Ellen was terrified as she stood in the foyer of a 5-star hotel in Sydney, waiting for John. The 51-year-old government employee had never hired a male sex worker before. Her self-esteem was at an all-time low since discovering that her husband of 25 years had been cheating on her with multiple women.
“I had no concerns for my physical safety. It was all about my emotional safety,” Ellen said. “I didn't feel desired. I didn't feel attractive.” But with someone she was paying for their time, she said, “there isn't that risk of rejection.”
Sex work is legal in most states in Australia, and more accessible than in the United States -especially male sex workers for women. “I wasn't concerned that he was actually an undercover policeman,” Ellen said. “It made the decision possible for me in a way that would have been impossible if the whole process … was under the counter with secret handshakes.”
Her decision to hire John Oh wasn’t made on a whim. She’d researched him for months and read every line on his website, where he writes things like, “It’s quite a big statement that women, who for so long have had their lives, finances, and their very bodies ruled by the whims of men are now able to choose to see a sex worker and not have to apologise to any one for it.”
When John showed up -6 feet 2 inches, 47, with a mop of gray curls -Ellen felt like she already knew him. John is cute and goofy, with a toned but not overly muscular body. They rode the elevator up to her floor together to have dinner in the hotel room. John ate lamb and Ellen had fish as they chatted about music, films, and the small town her mother had grown up in. It was like a normal date, except she was paying $300 AUD an hour for it.
After they finished dinner, John asked Ellen if she wanted a massage, adding that she could take off as many clothes as she was comfortable with. She hesitated. She’d only had sex with her husband for the past 25 years. “The thought of taking my clothes off in front of a new man was scary,” she said. “What if he runs screaming?”
She worked up her nerve and got naked. So did John. He began rubbing her back, her legs. He asked her to flip over. Then he kissed her mouth and breasts, which led to oral sex, and then vaginal sex with a condom. She came and then she cried.
“It was a combination of just the sheer physical pleasure, but also a release of some of the emotional tension that I had been carrying with me as part of the bust-up in the marriage,” she said. She’s since seen him for three other bookings. “After my first orgasm, I cried; after my second, I laughed. After my third, I had a smile on my face that was still there the next morning.”
As a sex historian, I’ve long wondered why so little attention has been paid to male sex workers and their women clients. And in the course of my research for an upcoming book, I’ve noticed a growing niche within that category: feminist-leaning male sex workers who are selling themselves as the ideal boyfriend in the 21st century and the #MeToo era. These men make consent and boundaries explicit, celebrate diverse body types and gender equality, and provide women with a safe space to explore their sexuality.
For this story, I spoke to three male sex workers from three different countries who offer this kind of experience: Australia-based John, Canada-based Owen, and US-based Levi, along with a few of their clients. These men, who are among more than a dozen I’ve encountered around the world so far, don’t look and act like the stereotypical “gigolo.” They’re not bodybuilders, they insist that their penises are about average size, and they don’t view their clients as sexual conquests. Owen, on his website, refers to a two-hour date with him as “a brief encounter for the woman busy conquering the world.”
In speaking with John, Levi, and Owen, I tried to get a sense for how they thought about their work and the larger questions it raises: Do they think of themselves as feminist? And is paying for sex (or being paid for it) a feminist act? After all, what these men provide is exactly what some women have been dreaming about getting from their partners for centuries: active listening, backrubs, cunnilingus, mindful intercourse, earth-shattering orgasms, and sometimes even a home-cooked chocolate soufflé.
“I'm not sure how you could do this job and not consider yourself a feminist, and be successful at it,” John said. “Do I market myself that way? Not overtly. My attitude is I should show, not tell.”
College-educated and trained in industrial design, John has spent most of his career in the IT industry, although he also started a chocolate business. It was during an economic downturn in 2010, when his IT business was struggling, that John got into sex work, starting out as part-time and becoming full-time a few years later. Currently, he sees about three or four clients a week.
