WHEN I DECIDED to spend every day and night of the convention sneaking my tape recorder into strip clubs and talking with hookers, I was hardly the only one following the story. As far back as June 28, Daily News reporter Jose Martinez claimed that the sex industry would be to the RNC what Halliburton is to the war in Iraq. With a team of prurient pachyderms stampeding into the city, he wrote, agencies were flying in hookers and strippers "from around the globe."
But a week and a half before the convention, Robert Polner of Newsday called that idea a fantasy. He cited increased police and media presence that would limit prostitutes' ability to work freely, and suggested that most strip clubs would see a limited spike in business.
When I called an escort service advertised in the back of New York magazine, an operator told me to book soon if I wanted company next week. Yet when I poked around an online directory of sex workers, I found at least two women who were slashing their prices for the RNC.
On the eve of the convention I visited Scores Westside, a corporate-style den of flesh just a short walk from the Garden. I perched in one of the plush lounge chairs and was pleasantly surprised to find an ashtray on the table. Before I could reach for a cigarette, however, I was overshadowed by a lithe figure with a sharp nose, jaw and cheekbones. Her flimsy nightdress revealed a pair of pointy mauve nipples when she leaned over and introduced herself as Natalie.
Natalie wasn't keen on the idea of chitchat until I put a twenty on the table. I asked if she expected a busy convention week.
"Silly boy," she hissed in a sing-songy European accent. "They're men and they have money, of course they will come here? They will be away from home, all alone, nothing to do, and then, they will like a dance."
ACCORDING TO LEDA, who founded the annual Black and Blue Ball and co-owns a bdsm dungeon in Soho, 70 percent of her clientele is Republican. Nonetheless, when I spoke with her during the days leading up to the convention, she expected no major jump in business. She also told me to be skeptical of anyone who claimed otherwise.
"August is usually slow and then business gets better in September, so you might see a little increase, but not because of the convention."
She sees politicians, judges and many people from law enforcement, but they're generally established regulars. She doesn't expect much from people who are going to be in town for four days.
Another professional who didn't expect much was Bob Richter, who for 30 years has been publishing such sex guides as Qlimax Times and New York 3000 (see J.R. Taylor's feature on Richter, "King John," in the May 7, 2003 issue of New York Press). I called him on the first day of the convention.
"Every convention they have here, all the girls get hot: This is when I'm going to make my money."
At first, he believed it. And why not? More out-of-towners looking for sex means more sex-guide sales for him.
But, he continues, "after every one, there's blank faces. It's like, 'Where did all of the business go?"
As Richter puts it, delegates don't need prostitutes. "They go from party to party with everything provided. Free booze, Lynyrd fucking Skynyrd, food that you and I can't believe. And besides, there's good-looking women there too-who aren't whores. The guy thinks, 'Maybe I'll get laid for free tonight. Maybe I won't.' He really doesn't give a shit, he's having so much fun. In the end, it's one or two o'clock and the hookers don't work that late? He goes to bed and wakes up the next morning at 8 a.m. and the whole cycle starts again.
He adds that many hookers lose their local clientele because "anyone with sense who lives in Manhattan gets the hell out." This year, some of the girls are taking the week off. "Finally they're catching on."
What about the reporters who claimed otherwise? And the sex workers they quoted?
"When you talk to a girl and she don't know you, she's making $1000 dollars a night. That's her story. Why? That's her dignity. She can't say she sucks cock for $200. You see those girls on Howard Stern, you laugh. I know a lot of them and they can't even pay their advertising bill, yet they're on the radio saying they make $2000 on one guy. That's how all of this good-time-for-hookers-during-conventions bullshit starts."
Ruby, a madam who's worked in the business for 30 years, agreed that the city's sex trade would see no increase in business. Why?
"Anyone even remotely involved in politics who goes to a hooker in this age is a true moron."
BY WEDNESDAY, the convention was in full-swing, but the girls weren't seeing the big paydays they'd been promised. Like the city's waiters, taxi drivers and other members of the service economy, they opened wide to voice their frustrations both with lagging business and the Republican invaders.
Marilee of midtown's Lace was hoping for delegates, not just because she wanted money, but because she wanted their money. It wouldn't be the first time she took pleasure in earning certain dollars.
"Who do you think has all of that Enron money now? Girls like me."
Sick of working for chump change, a stripper named France sat down with me back at the club on 7th Ave. and railed on the GOP for nearly an hour. She told of a recent customer from Alabama who announced that he was here for the RNC.
"What the fuck am I supposed to think, a black girl dancing for this white redneck from the South? He's doing this because he can't do it at home."
By Thursday morning I'd read six articles about the RNC's effect on the sex industry. Even if no delegates were pumping money into the sex biz, I figured the girls must have been doing all right from reporters looking to find a story.
On the last night of the convention, I was tired. I'd seen more bare breasts than a mammography technician, but hadn't seen my own girlfriend for nearly two weeks. At 2 a.m. I stumbled into the Osaka 56, which advertises that Ronald Reagan used to relax there.
I couldn't find any sexy masseuses or delegates, but a tiny, wizened Japanese woman did pulverize my back with her feet. As I lay there in pain, I thought about all the reporters who'd spent the week drudging from sex club to sex club, suspecting that most will probably never write about the sex industry again.
Why descend on this story? Why the desire to peel away the Republicans' Christian-right veneer and glimpse the reality writhing beneath? Why was New York so hungry to learn about a sex room in the Waldorf where Republicans lined up as if it were Cold Stone Creamery on 42nd St.?
Because sex sells. And it sells twice as much for priests, presidents, celebrities, royalty and Republicans. The next time we see this much attention devoted to strippers and hookers in the mainstream press will likely be four years from now. If you doubt it, go back and look through the Philadelphia papers in the lead-up to the 2000 RNC. o