Prostitution seemed the least likely way to learn about marriage and an ideal profession for a jaded child of divorce, like me. When I entered the sex trade, I was still a teenager -- not the sort who dreams about floating down the aisle in white lace. My fantasies were about having my own apartment, a launching pad for the multiple affairs I was planning in my head.
Like so many wannabe brides who have the white dress picked out (and a subscription to Bride's) before they have a clue whom they'll wed, I aspired to a lifestyle of carefree sex with theoretical men and, just like those women, I daydreamed about decorating. I was halfway there -- living with a boyfriend, yearning for my own place -- when I began turning tricks.
I had no idea what to expect from my first customer but I was shocked when he proposed marriage: "Tracy" -- or whatever I was calling myself that night -- "will you marry me?" I abruptly told him: "No! I can't marry you!" We were very much at cross-purposes. He wanted to know if that meant I was engaged. I simply didn't believe in marriage and I was under the age of consent, something he didn't know. For me, thoughts of marriage led to bureaucracy -- How old must you be to sign the paperwork? -- or ideology: Was marriage the foundation of capitalism? As bad for you as processed flour?
Or perhaps I was just not ready to have any respect for the custom because my parents' marriage ended before I was 8. I wasn't disillusioned so much as unimpressed with the institution of marriage.
For that customer, marriage was a romantic impulse, a solution for loneliness. But perhaps he was already married -- a possibility that never occurred to me that night. I assumed he was proposing because he was emotionally unstable, but perhaps he was proposing because he was far more stable than he appeared to be -- only pretending to be the lovestruck, lonesome bachelor. Though I was lying about a number of things, I took what he said at face value -- the mark of a newbie in the game of sexual intrigue.
Later, as a pro, I discovered that marriage works in mysterious ways. People sometimes ask whether I'm more jaded now than when I entered the sex trade. Most of my customers were married, and how can you even trust the concept of marriage when you witness these cracks in the armor, the daily infidelities? After many years of being what madams call a "good listener" and a self-interested observer, I came to respect an institution I do not entirely trust. As a hooker, I learned to see men as commodities. A smart hooker also learns to respect another woman's turf, and wives are seen by many as the ultimate owners of these men.
There is a basic respect for marriage that resonates in the world of prostitution. Marriage is not for amateurs, especially when divorce is so easy to obtain. Married people who cheat often find that their most unfaithful efforts render them "faithful" in eerie, unexpected ways -- sexual cheating rarely sets you free; it can turn the cheater into a prisoner of the supposedly betrayed spouse.
Or a prisoner of one's own fantasies. A number of married clients led fantasy lives, pretending to be free in some cases, or pretending to be married to younger women when in fact they were married to formidable mother figures.
One client, a tender sensualist of 60 living part time in the South of France, spun a convincing tale about his beautiful, childlike wife and her trysts with tennis instructors. So alluring were Claud's bedtime stories that he had a number of call girls believing the hype! We -- seasoned professionals -- imagined that he did not really watch her getting it on with the tennis coach, but we believed she was a second wife in her 30s, with slim hips and soft skin. We liked to think we were complementing their sexy cosmopolitan marriage, and it was easy to get a little turned on by his banter.
Each one of us had some older American clients who embodied the stereotype: overweight, inattentive to their looks, content with a quick blow job, passive suburban American husbands. Their sexless marriages were based on the sharing of property, children in college, and other mundane facts. Claud, however, was well-groomed, vain, somewhat trim, a delightful conversationalist and not bad looking. He made you feel sexy because he was sexy. Other clients made you feel sexy like a porn star or a pin-up model in the presence of a naive fan. These lackluster husbands, though kindhearted and decent (they wouldn't abandon their wives or cheat a prostitute) -- had the sex lives and marriages they deserved. They used money to buy what other men might obtain with their looks, personality or conversation. They were complacent about their bodies. Claud was different. He deserved to live with a delicate, pretty girl and could afford to -- or so I thought.
When another call girl ran into Claud at a Broadway musical, she was taken aback. "I saw Claud at the theater with his wife! She looks like his mother!" Laura told me. I was dubious: "Are you sure it's not his mother? Maybe his wife was in France..."
Laura insisted: "He was acting totally like a husband. She's his wife. And she was covered in Bulgari jewelry."
For some reason, we were both a little disappointed. We had wanted to believe Claud's fantasy of lighthearted matrimony. So did he, for a few hours in the afternoon, but he accepted the reality of a serious, conventional marriage. Every feature of his fantasy wife -- litheness, girlish charm, a naughty niceness -- was the opposite of his real wife, according to Laura (whose description was unflattering). How ironic that our storytelling customer might be a hard-eyed realist while we, the supposedly cynical operators, wanted to believe an American fantasy about European marriage. It was a Jamesian moment, to say the least.
At this point I began realizing that a number of my clients had married into money -- if not into cash, then property or connections or other things that made life manageable. The midcentury archetype of a man ruling the roost with his superior earning power, having extra sex partners he can pay for, while his wife stays in the suburbs becoming more maternal and sexually virtuous by the hour, was looking more like a simple middle-class fantasy. Real marriage was more bizarre than that.