John’s clients range from 20 to 80 years old and are usually married and wealthy or middle class. Women hire him for a variety of reasons: They are in sexless relationships, they crave variety, or they have a disability and are looking for a skilled partner. Most of John’s clients find him from his website, where he posts everything from videos of himself performing oral sex and blog posts discussing BDSM to “relatively banal stuff like gardening,” so that clients see him as nonthreatening. John also sees clients with disabilities, whom he works with at a discounted rate, through a New South Wales organization called Touching Base.
The financial rewards of the job were also a draw for Levi Newman. About three years ago, when he was a decade out of college and saddled with $200,000 in student loans, Levi decided to try sex work. Levi is model beautiful, 6 feet 5 inches with perfectly coiffed silver-and-brown hair and a six-pack. The 35-year-old’s tagline is “the silver fox next door.” But looks are only part of his appeal for clients. Raised by a feminist mom, and a feminist himself, Levi is a self-described nurturer and caregiver. He told me, “In a patriarchal society, I think women aren’t heard enough and their needs aren’t met enough.”
Levi is based in San Francisco, but like a lot of sex workers, he travels across the country, stopping in cities like New York and Los Angeles. Most of his clients are aged between their thirties and their sixties and are mainly middle- and upper-class white women, but he’s seen women from a variety of ethnicities and backgrounds. He sees around two to eight clients a month, many of them regulars.
Paying for sex is illegal in the US, so Levi blurs his face in advertisements and uses a pseudonym. “Technically we are hired to spend platonic time together,” he said, “and anything that develops from that is … between two consenting adults.” He and other men I talked to often used the term “escort” to describe themselves, which speaks to the fact that their services go beyond just sex (and, it’s worth noting, denotes a kind of privileged position with the sex work industry).
Owen, 35, (who requested that I not use his last name) got into sex work in Vancouver for more personal reasons. He is 6 feet 2 inches, dark-haired, mixed-race, and handsome. Today, he’s self-confident enough to charge women to have sex with him. But around a decade ago, his life was devastated when his wife was killed in a car accident.
“I ended up in a very, very, very dark place,” he said. “I was able to kind of slowly piece myself back together, but one of the big positives … was my choice to see a female provider and just escape for an evening.” Good experiences as a client, combined with the lack of straight male sex workers in Vancouver and a push from his girlfriend, a sex worker, led to him to explore it as a new career.
Currently, Owen is doing sex work part-time as he works his full-time job. He sees about one client a month, but he hopes to build a broader client base soon. “If I can provide the same sort of experience that I experienced at my lowest to one person, I think trying to make it work is all worthwhile,” he said.
In Vancouver, sex work is in a legal gray area; it is legal to sell sex in Canada, but not to buy it. Operating or advertising a brothel is outlawed. Independent sex workers can advertise, although websites that host such ads are violating the law. Owen doesn’t fear arrest, though he is worried about his identity being revealed and not being able to travel to the United States.
Like John, Owen is not an alpha male. “I'm not hung like a horse. I’m a regular guy,” he said. His sex work persona, which he said is the same as his real-life persona, is the sensitive, soulful boyfriend.
“People seem to be fairly comfortable with my presence fairly quickly, and that makes me kind of proud, especially in a world where there's so much toxic masculinity flying everywhere,” Owen said. His website features a picture of him leaning against a tree in a flannel shirt and a jean jacket, running his fingers through his hair; Owen gives women the sweater he wears to overnight dates as part of his boyfriend experience.
Owen said that most of his female clients have been “busy professional women” and single moms between the ages of 25 and 55. “I think they get isolated away from the dating community,” he said. Many clients are couples, who hire him to have a threesome, or single men, who hire him to perform in duos with a female sex worker as part of a “live porn” experience or threesome, although he doesn’t engage sexually with male clients.
“I'm very dorky, very fumbling, and I find that helps disarm people. I am not a Casanova by any stretch,” he said. “I was a late bloomer as a man. I hadn’t really come into my own until my thirties. So the idea that I can offer something to women that they might actually like is still kind of funny to me.”
