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The Price of Intimacy

A disabled man's fight to legalize sex work in Utah veers into stormy waters.

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Russell Greer (left) poses for a photo with Dennis Hof—the famed owner of seven brothels in Nevada, including Moonlite Bunny Ranch, where Greer was a regular. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Russell Greer (left) poses for a photo with Dennis Hof—the famed owner of seven brothels in Nevada, including Moonlite Bunny Ranch, where Greer was a regular.

"I just wish people understood what it's like to be me," Russell Greer says. When the 25-year-old rides Trax in downtown Salt Lake City, he occasionally hears a passenger comment on his facial paralysis. He has Mobius syndrome, which means he can't move his eyes from side to side or close his lips.

"What's wrong with his face?" someone asks. He has to rein in his urge to lash out. "I'm not that kind of a person," he says. "That's why I like paying for sex. It helps calm me." He says he suffers from anxiety and depression, and has found intercourse to be healing. "It's really a shame the only legal place is Nevada."

His only choice—other than taking Amtrak or a plane to Nevada, where prostitution is legal in some counties—is to illegally pay for sex in Salt Lake City.

In a February 2016 City Weekly profile, Greer discussed his inability to get dates, and the comfort he sought from sex workers. After Nevada became prohibitively expensive—and he alleges one brothel worker robbed him of $4,000—he turned to Utah. That opened him up to all sorts of problems—from potential STI exposure, to what he calls fraud by women who misrepresent themselves in online ads, or theft and violent assault by them or their male companions. Then there's the threat of arrest and prosecution for soliciting.

So he decided to open a brothel, which Utah law does not permit. On Oct. 18, 2016, Greer—a paralegal recently in the spotlight for unsuccessfully suing singer Taylor Swift—filed a lawsuit against city, county and state officials, including Gov. Gary Herbert, for violating his constitutional rights by upholding laws that make sex work illegal. State officials at the various governmental agencies declined to comment on pending litigation.

In his 37-page complaint, Greer, representing himself, argues that Utah's laws are hypocritical. On one hand, they sanction sexually oriented businesses such as escort agencies and novelty sex toy and lingerie stores, while banning others such as brothels.

His motive for the lawsuit, he says, is to bring attention to his problems, not himself. "There are those who are unable to find partners their entire lives due to things beyond their control, and therefore live in loneliness and never experience intimacy," he wrote in his complaint. "[He] felt that paying for intimacy would help him feel loved and help him cope with his disability and his depression after counseling and medicine proved to not be effective."

But in his quest to legalize prostitution in Utah, Greer stumbles into territory regarding sex-worker rights, arguments over decriminalization and language that highlights just how complex, nuanced and fraught the struggle over privacy and sexual rights continues to be, despite recent landmark legal decisions that opened the door to same-sex marriage and polygamy legalization.

Former street sex worker Donna Steele welcomes the idea of a brothel, noting that Greer was far from the first disabled man seeking these services. "It would be helpful in a lot of ways," she says, like keeping women from street-walking in front of businesses and keeping them safe from predators. "It's not going to do any good to take prostitutes to jail. They'll lose what little they have."

His co-plaintiff in the lawsuit is a Salt Lake City-based sex worker identified as Tricia Christie (there are no listings under that name in Utah's district and justice court database). Greer paid Christie $500 for sex at her downtown apartment.

He says Christie agreed to be co-plaintiff initially, then stopped taking his calls and blocked his number. A call to her number provided by Greer went unanswered. While Christie did not sign off on the complaint, he included her "to make the point people are willing to do this illegally rather than challenge the laws," he says. Greer has broken the law in Utah repeatedly by soliciting sex, although he says his acts of "necessity" stopped in March 2016. He might appear to be exploiting Christie for his own interests, but, he says, "I'm trying to set an example of not just her but other people. You either follow the law or you don't."

That's just one of a number of problems Maxine Doogan has with Greer's lawsuit. She's a San Francisco-based sex worker who is also president of the nonprofit Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLER). "It's not OK to drag workers into something they don't agree to," she says. "That's exploitative."

In 2015, ESPLER filed a lawsuit seeking to decriminalize sex work in California with four unnamed plaintiffs, three sex workers and a disabled man, John Doe. ESPLER's lawsuit—which Greer used for some of his language—took on what Doogan calls "California's anti-prostitution law, which challenges our right to free speech." Even sex workers associating with each other, she says, is a felony in California.

Doogan says Greer has put the cart before the horse. "He's trying to bring in a regulation scheme when workers are still criminalized." Doogan seeks decriminalization, not legalization—meaning do away with anti-prostitution laws altogether, rather than put in place laws that regulate sex work.

She also questions Greer's approach as a "customer-plaintiff who wants the right to be able to pay for sexual services. Having customers intimately involved in directing our work conditions is a problem." In Greer's brief, however, he stated he intends to hand over ownership and management of the brothel to an unidentified "educated, classy, beautiful woman," who, he wrote, "could align with the policies of Greer's proposed brothel and help women in them."

Along with disputing the role customers should play in running brothels, ESPLER rejects the brothel model itself. "Workers have not collectively bargained those contracts. They work under conditions basically mandated by the brothel owners," Doogan says.

Greer frequented a Nevada brothel owned by Dennis Hof, who says Doogan is wrong. His brothels essentially work on rental agreements with independent contractors, and are run on "common sense" rules of the house. He's proud of Greer for taking his fight to the courts. "The guy doesn't have much opportunity with women. He's taken the legal alternative. You've got to give him credit for that."

The very language of the brief is an issue for some. Greer wants "the classiest and most beautiful people" to work at his proposed brothel. Those who don't meet his criteria ("too old, not attractive, they have STDs, etc."), would be referred to talent agencies to find work.

Turner C. Bitton is the recently appointed executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "A lot of his language he's using [in the complaint] is the very same kind of degrading language that perpetuates stereotypes of sex workers," Bitton says, whether it's that women engage in it because society has deemed them unattractive, or "that only lonely, desperate men engage in purchasing sexual services."

Gina Salazar, a former Salt Lake City sex worker who's now a trafficking victim advocate, is also critical of Greer's ambitions. "He wants to open a brothel so he can get pleasure. He doesn't realize, in his own selfish game, what he's doing to these women. He's hurting them. I don't know that any of these women are out there by choice. He's judging the work the same way everybody in this small-minded community does." It's those judgments, she says, that mean it will never be legalized, let alone decriminalized.

What drives Greer, as much as his concern about disabled rights, is to quiet the need he has for intimacy. Salazar questions that paying for sex is a way to do that. "I don't think intimacy is made for us to give away or have for sale. It's more than that, and when it's false, then it kills a piece of your soul every time you give your body away."

But Greer says that even paid intimacy is an improvement on an absence of physical affection. "Intimacy is defined as affection, as pleasure. Maybe it's not 'real love,' but when you have nothing, something is everything."


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