HARD SELL

03.19.14

Sex, Power, and Desire: The Life of America’s Next Top Escort

This weekend, Duncan Black is up for two major awards at the escort industry’s Oscars. But when you pay him $400 an hour, you’re getting more than just his body. “I think there’s a social service involved in the work as well,” he says.

An hour-long lunch with Duncan Black costs most people $400. Even if you’re not paying, you very nearly want to at the end of it. His reviews, rightly, call him “sweet,” “demure,”  “easygoing.” “Total boyfriend material,” one gushes. “He’s almost too cute.” Clients love his soft laugh, his feet, his “Minnesota Nice”-ness, his… well, you know.

Black is a male escort: according to his satisfied customers, a really good one. He’s also a contortionist, an aerial acrobat, a gamer, and a porn actor with a devoted Twitter following. He has an exclusive contract with CockyBoys, one of the Internet’s most popular gay porn studios, where customers pay $200 a year to watch him perform in titles like “Duncan Black & Levi Karter Flip Fuck!” and “Cameron & Duncan Break Each Other In.”

This Friday, Black is nominated in the Best Ass and Best Newcomer categories at the 8th Annual International Escort Awards, a star-studded event that aims to fête the best of the best in the male escort industry. The show, organized by Rentboy.com, the world’s largest listing service for male escorts and home of Black’s impressive profile, is nicknamed “The Hookies.”

Somehow, none of this seems to have gone to Black’s head. “Just because you happen to be attractive and you happen to be new on the website…” He gives a little shrug. “When I’m with a client, it’s not about me. It’s about the client.”

Black is, in all likelihood, the sexiest ex-Jimmy John’s manager in America. He never breaks eye contact when he’s talking to you, a pleasant experience considering the DiCaprian dreaminess of his blue-grey eyes. He has an easy, frequent laugh, a thatch of wavy brown hair, and a carefully trimmed beard that somehow makes him appear even more boyish. His face features a sleepy, near-constant smile, even when he’s an hour late to the West Village diner where he’s meeting you.

“Sorry!” he says, explaining that he spent most of the afternoon getting his first passport. Black is headed to Montreal to shoot a porno for CockyBoys, although that’s not the official reason for the trip. “I can’t say it’s work, since I don’t have a work permit in Canada, so I’m going to ‘visit friends.’” There’s probably a porn plot to that—Black and his scene partners explaining to strapping immigration officials that pleasure is their business.

“It was really hard for me to come for the first time on camera—it took hours. Sex wasn’t new to me, but having a camera on you and being directed was different.”

Two years ago, the 23-year-old was making sandwiches in rural Minnesota, nearly turned off sex work for good after a bad experience on a Floridian porn set. Now, he’s bringing in $400 an hour—at least—as one of America’s most in-demand male escorts. Clients pay to have him flown around the country just to take him to dinner; he estimates that one in four of his appointments entail no more than a client enjoying his company. The high life hasn’t altered his palate—he orders a bowl of mashed potatoes with extra gravy and a strawberry milkshake.

“A lot of times it’s just an older gentleman looking for company. Sometimes it leads to more, sometimes it doesn’t. I would say that around 75% of the time it does get sexual, but actual sex doesn’t usually happen. It’s mostly just, like, ‘light petting.’”

Exactly what his appointments entail, and how much he can charge clients, often depends on the city. “When I was in Las Vegas, most of my clients just wanted a date. I had a client who paid for my hotel, my flight, and he just wanted to take me to shows. It was fun!” Atlanta is another story. “At least for me, escorting is pretty bad in Atlanta. Everybody just wants a discount, and it’s like, there’s too much negotiating.” When his $400-per-hour rate is too ritzy, he checks competing listings to make sure he’s not pricing himself out of the market.

It is, of course, an imprecise science. “'Daddy' escorts charge less, because it’s mostly younger guys booking them, and they don’t have a lot of money,” he says knowingly. “Usually, I just ask other escorts in the area what they’re charging.”

What exactly is Black charging for? His time—and that’s it. He’s not a prostitute; he’s an escort, a blurry distinction that makes a world of legal difference. “The difference between escorting and prostitution is that a prostitute offers sex for money, whereas an escort offers time for money. If you were to book me, you wouldn’t be booking me for a specific sexual act—you’d just be booking me for my time. We could go to dinner, or for a walk, or just hang out and talk… or, y’know. Other things can happen too!”

How would one go about wording a request for an appointment? “You could just say ‘I’d like to meet you,’ or ‘What are your rates?’ Once you get into specifics, you get to the point where the escort might not be able to legally answer that question. If someone were to ask me a question I can’t legally answer, I could say ‘What you’re paying for is my time, and my time alone. What happens during that time is between two consenting adults.’” Black has never had a run-in with the law, but he knows other escorts who have. “A good friend of mine, a porn star, was arrested in Las Vegas for escorting. The reason why is that he didn’t word it right. Somebody probably asked him for a specific sexual service, and he answered. That’s the distinction.”