For some people, the rise of easily accessible online dating has raised a question about sex work, especially in this particular niche: Why do some women choose to hire sex workers when they could, in theory, meet people for free through an app? John’s client Ellen said none of her friends “disapproves from a moral perspective,” but they “are a bit dubious about the money and think that it could be better spent paying the mortgage.”
The women clients I talked to told me that they hired sex workers to give themselves more control over the sexual experience than they would get with a Tinder date. Clients said it felt physically safer to buy sex than to sleep with an unvetted stranger. When a woman hires a sex worker, she knows that safe sex with condoms is the norm, consent is taken seriously, and she won’t be rejected or stalked after the experience. Maybe most important of all, paying for sex freed them from worrying about pleasing a man during the encounter and allowed them to focus on their own pleasure without guilt.
“One of the very best things about paying for sex is getting to ask for exactly what you want without having to feel ‘selfish’ about it,” said Lesley, one of Levi’s clients. One of John’s clients, a woman named Anna, said that when her partner performs oral sex, she’ll feel a bit anxious that “he's been down there too long.” Because she’s paying John, she doesn’t feel any guilt.
Anna first started seeing male sex workers when she and her partner of two decades basically stopped having sex. She contemplated having an affair but didn’t want to threaten her relationship. She decided to see a male sex worker on a business trip instead. The sex wasn’t great, because he didn’t make eye contact with her. When she got home from the trip, she was scared to tell her partner. But when she did, to her surprise, he wasn’t upset. They talked for hours about their sexual needs, and it actually brought them closer.
Anna’s first experience with John was much better than her encounter on the business trip, because he was more present during sex. “I remember thinking, Gosh, how does he know what I want?” she said. “I could feel this urge of wanting to get a bit more animalistic with him. And he picked up on that and then he reacted to it.”
Although Anna now has many unpaid partners, she still hires John, not only because the sex is great, but also because it allows her to safely explore fantasies. A recent appointment involved an overnight session with her male lover and John, where they explored double penetration over four hours. Sometimes her partner joins in on sessions with John. Other times, he goes paragliding or has sex with other partners. She told me that hiring John not only made her more likely to ask for what she wants in bed, but it saved her relationship.
Lesley (who is a former sex worker herself) said most of her friends have been supportive of her choice to hire a sex worker, but occasionally a friend does ask why she doesn’t just use Tinder instead. “My response is: I don’t have time to date. I’m not interested in having sex with anyone I’m not drop-dead attracted to,” she said. And, as someone in her early fifties and in an open marriage, Lesley is not interested in falling in love or offering emotional support to anyone. “Sex is my ‘me-time’ these days,” she said. “I want it to be excellent and fulfilling -why not pay a pro?”
Lesley first hired Levi two years ago. Her partner was dealing with health issues which meant that their “sexual needs have diverged,” she said. “Once I decided to see sex workers, I saw it as an opportunity for some self-exploration, to engage in certain kinds of sex I didn’t allow myself or have access to when I was a younger, single woman.”
“Given the patriarchy … I think people are forced to feel sheepish about taking care of themselves,” Levi said. “But most everyone is pretty proud of being able to do this for themselves and spend time with someone that's centered around them,” especially if the client spends a lot of time caring for kids or a partner.
Another one of Levi’s clients, Kelly, 40, is single and hired him because “there has just been this growing list of things that I have been wanting to do,” she said. “I just kind of got tired of waiting ... so I hired someone to do them with me.” Kelly initially suggested a three-day date with Levi, but he insisted they meet for a platonic date first to see if they had chemistry. She flew to meet him in a small town, had a three-hour date involving coffee and ice cream, and then flew home to the East Coast that same day.
“The men that are our age that are still single are weird,” Kelly said. “And I'm not going to date someone that's not up to my standard.” Dating is emotionally taxing. “Like, ‘Please, tell me about your improv troupe… Tell me more about the things that I don't care about,’” she said. She rejects social pressures to settle.
