Last Friday I had the honor of doing an interview with Dan Savage on the subject of the Rentboy raid early that week. He had noted an earlier blog post of mine in which I encapsulate my feelings about and responses to the raid, and wanted to talk to me about my perspective as a rentboy.
But Friday I nervous as all hell. How many of us remember Caitlin Upton?
Ms. Upton is not stupid; she’s intelligent and articulate. In calmer moments on the Today Show, being interviewed by Matt Lauer and Ann Curry, she showed herself to be educated and well-spoken. She’s demonstrated wit and brains since. She however is never going to live down one moment of nerves getting the better of her.
That’s what happened to me on Friday. Dan would ask a question, I would know exactly what point I needed to make, and I simply could not cohesively string words into sentences. I had written materials in front of me to refer to, I’d spent the morning rereading and refreshing my memory of what I’d written and what other folk had written, I’d eaten two meals already; I should have been ready. Partly I’ll blame my hiccuping delivery on my ADHD; Friday turned out to be a particularly mentally manic day. Add nerves to that – it was Dan Savage interviewing me after all – and an increasing degree of frustration with myself through the course of the interview, and I set down the phone at the end of it worried I’d not made a terribly good showing.
I’m happy to report that I don’t think I sound like a moron in the podcast, and for that I can only thank Dan or someone on his staff for being a magician of an audio editor!
SO. As it’s possible that some of you are coming to my blog for the first time after wondering “Who was that blithering idiot Dan was talking to?”, I wanted to expand on my Reflections blog post, and commit to writing the points I was trying to make.
I am going to speak in masculine language, using masculine pronouns for instance, through most of this post, as my milieu and best vantage point to speak from is that of a gay male escort. This should not be construed as meaning that I don’t think anything that I write here applies any less to women in the industry; often it applies significantly more.
First off, let’s be clear about the heart of what Rentboy provided. Rentboy was a website on which men advertised themselves to meet with men interested in spending time with them. That it is time which is the commodity being bartered for is an important distinction, very carefully monitored on the site. There was never any mention of exchange of particular actions for money; transactions were expressly for the escort’s time only. This is the vital loophole that made Rentboy and other similar websites legal, and is possibly what enabled Rentboy to operate rather transparently and even prominently visibly worldwide for eighteen years in the heart of Manhattan before the authorities shut them down. Now to call a spade a spade – was there some expectation that perhaps sex might happen during the time spent with an escort? I shouldn’t need to provide the answer for that question. But if sex happened between the escort and the client, it was sex between consenting adults. And there’s nothing illegal about that.
It’s the public-at-large’s conflation of prostitution with escorting (I’m going to be finicky about the distinction) which is part of the problem. Prostitution is viewed by polite society as the last resort for the indigent and desperate. The belief is that in exchange for money they are forced to part with something special, sacred, something which most christian folk think should be saved for marital and procreation purposes only. And what moral person would allow themselves to be denigrated to such a base state? Hence the idea persists that prostitution must be something a person is forced to do. Sex against a person’s will does happen in our society, but that’s rape, not prostitution. Similarly there’s the belief that prostitutes are indentured to agents, “pimps”, who claim all the profits and essentially keep their wards in sexual slavery. This does occasionally happen also, but this falls under the aegis of human trafficking. Conflating coercion of either sort with prostitution as a profession practiced by thousands is a complete fallacy. These forced situations do not reflect the state of the vast majority of sexworkers, especially escorts advertising on such resources as Rentboy. Most sexworkers enter into the profession of their own free will, knowing full well what they’re getting into. No man composed a Rentboy profile under duress; no man posted photos of himself at knifepoint. Admittedly most who enter the field do so out of economic necessity, which it could be argued is duress, but no man doing so hasn’t had other options, unlike victims of rape or trafficking. He just felt that this was his best option.
This public perception is further tainted by a wan version of reality which is influenced by … that very public perception. Sexworkers hear the world say that they are disease-ridden. I won’t be the one to suggest that STIs never happen among prostitutes; they do there just as regularly as they do in the general population. To be cleared of any infection requires being tested regularly and frequently. If a sexworker is afraid to go see a doctor because he is worried that if he is honest about what he does for a living the doctor might react badly or give less than full attention to the issue, the chances he will seek the needed help diminish. Sexworkers are similarly believed to be a drug-addled population. Knowing the shame society heaps on sexworkers and the worry of what people will think and say if they find out how one makes his living, is it any wonder that a few do perhaps turn to drugs to manage their feelings? But if you demonize a profession because a few practitioners turn to substance abuse, what profession in the world doesn’t deserve similar disdain? And yet we don’t hear about psychologists largely being alcoholics or Hollywood producers all being coke addicts; they’re not, at least not many of them. If sexworkers are somehow more prone to these behaviors, it’s this public stigma which is at least in substantial part to blame.
