I am a man who regularly visits prostitutes. There are quite a few of us — according to a Business Insider article, as many as one in seven American men will visit a prostitute at some point in their lives. That’s 14 percent, only slightly lower than the percentage of women over 18 who smoke cigarettes (15.8 percent).
You don’t usually hear from us, though. As much shame as society casts on sex workers, the stigma of the regular client is also strong. Recently, trusted online services were shut down in investigations for alleged child trafficking, so I decided it was time to speak up and tell my story.
Twenty years ago, my girlfriend died. At the same time, my career was taking off, demanding more time and energy. When I came out of mourning, I was an engineer in Silicon Valley entering the first dot-com boom, and the odds of finding love were long. Santa Clara County was known for having the highest ratio of single men to single women in the country. And let’s face it, tech workers are not the mo...
Instead of seeking love, I sought success. I helped found a company in 1997, then helped build it to something we sold more than a decade later. In the time others might spend pursuing a relationship, I created a successful enterprise. I tried some popular dating sites, but to little success. To satisfy my physical needs, I turned to professionals.
The late '90s were a bad time to find quality sex workers. Sometimes, I might call an “Escort Service” from the yellow pages, and if I was lucky, the person I met was halfway close to what was described. Once, I found I had been robbed by the girl. Unluckier patrons had much worse experiences.
There were also back pages of local weekly newspapers like the San Francisco Metro, where I’d squint at small panel ads and take some guesses before trying the number. More often than not, I’d end up wasting an evening. It was all so sketchy: Most ads didn’t include pictures, so I had to rely on written descriptions. I’d usually need to try a few ads, leaving my number on each of the voice mails, because only one in four would call back. Then I had to ask about the rate, location, availability. (The dates were about $150-$200/hour back then.)
Once, when I was waiting for call back from a woman I’d seen before, the phone rang. I picked up to hear the voice of a woman who sounded a lot like her -- but turned out to be my sister calling from a pay phone. Whoops. Fortunately I figured this out before I busted myself, but it was a very awkward start to a conversation.
This old-school method was never seamless. Even if I made arrangements, there was no guarantee of action. I can’t recall the number of times I went on wild goose chases; I’d go to a service station and call from a phone booth, and get no answer, trying again a few times before giving up and going home.
It wasn’t easy for the sex workers either. Many were pimped, or were victims of trafficking. They went into appointments blindly, always unsure who was on the other end of the line. Their best defense was the two-call system, where that second call from a phone booth was near enough to the woman’s apartment that she could check out the customer visually before allowing him to visit. But in this environment, no one was safe.
The Internet revolutionized sex work. The first site I used was lovings.com, back in 1998, when I came across an ad for a woman who struck my fancy. Not only did the ad include a description, but there was a picture of the woman. The actual woman. Though the two-call system was still used, it was more of a heads-up for your arrival time, as she shared the space with other women, and they didn’t want clients to meet in the hall. I paid $215 for my visit with Juliette, and I was impressed. The picture on the site was the same woman I met, and the experience was better than any I’d had. I became a regular.
I have such fond memories of Juliette. We were actually in flagrante delecto at her humble abode when a 5.0 earthquake hit. It was 6:06 p.m., Aug. 17, 1999, when the bed had a sudden sharp shock. It was like a scene from a movie: Did the earth move for you? Well, yes — it did.
Around that time, I tried Match.com and Yahoo personals. I even signed up for a local dating service that set me up on a couple of dates, but they never turned into second dates. The personal ads would get some interest and some talk, but Silicon Valley is a women’s market -- men have to work hard to stand out. I preferred pouring my time and energy into my job.
Juliette retired in 2000, so I had to find someone new. Lovings.com had been good to me, so I looked again, but without much luck. In 2004, I discovered a site where there were not only advertisements, but reviews of ladies, and discussion forums. At myredbook.com, the women who did sex work could communicate with each other, and as a result, a system of references developed. When a potential new client sought an appointment, that client had to provide some bona fides, usually favorable comments from another woman he had visited. This added a layer of safety for the women. For the clients, the ratings system meant the risk of a bad experience was reduced. Myredbook.com made sex work safer for both the providers and clients.
One of the women on the site looked like Juliette — she even went by the alias Goddess Juliette — and, indeed, it was the same woman, a wonderful reunion for me. Juliette was independent at this point, and we had the opportunity for some extended pillow talk after the act. I got to know her more as a person than any previous provider. I learned a bit about her interests and she told me some of her personal history. When I had a birthday, she had a special party for me, and when I had a spare ticket for a trip to Asia, I flew her to Bangkok.
