Hofstra Papers in Anthropology
Article #3, Volume 5, 2010
“The Heart-Revealing Intimacy:” Stress and Relationships in the Escort Service
by Emily Nelson
There is some scholarly evidence to indicate that stress is the number one health risk to workers in America and the developed world. However, this study of stress is usually limited to “legitimate” forms of labor, such as can be found in average office work. Little to no academic research has been done focusing on stressors in the sex work industry; despite sexuality being ever present in dominant American culture, and despite prostitution and sexual labor being a significant subject for feminist scholars, even less work has been done regarding the escort service. By the very nature of the business, the escort service must come with a unique set of its own stressors, especially in light of the fact it is a business catering to the relief of the stress of others. Being a form of sexual labor, it is therefore considered by the dominant culture to operate within the “illegitimate economy,” for which it is stigmatized. However, escort work requires as much physical and emotional labor as other “legitimate” forms of industry, it is extremely wide-spread, and is often at the service of the very rich and powerful. The question, therefore, must be raised of exactly how different it is from un-stigmatized types of work.
The problem I set out to explore is a large one: first, what are the stressors of the escort service? How are these stressors expressed and dealt with by both genders? Are these stressors unique? And also, how important, if at all, are social relationships in the relief of stress?
I was first introduced to one escort, here referred to as Nathan, in the spring of 2009 by a mutual friend. Up until that point, I had only what may be considered foggy and general cultural knowledge on exactly what escort work is – i.e., the purchase of a date by a client (which itself is not illegal) for a specified amount of time which may or may not, but usually will, end in sexual favors performed by the escort for pay (which is illegal). I also vaguely understood that escort work differs from streetwalking and other forms of prostitution in that escorts are hired for their exceptional looks and intelligence and company, which is not always sexual in nature, and are run as an established business; one cannot find a local pimp in the phonebook, but one can find an escort agency, since its official work is not illegal.
Over the course of the next year, I was not only to form a deep friendship with Nathan, but was also introduced to several other members of the escort service and became increasingly more acquainted with the nature of the work. The defense of escort work became not only a personal cause since I felt so strongly for the friends that I had made, but also a deep intellectual interest; given the danger of the work and its stigmatized status within American society, it would surely be accurate to describe the labor as “stressful,” and the deep social bonds that seemed to help these people get through their jobs were fascinating. I wanted, therefore, to shed light on a group of people so near totally ignored and outcast by academic research.
To my knowledge, this research begins the foundation of the first ethnography on escort work; if this is not the case, I can say with complete certainty it is the first ethnography on this particular escort agency. Anthropology appears to be the only social science not heavily involved in researching the sex industry, as most of what is present in the literature review to follow is from sociologists and psychologists. It is time this was changed.
Perhaps the most significant ramification of this work comes in its questioning the differences between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” work; if the stressors and relief of each industry are in fact the same (or very similar), then it would imply that the work is more similar than different. This would then call into question the validity of the intense stigma attached to sexual work. This is one of the few ethnographies, therefore, involving the escort service on a micro level and the greater American problem of stress on the macro level.
There is some key information in regard to this research: first, that the names of all those interviewed have been changed, due to the highly sensitive nature of their work and also to protect their identities; second, that with one necessary exception, I made sure only to interview escorts with whom I was not personally acquainted prior to the research for the sake of objectivity; finally, that all those expecting or wishing for a heart-rending, tear-jerking account of an abusive business, complete with vitriol against the capitalist and misogynistic systems that allow it to perpetuate will be sadly disappointed.
It became clear throughout the process of research that, although every escort had a sad tale of their own of how they came into this profession, to focus on those studied as “poor, unfortunate souls” and only as victims was worse than condescending, and was also a concept which does not seem to have a term in English but is closest akin to ethnocentrism – that is, to look down upon them in self-righteous pity under the assumption that work in the “legitimate” economy is inherently better or more satisfying than work in the “illegitimate.” While it is true that none of the participants seemed to deeply enjoy their job, neither were they depressed, passive people, bleakly surviving from day to day; they were generally happy and found means of fulfillment, and probably would not have given up their work even if it were possible. Quite often they could have been happier, but this can be said of workers in just about any industry. Nor were these people the dregs of society, incapable of making a living otherwise had fortune been more in their favor. They were all exceptionally intelligent, tough and hard-working, and so to sing only a song of woe without drawing attention to their deeply admirable and impressive ability to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and to make the most of their situation would be worse than negligent.
What work has been done on sexual labor in America has seemed to focus on the more widespread streetwalking and also sexual work’s legal forms, as in the case of Nevada brothels. “Brothel” (Albert, 2002) focuses on how safe sex was practiced in the brothel, but Albert also wrote extensively about her observations and feelings for the women working in the Mustang Ranch. Unfortunately, Albert’s book is more of a lesson in how fieldwork in the sex industry should not be accomplished; she makes general assumptions about the background of the “typical prostitute” and also makes the general conclusion that all prostitutes are women. While that may have been true of the Ranch, it is frightfully inaccurate for the rest of the sex industry. Excepting its ultimate conclusion, work in the escort service is not like work in the brothel.
