There I was, a newly divorced middle-aged woman, at a popular New York City event space listening to a lecture given by a mother-and-daughter matchmaking team offering tips and rules for 21st century dating.
I had just started dating again and needed help finding a guy. After 28 years of marriage, I really didn’t know how to do it. This duo typically charged men $50,000 to $100,000 to help them find mates. I figured they might know something I didn’t know.
“A woman shouldn’t offer to pay for drinks or to split the tab on a date,” the mom told us. “Men don’t like that.”
“I’m happy to split the tab,” I said.
“Any woman who offers to pay her share is someone uninterested in sex,” she scowled.
“I love sex and I’m perfectly happy to split the bill,” I responded.
“You better be careful because you might find yourself with a gigolo,” she replied.
I paused, thought about the possibility, and responded, “Well, maybe that would actually be a very good thing.”
Months passed and I didn’t think much about that lecture, nor the idea of hiring a sex worker, until after I was sexually assaulted on a first date with a man I met on OkCupid.
When we talk about sex work, what usually comes to mind is a woman who provides sexual services for men for a fee. We rarely think about men offering those services to women. Why not? Because our culture doesn’t like to think about women ― in particular, older women ― having their own sexual needs (and having those needs met), especially outside of a relationship. A woman seeking sex on her own terms, much less paying for sex, is still taboo.
But what if a woman has been in a marriage and had kids and now she just wants some fun? Or maybe she doesn’t want marriage and kids ― now or ever ― and just wants someone to satisfy her sexual needs. Maybe any reason ― or no reason at all ― is OK and enough for a woman to hire someone for sex. And maybe hiring someone specifically for that service is something that should be valued, shouldn’t be criminalized and should be recognized for the benefits it gives women who crave physical touch, who need sexual attention and who are willing to pay for the experience of being with a man who is there expressly to satisfy her desires.
By the time I decided to meet the man from OkCupid, I had scrutinized his profile and gone through my checklist of characteristics important to me: age appropriate, father, had been married, owner of a successful business in NYC and attractive. We exchanged a few messages on the app, and I wondered if he would ask me out on a date. He finally did, and he suggested we meet at a bar in Hell’s Kitchen that also had dancing. Yay! He had noticed that my profile noted I like to dance. That was a bonus ― someone who actually read my profile rather than just looked at the pictures.
I was eager to meet him, but, of course, I knew I was taking plenty of risks in connecting with a stranger from a dating site. I had no idea who the person (or bot) was behind the words and pictures that charm you.
Therefore, the mental calculations began: Will I be safe? I thought so, as we were meeting in a public place. (I never go to a man’s apartment on a first date.) How much has he misrepresented himself? (Most people present the best sides of themselves and gloss over, neglect to mention or lie about the other stuff, but he seemed trustworthy.) Does he really have a job? (Is “entrepreneur” code for unemployed?) Is he actually single? (Cheating? Separated?) Does he look like his pictures? (Were they taken a decade ago?) I believed I had considered everything I needed to consider and felt good about our upcoming date.
It was a lovely September evening. I got to the bar a little early and waited outside on the sidewalk. I saw him approaching from down the street. He looked like his pictures (check), was attractive (check), wore a sports jacket, nice jeans and a crisp white shirt (check). He introduced himself and, because he was European, kissed me on both cheeks (check). He asked if we should go into the bar. “Yes,” I replied.
Despite all of my preparations for the date and feeling confident this man was one of the “good ones,” hours later he coerced me into his apartment and sexually assaulted me there.
I reported the attack to the police, and I was shaken. I thought I’d done everything right, but the truth is, no matter how much preparation you do, when it comes to meeting strangers from dating sites, you just don’t know who or what you’ll encounter.
Weeks later, I thought back to the lecture I attended and began to seriously contemplate the idea of hiring a male escort ― a sex worker ― just to have sex. I felt I would be safer hiring someone to please me than looking for a sexual partner on a dating site. I figured if I wasn’t dating anyone and I really enjoy sex, is it really so bad to seek out and pay for a purely physical encounter until a more emotionally connected relationship comes along?
