For Kevin Slater, being a male escort was always a lone wolf industry, even when you had a friend or two in the field.
“Every so often a client will book me and another escort I’ve never met before for an extended period, 3 or 4 hours,” he said, “and there’s usually some downtime in the middle where we’re catching our breath, and we’ll start just chitchatting.”
But this was his only time around the water cooler, and he wasn’t the only escort feeling alone: in a world of often discreet, online, solo work how does one find a community and how do you make sure you’re being the best escort you could be?
Enter Hook, a nonprofit for male sex workers, and their now decade-old program ‘Rent University’, or Rent U for short.
Rent U started in New York, but now also hosts classes in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. Each class, advertised via Rentboy.com’s newsletter and the Hook website, takes place in a perfectly ordinary meeting room. The exact location often changes, the address handed out a day in advance via email.
Designed as a “harm reduction class,” according to board member Etienne Meunier, Rent U offers two-hour seminars in sexual health education, financial and legal advice and building your brand.
“It’s about 45 minutes of lecture, with some questions, and then we open it up after that,” explained founder Hawk Kinkaid.
“We’re not teaching people how to escort if they’ve never done it, telling people they should,” explained Meunier, “if you’re doing this, how can you be wiser with your money for someday in the future when you’re not working.”
There are many nonprofits and grassroots campaigns for the welfare of sex workers as a broader umbrella all across the world, but they are predominantly advocacy groups like Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).
There’s the similarly educational, gender-inclusive Sex Worker Open University in the UK, but Rent U wants to provide a bespoke education for a specific demographic.
“We don’t really target guys who are poor, who are doing sex for drugs or doing it on the street or going to places trying to turn tricks,” explained Meunier.
Rent U caters mainly to those who are advertising online through advertisements (mainly through Rentboy.com, which Kinkaid is COO of) or personal websites.
They predominantly sell their time, rather than a list of services. They might be a date to a function, they might put you into their sex sling, but fundamentally these are people who want to do this line of work.
“It’s hard for people to understand that this is a business where people choose to be, where they are happiest, where they belong, it’s what they enjoy doing,” said Kinkaid.
Kevin Slater (his working name) is not just an attendee of Rent U classes: he also taught one in ‘Escorting 101,’ helping teach younger escorts the basics of an industry where it’s hard to find anybody to talk to, let alone a mentor.
A Stanford alumnus who formerly worked in tech in San Francisco, getting laid off made him reflect on advice to other unemployed friends to try escorting.
Thirteen years later, he is respected by his colleagues as a logician and number whiz, as well as by his clients as—to quote one review--“a relaxed, friendly guy, with a big fat cock.”
In his class he advised that escorts should choose a first and last name for their working name, and to make sure they Google it before making it their brand: don’t, as one escort accidentally did, take the name of Harvey Milk’s killer.
He also advocated for always keeping your description of your limitations as positive as possible.
“If you’re not going to see somebody after midnight, say that. Don’t make them call just to be disappointed,” he explained, “If you’re not willing to bottom say that. But don’t use a no message: say ‘I’m an aggressive top’ or ‘I love daytime appointments.’”
Outside Rent U and Hook, Slater has found a group of close friends in the industry: they have a Facebook group where they can list clients that have proven to be flakes or problematic.
Rent U has also helped Slater meet people to partner up with on future bookings. Many times, however, Slater calls in Abel Rey. Rey, who is 30, has a degree in advertising from FIT and, to quote his website, “a boyish face and a curious mind.”
Rey has set up a YouTube series ‘Ask An Escort,’ in which he talks to other people in the profession (many of whom he meets at Rent U) and also provides information for prospective clients.
The videos have proven to be a shrewd move in a career increasingly looking to social media marketing: “People get to see that I’m a nice guy and connect to that,” he explained.
They also provide another venue for escorts to sit down and talk about their personal approaches to running their business, which can vary considerably.
Everybody I spoke to mentioned their personal quirks for booking: some take texts while others only take calls, some take calls all night while others switch off their phone at midnight. Many spoke of people who call escorts, ask for vivid previews, and use that as masturbation material rather than making a booking.