Other brothel ethnographies do exist, however, and with greater clarity. “Lydia’s Open Door” (Kelly, 2008) is a detailed portrait of the Galactic Zone in the poor district of Chiapas, Mexico, where prostitution has been turned into a legal enterprise and is government regulated. Kelly’s insight is to be applauded, particularly in the realm of stigmatization, for though she freely lays out the many cons of sexual labor, she still presents the case as for its legalization. The book wisely notes that even in an area where prostitution is legal, it is heavily stigmatized, and violence occurs, despite regulation. She also refreshingly does not limit the realm of sexual labor to women as most scholars do, and adds homosexuals to the repressed minority of the sexual workforce. Her perhaps deepest insight is the stance that sexual labor is neither inherently oppressive nor inherently liberating, an idea that deserves greater attention.
Kelly also gives a brief history of sexual labor in Chiapas, an industry that had throughout the centuries been subjected to greater or lesser government control and attempts to “reintegrate” prostitutes into society and remove their status as the disenfranchised, with limited success. Those that have sought to legalize prostitution with the belief that it is an inevitable part of the culture have been considered as having an “unhealthy personal interest” in the subject, as though they were petitioning exclusively for their own sexual benefit. Kelly’s work also makes note of the “boy’s club” mentality wherein prostitutes are met with far harsher legal ramifications upon arrest than their clients are.
While Kelly’s work is insightful, perhaps even more exciting is “The Homosexual Escort Agency: Deviance Disavowal” (Salamon, 1989). Though dated, Salamon’s work is the most closely knit to that of the ethnography presented here; focusing on a British escort agency that mainly catered to repressed homosexual clients in the late 1980s, the owner of the establishment has since become a member of the board of the agency discussed in this paper. Salamon, however, is less interested in the daily lives of the agency’s workers than the disavowal of deviance through an act known as “passing.” “Passing” is used to nullify deviant behavior on the part of both clients and workers, such as situating the escort building in an area that otherwise has nothing to do with the sex industry, even sharing a building with “legitimate” firms such law or financial planning. Clients’ denying their repressed homosexuality by living a “heterosexual” lifestyle or choosing a male escort (labeled as “accomplished masseurs” to “pass” even more deviance) out of respect for wives and girlfriends, since they would feel being with a woman would be “cheating,” use this method of passing. Careful care is also made to ensure the client does not feel like he is a social anomaly by patronizing an agency that caters men for men.
While the agency under my study no longer mainly serves the homosexual population, many of the practices and points of Salamon’s article are still relevant. Managers do not discuss any sexual activity between client and escort and merely want to know if a date went well or not, and escorts are highlighted as masseurs among many other “passing” practices. Salamon’s article is applicable to not only this study, but could be made interesting use of in any scientific inquiry interested in how feelings of stigma are nullified and resolved.
More than just the work of the sex industry, however, must be examined in order to place escort work within its cultural context. Having less to do directly with the sex industry itself and taken from a feminist perspective is “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (Rubin, 1975). Rubin provides an overview of women as members of a cultural economy from a variety of scientific perspectives and particularly from the theoretical perspective of Lévi-Strauss and Marx. Most notably for this research is her concept that women (which may be translated here to male and female escorts) are part of a system of exchange; the idea that more powerful males, with a dominant position in society, have used taboos, gifts and manipulations of kinship networks to, in essence, turn women into cultural commodities. As Rubin notes, under capitalism, “[…] production takes the form of turning money, things and people into capital.” Rubin expands upon this idea as it relates to women, but it would appear to be applicable to any repressed minority in a given population. In this case, escorts are considered a good exchanged for money and this inherently removes them of their status as people.
Also important in the understanding of escorts as members of and commodities in an economy is “Emotional Labor in Job Evaluation: Redesigning Compensation Practices” (Steinberg, 1999). Steinberg presents a unique understanding of the concept of “emotional labor,” practically ignored in the American economy as a part of a job and certainly under compensated. Steinberg considers emotional labor to be a part of service work – i.e. appearing pleasant and friendly as a waitress; being emotionally available and sympathetic as a nurse; dealing in dangerous situations or with those who are dying; dealing with those who are abusive or hostile. It would be difficult to argue that escort work is not a service – the service of relieving the stress of others. Escorts are expected to be pleasant, emotionally available, and interested in hearing whatever stories of stress and unhappiness their client unburdens upon them.
