Study finds escorts don’t need to be “saved from themselves.” In fact, they want to learn to be better escorts.
Guest Blogger: Christian Grov, PhD, MPH
For over a decade, HOOK-Online.com was perhaps the only online resource for male escorts. On the site, escorts (and clients) could read about other’s experiences navigating the profession. They could get tips ranging from how to write one’s personal ad, to how to disclose their escorting to friends and partners. The not-for-profit site was founded by former escorts, and up until its demise in 2015 due to legal concerns (the site worked closely with Rentboy.com, which was shut down and had its assets ceased by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security), HOOK was managed by a dedicated volunteer Board of Directors who included researches, escort advocates, and current and former escorts. I had the pleasure of serving on the board for two years.
In addition to being a virtual resource for escorts, HOOK offered a face-to-face program in a series of short courses (workshops) called Rent-U (a creative pun that was short for “Rent University”), whereby escorts could sign up to take “courses” on a variety of topics ranging from physical safety with clients (i.e., self-defense) to legal matters (i.e., what to do if arrested). Students were asked to pay a nominal “tuition” or could apply for a scholarship to attend courses for free. Truth be told, students were asked to donate whatever they felt they could afford and no one was turned away if they chose not to donate.
In order to match Rent-U course offerings with escorts’ actual needs, I collaborated with HOOK and Rentboy to administer a brief survey to escorts on Rentboy. For a one month period in 2013, Rentboy ran a banner on its website as well as advertised the study as part of its weekly newsletter. A total of 418 escorts completed our survey, the majority of whom lived in the US. The second and third most common countries were the UK and Canada. The average age was 34 and 73% said they were HIV-negative. The majority of participants had been escorting for more than one year (43% specifically said they had been doing it between 1 and 5 years). Three quarters said their clients had been exclusively male and 75% of participants were out about their escorting to at least one friend. Participants reported a median of 10 clients in the past 30 days which is roughly about 2 to 3 clients per week.
As part of our survey, escorts were presented with a series of 14 workshop topics and asked to select all those they would be interested in. On average, men selected 6 workshops, suggesting there was high interest across a diverse range of topics. The most common choices selected by participants thematically centered around ways in which escorts could improve their business. These included attracting the “right” clients and having them return for repeat business (selected by 65% of participants), navigating legal issues around escorting (64%), marketing oneself to potential clients (63%), and managing income from escorting (53%). Interestingly, topics that were not as “popular” included coming out to friends/family about being an escort (endorsed by 17% of participants), negotiating safer sex with clients (endorsed by only 31% of participants), and talking to a healthcare provider about being an escort (33.9%). This is not to suggest that HIV or other sexual health issues weren’t considered important topics for these escorts (those would be separate questions—that we neglected to ask—altogether). Instead, we believe this may mean that escorts already felt comfortable navigating safer sex with their clients and felt that the care they are receiving from their health care provider is adequate (whether they choose to “come out” to their provider or not), thus these were less of a priority for them.
What was more telling from our findings, however, was how much escorts wanted to improve their business as an escort. For many years, prostitution was viewed as a “last resort” effort by only those in the most dire of circumstances—a perpetuated belief that those who were involved in sex work would rather be doing something else—and thus we should be doing everything we can to help escorts stop being escorts. Some even believed that sex workers may need to be “saved” from their own bad decisions. In recent years, the tone has shifted to be more positive toward sex workers in line with the growing advocacy for the decriminalization of work and the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of sex work as work. Our findings reflect this.
We do recognize the limitations of our findings. We partnered with a single website to enroll participants. Escorts on Rentboy paid to host their profiles, thus the men on this site had, at minimum, a financial commitment to being an escort. Those advertising themselves as escorts on other websites, including free websites like Craigslist, might be different. We must also recognize that we only know responses from those who chose to participate and being “proud” about being an escort could have been associated with inclination to share their responses with us. That is, those feeling stigmatized by their involvement with sex work might have been less inclined to respond to our survey. Our data are also getting old. It’s important to keep our finger on the pulse of the ever-changing landscape of escorting, particularly as laws around escorting continue to shift. Although Rentboy does not exist anymore, there are a variety of escorting websites that continue to proliferate today.
All told, our findings highlighted that educational campaigns for escorts might be best received if they seek to give escorts skills they need to navigate their profession and beyond. These can include skills to help escorts improve client satisfaction, to manage the money they receive from escorting, to better understand the policies and reforms that influence their work, and to market themselves as escorts. Embedded within those curriculum can be supplemental information around aspects of sexual health that are epidemiologically important (e.g., high HIV burden among gay and bisexual men more generally), but not perceived by escorts’ themselves as among the “most” important. Equally online education offers the opportunity to educate oneself not only on the specifics of escorting, but to learn generic skills about business, communication, and human interactions.
Grov, C., Rodriguez-Diaz, C. E., Ditmore, M. H., Restar, A., & Parsons, J. T. (2014). What kinds of workshops do Internet-based male escorts want? Implications for prevention and health promotion. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 11, 176-185. DOI: 10.1007/s13178-014-0151-z
Smith, M. D., Grov, C., Seal, D. W., Bernhardt, N., & McCall, P. (2015) Social-emotional aspects of male escorting: Experiences of men working for an agency. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44, 1047-1058. DOI: 10.107/s10508-014-0344-9 PMID: 25119388
Grov, C., Rodriguez-Diaz, C. E., & Jovet-Toledo, G. G. (2016) Male escorts’ and male clients’ sexual behavior during their last commercial sexual encounter: Comparing and contrasting findings from two online studies. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 45, 965-973. DOI 10.1007/s10508-015-0531-3. PMID: 25953422
Grov, C., Moody, R. L, & Kinkaid, H. (2015). Differences in substance use, sexual behavior, and demographic factors by level of “outness” to friends and family about being a male-for-male escort. International Journal of Sexual Health, 27, 369-382. DOI 10.1080/19317611.2015.1034396
About the author
Christian Grov is an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Health and Social Sciences at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy in New York City. His research focuses on the sexual health of gay and bisexual men, including male escorts and their clients.