“I had girlfriends to talk to, I had dinner companions, I had theater buddies and I had friends to travel with. I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t starved for conversation or company. I just didn’t have someone to have sex with, and I didn’t want to have to jump through all the hoops of dating … just to have sex.”
I had girlfriends to talk to, I had dinner companions, I had theater buddies and I had friends to travel with. I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t starved for conversation or company. I just didn’t have someone to have sex with, and I didn’t want to have to jump through all the hoops of dating (and trying to find a suitable date in the first place) just to have sex. I knew that if I paid for an escort from a reputable agency (as much as this can be measured, as in New York City sex workers and the agencies they may work with cannot get licensed), the man would more than likely show up, arrive on time, be attractive and resemble his online pictures and bio, be attentive to my needs and be accountable to his agency. What’s more, the escort would be fulfilling my sexual needs and, because I was paying him for it, I could tell him exactly what I liked and didn’t like. I didn’t need to focus on what he needed. He’d be paid to take care of me.
I visited a website a friend suggested. There were pictures of attractive men in various stages of undress along with short bios. I was tempted, and I finally got up the nerve to call the agency. The owner gave me a password to “unlock” more options on the site. I asked about payment. I asked how much time to allow for a “get-to-know-you meeting” and I asked if the men were regularly tested for sexually transmitted infections. The owner sternly told me, “We are not in the business of selling sex. If we sold sex, that would be considered prostitution and it’s illegal.” I paused. For some reason it hadn’t occurred to me that I was requesting a service that was illegal. “Right, I’m so sorry,” I said. But I’d heard a “wink” in his voice ― as if we both knew that was what he had to say but obviously the reason I was calling was to set up an appointment with a sex worker. Still, it threw me. Could I be arrested? Could I lose my license to practice psychology? What if my patients found out?
Sex is complicated. Desire is usually involved, feelings can end up being involved, even love and commitment may become part of the equation, but sex, in and of itself and for its own sake, is also important for a woman’s physical health.
When I saw my gynecologist in October 2020 after not having sex in almost a year due to the pandemic, she told me, “You need to be having sex.” She told me that my labia and vagina were “drying up.” She recommended a dildo, hormones and creams, since sex with a partner was likely out of the picture for a while. She laughed at health officials’ recommendation for sex for single and non-monogamous people during COVID-19 ― something involving a physical barrier and a hole.
Sex work is also complicated. It’s mostly illegal in the U.S., with the exception of some counties in Nevada that allow brothels. Because sex work is mostly not ― and mostly cannot be ― regulated, sex workers face all kinds of risks while doing their jobs. Physical and mental abuse of women, girls and trans women participating in sex work is common, and it can include everything from trafficking to exploitation by clients, pimps and law enforcement.
Many people are calling for the legalization or decriminalization of sex work in order to help protect sex workers. Two bills are being considered in New York right now, and earlier this year the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced it would no longer prosecute sex workers. “Criminally prosecuting prostitution does not make us safer and too often achieves the opposite result by further marginalizing vulnerable New Yorkers,” District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said.
It’s a step in the right direction, but I believe we need to go much further. I also wonder if we widen our lens and consider that sex work can include men servicing women, does that change how we understand this industry? Perhaps not. But if sex workers were protected ― from prosecution and from violence ― and women felt entitled to think that their sexual needs are as valid as a man’s sexual needs, I believe we’d be living in a much healthier world.
I haven’t decided if I will take the risk of hiring an escort while it’s still illegal to pay for sex. I feel fortunate to currently be in a relationship with someone I recently met online who is great and we’re having a lot of fun, but if it were to end and I found myself single again, I’d like the option to hire someone. If I can hire a massage therapist to help relieve my back pain, a hairdresser to cut my hair, a mechanic to service my car and a handyman to replace a broken door, I should be able to legally hire a man to have sex with me.
Patricia Thornton is a psychologist, mom, dancer and writer. She lives and works in New York City.