Also applicable is Steignberg’s identification of what makes emotional labor. Steinberg identified four different categories of emotional labor: human relations, communication, emotional effort, client well-being. Jobs were ranked as to which were more emotionally demanding, going from incidental to regular. Necessity of emotional labor was also ranked from being occasional to critical. To a greater or lesser extent, escorts may be involved in all four categories and emotional demands are far more than incidental. Today’s pay-scale in “legitimate” service work is mostly based on hierarchy and assumed responsibility as opposed to actual involvement, physical or emotional, in the work being done.
Steinberg attempted to create a gender-neutral pay scale during the strike of the Union of Canadian Nurses in the 1990s. However, while gender-neutrality was recognized as a necessity, it was not really accomplished. Nurses were compensated, but not to the level their emotional labor warranted and far below the pay level of male workers. While the pay scale of emotional labor is not herein discussed in great detail, it is something that merits further research, and in this study, the great amount of emotional labor escorts are subjected to would be a further indication of the amount of stress they undergo in their jobs.
In discussing stress levels of escorts, it is important to have an understanding of workplace stress in general. Job stress and how it is handled is also discussed in “Employee control and occupational stress” (Spector, 2002). Spector begins by reviewing data that indicates stress may be the number one health risk of workers in America and the developed world, and its short-term effects. These include emotional distress, stomach disorders, headaches, sleeplessness and loss of energy. If one is under more long-term stress, it may contribute to severe health problems and premature death, mostly from cardiovascular disease. Work-place factors – job stressors – are what make jobs stressful; this can be the physical nature of the work (if it is long and repetitive, lacking the proper tools to complete the job, co-worker and supervisor problems), or noise levels can also be a contributing factor.
The key to dealing with job stress according to Spector is a matter of perceived control over the source of the stress itself. Perceived control may not be the same as objective control over a work situation, but if the worker perceives himself as in control, he can often react to stressors as positive, rather than negative, challenges and increase job performance accordingly. To reduce stress, perceived control must be over the stressor itself; having multiple means of completing a goal is good for difficult tasks but useless if the problem is with a supervisor. This is considered primary control, it affects the environment one works in. Secondary control affects ones reactions to the environment, such as the use of drugs as a coping mechanism. Secondary control is more often negative and can be bad for both employees – health and legal concerns – and employers – leading to a decrease in productivity, or anger on the part of the employee. Not only is Spector’s work interesting in its direct regard to the nature of escort work (it was in fact the basis for a survey conducted with the escorts) but also the idea that escort work is a kind of secondary control for those working in the “legitimate” work force – it is a means of relieving stress that does not deal directly with the stressor itself, be it work or home.
Another study on stress that is important to this research is the article “Social Buffering: Relief from Stress and Anxiety” (Kikusui, 2006). It is a discussion on the psychological theory of social buffering, i.e., that socialization helps relieve stress in both humans and other animals. This is important background information for understanding how personal friendships and relationships play a part in the relief of stress within the escort agency. Kikusui’s research showed that subjects in an unfamiliar environment were less stressed when with another member of their species as opposed to alone. Social buffering may be accomplished through tactile, olfactory, visual or auditory means. For humans, visual may be the most powerful, but our complexity may mean that all of these measures are used.
While Kikusui’s study shows how important social bonding may be in the relief of stress, there were some exceptions to be made; subjects were less stressed with another member of their species, but were even less stressed if it was someone they were intimately acquainted with or related to. Subjects tended to become more stressed if the other subjects they were with were stressed themselves. While social buffering is an important concept, it apparently has its limits and may need further research, but nonetheless is important to keep in mind for this study’s focus on personal relationships within the agency. As the research will show, social relations may be critical in maintaining mental and physical health for the escorts.
Families are also a part of personal relationships, and it is not inconceivable to imagine that escort work may be stressful to a family and vice versa. “Integrating Family Resilience and Family Stress Theory” (Patterson, 2002) is just such a relevant discussion on how families deal with stress. Family resilience is not well defined, as psychological practitioners use it to mean inherent qualities within a family that make it resistant to stress, and researchers use it to say how a family adapts to stress. However, as Patterson defines it, there are three levels that play into family resilience: the individual, the group, and the community. In the case of escort workers, the larger American community would not be providing a method of support and could add to family stress, so the highest level of community interaction could be limited to other escorts. A crisis acts upon a family’s perceptions of that crisis and thereby shapes its coping strategy. When these things are in balance, the family is considered resilient and is able to cope and function well or even above previous levels during the stressful situation. For every family, there are certain categories that promote resilience and health, such as perceiving the stress positively (tying in with Spector’s article), balancing needs of family members, and communication. However, across cultural, economic, and racial categories, how these needs are met varies.