Sex work IS work. Anyone who thinks sex work is easy money has simply never tried it, and if it were so easy, a lot more folk would be doing it. That’s more than just getting past the physical attraction hurdle. Admittedly the vast majority of clients I’ve seen have been middle-aged or older men whose perhaps worst physical defect was being a tad overweight, but there is indeed occasionally the client who frankly offers more of a challenge. Perhaps he has a physical infirmity, perhaps he is hampered by an awkward personality. I once arrived at an assignation and upon walking in had to sniff and then say “Let’s go take a shower.” Another client turned out to have taken drugs before I arrived, and a few minutes after my arrival slipped into the most bizarre grand mal seizure I’d ever seen; what was meant to be an hour’s companionship turned into me caring for him long into the night.
Work and diligence doesn’t end outside the actual time spent with a client, either. An escort has to keep his body in shape to stay competitive, meaning for most of us a dedicated gym regimen. Grooming takes time. A good escort has to keep constant tabs on his health; it’s entirely possible to become an STI Typhoid Mary, even for those of us who insist on safer sex at all times. This means routine testing and blood draws. Health also includes emotional health; you can’t come into this field without confidence and a strong sense of your own self-worth, and that takes energy. But the biggest thing overlooked is that this is like any other sort of self-employment: you have to actively market yourself, and you have to engage your potential clients outside of time spent in their company, often involving texting or phone calls rather extensively before actually finally meeting. And like any freelance career, your income is still income, and you have to track it; paying bills generally requires depositing cash income into a bank account, which means that money is traceable by the IRS even if there’s no W-2 or 1099. Accounting and taxes also take time. This is a job, make no bones about it, and if you don’t do it reasonably well, like any other job you won’t be doing it for very long.
Sexworkers are not an inherently indigent class. Admittedly some don’t have the educational resources and hence the ability to hold a career-track job or any job which might move them above poverty. Many are younger and lack familial support having been thrown out by their parents for being gay, or are fleeing an abusive home life. Of sexworkers in the States, LGBT youth are the demographic most susceptible to some form of human trafficking, but they are not the majority. Some sexworkers are students, again perhaps lacking the parental assistance so many count on for tuition, who chose a means of sufficient income that won’t impinge on their studies. Among adults, many are indeed educated and have held other careers; some still practice those careers and just need to supplement that income. One British study of 240 UK sexworkers noted that 34% of them held a college degree, and 17% an advanced degree. That may not sound like much to an American, but remember that college degrees are far less ubiquitous in most of the rest of the world than it is in the USA. Read a bit further, and you find that that 97% have their GSCE’s, the British equivalent of a high school diploma, and A-levels or their equivalent, which blows holes in any notion that prostitution is the recourse of scholastic dropouts and failures. And finally, many have held “real” jobs at one point, or work at one and rely on sexwork to supplement that income. Over two thirds of those worked in fields such as social work, health care, education, or child care. These are fields we respect and understand to require skills that have to be studied, and yet so often are underappreciated financially. The other third was comprised almost entirely of retail workers, again a field requiring a lot of hours but not generally paying particularly well. So it cannot be said that sexworkers are too lazy or are simply incapable of holding a “real” job.
Yet sex work is scorned. That results in more dangers for escorts and for clients. I’ve already mentioned the possible increased difficulty in finding equitable medical attention. Sexworkers are far more likely to experience some degree of battery or assault than the average person; authorities are sometimes as likely to harass the sexworker making the complaint as to pursue the offender, so far more of these offenses also go unreported. Similarly, particularly in places where the client is prosecuted (the “Swedish Model“), johns might hesitate to report an assault if it involves revealing that he’s hired an escort for fear of harassment or embarrassment, just as escorts hesitate to report crimes themselves. And the social ramifications of that societal bias can prove deadly; in an essay entitled Prostitution Law and The Death of Whores, anthropologist and sexwork authority Laura Agustin writes:
Murders of sex workers are appallingly frequent, including serial killings. In Vancouver, Robert Pickton killed as many as 26 between 1996 and 2001 before police cared enough to do anything about it. Gary Ridgeway, convicted of killing 49 women in the 1980s and 1990s in the state of Washington, said, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Infamous statements from police and prosecutors include the Attorney General’s at Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women in the north of England: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” He could say this because of a ubiquitous belief that the stigma attached to women who sell sex is real — that prostitutes really are different from other women.
