With the recent Department of Homeland Security raid and arrest of Rentboy.com, the issue of paid sex work, also known as escorts or “prostitution” among gay men, has been a hot topic. The United States has always had an anxious relationship to all things sexual, and this is explored well in a new book by my colleague, Chris Donaghue, LCSW, Sex Outside the Lines. Why Rentboy.com was raided after over a decade in relative transparent operation, and other websites and resources more involved with the exploitation of women, girls, and human trafficking were not, remains a mystery that involves everything from election politics to blackmail to tax revenue. Protests after the shutdown of Rentboy.com ensued, with many LGBT activists decrying the suspicious circumstances of the raid and how it will impact hundreds of escorts that used the website to promote their work. There are safety and community advocacy issues at play.
As a licensed psychotherapist in California, I can’t go on record or “advise” my clients to do anything illegal, ever. This discussion assumes that clients are adults and do what they do at their own risk, similar to how they might approach illegal drug use or anything else illegal (if not frequently enforced). And yet sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll are common topics in therapy (OK, maybe not so much the rock-n-roll part, but it depends on the client!).
This controversy got me thinking about my experiences in over 23 years as a gay men’s specialist therapist in West Hollywood/Los Angeles, and how the topic of patronizing escorts or being an escort has been discussed in my office with various clients over the years. To my observation, this topic has some inherent risks and rewards. Here are some of these:
- Illegality – Some of my clients who have patronized escorts do not break any other laws, and they have feelings about that. Doing something illegal can undermine one’s self-esteem, if they take pride in always being law-abiding. Others see laws against paid sex work (either offering it, or patronizing it) as “blue laws” that are prudish and antiquated, and worthy of being ignored. Many have argued that paid sex work is a “victimless crime”, much the way homosexuality has been criminalized in history all over the world, and often (especially in Arab countries) still is, with penalties that can include death. Before patronizing an escort, ask if doing this is OK with your own personal value system. The answers might vary from person to person, and that’s fine.
- Cost – I’ve always admired escorts for their business sense – seriously! Even though there can be many men competing for the escort services client, they don’t lower their fees in a “race to the bottom” to undermine their competitors and “score the business” (even though I’ve seen therapists do this!). Escort services are generally high-fee, even “luxury” experiences that cost hundreds of dollars per hour, and some people can afford this, and others can’t. It almost becomes a socio-economic issue in the gay male community, where not only are we talking about gay men and their use of escorts, but more specifically, affluent gay men. If a guy doesn’t earn very much money, and yet he still wants to see an escort, there can be an issue of risking being financially over-extended or incurring a burden of debt. This could be a situation of trading sexual satisfaction, which supports the self, with accumulating debt, which undermines the self.
- Not getting validated for yourself – When a gay man sees an escort, he might question whether the escort “likes him for him”, or is merely faking it to be seen as doing his job. In this arrangement, a client might question his own attractiveness, desirability, or even suitability for a relationship. I think clients are at risk if their sole sexual expression is with escorts and not with peers in the community for free. And yet some men I’ve worked with, particularly older men or those who don’t fit rigid definitions of handsome or attractive, might complain that “getting laid” with peers can be difficult or time-consuming. Inherent in all this ageism, “demands” of the community on gay men’s physiques, and what is or is not considered traditionally attractive. What is interesting to know is that escorts work consistently who are all kinds of ages, races, shapes, sizes, and “types”, despite the temptation to think of them as only young, “fitness model” types, because different clients desire different types of men to hire. But clients sometimes report that if they are too-frequently ignored by most of the community (often out of ageism), they seek out escorts just the for simple humanitarian joy of being touched by another person, even if the touch is not spontaneous but is a paid act. The risk in this is that it can highlight that are not being voluntarily touched or held by peers without paying a fee, and this can exacerbate loneliness.
- Uncomfortable situations – Similar to the illegality issue, some gay men might feel very uncomfortable if they see an escort at the escort’s home which is in a “bad” neighborhood, is not well-kept, or if the escort is a “mess” on drugs, spending time with someone they ordinarily would not interact with; in other words, they feel like they are “slumming it”. Escorts can vary from guys who are in the throes of drug addiction and are desperate and not functioning well, or they can be highly-organized professionals with sound customer service and clear policies, boundaries, and methods. One client I worked with was an escort all through his graduate school experience, and went on to have a successful career, made possible by his escorting work, which he reported as satisfying, fun, and lucrative.
The above risks need to be balanced, in a mindful and cognitive way, with considering the rewards of the escort opportunity, which can be many:
- Sex availability in a safe, controlled environment – In the days before legal gay bars, gay men had much more risky sex, such as hooking up in parks, rest stops, public restrooms, or other locations where undercover police could “sting” them for solicitation or “lewd conduct”. (I’ve always made the sardonic joke of the double-standard in public sex: when it’s in the back alley of Santa Monica Boulevard with gay men, it’s “lewd conduct” and subject to arrest, legal costs and stigma; when it’s two straight people above the Sunset Strip, it’s just “hot”). For gay men who are busy, stressed, possibly famous, or closeted, the opportunity to have sex with an escort, such as at a luxury hotel, is a safe/controlled and private environment.