“Work-Family Spillover and Daily Reports of Work and Family Stress in the Adult Labor Force” (Grzywacz , 2002) ties in with both Steinberg’s discussion on emotional labor (the study’s focus is on service workers) and also Spector’s article (both influenced the format of the survey to be discussed later).While the subjects were limited to mainly whites – a problem of my own research as well – its focus was on negative and positive work-home and home-work spillover (an example of negative work-home spillover being excessive exhaustion from work to the point that one is unable to participate in family life, and a positive example of home-work spillover being talking about stress at home so it does not affect job productivity). According to Grzywacz, the two may mutually affect each other, but in my research, work life and home life were two completely separate events for the escorts, as will be discussed.
It would be inappropriate to examine the influence of stress on family life only from a mainstream, white or heterosexual perspective. As Salamon’s research makes clear, many members of the escort industry are themselves homosexual, and must contend, therefore, not only with the stressors that come of being a worker in the sex industry with a family, but also being gay with a family in a largely homophobic nation. “Family Relationships of Lesbian and Gay Men” (Patterson, 2000) provides a wealth of information in this regard, comparing homosexual data with that of heterosexual statistics, and discussing everything from sexual satisfaction over time to equality between couples. Her discussion of how gay families work, particularly after divorce or only just “coming out,” is more than worthy of notice as well as the point that gay couples deal with the exact same stressors as straight couples do. Patterson’s research provides an excellent basis upon which to begin observations of homosexual family life, even within this unique context. The homosexual status of some of the subjects meant that they also had to deal with the unique stressors of being an escort, but also the unique stressors of being homosexual. Patterson’s article provided a base-line with which to compare data on homosexual families and relationships in the escort service.
Research Methods, Setting and Design
The escort agency being worked with in this study is the oldest in the nation; established on the lower tip of Manhattan island in New York in 1717, it grew from being a “common whorehouse” (as described to me by the top escort) to an agency of some note by 1872. In 1914 it moved to its current location in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. It is the only escort agency on the east coast and has only limited competition from an agency in Los Angeles, California. Its clientele includes the rich, the powerful, some celebrities, and also international persons. This makes it the prime place to do research on escort work.
Research was also conducted during a period of high stress; most of the escorts had been forced to leave the city during the late summer of 2009 due to a political crackdown against them by New York governor David Patterson. Former governor Eliot Spitzer’s public prostitution scandal had also meant stricter regulation of sex work; with sex work now in the public eye more legal crackdowns were being called for. “Suddenly sex work […] was central to day-to-day discourse on contentious events in the news” (Cesario, 2009). The escorts worked with felt they were being targeted by Patterson to deflect criticism of his term as governor, since most members of the public can generally approve of stricter penalties on prostitution. Those who remained in the city were expected to carry on working and attempt to soften political leaders through sexual favors and company in order to facilitate a safe return for the rest of the escorts. During the course of the research, two of the remaining escorts were arrested and a third fled the city.
Escorts who had already left New York were not in a less stressful environment; the agency took up temporary quarters in Amsterdam (Amsterdam appears to be the international base of operations for the agency since sex work is not as heavily stigmatized there and in fact was legalized in 2000 [Bernstein, 2007]), where a murder spree began, resulting in the death of several male escorts. Following this, the male escorts were removed to an undisclosed location. This has been a period of relatively high stress for the agency, though conditions are proving safe enough for their slow return in the spring of 2010.
These events not only affected the data on stress that were being collected, but also changed the means by which research was conducted. My original intent was to conduct several informal, structured interviews and one survey with those still present in the city, with possible travel to other locations. The political turmoil of the time made this impossible, and my research was instead conducted online using instant messenger services and email.
Great care was taken in ensuring a diverse research group in terms of gender and sexuality; the sample includes two heterosexual males, two heterosexual females, three homosexual males, two lesbians and one interview with one of the agency’s “bosses,” who was also homosexual. Unfortunately, less care was ultimately taken racially, as all participants were white excepting one participant from El Salvador and one who was tri-racial. This is not a reflection on the agency’s ethnic diversity, which is extant, but rather a result of the limits of time and resources on the part of the researcher, and is something which hopefully will be rectified with future research. Subjects were found by asking friends to put the word out about the research and subsequently hearing from volunteers. When research was to be conducted in person, there were very few volunteers, but volunteer rates rose once research was switched to its electronic format, reflecting both how few escorts remained in the New York area and possibly a comfort level among the escorts.
Research conducted with the escorts included informal interviews designed to mimic conversation whenever possible, since many of the questions were highly personal, and three surveys (one based upon Spector, 2002). The key survey asked escorts which they found to be the most stressful, with the options being clients, bosses, coworkers or a blank option which they were allowed to select for themselves, allowing for the possibility of home life being more stressful than work life (see Appendix for all surveys). Other comparative questions included which they found to be more stressful, public stigma or abuse by clients. Another survey was based upon Grzywacz, 2002, on how work negatively and positively affected the escorts’ personal lives, and vice versa.