Not every client was like Claud. As a beginner in the sex trade, I saw married couples for an escort service. I felt very much like a peeping Tom when I got into bed with a couple. Husbands are more deferential, less presumptuous in these threesomes; when they are not, there's probably trouble brewing. Most hookers would like to be on their way out the door before that kind of tension begins. A part of me admired these wives for doing something I would never have the courage to do: Three-way sex was normal in my job but never happened in my love life. Yet these couples were either so secure or so bored that they made a habit of inviting another woman into bed. One wife became positively petulant with her husband. "Oh, not now!" she sighed, as if they were on a long car trip, arguing about directions. But she was warm and friendly toward me, insisting that I tuck the money "someplace safe" as I was leaving. I was about half her age and still so new that I never felt confident about my ability to satisfy a woman's body. These couples were a minority, a side trip for me, and never the main part of my business. But I felt that I saw quite a lot on those occasions.
Sometimes my customers showed me the family snapshots -- attractive wives, Christmas card images of the kids -- and reported a basic happiness that still didn't prevent them from wanting variety. For one customer, the urge to watch a few minutes of porn at lunchtime -- and not the kind of porn geared to couples -- followed by a quick release, was not really consistent with married life. When he spoke about his wife, there was a carnal edge that was missing from some customers' conversations. She was part of his fantasy life, but she lived in the suburbs and he spent his weeknights in a city apartment.
Many were married to attractive, stylish women who ignored them sexually. And sometimes, I am sorry to say, this was totally understandable. Once, when discussing a regular whose beautiful, well-dressed wife didn't have sex with him more than twice a year, my friend Laura shrugged. "Can you blame her? I wouldn't have sex with him either, if I didn't have to." He was not offensive as a john -- being unattractive didn't matter so much when he was paying. But he projected a neurotic dissatisfaction about life that would make any woman want to slap him if she had him in her life for more than a few hours. What kept them together were a grown child who had never grown up, a lifestyle, two houses, and a shared love of French vacations. Benny loved being seen with an elegant, pretty woman of any age as much as he loved complaining about his marriage. Sexually, he was a strange mixture: good at oral sex, hung up on dildos -- the more absurd-looking the better -- always trying to see what he could get away with. His favorite call girls were those who refused to kiss him.
The more you listened to Benny describing his wife -- a woman who occasionally locked the master bedroom area and allowed him to use only the guest areas of the house -- the more you realized what he needed. The key to his wallet and his heart was a hooker who did this sort of thing in bed. If you banished him from the private areas and made him use only the "common areas" of your body, he became a regular and sometimes fell in love, even to the point of offering fur coats, apartments and good watches. If you gave in to his many demands, like an amateur, he would show up again because men will do that. But contrary to what he thought, Benny was not seeking an alternative to his wife. He was seeking a variation on her theme of denial, which led me to think that perhaps Benny was madly in love with her, in his own masochistic way. Benny's marriage would have been frightening to me had it not been so alien.
Some clients refused to discuss home life at all, making me wonder if they were unhappily married, or so happy there was nothing to discuss. The very happy can sometimes run out of gossip. Some felt guilty, but men who routinely pay for sex outside the home don't usually feel guilty about the sex. Men are more sensible than women give them credit for. That doesn't mean they are free of guilt, but they have more emotional intelligence than we like to admit, and they're quite good at taking what they need from a situation without agonizing about sexual morality.
One client, married with children, told me: "I don't feel guilty when things are going well. I feel guilty about doing this when business isn't good." A quick afternoon trick, David ran his own business in the diamond district. If he stayed away from the shop for too long, he was being disloyal to his business. If he spent money on sex when business was slow, he was disloyal to the mother of his kids. I sensed that David was happily married. The economic bond between David and his wife shaped his sessions: He was never the sort to have a prolonged visit. Sex with David was simple, hot, direct -- not languorous and graceful, like my sessions with Claud. Anything that might inspire a higher price was not broached or tried. In this peculiar way he was faithful to his marriage. For married couples, money can be more emotionally charged than fidelity of the flesh. Married people sometimes hide money from each other, lying about what they spend and how they spend it.
When people say there are unseen partners in every bedroom transaction, I have to agree. David's marriage was never absent from our encounters. Benny's wife was a role model. And Claud's fantasy wife -- young, pretty, free -- may have been a projection of himself. Just as a female novelist can re-create an aspect of herself through a male character, so can lots of men create sexual stories about themselves disguised as women.
How, some people ask, can a man who visits prostitutes be happily married? Is this a delusion of the prostitute who is never as objective or experienced as she would like to think? Perhaps, but we have to define what happily married means. Does it mean being in love, which often means that you're sexually obsessed with a romantic partner? I think it means "happy to be returning home" to the marital domicile. The happily married customer does not dawdle at the end of his session. He is just looking for sexual variety, an erotic staple for quite a few men. Without variety, a lot of men would simply go nuts, no matter how deeply they love one woman. Their need might be satisfied by porn, flirtation, looking across the street, or a neatly contained encounter with a prostitute.