It wasn’t to last forever, though, as she again retired. I saw a few others after that. But it wasn’t until 2009 that I came across another woman — not from an ad, but from one of her bulletin board postings. She had posted one of the xkcd comics on the myredbook bulletin board, and in other posts had shown a geeky sense of humor. I was intrigued. After meeting Maven Fae, I would not want to meet anyone else for three years. Time with her was so pleasant I often spent the money for overnight visits; waking up next to this beautiful woman was among the most profound experiences for me in the last two decades.
Evenings at her place were more relaxed than a normal session. We’d usually cuddle and watch a movie, sometimes we’d read to each other. I felt safe in her arms, and wanted her to feel safe in mine. And, of course, the actual play time was sublime. The next morning, we’d usually wake slowly, and at some point in the morning get breakfast before I’d finally go home. Sometimes Fae would have plans for later in the day, but I’d never be rushed out.
Of course, not every session was quite so tranquil. During one of our sessions, Fae role-played that we were being watched by a group of her girlfriends. This turned me on a bit, so for one of our overnights, Fae made it happen. She arranged for us to visit with three other women, and we had quite the evening.
Fae and I ended up having many discussions; when you spend the night together you spend as much time cuddling and getting to know each other better as you spend in sexual contact. We shared stories of our pasts and hopes for our futures.
There is something called “the girlfriend experience,” which in sex-work lingo actually is more of a description of intimate physical services without the emotional commitment of a girlfriend. My times with Fae were definitely girlfriend experiences, with the added plus of the feeling of emotional intimacy usually lacking in traditional sex work. I certainly don’t know all about her and she doesn’t know all about me, but we learned enough about each other to care for each other outside of our time together, and to continue to have friendly contact after she retired. Fae may be the smartest woman I’ve met in sex work. I am fortunate to know her.
I again tried online dating, this time with OkCupid. In two years, my profile received exactly one unsolicited inquiry -- from a person who claimed to be a “23 year old woman in Ekaterinberg, Russia,” although the email headers suggested they were being sent from around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Out of at least 100 inquiries I sent out, I received seven replies -- all of them “thanks but no thanks.” Fae even took a look at my profile to help me. We polished a couple of answers, focusing on my strengths instead of my weaknesses and removing some of my self-deprecating humor, but it was to no avail. I guess, in the last 20 years, I’ve lost or forgotten whatever dating skills I may have once had. Worse, I attended a couple of mixer events and decided that maybe I should be grateful to be single? The main topic of conversation for potential partners was complaining about their exes. And with no living exes, I certainly stood out as different. I don’t think finding a “normal” relationship is in the cards for me.
Since Fae retired, I’ve seen some other women who are still active in sex work through myredbook.com. Universally, these women do not conform to society’s stereotypes of a prostitute. They are normal women, just like the women we all know in our lives. They are people’s sisters, classmates, neighbors, co-workers and friends. They have careers: One is a simian researcher, one is a writer of beautifully evocative fiction, one has an MBA and now works in finance, and one has a doctorate in psychology -- and that’s just the women who have told me what they do. These women are witty, beautiful and kind. Their crime, in the eyes of the state, is selling sex -- providing comfort to men who, for whatever reason, could not find it at home. Is it better for those of us who patronize these women to be frustrated? Is it anyone’s business what goes on between consenting adults in private?
Last June, the FBI seized myredbook under the accusation that the site was helping traffic women. The sex workers I knew were all concerned when this happened. Without self-monitoring networks like myredbook, their world is more dangerous. Unfortunately, there are still cases of women who are trafficked and women in prostitution against their will. That should never be tolerated. But it’s a shame to see law enforcement painting with such a broad brush. Sex workers have lost their safety network. Clients have lost a resource to know when an advertiser is reputable. Even the police lose a resource; they could monitor sites like myredbook to catch traffickers. Now those criminals are underground and harder to find.
But this is the way of the law in a country where the act of consensual sex between two people is criminalized. It doesn’t have to be this way. The National Bureau of Economic Research (a nonpartisan organization that studies the U.S. economy) conducted a June 2014 study about indoor prostitution in Rhode Island. Indoor prostitution is activity around massage parlors, escort agencies and online solicitation, which until 2009, was not criminalized in Rhode Island. The study found that in this environment, rates of sexually transmitted diseases dropped significantly, and violence against women -- not just sex workers, but all women -- dropped. The forcible rape rate in Rhode Island was 39 percent lower than would have been expected had indoor prostitution remained criminalized.
So far, the seizure of myredbook has not directly affected me. I’m still happily visiting my regulars. If any of us were to move on, I’d ask for a recommendation from these women, but I’d probably end up looking on Eros guide, eros.com or going back to lovings.com. They lack the reviews and community but still provide basic information. Maybe one day all these sites might be more community-based and out in the open; for now, anyone involved with sex work should probably remain anonymous — including me.