Death in the Valley of the Dolls: Heroin overdose turns the spotlight on prostitution boom in California's tech industry

The death of a former Google executive during a liason with a high-class escort has thrown new light on the issue

Tim Walker@timwalker
Saturday 12 July 2014 22:19
Escort Alix Tichelman is accused in the death of the former Google executive Forrest Hayes
Escort Alix Tichelman is accused in the death of the former Google executive Forrest Hayes

It was a deadly meeting of two very different varieties of entrepreneur. One night last November in Santa Cruz, California, 51-year-old Forrest Hayes, a father of five who had worked at several major Silicon Valley companies including Google and Apple, took a fatal dose of heroin. Police say it was administered by Alix Tichelman, a prostitute whom Mr Hayes had been entertaining aboard his 50ft yacht, Escape. Ms Tichelman, 26, allegedly left him to die.

After she was arrested last week and charged with second-degree murder, Ms Tichelman reportedly boasted to officers of having more than 200 wealthy clients willing to pay her $1,000 (£580) per liaison. She and Mr Hayes are said to have met via Seeking Arrangements, a website that introduces "sugar daddies" to "sugar babies" who hope to enjoy "shopping sprees, expensive dinners and exotic travels" at their clients' expense. The site claims to have a membership of three million.

The case has thrown new light on prostitution, which thrives in and around Silicon Valley, thanks in part to an ever-expanding population of young, single professionals with plenty of disposable income.

In an interview with CNN last year, one San Francisco sex worker claimed to have realised an ambition common to any self-respecting start-up entrepreneur: earning a million dollars.

Google executive Forrest Hayes

While the sex industry has survived every boom and bust in the Bay Area since the Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, today the region's technical innovations are being used by sex workers to ply their trade and clean up their public image.

Some now take credit card payments for their services using Square, a smartphone payment system developed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. Others have a social media presence on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. One 28-year-old San Francisco sex worker, Siouxsie Q, commands a fee of $3,500 per night for her company and has built her reputation by hosting a podcast called "The Whorecast".

Scott Cunningham, an associate professor of economics at Baylor University in Texas, has researched the sex industry and found that the internet has drastically altered the experience for both workers and their customers.

In one study, Dr Cunningham found that a nationwide decline in prostitution arrests was systematically related to the growth in internet prostitution. Male clients, he said, are "very sensitive to the risks involved, and so they have moved away from the street to the internet; that's why there has been a disappearance of the street market".

With the capacity to advertise their services online, Dr Cunningham explained, more sex workers are self-employed, rather than working with a pimp or agency. Their clients, meanwhile, use review sites similar to Yelp or TripAdvisor.

"Clients use message-boards extensively to share information about the location of sex workers," he said. "They will go on The Erotic Review website [not to be confused with the UK publication Erotic Review] and write a review of a woman, so that others have an idea of what to expect."

Google offices

Except in cases involving violence or children, California police have more pressing matters to attend to than prostitution. In 2011 San Jose, the city at the south end of Silicon Valley, disbanded its vice unit to save money. But not all enforcement has ended. The FBI recently closed down, a marketplace and review site for sex workers and their customers based in the Bay Area. One of its alleged proprietors, Eric Omuro, lives minutes from Google HQ in Mountain View; he has been charged with profiting from prostitution, making $5.4m (£3.2m).

Kitty Stryker, a former escort and now a performer and marketing manager for the pornographic production company Trouble Films, said that the internet had made sex work "a lot safer", and the demise of would push more sex workers back on to the street. Ms Stryker, who lives in San Francisco, said around half her clients were tech workers. "They weren't high-powered executive types, more code monkeys: the sort of people who do the programming and don't get any glory. I prefer geeky guys who can sit around and talk about gaming or watch The IT Crowd with me."

Ms Stryker said that stereotype of such customers as shy, sensitive geeks was not always accurate. The tech industry, she said, is not "very welcoming to women". She said: "When you add sex work and the idea that a lot of guys have, of 'I have to pay for this, which means there must be something wrong with me', you can encounter a sense of resentment, entitlement and privilege."

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