John is a male escort. He starts most days outside Waterloo station in London to pick up women who will pay the £80-an hour fee to have sex, flirt, laugh, hold hands or even just talk. Over the past three weeks he has made £6,000 from escorting, but he turns down a lot of work.
Once he earned £4,000 in a week, other times he gets nothing. Most nights he falls asleep in hotel rooms, pushing his body under those crispy white sheets which are always tucked in too tight. When he’s not escorting, he’s travelling anywhere from Germany to Portsmouth, working in gas and oil refinement, a less glamorous routine than charming rich men’s wives over Sauvignon Blanc.
John got into escorting after he found images of his girlfriend on sex worker review site UK Punting. He knew it was her because his name is tattooed across her ribs. “I felt sick”, he says. To try to understand what she had been doing he signed up to Gentleman4Hire and for two years now, women pay him to give them something their husband, boyfriend or the straight men of Tinder can’t.
Hiring escorts is an activity typically associated with men, but a recent study found that over the past few years, the use of male escorts by women has tripled. On the face of it, that doesn’t make sense: if women want sex, they can order it off a dating app like a chicken katsu curry from Wagamama, right? So why are so many paying for it? Curious to find out, I asked John out on a date.
“I’m naturally a very caring person. This job is about making women feel wanted”
I meet John in a bar. It’s easy to see why someone with enough money would hire him. He’s attractive. A youthful 30, wearing a grey polo neck and a thick parka, he has the classic good looks of a guy who would be described as a ‘love rat’ in the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame, pictured arguing in a parking lot with a TOWIE cast member. His eyes are so piercingly blue they could be mistaken for contact lenses. Your mother would describe him as a ‘lovely boy’ and go all pink when he came over, making him food even though he said he wasn’t hungry. At one point I nearly tell John I have a boyfriend as though confessing to something, until I remember that’s literally part of his job description. “I try not to ask them about husbands. You don’t want to remind clients and make them feel guilty,” he tells me.
Being with John feels like sinking into a hot bubble bath with a podcast. He’s funny, polite and helpful. When a receipt blows over from another table, he picks it up and lodges it under the sugar cube dish to make sure it doesn’t blow away again. I ask if he smokes and he says, “no, but I will come with you to get some,” already raising himself slightly off his seat as though it was rude that he hadn’t thought to bring me some cigarettes. At one point he asks, “Is it alright if I go to the toilet?” I laugh to myself thinking about the times my boyfriend has urinated in a plastic bottle by the bed to save himself the walk to the bathroom.
I notice John’s half pint of Stella is always full. Sometimes he picks it up and then puts it back down again as though having an argument with himself. “I try not to drink too much, nobody wants to look after a pissed bloke.” As he slides the glass across the table, I wonder whether his well-trimmed fingernails have translucent varnish on them.
Nice as John is, I want to know what sort of women are prepared to pay upwards of £500 for just one night with an escort? I speak to Theo Gauci, an East Londoner who balances work as a personal trainer with escorting. Next week he’s playing submissive for a CEO who’s in London for business. She wants him to walk her to meetings, hoover her hotel room, tidy up after her and bring her coffees.
Theo explains that the appeal of escorts for business women is often a matter of control. “As a woman in a male dominant world, achieving that success financially, you’re used to men in a boardroom taking you seriously. You can’t deal with some guy who’s threatened by how much you earn. These women are more likely to know exactly what they want in a man - from university degree, eye colour to dress sense - and choose an escort accordingly.”
For other women, hiring an escort is not about authority, but healing wounds left by neglectful partners. Maybe their husband is away a lot, leaving them in big white mansions with nothing but collections of Sweaty Betty yoga leggings for company. Theo tells me about a woman who he gave the ‘boyfriend experience’. “We went for a walk down the Thames, then bowling by the London Eye, the whole time we were holding hands. One woman in Leeds just wanted me to watch movies on the sofa with her.” How does he become so comfortable with someone so quickly? “I’m naturally a very caring person. This job is about making women feel wanted. Escorting has never been about self-gratification.”
The ability to provide comfort and reassurance to clients is an absolute must. “I was so nervous when I first hired out a male escort,” says Natasha, a business consultant who hired one to accompany her to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the theatre. “As I walked towards him, I was looking at the floor. But he made me feel so comfortable, telling me about how the lady at his hotel made him ham sandwiches for the train home from London. I spoke about things I never really speak about; how exhausting my job is, how long hours at work make it hard for me to have friends. The best part was laughing – you know when you laugh until your ribs hurt? I did a lot of that, and I hadn’t done for a while.”
It’s clear from my conversations not just with Natasha but with the escorts themselves, that the clients are looking for – and finding – much more from these engagements than just sex. Interactions and experiences that the men in their lives don’t supply. It can be as simple as giving out compliments. “When they arrive I say, ‘wow, you’re beautiful’. They always reply: ‘my husband hasn’t said that in years. He tells me I’m wearing too much makeup, or my dress is too short.’” John leans closer and with a look of urgency confides: “One woman hadn’t worn heels in 10 years because her husband didn’t like her being taller than him”.
