In the middle of every month, when the moon is full, and straight after payday, Louise meets Tom in a smart hotel in north Sydney to indulge in what she calls ‘my little ritual’. She lays out a bottle of her favourite Champagne, a box of chocolates and a punnet of fresh strawberries, and dresses thoughtfully for their rendezvous, in a mini skirt or tight jeans.
What follows is tightly programmed: Louise is paying for Tom’s time, and for a hefty fee this smooth-talking 48-year-old escort with greying temples will wine, dine and massage her. He’ll also make love to her. Their last meeting lasted six hours. ‘We sit down, we talk, we have a drink,’ says Louise. And sex? ‘A few times.’ She giggles. ‘Three, four. I lost count.’ Tom provides relief from her humdrum career in accountancy – it’s all about her. ‘I spend practically the whole day before in the spa and the hairdresser,’ she explains coquettishly. ‘It’s fun. It’s just treating myself.’
Back in February, Louise, who is 47, stumbled across a story in Sydney’s Good Weekend magazine. It was about local male escorts and it featured glossy pictures of young, buff men, rippling with muscles. ‘I kept it,’ she says when we meet in a hushed hotel bar, and pulls the article from her handbag. ‘I read it so many times. [I thought], you know, this could work for me, I’ll give it a go.’ After a succession of botched one-night stands and online dates, Louise, who three years ago ended an emotionally abusive relationship, felt she had little to lose.
Hiring an escort seemed safer and more satisfying than casual sex with a random stranger: Tom not only has rave testimonials on his website but also uploads STD test results once every three months to show he is clean (it is a legal requirement in brothels in eastern Australia that sex workers have quarterly blood tests and monthly swabs for STIs). Initially cautious, Louise had booked an appointment to discuss the health risks with her GP. The doctor reassured her that she’d heard it all before: ‘What else? A lot of my patients see escorts.’
Now that many Australian states have legalised prostitution, women are buying sex in increasing numbers. The industry remains niche (a 2010 IBISWorld market research report found that just six per cent of those using commercial sexual services in Australia were women). But it is growing; although exact figures are hard to come by, all the escorts I talked to described increasing competition and more demands on their time.
Women buy services through agencies with rigorous recruitment processes, such as Aphrodisiac male escorts in Melbourne, run by two Australian mothers in their mid-40s and which provides prostitutes to professional middle-aged women. But just as often they’ll find escorts – youthful gym bunnies to older, more sophisticated types – through one-man businesses online. Either way, prices top Au$500 an hour.
The high cost means most customers are women with disposable incomes. At Aphrodisiac, 41 per cent of clients are in their 30s, and just 10 per cent in their 20s. The majority are single (36 per cent) or divorced (20 per cent); 18 per cent are married. At the upmarket agency Platinum X, in Sydney, most female patrons are 35 to 50 years old. Tom, the freelance escort with slicked-back grey hair who, when we meet, sports a blue velvet jacket and a striped pink shirt tucked into jeans, notes that women approach him at an age when ‘they know their bodies, are more confident in themselves, are not caught in the trap of young children – and life’s too short’.
So what do male escorts tell us about an underlying shift in female sexuality? Western women today have more freedom, money and power than at any point in history. Yet for many, like Louise, the decision to buy sex goes beyond financial independence: it marks a brave new world of go-getting female sexuality, in which women can be as assertive as men in pursuing what they want.
With the decline of the traditional family unit, some women – particularly career women who are cash-rich and time-poor – find it easier and more efficient to organise paid-for sex than to seek it at home, in a bar, or online. Casual relationships or affairs can be complicated; hiring an escort offers control, an opportunity for sexual experimentation and exploration of fantasies without fear of judgment from a partner. Escorts, as Louise points out, have ‘seen it all’.
The internet has also revolutionised the sex industry, making male escorts more visible and available, while ensuring discretion. In the past, sex workers operated only in brothels, on the streets, or by word of mouth. Today, the majority advertise online. The successful ones have professionally designed websites, good-quality photographs, and post testimonials. For their female clients, making a reservation on the web (followed by a clandestine meeting in a hotel or at home) provides much-needed privacy.
TV series such as Sex and the City, and more recently Girls, have put female desire on the small screen, and opened up discussion about what good (or bad) sex means. Hung zoomed in on the escapades of a well-endowed male escort, and there is even a reality TV series, Gigolos, filmed around the Las Vegas agency Cowboys4Angels. ‘All of a sudden, there were these new discourses that weren’t there before,’ explains Denton Callander, a research fellow specialising in sexuality at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). ‘Like all media representations, [these shows] are both reflecting and driving what is happening in society – and normalising it.’ They also help to diminish the shame traditionally associated with female sexuality.
The blockbuster bondage novel Fifty Shades of Grey (2011) has ‘single-handedly helped male escorting’, says Missy, a bright 40-something madam who owns Platinum X. ‘Women have started to think: this is OK, socially accepted, people aren’t judging me – they’re revering me a bit: Oh you lucky thing, this is so hot and sexy!’