- Sexual expression versus frustration/deprivation – For many gay men, seeing an escort is the difference between having sexual expression and just the opportunity to “get laid”, versus languishing in sexual frustration and deprivation. This is almost simplistic and the reason why many gay men see escorts, because of nothing else but its accessibility and convenience.
- Sexual exploration – For gay men who are very shy, seeing an escort can provide an opportunity for sexual exploration, such as switching top/bottom roles, or exploring vanilla versus kink, such as bondage, discipline, or fetish play, and with an escort they feel less self-conscious than being with a layperson (so to speak) or a peer. In my work with clients, I help them think of ways to find opportunities to expand their sexual repertoire, either with guys in the community or with their own partner/spouse, or even a fuck buddy, but some guys prefer the paid escort setting to explore new sexual expressions. However, it’s important to keep in mind that talk sex therapy can help with all of this, too, which I also provide in my practice.
- Sober sex or sex after an injury – Since I have worked with many gay men who are in early recovery from a crystal meth addiction, and they are getting used to sober sex, some have had success seeing an escort to practice having sex sober after a long period of sex only under the influence of crystal. This does not always work, because some escorts can be high on meth themselves, but there are others (the more “professional” of the professionals, let’s say) who understand that this can be a community need. The escorts can help the client with the pace, any anxieties, and bring a sensitivity to clients who might be nervous about sober sex, but they still need to “practice” it anyway if they are to remain clean/sober but still sexually active. Similarly, some men might have been injured (such as a returning soldier from the Iraq/Afghanistan wars) and use prosthetic legs, or someone who has been paralyzed, and the ability to work with a kind, patient, and skilled escort is a way for these men to reclaim a joy in their sexuality in an almost “rehabilitative” way after the pain of their injury or loss. Other men might practice erectile dysfunction treatment with an escort. Again, not all escorts are sensitive to these issues, or skilled in them. Some of these issues might best be handled by a professional sexual surrogate, which is controversial because licensed psychotherapists can never have sex with their clients, but professional sexual surrogacy is a topic and many have benefited from this experience worldwide.
- “Undress Rehearsal” – Other guys might see an escort to experiment with something new sexually that they feel shy about proposing or trying with anyone else. Ideally, assertive communication skills would include being able to assert your sexual needs to a partner, and to ask him for what you want. But some men see this as impractical and just too anxiety-provoking, so “undress rehearsal” with an escort helps them to assert their sexual needs with a spouse or partner later (assuming they have a negotiated open relationship; dishonesty or “cheating” in breaking a monogamy agreement can be very troubling for a primary relationship, though I help gay male couples with this very frequently in my practice).
I always say that I am an opponent of the “sex addiction” model regarding sexual behavior, and I work with clients in an alternative that I call “sexual self-empowerment”. Sexual self-empowerment, as I describe it in my book, “Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want” is “saying yes when you want want to say yes, and saying no when you want to say no”, and feeling empowered to enforce this, underscoring the idea that we have the ultimate control and dominion over what happens with our bodies (this is especially important for sexual abuse survivors, or survivors of rape or other physical violence). Sometimes, counseling or life coaching can include aspects of cultivating and strengthening sexual self-empowerment, as defined by each client I see. There is no one definition of “healthy sex” except as defined by the individual.
The decision of whether to see an escort or not is also a matter of consenting adult self-empowerment. Gay men have had to use critical thinking skills just to come out in the first place, and to advocate for ourselves against oppressive heteronormative assumptions and societal oppressions. Once gay men come out, we forever have the ability to really examine society’s “rules” and to decide for ourselves what is “right” for us. Again, this is about consenting adults; critics or those who disagree with my approaches should not misinterpret that I am endorsing exploitation of anyone or non-consensual experiences, as these are serious traumas, which I also help survivors recover from.
The decision to see an escort is about using your adult prerogative and adult critical thinking skills, to mindfully and sensitively consider the pros and cons of such an experience. Having the confidence (or cultivating that confidence, sometimes with a therapist’s help) to make your own decisions about your body can strengthen your sense of self. In making these decisions, make it all pass the “sniff test”: if it doesn’t feel right to you, don’t do it; if it does, go for it. If you would like support for your self-empowerment, whether sexually or in all aspects of your life (career, finances, health, relationships) consider working with me in therapy (residents of California only) or coaching (residents of anywhere in the world), in the office or via phone or via webcam. My work is to help you feel confident in managing your life to its full potential, and to help you have the life you want.