Ray Drecker is impotent in all the ways that Viagra can't help. The hero of HBO's "Hung," played by Thomas Jane, was once the golden boy of West Lakefield High's football team, but now he's middle-aged, divorced, depressed and earning a pathetic paycheck teaching history and coaching basketball on the same grounds where he was once regarded as high school royalty. Worse still, an electrical fire guts his house, leaving him with but one major asset ... in his pants.
Cue angels' voices and heavenly beams of light on his junk: Ray may be a failure in nearly every arena, but he does have the gift of a really big penis. So, after a bit of fumbling, he gets a pimp: Tanya Skagle, played by the fantastic Jane Adams, a struggling poet he meets in a get-rich-quick workshop.
Despite its dry humor and indulgent sight gags (flagpoles, cucumbers and other phallic images abound), the show expects viewers to buy its basic premise. There is certainly a thriving market for gay and bisexual escorts, but just how believable is a straight male prostitute? After all, legendary madam Heidi Fleiss recently abandoned plans for a Nevada "stud farm" that only catered to women because she decided it isn't "where the money is," and the recession, which looms large in "Hung," is making it tough for even female sex workers to get paid. Even in more prosperous times, the idea of there being a real market for gigolos goes against our assumption that women don't have to work for sex and that, well, they just aren't that into it.
At the same time, we're likely to fall for most any fiction about studs for sale, because we don't know any better. From "Pretty Woman" to "The Girlfriend Experience," we've walked millions of imaginary miles in working women's shoes, but straight male prostitutes are still a mystery. It's been decades since "American Gigolo," and "Deuce Bigalow" didn't exactly drill deep into the authentic experience. So, I talked to some real-life Rays -- yes, they do exist -- about what's realistic about "Hung" and what isn't.
For the first man-whore myth, look no further than the show's name, which attempts to explain in a word why Ray is meant for escorting. Greg, a 48-year-old escort represented by an international agency serving wealthy businesswomen, says he's "been blessed in that area," but finds that "a lot of women really aren't into it -- sometimes it hurts them." For those who missed sex ed, most vaginas are no deeper than five and a half inches, meaning an abnormally large penis would likely hit the opening of the cervix -- and, as any woman who has had a pap smear can tell you, it isn't an erogenous zone. Yet, when Ray and Tanya get it on for the first time, she screams out in pleasure as he repeatedly slams into her: "Oh my God, you're so big!" Watching this scene as a straight woman is like watching a mainstream porno: It's hard to relate to the spastic, rapturous woman on-screen.
But unlike, say, "Big Cocks in Her Little Box," it's our man Ray who is being treated like a piece of meat: In one scene, a woman old enough to be his mother asks to get a peek at his penis. In another, a female client instructs him, "Show me your pecs," much like a man might shout: "Lemme see your tits!" It's a wry and refreshing inversion of the traditional gender script -- but working men say it entirely misses the point of M4W escorting.
Sometimes, sex is only a distant thought. "Male companion" James Craig -- a 40-year-old Englishman with a taste for fine wines, James Bond tuxedos and women – wrote in an e-mail, "No one wishes to appear the single person at that office function when everyone else has a spouse or date, so having a partner to take with them, who will not only blend in but treat that person like the special woman that she is, would be the solution." I couldn't help imagining him delivering the line in a soft-focus, late-night commercial for himself.
Male escorts can also be just pawns in a larger game of social chess. The men I spoke with have accompanied women to high school reunions, office parties and weddings. Sometimes they hit the town and, oops, "accidentally" run into the client's ex, who has the privilege of meeting the handsome, successful and adoring new man in her life. Greg just recently returned from a three-day stay at a winery with a client and her friends, who all believed he was her boyfriend. "It's been three days and I'm still getting e-mails from this lady about how all of her friends were like, 'Where did you find this guy, he was great!'" The kind of great that costs a couple thousand a weekend.
There are certainly women out there who are just looking to get off, but Greg says he's never had a client ask him to "come over and bang their brains out" like Lenore, Ray's first client, did. Women are looking for "a men-tal se-duc-tion," he says with the syllabic precision of a motivational speaker. He primes them with conversation, flirtation, compliments, but sometimes it never comes to sex. "I can't tell you how many times the evening [comes to a close] and they are so content they've forgotten all about it. They just lay down and pass out."
Alex, a 39-year-old straight male escort with a thick Russian accent, reiterates the importance of patience, rather than a large package. "You don't make money off the sex, you make money on the time spent talking." Sometimes men talk with a potential client for weeks through e-mail or go on several paid dates before anything physical happens, if it ever does. "Do you know any woman who would want to pay to get fucked in five minutes? They're paying for the imagination, the fantasy," he explains. "Emotionally and physically, the women suck your energy, your life out of you for the money they're paying you."
It isn't some velvet-robed playboy fantasy; it's a job. You would never turn down unattractive clients -- as Ray initially does with a plump, middle-aged married woman -- because it would ruin your reputation and the demand is so small that you can't afford to be picky. You sleep with a client whether she's a nubile secretary or a grey-haired granny. Unless, that is, she just wants to talk, which is sometimes the case. David Sterry, author of the memoir "Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent," liked that part of the job so much he became a marriage counselor: "I was doing the same work only I was clothed and getting paid much less for it." Those who trade in sin, from bartenders to sex workers of all persuasions, know all too well the worth of a sympathetic ear.
Male hooking isn't always talk therapy, though. Sex can be bizarre and menacing, even (or maybe especially) for those who do it for a living. Sterry had clients who seemed to be reenacting a past sexual trauma. One woman in particular would lie in bed and have him silently crawl under the covers and "orally pleasure her while she laid there like she was dead." He says, "I knew someone did something to her, you know? Every single time she wanted exactly the same thing." And some of these darker dynamics are starting to trickle in to "Hung." While Ray's first two clients were randy caricatures, his latest is a heartbroken woman who uses our well-hung hero to playact her way through past hurt. The waters of sex for pay are getting murkier, more difficult to navigate, and there is hope yet that "Hung" will sail beyond gigolo cliché. Jane Adams' character, Tanya, is certainly doing her best to convey to Ray that a woman's fulfillment depends on more than a big dick. Maybe he'll actually start to listen -- just like a good male escort would.