“Have you ever paid for sex?”
I felt dirty just asking the question. Reminding myself that I was inquiring for journalistic purposes didn’t assuage the dirtiness.
I wanted to explore the relationship between women — specifically, gay, lesbian, and queer-identifying women — and the sex industry. More specifically: Just how often did gay, lesbian, or queer-identfying women pay for sex? Anecdotally, I’d heard the answer many times from many friends, gay and straight, whenever I asked the question. “Women don’t pay for sex.”
I put the question first to a group of friends one night over beers at an Irish pub in Somerville, the hipster town north of Boston. Maybe not the best place to ask, but the cocktails were flowing pretty freely and none of my friends are exactly bashful about relationships. The bemused looks on their faces told me I wasn’t getting any juicy answers. The general consensus seemed to be that for anonymous, no-strings-attached sex, hookups were better. They were cheaper and not as mechanical. Why pay to have sex with someone who’s just not into you?
Plus, then there’s the whole U-haul thing getting in the way of the opportunity to pay for sex. “It’s like the old joke,” one said. “What does a lesbian bring on the second date?”
I tried another approach. I placed a request out on Facebook asking anyone to private message me if they’d ever paid for services in the sex industry. I kept the request broad and also asked potential respondents to tell me about their motivations and experiences. These were women I knew, women who knew and trusted me to be discreet with anything they shared. They wouldn’t judge me. Right?
“I don’t know,” my girlfriend said immediately after I posted the message. “Be prepared to be made fun of.”
I wasn’t made fun of, but I got only two responses. Aside from visiting strip clubs, neither had paid for more intimate sexual encounters, although neither was opposed to the idea as long as both parties consented. One (happily married) had no need. The other (single) said she was “just cheap that way.”
I quietly cursed her cheapness and put a callout into the wormhole of Reddit.
Any non-pornographic search for lesbians, gay women, sex industry, escort services, and the like comes up with some surprisingly sparse results. A few exposés on other journalists’ attempts to learn more about the industry, lots of Quora questions, links to a few escort agencies that offer “lesbian” experiences but which largely cater to cis, straight men. My post on Reddit prompted lively responses for about an hour. Results fell largely into two camps: those who had never paid for sex but who had no problem with the industry so long as all parties were consenting and those who had never paid for sex and who found the whole thing “crazy,” “unappealing,” and “skeevy and exploitative”.
We live in an age of increasing tolerance toward traditionally marginalized and outsider communities. Sex workers have been garnering public support for decriminalizing, and even legalizing, their practices. More broadly, we’re becoming increasingly “woke” to the defiance of traditional gender and sex roles that challenge the norms of what we are categorically expected to be. Yet when it comes to certain relationships — specifically, those relationships were monetary transaction is involved — we can be shockingly conventional.
Despite our societal advancements, a certain narrative dominates the popular imagination when it comes to the sex industry. We tend to think of it as patronized by either rich and powerful, or sad and lonely men, paying for the services of women who are too often desperate and exploited, going through the motions of pleasure in order to secure their cut. We think Robert Kraft at a sleazy Florida massage parlor.
It’s no wonder that many women, gay or straight, would want to distance themselves from this story. This narrative of the sex industry works against what we expect as women we’re supposed to want in relationships: personal connections, romance, intimacy. Outside of being workers, women’s roles in the sex industry are little explored, little understood, rarely ever written about or spoken of openly. The narrative becomes its own self-fulfilling prophecy: women (gay, straight, and anything in-between) don’t buy sex because women don’t buy sex.
For those who want to, just knowing where to begin is daunting. The sex industry is broad and extensive, covering a slipstream of services of varying degrees of legality like stripping, prostitution, BDSM sessions, erotic messages, and therapeutic body work. Gay women at least have it somewhat easier than their hetero sisters if only because there are more female-identifying sex workers than male. However, a search for “lesbian escort services” yields brothels and websites devoted mostly to cisgender, straight men, complete with tits-and-ass photos of escorts and often accompanying measurements. And while there’s nothing wrong with tits-and-ass photos, or measurements, seeing so many women reduced to parts and sizes by some third-party web designer does little to challenge the notion that sex-for-pay is really a man’s game.
To get a broader perspective on the industry, I contacted Lex van Delft, owner and founder of De Stoute Vrouw (“The Naughty Woman”), The Netherland’s only same-sex specific escort agency. In an industry where the overwhelming majority of agencies are for men, with limited space for women, De Stoute Vrouw is for women only, with escorts who identify as LBT women. Men, the website proclaims, are non-negotiable. Pictures of escorts are available upon request although aside from a few vintage teasers, the website is refreshingly free of photographs as the women are represented by their profiles.
“A lot of clients appreciate that,” van Delft tells GO via Skype interview. Her clients, she says, usually rely on the profiles to get a sense for who the women are. “Maybe they feel it’s degrading to pick women from a picture.”