After all: “A rentboy is an escort—I’m not a hooker.”

To those who see all sex work falling under the same illicit umbrella, this is mere semantics. The Urban Institute recently released a 339-page report (PDF) that implicated the underground commercial sex economy in human trafficking, forced prostitution, organized crime, and child pornography. Escort services and web-based escorts were both name-checked in the report as contributing to the problem.

Black’s famously genial smile fades at the mention of the report and what it implies about his career. “For one, trafficking of people for sex is wrong. Anything involving a child in sex is wrong. People reading that article would probably think less of me, when what I do is entirely different.”

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Rentboy.com

As for the dirtier aspects of the world’s oldest profession, Black can only speak to his experience as an independent escort. “Some people view it all as bad,” he says, giving another “no biggie” shrug. “And a lot of people appreciate it. I’ve had clients tell me about their coming-out stories, how if it weren’t for escorts, that they’d have probably committed suicide. They don’t have someone to talk to, but with escorts, they can talk about their sexuality and their feelings. These are people in their forties and fifties… I think there’s a social service involved in the work as well.”

Those inclined to view all sex workers as sleazy hustlers would probably roll their eyes at Black’s statement. His earnest defense of escorts-as-social-workers comes across as sincere, but then, of course it does—that’s his job. He is, after all, in the business of being whatever people want him to be. “I’m a pretty easygoing person—if I don’t like working with someone, they’re probably not going to know it unless they really offend me.” Is this charming boy-next-door exterior just a front? It’s impossible to tell. Meeting the “real” Black isn’t easy when “Duncan Black” isn’t even his legal name (only his mother and sister still call him that).

Black doesn’t speak much about his life before escorting. He “moved all around Minnesota,” and remains close with his sister, who he tweets about regularly. He slept with “lots” of girls as a teenager, mostly to prove that he was straight—his sister and her friends used to mock him for being gay, “before I even knew I was.”

Unlike many escorts Black knows, he’s completely open with his family about what he does for a living. “My dad’s indifferent—it’s the same as if I had a job at McDonald’s or as an architect. My mom is excited about it!” His mother even encouraged him to attend an awards show for his porn work over her own graduation, scheduled for the same weekend. “She kept insisting, ‘No, it’s more important!’ I mean, she’s happier I’m doing this than working as a manager at Jimmy John’s.”

How does someone get into this business? Anti-sex work advocates are often quick to proclaim that no one can really consent to their own “oppression”—and after all, no little girl dreams of being a prostitute when she grows up.

Black did. “Before I came out, I had sex with a lot of women, mostly to prove that I wasn’t gay. I started watching gay porn during that time as an outlet, and when I saw a video with [porn icon] Matthew Rush, I really liked what he did. I downloaded a bunch of his photos and put them on my Playstation Portable.” He makes an embarrassed face. “I wanted to be that!”

It took a while before Black’s improbable dream became a reality. “I became a manager at a Jimmy John’s, and I was working 85 hours a week, and I was completely miserable.” When he wasn’t making sandwiches, he was also experimenting with small-time porn outfits. “I did some amateur stuff when I was 19 with TwinkScape, but I had a bad experience, so I just stopped doing that for a while.” Black is hesitant to elaborate about those “bad experiences,” darkly referring to “a lack of professionalism.”

At the time, Black “had no idea what a studio was like when it was run by someone who knew what they were doing.” Working with a partner in front of a camera was a huge change from the solo webcam shows he had experimented with. “It was really hard for me to come for the first time on camera—it took hours. Sex itself wasn’t new to me, but having a camera on you and being directed was different. Not to mention that I also claimed to be a top at that point,” he adds, rolling his eyes. He’s now one of the most celebrated bottoms in the industry.

One incident almost made him question throwing in the towel for good. At a shoot in Tampa, Black, used to freezing Minnesota winters and thick pajamas, was sleeping naked in the Florida heat when one of the other actors came home drunk. “He started talking all kinds of shit to me, calling me a dirty, trashy whore, saying that I needed to go work for Broke College Dudes,” a low-rent porn site featuring less wholesome-looking young men. “He was just tearing me apart emotionally. So, I cancelled the scene and had them fly me back at 5 a.m. That’s my horror story.”

A two-year hiatus followed, with Black still doing occasional solo shows online but remaining hesitant about studio work. Still, the urge to make a proper go at porn nagged him. “I didn’t want to judge the entire industry by one studio.” Serendipitously, gay porn producer and director Jason Sparks found video of Black’s work online when he was visiting Minnesota. Sparks, always on the hunt for talent in an industry with a high attrition rate, reached out to Black, and that was the end of Jimmy John’s. “He asked if I’d ever thought about doing porn, and I was like, ‘Yeah! As long as I can get out of Minnesota!’ I quit my job and joined his tour.”