Interview questions strove to be as thorough as possible and to account for a variety of possible stress and stress relief factors: questions included age; ethnicity; sexuality; education level before and after beginning work in the agency; how they became escorts; religious affiliation; feelings of fulfillment or guilt in work; safe sex practices; physical and mental health; and contact with family. The most critical questions revolved around the status of personal relationships, friend groups, means of relaxing, and what parts of work were found to be the most stressful and how this stress could be dealt with. Other questions included the average work week, the daily routine of escorts, whether they expected to eventually leave the agency, and any plans for the future.
Unfortunately, on-site observation of the escorts interacting within the agency was not possible, but will hopefully be pursued in future research. Participant observation would not have been possible even had the escorts remained in New York due to issues of client privacy, the intrusiveness of participation in this context, and the necessity of maintaining a scientifically appropriate distance as an anthropologist.
A Brief History and Overview
Within the agency there are 108 male escorts and twice the number of female escorts. Those I spoke to were unaware of any ethnicity that was not represented within the ranks of the escorts. The average workweek is 36.8 hours a week (reasonably comparable to the work week of the “legitimate” work force) but had a considerable amount of variation; the only escort suffering from AIDS had relatively few clients and worked about 10 hours a week. The top male escort, however, easily worked 70 hours a week with clients and an additional 30 hours helping the lower ranking escorts with any problems they encountered. This extra work is not paid and is considered to be a duty of the top escort. Salary is determined by popularity and skill set, though the average salary for the escorts was about $800,000 a year, with a low of $25,000 a year and a high of $2.7 million a year. While this is a considerable amount of money, considering its tax-free status (it was unclear if pay from the dates was actually taxed or not, though at the moment it does not seem to be), it is nothing next to the income of the owners (or “bosses”) of the agency, who make between $25-26 million a year, and quite possibly more.
Those on the lower end of the pay-scale are also able to keep a great deal of the money they earn as most escorts live in apartments provided for them by management at the agency (if the business has a formal name, I never heard it and all subjects simply referred to it as “the agency”). The building is in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, with several different offices and apartments, and also includes a gym and restaurant on the top floor. About 232 escorts live at the agency, not including any family members that stay with them as well.
Men and women do not work together except at the request of a client and fraternizing is generally discouraged; the male and female escorts were separated from one another in 1921 and now work in different physical locations within the agency. This split was prompted by the realization of management that its male workers were not all homosexual and that they were losing interest in work when with the women. Pregnancy rates were also 60% higher, decreasing the business’ productivity. While there is no official policy against “inter-office dating,” as it were, middle-management and sometimes fellow escorts make it clear to those who do break this taboo that they are not in administrations’ “good graces;” examples of harsh punishments from managers have included keeping the escorts late or making them wait to eat.
Social Strata of the Agency
The hierarchy of the agency is reasonably complex; it begins at the bottom with applicants. The agency accepts applicants every month and while numbers may vary (especially in economically tough conditions), there is an average of 14 male and 28 female applicants every month. Applicants up to the age of 40 are accepted, with occasional exceptions, but all others are generally immediately rejected. The interviewing process takes two days and is extremely cut-throat. Several criteria must be met: applicants must have a perfectly symmetrical face and an IQ of at least 140 or they are sent away. In the words of my informant, Thomas, bodies must be “nearly perfect.” Men must have no erectile problems and any applicants with STDs are also instantly rejected. The agency bans the use of drugs unless with a client, but applicants with addictions may be accepted, depending upon the severity of the addiction. Mental disorders are fine if there are no physical problems, but any physical handicaps are immediate disqualifiers. Applicants are identified by number and Thomas could recall one applicant being sent away for requesting he be called by name, and another being rejected for having a ring finger that was longer than his middle finger.
The first day involved a physical exam and extensive measurements with the second devoted to an interview about the applicants and their past experiences. Those with difficulty answering questions (mostly on personal life and experiences) are disqualified. It is very difficult to pass both days of the exam, but those whom managers do accept as qualified applicants then have their information sent up to the owners, who make the ultimate decisions.
Unless there is a demand for more, there are approximately three male and three female applicants who become escort trainees every month. The status of the trainees is extremely provisional and they may be thrown out at any time. The records of those who have been rejected are kept by the agency and re-application is not possible. Yet despite the lack of stability the trainee position holds, most research subjects recalled the time fondly rather than as a period of stress. Only one of my informants found it to be even a little stressful (“They [the mentors] call you names and tell you that you’re stupid and stuff”). One said it was relieving to be in a “good” (financially secure) situation, and Thomas felt the strongest social bonds were formed during the training process. Trainees tended to form deep bonds with their mentors and in the case of informer Nathan, romantic relationships could develop. It is worth noting that male escorts only train other males and females only train other females, so it may be incorrect to describe romantic entanglements as “typical,” however anecdotally it was reported that trainees could develop feelings for their mentors, though these almost never evolved into actual relationships.
