Hung, HBO’s new comedy series, is about a divorced dad who turns to prostitution after having an epiphany about his “winning tool.” But penis as plot device? If an HBO script were to address a call girl's anatomy in this way, it wouldn't be so funny.
The world of men who sell sex is hidden, even from women like me who think we know a lot about selling sex. A call boy I used to pal around with once told me that prostitution simplified his life by allowing him to work in a completely gay environment.
For male escorts who aren't gay, it’s more complicated. How do they feel about the premise of Hung, in which a well-endowed Michigan schoolteacher tries to solve his financial problems by servicing women? Can a guy really make “an indecent living,” as the ads for Hung put it, by catering to the female sex drive?
Damien’s sex partners are beautiful women in their 20s—and the men pay to watch.
At 17, David Sterry was trying to do just that in the Hollywood Hills and other affluent Los Angeles neighborhoods. Among his clients were “upper-class housewives flexing their sexual muscles, out-of-town business ladies looking for a straightforward romp, hippie chicks, unhappily married women who talked about how the maid was being mean to them.”
Sterry’s memoir, Chicken, is being developed into a series for Showtime, and he recently published an edgy collection of stories by “hos, hookers, call girls, and rent boys.”
“I’m sick of people with no experience of sex work recreating their own fantasies of that world. It would be like me fantasizing about Iraq." He objects to seeing customers portrayed as "these sad, pathetic buffoon wretches." At the same time, he's fond of saying that "Blondie wasn't playing in the background" when he was turning tricks—a reference to the overly slick soundtrack of Paul Schrader’s 1980 film, American Gigolo, starring a young Richard Gere.
The situation has changed for male sex workers, says David, "especially in the middle and lower end of the market." Because of the Internet, today’s practitioners have to specialize, find a gimmick. David gets nostalgic about pre-Internet technology—"I had a pager before those things were in vogue”—but says other forms of social change have altered the sex trade at a deeper level.
“It was the middle of the women’s liberation movement. Women didn't think it was pathetic to pay for sex. There was a post-Woodstock afterglow,” he recalls, and people felt different about money. A gentler, more creative attitude about the financial exchange has been replaced by something formulaic and harsh, more Wall Street than Woodstock. A general preoccupation with wealth and power, winners and losers, has made the American sex industry less playful—for buyers and sellers alike.
Andrew Rosetta began working in the late ’90s and stopped in the fall of 2008 when he was 29 or 36, depending on which calendar he’s using. (“Every escort shaves off five years,” he says.) Whatever She Wants, a hectic account of his 10-year career, focuses on women he serviced in Central London. But men make “better customers than women” because they're more likely to provide repeat business, so Andrew maintained two distinct Web sites, operating under two escort names.
"It would have been a part-time pursuit if I only saw women," he insists, but he says Hung doesn’t have to be realistic to be entertaining. “They’re not presenting it as a true story. It’s intended to be funny, a dark comedy.”
Oddly enough, paying for sex doesn’t make women behave like men. As customers, the sexes are simply not the same. The typical male client of a call girl needs to think she’s bisexual, and many women in the industry are closet heterosexuals, pretending to be all wet and bothered over another call girl. If a male client isn’t willing to shell out for a two-girl session, he responds eagerly to a call girl’s lesbian yarns.
With female clients and male escorts, it’s the other way around. Most women don’t want to know that, in real life, the guy they’re paying also sees men in order to meet his expenses. “It breaks their fantasy,” says Andrew, “so you have to keep it a secret. But there was no problem advertising as a straight guy for male clients, even in the gay press. There are gay guys who want that.”
As if he didn’t have enough to keep up with, Andrew discovered that romance changes everything. His girlfriends—those few whom he told about his escorting—preferred him seeing men for money. “One girlfriend who was a nurse said women were OK as clients, but... no more duos involving female escorts." Another long-term girlfriend who worked for the BBC and dated him for two years was totally opposed to Andrew seeing female clients. He managed to keep his job a secret from most of the women he dated by stretching the truth about his real-estate investments.