This deals with the murder of innocent people. Yet the murderers and the authorities expected to halt these crimes all acknowledge that society devalues sex workers’ lives. The law reinforces this stigma, perpetuating the idea that sex workers must be doing something fundamentally wrong.
This misconception is societally pervasive; we hear it from our childhoods, about how low such people have sunk, how worse than death it would be to become a prostitute. Even the strong among us still shirk at it a bit. I was in the locker room at the gym just last week with my husband Jesse Jackman when he brought up the subject of the Rentboy raid and specifically referencing my own experiences as an escort, and I caught myself glancing around the room to see who was within earshot and what their response was. I am aghast at the response even within the gay community, either utterly blasé or joking derisively, or simply “they had it coming.” The very complaint against Rentboy uses such lurid, sex-phobic and homophobic language that it can only have been written to capitalize on a general public’s “eew!” sense. There is no mention of any injury done, whether to any individual or to society at large; no victim of Rentboy’s perdition is ever even alluded to. The writing is sensationalist at best and malevolent at worst, and it was unarguably composed to play on and confirm the general public’s worst misunderstandings. Homeland Security’s official press release about the raid is no better, referring to Rentboy as a “international online prostitution ring” and a “global criminal enterprise.”
But every last bit of this boils down to one question. What exactly makes sex suddenly so utterly immoral once money exchanges hands for it? What is it that distinguishes this from any other sexual encounter? Sex is not a commodity which comes in limited quantity; it’s not as though you only had so much and needed to save it. The only limitation males of our species face sexually is the need to rest a bit between sessions to recharge our batteries. Nobody has yet to demonstrate that sex is the absolute barometer of love and fidelity; while I’d love to think we all do have sex with the person we’ve grown closest to in life, I’ve every sense that humans are capable of employing sex to express all manner of affectionate bonding. And humans bond in so many other ways: friendship, colleagues, business associates. We know these intertwine with regularity. And yet, once business and sex pair, we send up the red flags. How does this arrangement intrinsically hurt anyone? Is it the escort, who has found a means of income? Is it the client, who has found a means of acquiring the fun and comfort he craves? Is it society that is somehow taxed by the fact that people are fucking and people give each other money?
Better question, and easier to answer because there is an answer, is how would such an arrangement as legal prostitution benefit anyone? Studies have shown repeatedly that regular sex is beneficial to your health, not only physically but emotionally as well. It has benefits for your heart, liver, and brain; it’s shown potentially to increase life expectancy and decrease the rate of aging. If sex isn’t readily available for someone by conventional means, why should it not be available for purchase? Even just physical but nonsexual contact has benefits. It has not been an uncommon occurrence with clients that sex has taken only a small portion of the time they booked; many of these fill the time just lying around, cuddling, talking. Often this is as rewarding for both of us if not more so than the actual sex. Many have hired me again, and asked if it would be okay if we didn’t have sex, just curled up and chatted for our time together. Humans are social creatures, like dogs; we are meant to sleep in piles and we don’t generally like being alone. Modern culture sets up so many limitations on how we acquire the intimacy we need to thrive, from time constraints related to work and other obligations to societal constraints about how we meet and what we do together. Why ban a perfectly useful and utterly harmless means of acquiring this?
The strongest empirical argument in favor of decriminalization is that it will improve safety and health, particularly for sex workers but also for clients. The National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper in 2004, detailing that rates of rape and gonorrhea dropped dramatically after Rhode Island decriminalized indoor prostitution in 2003. In that year a state court ruled that an old law had decriminalized prostitution in the state, and it took until 2009 for RI lawmakers to plaster that hole shut again. In those six intervening years, however, there was a statewide 31% decrease in rape offenses and 39% fewer cases of gonorrhea. There was no extraordinary drop in other kinds of crime; the reduction in rape offenses was not representative of a drop in crime in general or indicative of better reporting and policing.
Researchers were hard pressed to explain the phenomenon of the drop in rape, though there were a few theories. One, decriminalization possibly gave sexworkers a stronger bargaining position relative to their clients, making them more comfortable with seeking help from the police if something should go wrong. Another, a more troubling explanation for the drop in rape offenses might be that men with inclinations towards such violence perhaps substituted rape with prostitution. The market for prostitution decidedly expanded following decriminalization; more accessibility and the lack of any criminal penalty may have allowed otherwise would-be rapists to shift away from sexual violence and instead simply buy sex. This is partly borne out by further research showing something similar when rape-inclined men subsume their urges by watching porn instead. It is also seemingly confirmed by a 2015 study of decriminalization of prostitution in the Netherlands, published by the Institute for the Study of Labor. In 1994 the Netherlands allowed communities to authorize prostitution in set districts. In the Dutch cities that did this, researchers found a 30% to 40% drop in sexual abuse and rape during the first two years. There was also a substantial decrease in drug crimes, but no change in the rates of other crimes, including violent assaults and possession of illegal weapons, again suggesting that the crimes most closely related to prostitution were the ones affected by the legalization of prostitution.