“I work out what part of her face she’s self-conscious about, maybe she’s hiding her ears behind her hair, or getting tense when I look at her nose,” John explains. “Depending on what feature it is I’ll say: ‘love your ears’ or, ‘you have such a nice nose’.” Feeling instantly analysed, I become aware of every picked blackhead, the loosening glue on my fake eyelashes, and my puffy, pillowy cheeks. “If later on you say I have nice cheeks, I’ll be pissed off,” I say. John just laughs.
The more time I spend in John’s company, the more I begin to understand the appeal. This might be the best first date I have ever been on. We start talking about John’s ex, whose escorting subterfuge broke his heart, from how he sent her a poem every week for a year, to after the break up when she hacked his email and cancelled all his gas contracts so he had no work for months. Halfway through telling me all this John puts his hand over his mouth. “What?” I ask. “I’m just going on about myself” he replies. “I’m probably boring you to death.”
I’m not bored. Clearly John isn’t used to telling women what he’s thinking, an unusual scenario given that much of dating as a woman involves nodding at men who don’t shut up. One friend of mine went on a date with a guy who read his own political manifesto to her off his iPhone notes over a halloumi wrap. Worst part is, she went out with him again. Her reasoning? “He had good hair.”
Arthur, an escort who also works full-time as the project manager of a startup, agrees that listening is an important part of the job. He says his degree in Psychology helps him read body language. “A lot of women come to see you and they think they want you to have sex with them pushed up against a wall, but in reality they just want to talk,” he says. “I might squeeze her thigh, or push her hair out of her face, but that’s it. I can see when she’s comfortable and when she’s not and what areas to promote her to expand on.”
Back in the bar, John tells me how the men he works with in oil and gas think he has the best job, wondering how he’s managed to clinch a career where he’s actually paid to have sex. But it’s more difficult than it sounds, he says. All women have a different set of needs, so John must constantly adapt himself. “You really should be able to make each woman cum.” He spreads the palm of his hand across his lower abdomen, “when I go down on women I put one hand here and then I can feel every murmur of what’s going on inside her body, what she likes, what she doesn’t like, slow, fast. I love watching women enjoy themselves. But sometimes, when they’re 30 years older than you and you don’t find them attractive, it’s hard. After two hours, it’s horrible.”
John’s body is an empty void upon which women project their desires. “These women think that they’re falling in love with you but you’re giving them what they want because that’s your job,” he explains. “She might have responded well to my touches, my kisses, my look, but my look was faked. I didn’t touch her where I wanted to touch her, I touched her where she wanted to be touched, I kissed her where she wanted to be kissed.”
“A husband has got to be perfect for a lifetime, but I’ve only got to be perfect for one night so it’s much easier to not mess it up,” he says.
Sometimes the work can become emotionally exhausting. Male escorts must navigate the feelings of women rendered vulnerable through neglectful relationships. Women can be quick to become attached even when it’s clear they’re enjoying a service. “One client kept asking ‘what is this?’” Theo explains. “Like when you’re dating someone and you have The Talk to see whether or not to become official. She was reacting as though I was playing with her emotions.”
John has similar stories. “I have a regular in London,” he tells me. “I didn’t realise until recently that she saves up all her money every month for one night with us. I felt guilty. Now I will have to see her for free. I have a conscience you know? But I’m not attracted to her either, so it still feels like work.”
“Women think that they’re falling in love with you, but you’re giving them what they want as that’s your job”
If paying to spend time with a male escort feels transactional, it’s because it is. But for Theo, escorting is less shallow than online dating. While on Tinder we swipe right because some guy has slits in his eyebrows, and swipe left after seeing another pixelated photo of a man in tweed holding up a deer carcass. With escorting you actually get to know each other, exchanging long emails in advance of meeting to calculate with precision what you’re like. “We are in a time where it’s common to sleep with people when you don’t even really know their name,” says Theo. “I’ve been on dating sites and to be honest it’s more emotionless than anything you will see in escorting. It’s like, ‘let’s go for a drink and shag.’”
For Theo, “free relationships” often end up being a lot more draining and hurtful. “It’s easier to let yourself be vulnerable when escorting because it’s a temporary contract. I can come away from our time together and let go of it; in relationships you can be led on for months before finding out the other person wants something completely different. It’s weird but the payment aspect of escorting creates a whole different level of respect and rapport. They couldn’t treat you like shit because they already know your value.”
At bar number three I look at my phone and realise it’s time to get the bus home. My boyfriend is making beef stew for me and a couple of mates. But I’m enjoying my time with John. I imagine us dancing to Ariana Grande around the tinny speakers of my laptop and invite him to join the dinner party, but John looks at the floor and dismisses the invitation. I remember he’s on paid time. He might have let me have him for free, but this is technically a work shift. I wonder whether we were actually having fun or whether every time he leaned his thick shoulders forward as I told a story, and each time his eyes glowed when we had something in common, it was all fake?
When I get home, my boyfriend is annoyed I haven’t remembered to pick up vanilla ice-cream from Sainsbury’s. I enjoy his hard, stubbly kiss, the bitter taste of lager and tobacco on his gums, and the way he forgets to ask how I am as I come through the door. At least he’s all real.
(Illustrations: Nate Kitch)