Van Delft came up with the idea for De Stoute Vrouw, along with her former business partner, after noticing a market demand for women looking to explore their sexuality in a safe environment. Over whiskey and cigarettes one evening, the two decided to create such a space themselves. It seemed, she says, like “a chic and decent thing to do.”
The clients who use De Stoute Vrouw do so for a variety of reasons, which don’t always fit with the stereotypical motives usually ascribed to johns (and, too, janes). Many, van Delft tells GO, are in the process of questioning their sexuality and want to explore sexual encounters with women without the fear of hurting someone. There are also business women who don’t always have time for relationships; women who can’t come out for religious reasons, who rely on once a month dates to “escape from reality”; and others who are coming out of bad or traumatic experiences with men, and are just starting to become sexually active again.
“I get a lot of clients who’ve had some bad experiences. A lot are very insecure,” she says. “If you can see a woman change, or feel accepted, the workers go home with a great feeling. It’s almost therapeutic work.”
And of course, there are lots of women who use the services for good, old-fashioned sex romps. “They just want to have an exciting time.”
Her assessment of her clients’ motives, and the effects that sexual services have on them, aren’t just representative of van Delft’s own experience. Researchers are beginning to take seriously women as consumers in the sex industry. I spoke with Dr. Hilary Caldwell, a researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who in 2018, conducted the first empirical study of women who buy sex in Australia, where such work is legal. The study included interviews from 17 sex workers (male, female, and non-binary) and 21 female-identifying respondents who were consumers in the sex industry. Of the consumer respondents, Caldwell found that they were motivated not only for fun and pleasure, but also to educate themselves about their own sexual desires, and for therapeutic reasons, such as coping with trauma from violence or abuse; for these respondents, purchasing sex gave them a safe place to re-explore physical intimacy while establishing boundaries with a sympathetic – and professional – partner.
“Many sectors of the sex industry are therapeutic, educational, and benefit both buyers and sellers,” Caldwell tells GO. “We need more research about women buying sex to draw attention to the diversity of the sex industry and to give permission to women to be sexually assertive. Women buy sex to get sex exactly how they want it, on their own terms and with a sexpert.”
De Stoute Vrouw, she believes, is a feminist act, with women rebelling against the stereotype of their perceived sexual passivity. However, she notes that some radical feminist elements attempt to suppress anyone who challenges the notion that the sex industry is anything but fundamentally exploitative to women. These groups, she says, “try to deny that women buy sex at all, or deny that women buy sex in the same way that men do, or argue that the scale of women buying sex is too small to be significant.”
And therein lies the problem.
In 2018, Creatrix Tiara wrote about their experience hiring a sex worker after a dry spell between relationships. After the essay appeared, Autostraddle’s Facebook page “got inundated with SWERFs,” Tiara tells GO, “who accused me of being a rapist and [said] that I was enabling patriarchal violence.”
The comments that followed on Autostraddle’s main site were more positive, and Tiara’s own social networks were also supportive. But given the initial response, Tiara says they can see why genderqueer people and women would be reluctant to engage in purchasing sex due to this stigma. “As it is, it’s harder for us [non-binary people] to find stable employment or access other resources because of our identity, and being out about hiring sex workers could have a very adverse effect.”
Tiara’s experience echoes Calwell’s concerns about radical elements that attempt to shame, silence, or suppress voices that offer non-exploitative narratives of the sex industry. The hardline supposes that sex work is fundamentally patriarchal and misogynist, reducing those who work in the industry as objects commodified by men. And while there are certainly reasons to criticize, and guard against, the trafficking of unwilling participants, or to change existing gender dynamics, more inclusive feminist voices fear that reducing all sex workers to victims not only undermines their own agency, but also misrepresents the various motives for clients to purchase sex services.
Often, radical discourses tend to shut down, rather than open up, debate, especially where such debate is needed. The critique of women who purchase sexual services is particularly problematic. “I think women buying sex suffer stigma in different ways than men buying sex,” Caldwell tells GO. “Sex-buying men have been demonized by radical feminists to emphasize, or indeed, fabricate victim status for female sex workers. However, women who behave outside of expected gender norms are sometimes slut-shamed in ways that men are not.”
The double standard applied to female sexuality has made it more difficult for women to be open about, act or, or in some cases, understand their own sexual needs. Even in a changing world where the topic is no longer as taboo as it once was, we can still see reflected in the common-sense notion that men want sex, women want relationships (“What does a lesbian bring on the second date? A U-Haul. What does a gay man bring on the second date? What second date?”) Caldwell argues that understanding more about women’s roles as consumers of the sex industry has the potential to challenge this conventionality. “I really enjoyed hearing from women that they bought sex as a feminist act,” she tells GO. “I felt these women were responding to gendered ideas that women are sexually passive. I did not get an impression that these women wanted to behave ‘like men’, rather, they wished to broaden women’s expected behavior.”