"Does it ever keep you awake at night?" That's a question I was once asked about "having sex with other women's husbands." I have, indeed, been kept awake by this question, by the complications and sneaky realities of marriage. It would be too smug and pat to say that I always sleep soundly, oblivious to the feelings we have about sex, fidelity, trust, passionate love. I'm not a card-carrying polyamorist, and I believe in romantic love. Despite all the cheating that goes on, I believe that we might be lucky enough to find our ideal mate. The idea of a man who can monopolize my sexual attention, making my heart skip a beat at all the right moments, is compelling. But the high romantic energy that causes a man or a woman to swoon, to stay focused on one person, is not present in every marriage, even in happy marriages. And not every woman or man requires this sensation in order to be happy.
If the marriage is based on children, the desire to be a good parent can trump the desire for romance. There is a big difference between being in love with each other and being good together as parents. A friend once told me that, while her parents were rather damaging to her, they were very much in love. They had an affectionate, vital marriage that did not end until one partner's death. Yet their children were deprived of affection.
In some cases, the buildup to a marriage proposal can be exquisite, erotically charged, because there is a hint of the unknown. And then the actual marriage, with its shared goals, known routines, can make two people feel more like siblings than lovers. (This is especially an issue when husband and wife look like they could be related.)
Indeed, some men marry women from their own ethnic or religious group while viewing exotic women purely as sex partners. As a New York prostitute with an Asian appearance, I sometimes attracted these men. Customers who go for exotic prostitutes are often stereotyped as racist exploiters or insensitive tourists, but sex cannot always be about partnership, familiarity, comfort and home. In fact, this kind of sex can provoke a need for "exotic" sex with a stranger. Marriage can start to look and feel like fraternal incest which, I believe, is the sexual opposite of courtship. Marriage, after all, is about family even when children aren't part of the deal.
George, a regular customer for many years, had a WASPish manner but came from a mixture of European Catholic ancestors: his preference for brown, black, Latin American and Asian prostitutes was extreme, I thought. I was happy to have him as a customer, but I secretly wondered what caused this old-fashioned quirk. I found him not so much exploitive as evasive. He was avoiding sex with women who felt too familiar and he was the only boy in a family of older sisters. It's not so much that the exotic woman is providing exotic sex as we are sometimes led to believe -- it's more likely that the client finds "normal" sex exotic with the foreign partner. "Foreign" women didn't seem like siblings to George, and sex with an exotic prostitute meant he was out there in the world, independent.
But let's not idealize a man like George. He thought interracial marriage "a bad idea" even though his favorite call girls were all descendants of interracial parents. He was, in many ways, an establishment stereotype, living in a fictional world while having sex in the real world.
In a very idealized, enlightened universe, conservative husbands wouldn't believe that having commercial sex with a prostitute from a different ethnic group was a form of fidelity. But many people do live this way, and the lure of the exotic plays an important role in the sex trade. Marriage is often about creating a dynasty or a household with somebody who looks like you, talks like you, and believes what you believe. Or it's about enlarging a community. Many of my clients were Hasidic and Orthodox Jews whose lifestyle was so rarefied that almost any number of women could seem exotic, alien, foreign. There are many stereotypes about Orthodox and Hasidic customers circulating in New York. For example, the notion that they have casual sex exclusively with black prostitutes. The infamous New Yorker cover by Art Spiegelman, depicting an Orthodox man and a black woman, touched a nerve by reminding us of this. The kissing did not quite ring true, but their proximity said a lot.
In the hidden moments of the day, on the way home from work, men of all races and religions are having sex with women they wouldn't meet in their official lives. In the case of my Hasidic and Orthodox clients, I felt that almost any woman who was unsuitable for marriage was able to pass for exotic.
Some liberal visionaries would say that marrying the person who doesn't look like you is the more progressive path. But people who marry outside the obvious "tribe" can be pulled together by class, profession, lifestyle, politics, education and by subtler forms of tribalism, causing more of that sibling intimacy between husband and wife that causes men to seek the outsider as a paid sex partner. Contrary to stereotype, traditional conservatives are not the only men who need alternatives to family life and married sex. If they were, the sex industry would have withered away by now.
And what about the married woman? Why are we talking about men's predictable double standards and their peccadilloes, yet again? As it happens, there is an entire subculture of married women who secretly work in the sex trade, like undercover agents or sexual "moles" (as Cold War double agents were called). "Belle de Jour" is alive and well and living in every major city of the world. But that's another story, to be explored at a future time.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
We want to make you a part of this series. What is the state of your union? Did you find the one and never look back, or has finding lasting love been a marathon of trial and error? Did you have a fairy-tale wedding only to watch things crumble once the reception was over, or have you glided along in marital bliss since Day One? We want to hear your stories of joy, romance, heartbreak and pain. After all, partnership, as we all know, is a complex concoction of all of those things. (Please remember: Any writing submitted becomes the property of Salon if we publish it. We reserve the right to edit submissions and cannot reply to every writer. Interested contributors should send their stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.)