At Platinum X, which offers both male and female sex workers, it is no accident that the most expensive male escort is called Christian – the same name as the titillating anti-hero in Fifty Shades of Grey. With his laissez-faire charm, cheeky laugh and creamy looks, Christian charges Au$1,400 an hour. Before becoming a male escort, he worked as a model, kick-boxer and stripper. His clients are ‘businesswomen with a lot of money’ who ‘love taking control’. ‘Rather than going to a bar and meeting some loser,’ he tells me, ‘I deliver everything and hopefully a bit more.’
In order not to disappoint, Christian travels to bookings with his ‘batman belt’ – ‘your sex toys, your ropes, your handcuffs, all that stuff’. Since Fifty Shades of Grey, batman has taken off. ‘I have been allowed to be more rough,’ says Christian. ‘There is choking, there is smacking, there is spanking, but all within limitations: there is no blood.’ For good measure, he adds that he is already on his second pair of handcuffs: the first wore out.
In What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire (2013) the American writer Daniel Bergner argues that female sexuality is as animalistic – if not more so – than male. ‘We’d rather cast half the population, the female half, as a kind of stabilising force when it comes to sexuality,’ he explains. The idea that monogamy is more suited to women is no more than a ‘fairy tale’. Bergner claims another misnomer is that visual stimulus is not especially important for the average woman. Studies with a vaginal plethysmograph (a tool used to measure blood-flow and lubrication) have shown that female response to visual stimuli is visceral, immediate and, in some cases, more pronounced, to a wider variation of sexual images than with men.
In one experiment in 2007 by Meredith Chivers and colleagues at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, both men and women were made to watch videos of sex, ranging from heterosexual penetration to fornicating bonobo apes. The apes proved a turn-on for women, whose blood-flow soared, while men reacted in much the same way to the primates as they did to mountains and lakes. But here comes the telling part: when asked, the women themselves reported less arousal than their bodies let on. At the root of this gap – between physical urges and psychological restraint – sits societal shame.
In a 2011 paper, Terri Conley and colleagues at the University of Michigan found that women are no less interested in casual sex than men. But they are happier to engage if they expect the experience to be sexually satisfying and if they can remove any risk of stigma.
Male escorts might satiate an impulse for variety and novelty in sexual partners – as important, Bergner argues, for women as for men. Despite cultural norms, female sexuality is not, for the most part, ‘sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety’, he writes. In an email, Bergner told me: ‘Track the level of desire in long-term relationships – not the level of love but the level of desire – and a different reality emerges, a reality that might lead to a male escort now and then.’
Yet, while women finally taking hold of the pay cheque might seem like good news – a sign of their sexual unshackling – the escorting industry remains beset by gender stereotypes that act in the opposite way, reinforcing pre-existing, and often out-moded ideas about gendered sex roles.
How this plays out is telling. Female escorts in Australia are commonly available to hire by the hour, but most heterosexual male escorts require a minimum two-hour booking – with some even demanding a 24-hour fee. Female sex workers often charge extra money for intimacies such as kissing; but male escorts are expected to kiss, caress, cuddle and massage their clients for no extra cost. The reasoning is simple: it is presumed that their female clients want not only sex, but a date, a counsellor, a friend.
At Aphrodisiac, there are no images of the men. Instead, each escort records an audio message describing his personality and women can enjoy a no obligation ‘Meet & Greet’ before engaging his services. Where female brothels resort to dirty come-hither phrases to advertise online, Aphrodisiac offers a Frequently Asked Questions page that explains matters of safety and legality in plain, straightforward language. Bookings, women are assured, do not need to include sex: some clients might ‘enjoy the company of our discerning gentleman’ for his conversation alone.
All this visual and verbal semaphoring serves to underscore deeply conventional assumptions about sexuality: among them, that men visit sex workers to sate their physical appetites, and that women primarily need emotional sustenance. The male escort industry, in other words, keeps gendered cultural habits, rituals and role-play around sex firmly entrenched.
This goes for sex workers as well as clients. While female escorts in popular culture are often depicted as victims who sell their bodies because they are desperate, abused or do not know better, male escorts are portrayed as heroes, and described in envious terms. One phrase doing the rounds is ‘paid to play’. As Vin Armani of the reality show Gigolos wrote in xoJane.com magazine: ‘I have often compared the life trajectory of a high-end straight male escort to that of an athlete…. I fell in love with the game, became really good at it, people noticed, now I get paid to play.’
Evolutionary psychology is partly to blame for such attitudes. Men, we are told, want to sleep with multiple partners to spread their seed; women want just one good provider who will help raise their offspring. For men, sex is recreational; for women, it’s reproductive. Terri Fisher, a psychologist at Ohio State University, says that ‘being a human who is sexual, who is allowed to be sexual, is a freedom accorded by society much more readily to males than to females’. Likewise, the freedom to crave safety, comfort or intimacy in sexual experiences is more readily afforded to women.