Van Delft, too, sees a feminist mission in De Stoute Vrouw. Although the pay is good, she tells GO that the women who work for her are part of a larger move to make women’s sexuality more open and accessible. “What every woman wants for every other woman is to be proud of her sexuality and to live it.”
But aside from the stigma, there’s another reason women may refrain from buying sex.
As the deadline for this article approached, I was procrastinating one morning by taking a coffee break with a friend. As we stood in a long line waiting to place our order, I started chatting with her about the story I was working on. She’d seen my FB posts but hadn’t responded.
“So let’s say theoretically,” she began, careful to time her words to the sound of a coffee grinder, “what if you were to pay for someone’s plane ticket so that they could come and visit you and also pay for their hotel room where you could meet with them for sex since that is the whole reason for their visit. Does that count as paying for sex? Theoretically speaking.”
Theoretically, I told her, it did not.
“But what’s the difference?”
By the transactional definition of prostitution, there was no difference. But the person whose ticket/hotel room was paid for wasn’t advertising their services — sex wasn’t a condition of the transaction — and already had friends-with-benefits status with the person paying. The scenario had the makings of a friendly hookup.
But what the situation illustrates is how quickly the exchange of money — who has it, who doesn’t have it – can affect how we view sexual interactions. This “theoretical” get-together and much-needed treat for both parties, could only happen because one person could pay for the other.
In this regard, I can see how the situation described was like paying for sex in the more conventional sense. Access to money determined whether or not the sex could happen. For women of all sexual identities and orientations, as well as non-binary individuals, the relative lack of sexual services compared to those offered men, and the often higher prices, provide another barrier to those looking to pay for sex.
Tiara tells GO that a lot of their guilt came down to price.
“The guilt about indulgence probably would have lessened if it wasn’t so expensive. I was fundraising for a show I was working on at the time and it felt like those $400 could have gone toward the show since we were so low on resources.”
They have continued to work with sex providers but does add that the expense — which, they say, workers deserve — could mean that services are “often out of reach for many people who are already facing barriers to earning enough to get by.”
Caldwell, too, notes the cost-prohibitive barriers for women purchasing sex. Prices might be lower per hour for women, but they tend to pay more due to having fewer options (i.e. no “quickie” service).
“In some areas of Australia,” she tells GO, “a client buying sex needs to fund hotel accommodation or seek brothel services which do not specifically target female clients.” Her study, she says, didn’t find evidence of women using brothels or “quickie” services.
In the States — or, at least, in rural Nevada — the legal brothels do offer same-sex services to women, and so I figured I would check out how services and prices compared for women and men. Unfortunately, since pricing depends on the escorts (who are classified as contract workers), and are negotiated upon face-to-face meetings, finding out how much services cost involves catching a flight to Las Vegas or Reno followed by a bit of a road trip. Services listed on the “sex menu” at Sheri’s Ranch in Pahrump are advertised mostly toward men if their stick-figure illustrations are any indication, although women are welcome. The Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Carson City does note services for both men and women, although some of the same-sex services are identifed specifically as “bisexual encounters”, and oral sex for men comes with a champagne option.
By contrast, if you’re planning a trip to the Netherlands, De Stoute Vrouw lists in hourly rate for escorts at 215 Euros (~$240 US). Sexual services at De Stoute Vrouwaren’t identified by type or menu, although other options include a teaser date for 160 Euros per hour (~$178 US) and a burlesque show for 300 Euros ($333 US).
I decided I’d try my luck a little closer to home. I visited Eros.com to see what escort services were available to my fellow Boston-area gay and lesbian women. A quick sample of 102 verified escorts available in the Boston area showed 74 (73 percent) who were available to men only, or couples while 28 (27 percent) were available to men, couples, and women (not one specified she worked with women only). A total of four (4 percent) also indicated a willingness to work with trans clients (1 of the men/couples only escorts and 3 of the men/couples/women).
Only 31 total escorts listed their prices directly (22 for the men/couples, nine for the men/couples/women). Starting prices for all hovered around the $400-600 for first hour range, with the lowest for both listed at $350 per first hour, with prices increasing per each additional hour. However, eight of the providers servicing men/couples only listed a lower $250 half hour option while men/couples/women providers started only at one hour. The average price for men/couples only escorts was $341 per first hour while for men/couples/women escorts, the average shot up to $517 per first hour.
From a local perspective, I could understand why my friend, the one I’d earlier cursed for her cheapness, had decided that anonymous sex through hookups was the easier way to go. The problem isn’t so much with the idea of buying sex; the options for women (gay or otherwise) are more limited, and murkier to navigate. Agencies like De Stoute Vrouw stand out all the more for acknowledging a need in the market for a same-sex female-specific space.
Hopefully, this is something we can learn from De Stoute Vrouw and build on — or, at least, learn to speak more openly about.