To an observer, it looks like a slow night at The Playpen in Stone Park: A few customers linger around the bar while two more play a leisurely game of pool. But for 26-year-old Naperville native Natalie Escobar, it’s a night to make money.
“It’s good to have customers and clients who are regulars,” Escobar says. “They’re my bread and butter.”
Dressed in a shiny burgundy bodice and an elegant black coat, Escobar sidles up to a male patron at the bar. The two hug like old friends and begin an involved conversation, pausing occasionally for laughter.
Escobar is a “massage girl,” one of several who frequent The Playpen, a bar where female sex workers come to meet potential clients, or “johns.” Sometimes referred to as “prostitutes,” a sex worker is anyone who engages in commercial acts of a sexual nature, from conversation to dancing to penetrative sex. Massage girls can visit many bars like The Playpen, 16 miles from Chicago’s Loop, in a single night, and unlike other sex workers, they do not have to pay a percentage of their earnings to bar staff or a pimp. According to Escobar, these earnings add up.
“I earn more a year than a doctor, about $1,500 a night,” she says. “Doctors have to pay taxes on their earnings, and I don’t.”
Escobar isn’t incorrect. According to the 2015 Medscape Physician Compensation Report, primary care physicians earn an average of $195,000 per year before income taxes, whereas their specialist peers earn $284,000. Assuming Escobar earns $1,500 a night, five nights a week (and works most weeks of the year), she out-earns the average specialist.
Escobar stresses she didn’t suffer any childhood trauma or economic duress, both factors she says are stereotypically associated with her work. Rather, she sees her work as a lucrative way to capitalize on her looks.
“I always knew I had the looks to be this way, so why not use them to make money?” she says. “Flaunt what you have to get what you want.”
The popular narrative of the long-suffering sex worker without personal agency — the ability to move and act at will or independently— can be disempowering for sex workers whose realities do not reflect that.
“It’s not our job to mark these women as trafficked women who have no agency,” said Kimberly Hoang, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago whose research focuses on gender, sex work and global perceptions of sex trafficking. “These women are far smarter than we give them credit, and they often self-identify as victims or not.”
A 2015 study by Fondation Scelles estimates that there are roughly 500,000 sex workers in the United States, and as many as 100,000 may have been trafficked by pimps.
Sharon G. has been a bartender at The Playpen for nearly 20 years, and she says the women who work there come from a variety of backgrounds.
“I feel bad for some of the girls because they don’t have any skills, didn’t come from a good family background,” Sharon says. “Then there are girls who are very professional, they have their boyfriends, they have nice homes.
“There were some girls that worked their way through school that do this and they would tell me, ‘When I am done with school, you are never gonna see me again.’ ”
Sharon added The Playpen once employed dancers but can’t anymore due to a mayoral crackdown that also forced the bar and others like it to close earlier.
“We curtailed the bars’ hours 13 or 14 years ago to promote safety, to promote better quality of life for the community residents where these bars were located,” says Stone Park Mayor Beniamino Mazzulla. “Right now, there’s less bar calls, less crime, less unwanted people coming through our community.”
According to Mazzulla, five of the formerly eight bars on Mannheim Road have closed due to a combination of shortened hours and rezoning. The Playpen is one of three bars that remain open.
Joe Bolden patronizes The Playpen and other “lingerie bars” like it in Stone Park. The 41-year-old tow truck driver describes them as a source of friendship and mutual support.
“I talk to a lot of women I like, and I always tell them, ‘You need something, you need help with something? Give me a call,’” Bolden says. “I helped one woman when her car broke down, she needed a tow. She was a dancer. She gave me a surprise birthday party and invited all her friends, gave me a lap dance, everything for free because it was my birthday.”
Escobar says success in her work hinges on understanding how to relate to her male clients.
“Us women have a lot of power over men,” she says. “Men can be massive manipulators, but we have to be strong and not as vulnerable … I have to use my power to get money from them.”
While Escobar is bar-hopping, “dancers” at Allure, a Stone Park gentlemen’s club that made the news recently, are having a different experience.
Allure dancer Michelle, 20, makes her rounds of the club’s floor, pausing to exchange pleasantries with johns. She takes to the pole on the club’s center stage a few times a night, stripping down to lingerie and dancing while bathed in scintillating, iridescent lights from a projector on the back wall. At other times, she says she ushers patrons into a private room in the back of the club for a lap dance.
“We are more elegant and upscale,” Michelle says. “There are other clubs where girls get naked, perform sexual interactions with customers, and that’s how they gain their money. But we just have to sit and look pretty.”
Michelle says she feels safer dancing at Allure rather than working alone soliciting johns in bars. This is both because of Allure’s security team and a strict set of rules governing how and where patrons can touch dancers, if at all.
Dancers at Allure also need to pay a percentage of their earnings to cover the salaries of DJs, bartenders and “house moms,” older women (and sometimes men) who help the dancers get dressed and apply their makeup.
For Michelle and her coworkers, the payout fee is around $100 to $200 a night. They say they can make more than $1,400 on busy nights and as little as $200 to $300 on regular nights, excluding payout fees.
The Sex Workers Outreach Project, a Chicago organization dedicated to improving the lives of current and former sex workers in the metro area, stresses that house fees can exploit sex workers.
“A lot of people get ripped off,” says Serpent Libertine, project spokeswoman. “If someone is working as a dancer, they would have to pay house fees. And on the streets there could be managers or pimps who are taking a part of their profit.”
Even at seemingly upscale clubs like Allure, the payout system can mimic the role of a pimp in a sex worker’s life by requiring a cut of her pay in exchange for protection that varies in quality. And the system isn’t restricted to gentlemen’s clubs: Women working at Carls Bar less than a mile from Allure are also required to pay a cut of their earnings back to the house.
But Carls dancer Tavia Monte says she doesn’t mind the payouts. The money she makes at Carls has allowed her to support herself and her loved ones financially.
“I make good money so I can help other people,” Monte says. “I can help my family and my friends.”
Slight and clad only in a bikini, Monte circles the floor at Carls, stopping for brief chats and lap dances with johns. Monte is Guatemalan, and first began doing sex work when she came to the United States at 20. She is now 29, and when she isn’t working at Carls, she’s taking citizenship classes and finishing up her cosmetology degree.
Monte’s co-worker, Santhia Mocayo, does sex work to support her children while she attends school to become a nurse technician. She says her earnings at Carls vary from night to night, and frequently depend on johns’ attitudes.
“A bad night, you make about $100 to $150,” she says. “On a good night, probably $600 or $700.”
Like Monte and Mocayo, Melody Garcia is working at Carls to pay her tuition: She’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business. But unlike her co-workers, she appears focused on the quality of the bar’s clientele.
“It’s not easy to deal with the guys, especially if you don’t drink,” Garcia says. “They’re perverts, always talking about sex and trying to take you to bed. It makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Garcia’s complaints about clients are echoed by dancers at Allure. Michelle and her co-workers say pretending they like their customers even though they barely know them is frustrating at times, but the money they make offsets any challenge.
“I have a son,” says Michelle, whose work dancing at Allure means a steady source of income for her young family. “I think it’s good because it builds more stability and ownership of yourself.”