clients, none of whom she says would ever be with a woman they thought were being forced into the situation. She says she or other adult sex workers would be the first to report if they thought someone was being trafficked.
But law enforcement officials say the stings provide an important service, both in helping victims of human trafficking, in identifying illegal behavior, and changing behavior by instilling the fear of arrest and the public humiliation that follows. And as long as the law still says the activity is illegal, they will keep conducting the stings.
“I am sure this female does do things between two consenting adults,” D’Acquisto says. “And there is no trafficker forcing her to do so. The act is still illegal, and as a law enforcement entity, we are responsible for upholding the law.”
Human Trafficking Hotline
Do you think you’ve witnessed human trafficking, or are you bring trafficked? Call the hotline at 1-888-373-7888, text 233733 or live chat on the Human Trafficking Hotline at humantraffickinghotline.org. The hotline is 24/7 and confidential.