Training takes several months before work is begun, though some training will continue after “graduation” into being considered a fully-fledged escort. During the training period, contracts are drawn up based on the escort’s age and talent. Contracts demand that escorts, as the owner I spoke to put it, “give up ownership of their bodies […] so they are not allowed to show their faces unless paid to do it. They also must recant their former identities.” This means escorts are not even allowed to have photos taken of them when “off duty” unless they have been paid to do so. Upon signing, escorts are furnished with a new social security card and matching driver’s license. However, these do not remain in their possession if they choose to leave, which very few do; contracts are generally signed for fifteen years and are renegotiated every five. These long and restrictive contracts make it nearly impossible for escorts to leave the agency, and if they do try to seek “legitimate” employment, their résumés include a large employment gap that makes employers reluctant to hire them. For those that can even get through the fifteen year period, leaving is usually not an option. They have no legitimate identification, (since they have had to give up their original, pre-agency identification and the IDs they have are returned to the agency upon leaving) and even those with high degrees of education will not be hired as they lack a traceable employment record. Perhaps the largest percentage of the agency population is the escorts, who generate all the income and work with clients. Clients looking to hire an escort are interviewed about their preferences and then encouraged to select from an available album of choices.
Above the “rank” of escort there is the top escort, one of each gender. This is not exactly an “official,” position; it is not elected and there is no real salary increase. Rather, top escorts are respected by their fellows for their length of time with the agency and their experience. They earn more money because they are more popular with clients, thereby driving up their rates. This makes them not only busy with official work with clients, but also outside of the escort-client relationship; escorts with an issue will go to the top escort for advice or help in mediation. Nathan, the male top escort for the agency, as he put it, he helps the escorts with “everything,” from just talking about issues with clients to advice on contract renegotiations.
Escorts are rarely fired by the agency, but they can be if their bodies are not up to physical standards (either through a lack of exercise, though this is mandated by the bosses and escorts work out daily; or from age and abuse, though this would apparently be more grounds for retirement), if they do not show up for work with a client when scheduled, or if they are insubordinate or otherwise hard to control. Escorts who manage to get to an age and state of financial security to retire are given a $2.5 million severance package. Very few escorts ever do retire, but those who do may sign different contracts as escort managers.
After the top escort, sexual involvement ends; the next highest “rank” is that of the escort manager, a bit of a misnomer since they are not often promoted escorts but usually hired from outside the agency. Escort managers, perhaps more obviously, manage the schedules of the escorts and act as go-betweens for them and higher levels of management (this was related to me by my informant Thomas and confirmed and clarified by Nathan. It was also briefly discussed with one of the owners). There is considerable antipathy between escorts and escort managers, labeled colloquially as “suits” (it is unclear whether the term “suit” refers strictly to escort managers and mid-range administrators or also includes the owners of the agency, here referred to as “bosses”). Most of those in management positions had relatives higher up in the chain of command, but lower-ranking staff – like escort managers – often come from graduate schools. Qualifications include excellent organization skills, forceful personalities, and no objections to the work done at the agency. Despite the ethnic diversity prevalent within the ranks of the escorts, all those not involved with the actual sex work are white and male. The boss I spoke with said this was hardly intentional; “It just happens that more white people go to college, and more ethnic people have objections to prostitution.” Whether the last point is true or not is uncertain, it would be worth seeing in future research whether there is an established racism within the agency that is its own creation or merely reflects the institutionalized racism of the broader culture.
Following the escort managers are the mid-range administrators who act as disciplinarians and enforce rules set by the bosses, the top of the social pyramid of the agency. Bosses almost never interact with the escorts and run the actual business, including some recruitment of clients. While study was not done on the structure of management (though this is worthy of interest as well), it appears to function much like any “legitimate” corporation with a board of members and a figure head.
Escorts defended the bosses with some frequency, saying that they do try to protect the health and interests of the workers. The boss I spoke with was very open and honest about the strengths and also the problems of the agency and expressed a great deal of affection for the escorts. However, there was no love lost between escorts and middle managers. There was a general feeling that “suits are evil,” and Thomas added, “They’ve got no idea what the f—k it is we do and they don’t give a f—k about us. They only care about the money.” It probably does not help their relationship that managers are allowed to use the escorts as a sexual outlet at their will. The bosses prohibit this involvement if cruelty or extortion is involved, but the boss I spoke to candidly admitted, “I have no doubt this happens at least sometimes,” and that sexual interactions for managers is “a job benefit.” Pregnant escorts may be especially prime targets; one of my female informants described distaste at becoming pregnant not so much because of the baby itself (which is almost always aborted) but because girls are then passed around as sexual objects of the managers since there is no risk of pregnancy. Nor is this routine avoidable as managers must give permission for medical procedures.