I’ve heard that young women are hiring male escorts in order to experience first-time sex with a pro. These reports are exaggerated, says Andrew, “but it happens.” Over a decade, he encountered three or four who said they were virgins. “I was worried,” he tells me, but not for the stereotypical reasons associated with virginity. A woman who pays for her first experience is likely to be self-conscious yet self-aware and over 30. “Actually, these women have a bit of something to them. It takes courage to hire an escort under those circumstances. If they’ve got to this point, they’re trying to break the cycle. I was afraid I would mess up. ”
Ruth, now in her 40s, decided three years ago that “paying for a guy to come and take my virginity away” was the solution to her prolonged inexperience. She says it’s one of the best things she has ever done, but paying for it was a “one-off.” When I asked Ruth for the juicy details, I was struck by how much preparation and thought had gone into just one transaction with a male prostitute. Most men wouldn’t regard themselves as true customers if they had only paid for sex once, and I doubt that a first-time male would be as picky or analytical as Ruth was.
The sex industry reinforces other differences as well. In Andrew’s circle, no matter who the client is, male escorts earn about half to one-third less than women. “So, if a female is charging £250 or £300, I would be charging about £130.” He attributes the inequity to supply and demand. “Because it’s more dangerous to be a female escort, there are fewer women available.”
Damien Decker, who tells clients he’s 27, has been working in New York for about four years. “If you wait for women to pay, you’ll be hungry and broke,” he tells me. When Heidi Fleiss announced she was opening a bordello for women, he sent his picture and received a positive response. “Then she disappeared.” His experiments with gay sex were unsuccessful: “I couldn’t function.”
He found his niche on Craigslist "when it was the big hub" and began advertising on other adult Web sites. Damien prefers working in the middle, not the high end, of the market, where there are more customers and he can vary the pace, charging anywhere from $300 to $4,000 a session. “Craigslist changed the game,” he says. “It brought the high end and low end together.”
His sex partners are beautiful women in their 20s, and the men pay to watch.
“Everybody thinks what I do is so cool, but there’s a racist aspect,” he says. Damien’s father is Scandinavian and his mother is African. “Being a European black gets me in the door.” During the actual session, he tries to act “more like an American black” because his white customers want Damien to violate a rather quaint American taboo.
Interracial cuckolding is profitable: “My working partner is usually a white female escort who pretends to be the customer’s wife or daughter. He is forced to watch her being taken by a black man. Then he self-services.” On a few occasions, he was paid to have sex with a customer’s wife.
In Damien’s hometown, it wasn’t strange for blacks and whites to mix romantically. “Europe has done a better job of absorbing people of different colors than the U.S. has.” As a result, older white customers still have race-infused fantasies that seem outdated and bizarre to the younger multiethnic sex workers who service them.
Sometimes, Damien’s customer will request a dinner date. “We come into the hotel or the restaurant holding hands. He might think she’s a naïve girl I picked up at Starbucks and I lured her into this situation. Most clients don’t want to know she’s a working partner, splitting the fee.” These sessions are expensive and elaborate. “If the appointment is for Friday, I might call him on a Tuesday to talk about ‘this girl I just met.’”
In the recession, there’s a quickie version with fewer illusions. “If it’s $300, he comes over to the apartment and it’s 15 minutes, no conversation, just in and out. We can do four of those in one afternoon.”
There are two kinds of women Damien has reservations about.
“I don’t really like the sugar babes—they don’t want to use condoms because they claim to be in something exclusive with their sugardad, but they might have three or four of these ‘exclusive’ relationships. Meanwhile, the dads have three or four of their own ‘exclusive’ arrangements. And none of these people are using condoms? I always use one.”
Then, some escorts enjoy their work too much. Making another escort come is not Damien’s primary concern, it’s a bonus. “One girl, a student in real life, had a perfect body—tiny waist, 36D, all natural. She was so beautiful, but she made so much noise it was embarrassing. The next time, my customer said, ‘Can you please bring someone different?’ ”
An experienced fake might be a lot sexier. “After all,” Damien says, “discretion is key.”
It remains to be seen whether Hung measures up to the colorful, neurotic reality of masculine sex work.
Tracy Quan's latest novel is Diary of a Jetsetting Call Girl , set in Provence and praised in The Nation as a "deft account of occupational rigors and anxieties before the crash." Tracy's debut, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl , and the sequel, Diary of a Married Call Girl , are international bestsellers. A regular columnist for The Guardian, she has written for many publications including Cosmopolitan, The Financial Times, and The New York Times.