Especially as gay men, we’ve fought for years to get the world to understand that sex is something that happens between consenting adults. It took riots in New York City at the end of the 1960s to start abolishing sodomy laws in the nation, though the final repeal was as the result of a Supreme Court decision in 2003. The most recent vindication of this was the Supreme Court mandate that gay marriage was legal nationwide in 2015. That’s a span of over fifty years, and sometimes I wonder if we’ve forgotten what it was to be gay way-back-when, when society had such a base opinion of gay men, and how that stigma manifested in almost systemic violence against fags. Sexworkers still labor under that dark cloud, needlessly. Feminist activist Yasmin Nair reminds us that sex work and sexual freedom are thematically and historically intertwined in her article “On Rentboy, Sex Panics, Feminism, and More”:
Allow me to also remind us of important bits of history: that sex work has been as integral to queer history as to feminism. The history of women’s right to earn their living independent of patriarchal economic systems has included more than a few blowjobs and paid nights, and mainstream feminism has forgotten or willfully erased that history as not respectable enough, not feminist enough, or just too sleazy to be remembered (Mindy Chateauvert’s book is an important reminder of that history). Similarly, the history of rentboys – of various genders – making their way out of often oppressive situations and mapping different literal and metaphorical geographies of desire and safety has also been a part of queer history of, again, blowjobs and street trade and hustling that was, to be sure, not always idyllic but was at least for some/many a ticket out.
The Rentboy raid is an attack on us as gay men. We cannot forget that this happened, we must not fail to appreciate what it means, and we cannot let it go unaddressed.
Coming back to a more personal question which I know is going to be asked of me: if I have income from more “legitimate” sources, why would I myself need to escort?
The answer is that I’m working hard to make music again my career. I’m seeing some success; roughly half of my income in 2014 came from music, which is a substantial improvement over 2013. It’s still an artist’s living though – I’ll never get rich doing this – and I’m a 44-year-old man with 44-year-old-man bills and expenses. Porn accounts for about a third of last year’s income, but the work isn’t reliable; I sometimes go for two or three months at a time without shooting for anyone, which means no income. Furthermore, in a few more years you all are going to tire of watching my saggy ass on screen, and it’ll be time for me to rest on my laurels before they wilt. If I took a more conventional job, a full-time position perhaps in sales or service, or even if I managed to land a career-sort office job with my rather eccentric college degrees and equally eccentric professional résumé (a C.V. which focuses on my music career, of course), the result would be forty hours and perhaps more a week. And for that week I might earn $1000. Escorting allows me to pull in that sort of cash with only a few hours of investment. That leaves me time to focus on building my music career, to do the writing needed to build a portfolio of music, to do the networking and self-marketing needed to promote a music career, and to chase down further music work. If I had to show up at a job forty-plus hours a week to make ends meet, I’d never be able to make any progress building what really should and will be the career that takes me into my dotage. Escorting is not forever; it’s just to get me through the thin spots for a little while longer until music covers all my expenses.
And through escorting I’ve met some amazing men I’d never have met otherwise. There’s the emergency room physician from Florida with whom I’d bonded over talks about Saint-Saëns and the history of syringe needle manufacture. There’s the opera impresario I shocked with my knowledge of Bruno Walter operas; we discussed how to roast garlic during a superb dinner in Paris. The businessman in NYC from whom I had one of the most lucid explanations of how the USA economy tanked in 2009. The architect who loved that I love Gaudì and with whom I had a long post-coital heart-to-heart about how Calatrava buildings stand up. The social media director in Chicago who just proved to be so much fun. And the graphic designer in LA who wrote to me four months later to tell me that something I had said in the course of our conversation awakened a realization in him and spurred him to reach out to his estranged boyfriend; they had been back together for 12 weeks at that point, and never happier. I could go on, as could many of my colleagues. Many of these men have become friends; some are still occasional clients, some are not. But these are the ties that build our community, regardless of how that bond is made. And if enabling and legitimizing that bonding isn’t a good argument for the legalization of sex work, I don’t know what is.
One of the best articles I’ve read on the argument for the decriminalization of prostitution was written by German Lopez in Vox. I’m much indebted to this essay, as I drew tremendously on information gleaned from there and from the sources he cites to write this blog post.