Derek* visited his first sex worker in 2006, when he was living in China. At the time, three things about paying for sex appealed to him: One, it was a notch on his belt of life experience, a Hemingway-esque activity that a young man could (theoretically) boast of doing. “I likened it to my decision to run with the bulls in Pamplona,” Derek says.
Two — from Derek’s point of view at the time, at least — paying for sex didn’t seem like such a big deal in Asia, simply because the practice was so prevalent and out-in-the-open (though still not legal). There, it seemed like “something well within the norms of social behavior.”
And three: that great disinhibitor, alcohol, working hand-in-hand with lust. “When you’re drunk and horny, and you know that a sexual experience was just minutes and $20 or $30 away, it could be very difficult to resist,” Derek says. “The idea that you could put down your beer ... and be having sex within minutes held a particular appeal to me at the time.”
Dr. Omar Minwalla, of the Institute for Sexual Health in Los Angeles, has heard all these rationales and more. As a psychologist and sex therapist, he helps people who have developed problems relating to sex issues — and, when treating something like sex addiction, paid sex often looms large.
And yet, according to Dr. Minwalla, paying for sex is “not at all always a disordered behavior.” Though sex work often overlaps with issues of abuse, exploitation, and violence, “There is a wide spectrum for most sexual behaviors, and sex work, or engaging as a client of sex work, can for some people be a really integrated part of how they express themselves.”
For men who shell out big bucks for the “Girlfriend Experience,” a form of high-end escorting that conjures the illusion of a real relationship, a big motivating factor is being able to access exactly what they want sexually.
“There might be a lot of different reasons why it might be difficult [for men] to actually get what they’re looking for,” says Dr. Minwalla. “If you have a bunch of corporate guys, and they want a yacht full of really hot babes, they might not be able to just get that. But if there’s a lot of money involved, now they can.” Paying for sex is, of course, the only surefire way to make that happen.
Mark’s* decision to pay for sex arose along somewhat similar lines, although the specific thing he was looking for was chemistry. He had been experiencing a romantic slump, and “just needed to experience some kind of sex again in order to feel more like a sexual being.” So Mark thought about it deeply ahead of time — “weeks in advance, actually,” he says. “I took my time to find someone I could be attracted to and feel safe with.”
The main appeal of paying for sex was that “It took away the complications and unknowns and — most importantly — the fears of rejection and/or inadequacy.” The “safe space” that it created for him proved helpful in a “clinical, therapeutic kind of way.” He likened it to how opening up to a therapist can allow a person to open up more to others in their “real” life.
Dr. Minwalla says that this sort of “vulnerability” is often psychologically tied to paying for sex. “Regular adult sexuality is too fraught in some respects,” he says. “Paying for sex means you don’t have to worry about judgment, rejections, or performance.”
The transactional nature of the arrangement, the “element of knowing it’s a job for her and that I’m paying for that labor,” also was titillating to Mark. Dr. Minwalla notes that this kind of “boundary violation” can be “extremely” sexually arousing. “Putting your hand in the cookie jar gives some people a hard-on,” he says.
Power and control can be part of the arousal, says the doctor: “For a lot of men, stepping into a dynamic of sexual domination is a huge turn-on. It actually inflates the masculine ego.” What else can blow up the male ego? Having a lot of money, and being able to use it to purchase the attentions of a woman (or women) of your choosing, as in the Girlfriend Experience.
This power gradient or ego inflation was not part of the exchange that appealed to Derek when he visited sex workers, over a period of three years, at brothels and “dirty” massage parlors, where women would give him handjobs or occasionally oral sex. In fact, reflecting on this imbalance afterward eventually prompted him to stop paying for sex altogether.
“I didn’t enjoy any of the encounters involving sexual intercourse,” Derek says. “After each I had that familiar empty feeling that I knew from a typical one-night stand, but this was tinged with a sense of guilt. Like, who the fuck is this woman? What’s her story? I knew literally nothing, and the thought of it depressed and upset me.”
Mark started off in a much different mindset, wherein he used to feel “deeply ashamed” even for going to strip clubs. “I thought it was exploitative and that made me a pig for wanting to go,” he says. But over the years, Mark’s attitude changed. “I no longer feel that it is shameful. Now I see it as work, like any other kind of work.”
That viewpoint was reinforced for Mark as he dated several sex workers over the years. “As with any line of work, there are aspects they like and some they hate,” he says. “But in all cases what they want is to be respected and well paid.”
In Dr. Minwalla’s opinion, the best way to encourage this attitude is by humanizing and restoring dignity to sex workers — a stance which can prove beneficial not only to the women who engage in sex work, from massage parlors to the Girlfriend Experience, but to the men as well: “Helping men see the other person they’re paying as an equal human being, at least in terms of work and human rights, is really healthy.”
In the coming weeks, this article series will continue to explore paid sex in all its forms — and participants. Do you have any thoughts about the lure of paid sex? What about it is appealing (or not) to you? Is it possible to pay for sex in a healthy and responsible manner? Sound off in the comments, and be sure to catch the April 10 series premiere of The Girlfriend Experience on STARZ. You can watch the trailer below.
Hunter Slaton is the Content Director for Studio@Gawker.
*Names have been changed.