Though not a part of the agency hierarchy, clients certainly play a key role. 92% of clients are male, most of these upper class, and of that 92%, 83% are white. All female clients are white as well. Given how expensive an evening with an escort can be (top escorts easily run to $10,000 for one night), this would appear to be the social bracket most able to afford the “luxury.”
“You’ll Have to Deal with Pressure:” Stresses of the Escort Agency
Education levels undoubtedly affected life choices; only one of the subjects interviewed had made it into undergraduate study, and then only for one semester as the financial burden became too great. One subject had graduated it into middle school and all others had only limited elementary education, excluding two female subjects, who had never had any formal education at all. This makes escort work another appealing alternative; since escorts are prized for intelligence as well as looks and sexual prowess, an informal education is provided by the agency and escorts are given the opportunity to study online at usually prestigious institutions, including Ivy League schools (it was unclear whether the agency helped pay for these schools or not, but if that is not the case, the implication was the dramatic increase in wealth helped the escorts pay for their own education).
All the subjects estimated their education level as at least at an undergraduate level informally (excluding again the two that had never had any formal education, though one was planning on pursuing education at a certain point), and those with degrees had at least a Master’s: one received a graduate degree in physical therapy from Columbia; another had several graduate degrees in various fields of psychology and one PhD; and my subject David received his Doctorate from Yale in microbiology (it is worth noting that his undergraduate degree was from UCLA and his graduate from Columbia – and that he is nineteen years old). So it would be incorrect to assume that escorts are incapable of doing any other work other than sexual labor, the extent of their education and IQ levels disprove that – merely that a lack of work history and legal identification keeps them from reintegrating into the legitimate economy, certainly a loss when given their credentials.
For those with a strong stigma against sexual labor and the notion that work in the agency is a deliberate choice, the data is far less certain. The reasons for joining the agency are extremely diverse. Escorts do not come from only poor families, as there were examples of those who had been members of the upper class and only turned to escort work after severely falling out with family members and finding labor in the “legitimate” workforce did not pay enough to support themselves. “[…] one question […] is whether engagement in commercial sexual activity always and inevitably constitutes a further injury to those concerned, or whether it might sometimes (or simultaneously) constitute an attempted means of escape from even more profoundly violating social conditions” (Bernstein, 2007). It would, of course, be wrong to say escort work is not a choice, but it would be wise to note that it is often a choice made with either little knowledge of other options due to life circumstances, or a choice made “between a rock and a hard place,” of either laboring for very little in the “legitimate” market, or making a great deal in the “illegitimate” (for a fascinating discussion on stigma and work choices in other cultures, see Wilson, 2004).
Clients appear to provide the major point of stress in escort work. On my survey, all but two subjects ranked clients as the number one stressor; the two that did not ranked them equally with co-worker stress. The two cases were one female escort and George, the only escort suffering from AIDS; the female described relations between the women workers of the agency as particularly competitive and therefore stressful, and George was the subject of stigma within the agency due to his illness. Co-worker stress therefore cannot be discounted, but seems to take a secondary place to client stress.
One particularly stressful type of client is here referred to as the “affectionate client.” Thomas defined the affectionate client as “a client who either wants to date [an escort] or wants to leave their family [for one].” All those with affectionate clients agreed they could be particularly stressful, and George added, “[…] it’s a lot more difficult to fake love than it is to just fake interest,” which is often what is required for an affectionate client.
The goal for many clients is for the escort to “run away” with them, though this never happens. Clients are just told that the escort cannot see them outside of work, but that they hope to continue that relationship. Most reactions by clients are not extreme and the subject of “eventually running off together” is never brought up again. There was generally a sense of scorn for any escort that did harbor feelings for a client:
Nelson: Does that mean that having feelings for clients is bad?
Thomas: Yeah, it’s totally stupid.
Nelson: Why is that?
Thomas: Because clients don’t like us, and anyone who goes after a client comes back. (Note: Those who leave the agency to essentially perform the function of kept lover were reported anecdotally as always returning to work for the agency after “falling out” with the client.)
Nelson: […] How can you tell [that clients don’t actually like you]?
Thomas: Because they don’t know anything about us. All they do is build us up into this fantasy persona.
Affectionate clients could be extremely stressful, as in one example given by Thomas, who had a client suggest they commit double-suicide since they could not be together. None of the subjects reported ever having romantic feelings for clients though it is possible that this does happen with some escorts sometimes.
Affectionate clients, however, are nothing compared to the “bad clients.” These clients are abusive, verbally and often physically, and were universally expressed to be the worst part of the escort service and the most stressful. This burden of physical abuse may fall more heavily on the males than the females, though a greater data pool would be necessary to confirm this; however, while my female subjects agreed that abuse was an issue some of the time and was the most stressful issue they encountered, they tended to limit their abuses to “rough sex” and not actual beatings. The males had a very different story:
Nelson: How frequently are you physically abused?
Nathan: […] I would say it is twice a month.