It was during his travels with Sparks that Black first began escorting. Sparks himself had set up the ads—so many that Black still doesn’t know where he was listed. “He did all of that—one of the many reasons I left his tour. I kinda like to know where I’m out there.” Now, Black’s image is tightly controlled—his two Twitter accounts have more than 22,000 followers, and his single Rentboy.com profile lists fire spinning as one of his hobbies.

But back in the Sparks days, Black had a rough start. A few weeks into escorting, he had what he gingerly calls a “rough experience” with a client. “It was a much older guy, probably the oldest I’ve ever been with, and I guess I wasn’t receptive enough. He basically just wanted me to try on underwear and chat with him, and then he tried to teach me Russian. He wanted more, because I wasn’t being as ‘social’ as he wanted.” He takes a sip from his milkshake and crosses his arms. “I didn’t get hard, I didn’t get him off, and he ended up writing bad reviews about me.”

Now, when he doesn’t feel chemistry with a client, “I act! At that point, it’s not about me—it’s about fulfilling this guy’s fantasy. If I’m being coy or shy or showing that I’m not interested or attracted, then he’s going to be in a worse place than he was beforehand.” He reiterates the palliative nature of his work. “I want every one of my clients to leave happy, and in a better place than when I started.” Occasionally, he’ll still get a bad review, but despite the inherently personal nature of the criticisms, he doesn’t take them to heart (or parts beyond). “If I have a bad review, it’s not going to bring me down—it’s going to encourage me to work harder.”

Black is so protective of his clients’ experience, he won’t even mention his award nominations to them. “Never. I could, and they probably would vote for me, but at the same time, I have 22,000 followers on Twitter. One of them will vote for me. If at the end of our time, I say, ‘Hey, vote for me!’ he wonders whether I just did this for an award. I don’t want that thought to even cross his mind.”

Similarly, he doesn’t mention CockyBoys on his Rentboy.com profile, or label himself a porn star. “There have been a ton of people who have been in the industry a long time that get upset with people who have just started calling themselves ‘porn stars.’ I don’t want to step on someone’s toes.” Black prefers the term “porn actor,” or maybe “adult model,” although the latter is occasionally too nebulous for some clueless clients. “I had a client in Atlanta that wanted to book me for art modeling, like, standing naked for hours in front of students. But it was four hours at a third of my rate. I didn’t want to say I was better than them—it’s a prestigious job!”

Asked to choose between escorting and porn, Black hesitates. “I think probably porn, because I get to travel all over the place. Especially with CockyBoys, it’s more of a family environment, whereas when I’m escorting, I’m on my own.” Still, the rentboy lifestyle is a welcome respite from the on-camera pressures of pornography. “I like the label of being a rentboy. If I were just to say I’m an escort, people can wonder in what capacity. When I say I’m on Rentboy, they can go to my profile—and there are awards for it!”

Even if Black does take home a Hookie, he doesn’t plan on advertising it or raising his rates. “I don’t think I’m going to change anything. Like I said, I don’t want it to be about that. I’m not going to raise my rate because I won an award. I’d be really happy, but I’m not just doing this to be noticed above other people.” There’s a reason the “hooker with a heart of gold” has been a stock character from La Traviata to Pretty Woman—it’s good karma, and good business.

As for his own love life, Black has never fallen for a client—dating as a sex worker is complicated enough without money in the mix. “When you’re an escort, you’re always traveling—distance relationships aren’t easy when you’re not dealing with the potential jealousy issue. When you’re dating another escort, you’re facing double the potential jealousy.”

Right now, Black is single, aside from the one or two clients a week he takes in New York—or the one or two a day he takes in Vegas. “I’m a hypersexual guy, and with all of the traveling I do, it’s hard to commit to any kind of relationship.” Even CockyBoys has a hard time figuring out where to send his checks. “Right now, I’m focusing on the Hookies and the Grabbies,” he says, referencing his Best Bottom award nomination at the Grabby Awards, the Daytime Emmys of gay porn.

When he’s not on set or on call, Black is learning to be a contortionist. “It started when I got into aerial acrobatics, like Cirque du Soleil? And I had to become much more flexible to do the aerials I wanted to do.” The training has obvious career benefits, he notes, smiling impishly. “I mean, I can bend in ways I never even thought possible before I started training. It’s definitely helpful in this profession!”

Black doesn’t worry about aging. The career lifespan of an escort, according to him, isn’t nearly as short as one would think. “I’ve heard of some escorts who are in their fifties. They have regular clients, they used to be porn stars, and now they’re living off their porn name. They can go have an hour-long dinner with someone and pay for the next week.” He beams. “It’s good work, if you can get it.”

You can vote for Black here.