Kelly believes hiring a sex worker “is very much a feminist act” because it is “essentially creating the life that you want.” Ironically, hiring Levi has made her consider trying (unpaid) dating again. They do coupley things: a helicopter tour in Vancouver, whitewater rafting, noshing on champagne and oysters. But sometimes, she said, they just eat at “a Chipotle in the middle of nowhere, Tennessee.”
But to be clear, Kelly said she isn’t worried about falling in love with Levi: “This is not Pretty Woman.”
Levi, John, and Owen all told me that sex is only a part of the equation in their line of work. Of course all the compassion in the world won’t matter if your cunnilingus skills aren’t up to par; John provides a money-back guarantee if a client doesn’t enjoy his services or doesn’t have an orgasm. (He said he’s only had to provide three in his decade of sex work.) But sexual prowess without emotional intelligence won’t satisfy most women, either. This is also a job that requires emotional labor, like good listening skills.
John said that while most of his clients are looking for “a good, basic fuck,” he also provides sessions “to help sexual confidence and self-image,” where he teaches women everything from “learning to accept and enjoy touch” to masturbation. Most of his regular encounters involve a massage, followed by sex. Others include John baking a chocolate soufflé or a French dinner. John sometimes accompanies women on weeklong vacations to Italy and Tasmania, where he lounges by the beach or goes scuba diving, and provides sex multiple times a day.
Like John, Owen provides full-service sex, usually including oral sex, which he said is “one of those things you can do to slow down and enjoy the experience more.” His pièce de résistance is rimming. “It’s one of those things I pull out kind of as, like, the magic trick -‘Here, you'll probably like this more than you think you will,’” Owen said. (Though he would never try it without a client’s consent.)
Owen tries to meet women in public first for coffee, at a cheaper rate, so they can get more comfortable with him -and vice versa. “I need to build some sort of connection to be able to function [sexually],” he said. “I have the ability to find something attractive in anybody.”
Levi said buying an experience with him “is more like a traditional first or second date.” Like John and Owen, he provides a boyfriend experience, but he’s more reticent about describing his services because of US laws. Like John, Levi suggests that women hire him for a four-hour initial date, which usually involves dinner and sex at a hotel. But sometimes his dates involve things like going to an arcade.
With Levi, Lesley she said she forgoes vaginal penetration and usually engages in kissing, oral and manual sex, role-playing, and playing with a vibrator. Consent is incorporated into all their sex acts. And all three of the men I spoke to told me that consent is essential to them and their interactions with clients.
“You learn very quickly that it is very important to talk thoroughly about your boundaries and limitations,” Owen said, adding “that's one thing I don't sugarcoat very much. … My biggest fear is ever to come off as creepy.”
And clarity around consent is one of the main reasons women clients keep coming back. “These guys live and breathe informed consent. They have so much to teach us about navigating that comfortably and in an informed fashion,” Ellen said. “We have so much to learn if we would just get over the stigma.”
“When we play with role-playing and teasing and intensity, my ‘yes’ means a hearty ‘hell yes!’ My ‘no’ means ‘no’ — full stop,” Lesley said of her sessions with Levi. “He’s always incredibly considerate and attentive to my signals, which has been beautiful. It’s meant we’ve been able to build trust with each other.”
Just how many male sex workers for women exist is hard to pin down. The most comprehensive recent survey is by professors Victor Minichiello and John Scott of the Queensland University of Technology. Minichiello and Scott studied English-language sex work ads online and found that in 2017 (before FOSTA-SESTA was passed) the US had about 3,481 men advertising that they served women and couples; the researchers identified 40 in Canada and 125 in Australia. But according to Levi, he’s aware of only five other male sex workers for women in the US whom he respects. He said that many of the men who advertise their services are not professionals: They are just men hoping to get women to pay them for sex, and they aren’t overly concerned with women’s well-being.