The reality is more complex, on both sides. Some women hire escorts to enjoy sex on demand, without complications. Some men hire female sex workers merely to talk. At Platinum X, a popular option is the ‘girlfriend experience’. Missy explains: ‘Some guys want to watch TV, cuddle up and have an intelligent conversation.’ Not everyone desires a flawless porn-star type either. ‘They ask: do you have a middle-aged woman who isn’t perfect? They don’t want a little 20-year-old with perky breasts. They want someone realistic.’
Teela Sanders, a sociologist at the University of Leeds, found that men hire sex workers to fulfill their emotional needs – using the time to converse, confide or confess, with intercourse sometimes no more than an afterthought. At the same time, the coy term ‘romance tourism’ (coined in the 1990s to describe sex-purchasing trips abroad) is applied solely to women, even though it is no less consumer led than its male equivalent, ‘sex tourism’. Hilary Caldwell, a PhD candidate researching male escorts at UNSW, says: ‘Some women [who travel to the Caribbean] will talk to beach boys and say: “We want a penis that is this big, a body that is like this, and a person who smells this way.” They might have three partners in one week. Not all women behave this way – but then neither do all men.’
Just as there is no typical female sex worker, there is, similarly, no archetypal male escort. Tom, for example, has his own business in the city as well as a wife (who approves of his sideline income). He insists he ‘gets pleasure out of giving women pleasure’, but he is not above faking, or feigning interest. It’s part of the business.
Chase, a 27-year-old escort who turns up to our meeting with a leather jacket slung around his shoulders and a motorcycle helmet at his side, could not be more different. With his hipster haircut and razor-sharp jawbone, he is picture-perfect, though he comes across as a tad world-weary. Chase came to the world of sex work via an ex also in the industry. Charging Au$350 an hour, he has made roughly Au$30,000 in the past eight months working part-time, but he is at pains to point out that this is a serious job. Mates like to congratulate him on winning the jackpot. ‘The way they see it, I have sex with hot rich businesswomen and get paid for it,’ he says.
Chase’s first ever job was straight out of a movie. A 50-year-old Australian lawyer hired him to keep his much younger Asian wife entertained. Whisked by private jet to Melbourne, Chase went shopping, had sex and sipped cocktails. He made Au$11,800 in a weekend, which he invested in professional photographs, a sharp suit (for the job), and courses on tantric sex. Escorting, he insists, is hard work.
Undeterred, about 150 men apply to join Aphrodisiac every week (competition is high: only eight escorts work on the agency’s books), attracted by the thought of easy sex for easy money. But that does not wash with the founders, whose female clients range in age from 18 to 70 and come in all shapes and sizes. To eliminate amateurs, they ask applicants to complete a gruelling recruitment process. Then, if they make it through an interview, police check and health examination, they’ll be asked to sit a practical exam. This sounds simple enough, yet performing for payment adds pressure: many male escorts use Viagra to maintain erections and often do not achieve orgasm. The raison d’être of the job is to pleasure the woman, not themselves. ‘It is nerve-racking,’ says Regina, Aphrodisiac’s co-founder, explaining that the trial session is there as much for the escort to understand the reality of the job as for the agency to choose someone suitable.
When I ask Christian, the Au$1,400-an-hour charmer, if he ever has sex off the clock, he replies with a naughty smile: ‘You asking?’ Later, he admits that when you’re at it ‘nine-to-five’ sex becomes a ‘chore’. Twice in our conversation, he refers to himself as a puppet: ‘If you need me at a hotel tonight, I’m there. If you need me at a dinner function, I’m there in a suit at your side. I’m the puppet, I am.’ Chase, meanwhile, has been asked to pose as a boyfriend at a pub trivia night; to dress up as Tarzan for a fetish party; and to pleasure a woman by her husband who can no longer maintain an erection.
Society tells us that men are dominant and women are demure: there is some satisfaction in flipping this dynamic around. Female sexuality might be as aggressive as male sexuality – if you take out the cultural component. But equally, male sexuality can be much more about emotional needs than carnal desires. If anything, what the new phenomenon of male escorting shows is that men and women who buy sex are more alike than we thought. As for the escorts, the job comes with sacrifices. Aside from Tom, none of the escorts I spoke to had managed to sustain any meaningful romantic relationship.
Adriá, a 28-year-old whose escort work is helping fund a second degree in microbiology, had one client who cried whenever their time was up. He’d comfort her, saying: ‘You know you’ll see me again soon.’ To me, he acknowledges: ‘After you have had a good weekend, or day, and you get back to that harsh reality, it can get quite tough. I do have feelings – on the other hand it’s business also.’
Worse still for Adriá are the rare experiences that could amount to abuse: ‘Somebody’s fingers up my ass. Or biting me really hard on the nipple and blood coming out. I like it rough, but Jesus Christ, not like that. Claw marks. When I say do not do this to me and they do… Yeah. Not pleasant.’ At times he’s felt ‘used’. In one orgy, when he was hired along with two female escorts, ‘they discarded me when I was no longer required and that was pretty shit. It wasn’t handled in a professional manner. I was pretty upset actually.’ He shrugs his shoulders – ‘They’re buying you.’
Photograph: Tom Jones, Sydney-based male escort