Sex Work

Wisconsin City Finds New Way to Punish Sex Workers and Their Clients

Anyone advertising as an escort without a license or attempting to hire an unlicensed escort could be charged $5,000.



As it stands, cops who suspect someone of prostitution must actually prove it before arresting them. But that's a lot of work. So Eau Claire, Wisconsin, officials have a new plan: make non-sexual commercial companionship illegal without the proper paperwork. 

To this end, the Eau Claire City Council is considering an ordinance that would require anyone advertising as an escort to get an occupational license from the government.

The term "escort" is a broad and vague one, of course. Escorts may accompany their clients to events or join them for other forms of non-sexual companionship, and this is perfectly legal. Yet most of the time, escorting is a euphemism for some sort of sex work. And when you add sexual services into this equation, the activity then becomes a crime. 

But because being an escort does not necessarily mean one is engaged in prostitution, police can't just go around arresting anyone who advertises as an escort. Not yet, anyway. Ostensibly, cops must still interact with the individual and get them to agree to some sort of sexual activity for a fee. As Eau Claire Assistant City Attorney Douglas Hoffer put it, police are forced to do "intensive investigations" and get their targets to use "explicit language" in order to make charges stick. 

Now city officials want to change that. Under their proposed legislation, escorts and escort businesses would have to be licensed by the city and subject to extensive regulations. Any escort operating without a license would be subject to a fine of up to $5,000. 

But that's not all: the proposed law would also punish customers who contract with unlicensed escorts. Hoffner said the idea is to end "demand" for prostitution. Anyone attempting to hire an unlicensed escort could also be charged up to $5,000, as well.

To get an escort license, Eau Claire residents would have to undergo a background check and pay a $200 annual fee; for escort business owners the annual fee would be $500, in addition to a $500 application fee. Hoffer told local news station WEAU that the city expects to receive "little to no applications" for such licenses. In other Wisconsin cities with similar schemes—including Milwaukee, Gree Bay, and La Crosse—no licenses have ever been granted. 

So what's the point, if no one will actually apply for or be granted an escort license? So authorities don't have to go through the trouble of tricking sex workers into offering sex to undercover cops, of course. Now law enforcement could simply punish anyone who advertises escort services online but is not registered with the city. 

Said Eau Claire City Attorney Stephen Nick: "This is another means, as opposed to actually having evidence of an act of prostitution, pandering, or offering a sexual act for money, so we can follow up" on sex-work suspects. He bragged to the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram that it would allow the city to bring in more money in fines while using fewer police resources.