Data on how many male sex workers are nonprofessionals is also hard to come by. Anyone can advertise their services, and there’s no regulatory body for the industry to certify qualified professionals. But Levi’s not too concerned about amateur competition, because, he said, “they just won't get the attention or the respect that will be given to male providers who are earning that respect from their female colleagues.”
Sex work is one of the few industries where men get paid less than women. Owen recommends that new clients book him for four hours at $950 CAD. Women working in the same market might charge three times as much, but it’s a fairly high rate for a male provider. “I want to be choosy,” Owen said. “This was initially meant to be very selective and part-time as a complement to my regular day job.”
Levi said that a two-hour date with him is $1,000, a six-hour date is $2,000, and a 14-hour “sleepover party” is $3,500. And while this may seem pricey, it is less than a lot of high-end women sex workers in San Francisco, whose rates are double his. He said “lack of knowledge” among customers, leading to lack of demand, has made pay lower. Another factor is the (more traditional) financial power imbalance that affects a lot of his clients -“women not making as much money as men, and if they're married, the women not having the control of the money.” Men who hire him for duos occasionally complain about his prices. “They would think that I'm ... getting to sleep with women and get paid for it,” he said, and the clients might wonder “why should I be paid for that?”
Still, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that sex work is a much lower-risk endeavor for a middle-class straight man than it is for most other people. Alex Andrews, cofounder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project’s Behind Bars chapter, told me that straight men are less likely to be arrested than female sex workers “because people aren’t trying to control men’s bodies — they are only trying to control women's bodies.”
In April 2018, President Trump signed the FOSTA-SESTA acts into law, which holds websites legally responsible for sex work ads posted online. This makes it much more difficult for providers in the US to advertise and can make their jobs more dangerous by forcing them to find work on the street or on unregulated platforms that don’t let them screen clients. But Levi said that in his experience, male providers aren’t usually targeted by police. “I think they're more concerned with female and trans providers.” He advertises on Twitter, his website, and Slixa, an “escort directory,” which he said is the best platform “for straight males.”
Andrews said she thinks straight male sex workers “are coming from a place of privilege that they don't really fully understand. … Men aren’t going to have their bank accounts shut down. They're not going to be shadow-banned on Instagram or Twitter. They just don't suffer from the same problems that female sex workers do.”
To their credit, the men I spoke to do seem to acknowledge this. “I try to be aware of that as much as possible,” Levi said. “I don't have to worry about checking out of a hotel and paying all cash. … I don't have to worry as much about crossing borders. I don't have to worry so much about my physical safety.”
When I asked John if he thought being a straight white man in this industry has helped him, he said “without question.” At least, as his client Ellen said, “He's conscious of his own privilege.”
After spending weeks speaking to Levi, Owen, John, and their clients, I believe that these men really are feminists -although they don’t all feel comfortable claiming the identity themselves. Owen respects women’s role in building the sex work industry, which he called “a matriarchy,” and said that “I am where I am today because of the women in this industry.” But “I don't like using the word as a man,” he said. “I support women … fully and utterly, but I don't like to call myself a feminist.”
Levi does claim the f-word -but he doesn’t want to lean on it in his self-promotion. “I'm always very conscious of anything that might come across as peacocking,” he said. “I don't want to tell people what I am. I want people to naturally see what I am.”
I think John is right that succeeding in this particular line of work would require at the very least an inherently feminist mindset, which is to say, the attitude that women deserve just as much pleasure, respect, and freedom as men, in or out of bed.
“You couldn't be … a successful male sex worker if you are not a good man,” Andrews said, “because women can smell that con kind of stuff from 500 paces.”
And ultimately, Levi believes, the walk matters more than the talk: “I'd say a feminist male provider is someone who truly, truly acts as one.”
Capitalism has been called a system of greed—yet it is the system that raised the standard of living of its poorest citizens to heights no collectivist system has ever begun to equal, and no tribal gang can conceive of.