“There are people called picture collectors who are more interested in getting pictures than hiring you,” an escort who goes by Ares explained, “In fact I remember one client I saw through the agency who had literally hundreds of photographs of escorts on his computer, most of whom he had never met, but this was his hobby.”
“Often likened to a young Chris Reeve,” according to his Rentboy.com profile, Ares started out in the escorting agencies of New York rather than by placing an ad online.
His eventual boss told him he was capable of fulfilling a client’s needs even if they seemed tough to meet. He remembers one time being asked if he would take on a peculiar booking: a man who wanted to see his female fiancée sleep with an escort.
“I just remember saying ‘Can I do this?’ And my boss said ‘Sure, it’ll be easy!’ As if he was telling me to go drop a letter into the post office,” he laughed, “he made it sound so simple I was able to, with a relative lack of trepidation, go through with it and somehow do my manly duties.”
“Hung gay Latino” Leo Donato recalled having a supportive agency, who advised him on what to do with clients who were high, for example.
Some independent escorts said they did not feel comfortable taking such clients. Others, like Kevin Slater, deal with them regularly.
The agencies are an interesting precedent to Rent U then, in this regard, as they helped to teach people in the profession a best, standardised, practice.
While there are areas of education that most escorts welcome—building your brand, having a presence online--one class Meunier mentioned was taught by a gogo dancer and escort about ‘getting the body that you want.’
“One of the things he said was that it might be relevant to turn to steroids or hormones to help you grow muscle. Some people were like, you know, kind of offended that he would recommend that.”
There are other things that people disagree on: when should you take cash from a client? Some do it at the end, but Leo had been taught to keep transactions to the start. “Money shouldn’t be the last thing exchanged because that’s the last experience with the client. You don’t want to leave them with that experience.”
How do you manoeuver the difficult world of going on a holiday with a client?
Abel mentions a time a friend offered to bring him on a cruise as his guest. “As soon as the cruise ship started it was very clear I was his escort,” said Rey. “He wanted to have sex with me all the time, he paraded me around, he would never let me out of his sight.” After three days Rey requested his own cabin.
Hook has recently held open meetings with members of the community to figure out what they need to aim to do next in Rent U.
Donato told me he’d prefer to see a structured curriculum: “Practice, then health, then social media and branding and the legal aspect towards the end.”
Kevin wanted the opposite. “ I want to see meet and greets come back with no structure,” he explained, “no teacher, maybe a leader, and just pick each other’s brains.” Ares also wanted to see more chances to just talk about the industry separate from the much-enjoyed sessions with experts.
But there’s only so much that can be offered in terms of harm prevention and regulated standards in a currently illegal profession.
“Other companies could fire you if its disclosed you worked within this industry,” explained Hawk, who has himself worked outside the industry. “There’s no ability to combat that. You can have the lease on your house, the rent on your apartment, cancelled without any proof that you’ve actually worked in the industry in any area that is ‘nefarious.’”
There is, he explained, a real problem with running a successful business for years that you can’t confidently list on your resumé.
“One of the risks is when people get middle-aged and they want to move out of the business and they have a hard time doing it,” mentioned Meunier. “There are cases of porn stars and escorts who commit suicide in their late 40s which comes with the down when you’re not the cute-something any more and you don’t know what to do.”
Despite the risks, Kevin feels secure in what he has chosen to do; he has worked for longer--and at an older age--than many he meets.
“People say to me, ‘Jesus Christ who are you fucking kidding, a 45-year-old hooker? Go fuck yourself, how pathetic, how sad you have to be doing this at your age.’ Which says so much more about him than it does me,” he laughs, “I’m right now looking to buy my third apartment in Chelsea. Dude, you’re projecting.”
But, everyone argued, society not only needs a sex industry, it needs people who know what they’re doing and how to do it efficiently, expertly and safely for all involved, like any specialised trade.
“A city with no escorts,” said Abel Rey, “is like a house with no bathrooms.”