Nelson: That is fairly frequent.
Nathan: Yes. I am hit much more often, but it hardly counts as abuse anymore […] It is just how it is.
My subject David could also recount having his Achilles tendon cut to prevent his escape from a client. Nathan estimated having been in at least seven life-threatening situations, including one where he was stabbed repeatedly as his client reached sexual climax. Female abuse could be just as brutal, and Erika recalled being handcuffed to a bed for two days by a client before she was able to wriggle out of the cuffs and escape.
There is little the agency can do in these situations; when an escort is abused, the agency assesses damages and charges an extra fee to the client. Since proper legal authorities cannot be contacted, this “vigilante justice” is unsurprisingly dehumanizing for the escort, a near condoning by the system of abuse of escorts as long as one can pay the price. According to Thomas, escorts are not really supposed to protest abuse, and he was fined in a situation of self-defense. “Well, it sucks. We’re clearly just merchandise to them [the managers/owners]. Like, if you damage a rental car, you need to pay extra for the damages.” Escorts were also very reluctant to go to the police since it might result in an inquiry into their work and jeopardize their workplace security. The boss I spoke with, however, saw it differently. He considered the fee “the equal of taking them [the clients] to court,” and in the case of escort murder, clients would be handed over (discreetly) to the police. Some clients could be barred from patronizing the agency for excessive abuse, and all clients are given a background check to search for a criminal record before taking out an escort – but after an escort has already suffered abuse, these measures begin to look a little meaningless.
To understand the scope of stress on the escorts and how it – and all clients, particularly violent ones – plays a part in daily life, one must also be familiar with the number of escorts “lost” each year. Of the 324 escorts at the agency, approximately 100 will drop out or die each year. Most frequently this is from incapacitation due to abuse, followed by arrest, and then just escorts not renewing their contracts after the fifteen year mark. As Nathan explained, “In the case of being hurt on the job, the agency either provides for the funeral, or they are given paid retirement. Those who are arrested are immediately cut off.”
Suicide is also a major issue. As reported to me by the top escort and confirmed by one of the owners, in 2009, 36 escorts committed suicide, or 11% of the population. While 11% may seem like a relatively low number out of context, it is shocking to imagine that in any profession 11% of the workforce would be so unable to handle life stressors as to find suicide the only viable option. Management here felt its hands were tied: “We have a staff of psychologists that are on hand twenty four hours a day. But there is really very little we can do if they do not seek help, and many do not.” While this would be terrible on its own, 2009 was a relatively low year for suicide rates since the escorts were doing less work due to the unrest in the city. A more usual number of suicide rates would be about 52, or 16% of the entire escort population each year.
It could be that intense social stigma creates a feeling of isolation, compounded by abusive clients giving escorts a sense of lack of self-worth. The agency’s position of discouraging social relations, whether officially or not, also affects escort’s ability to receive a social connection, and making social connections outside of the agency is hampered by cultural stigma. The boss I spoke to said the policy of discouraging inter-agency relationships was not psychologically harmful to the escorts, as otherwise it would be changed, but given this analysis, I must disagree. His other point was that other legal enterprises also discourage inter-office dating, making the agency not so very different. However, workers in the “legal” market do not carry with them a stigma that prevents the formation of close relationships outside of work. It has been evidenced that social behavior and integration may be key to preventing suicide (Dorling, 2003). It would be difficult to say that escorts are integrated within broader society, and even within their own culture there is considerable competition rather than integration. It is possible that temporarily losing a female worker for a few months may also not be as much of a financial burden for management as hiring and training 52 new escorts every year, and is worth considering to help stem loss rates.
Most escorts that commit suicide are female, and this is not anomalous with data outside of the agency. Of those I interviewed, three had considered attempting or actually had attempted suicide. A fourth had suffered from depression without resulting suicidal intent. Suicide is also not the only factor that takes escorts out of work. In an average year, 10 will be murdered, 6 will die from complications from abuse by clients, and an additional 4 will die of pre-existing conditions.
Other health concerns, of course, can add to stress. Despite the popular conception of the spread of sexual disease, STDs were almost a non-issue among the escorts (it could be that enforced regulations against drug use and education on sexual protection keep incidence of STD contraction low, as opposed to other risk groups. See Brunnell, 1999). Use of sexual protection was inconsistent: some escorts did usually use it with clients and also with significant others, but some escorts had client groups that were more than willing to pay extra to forgo condom use. Only one subject in a steady relationship reported not using a condom with their significant other. Clients undergo screenings for STDs before being allowed to go out with an escort, and those with STDs are either turned away or forced to use protection. Those with a clean bill of health may pay an extra fee and not use condoms.
All escorts studied reported never having contracted an STD with one notable exception – George, the only escort in the agency suffering from AIDS, having contracted it on the job (it is unclear how this particular client was able to pass the screening and forgo condom use). Usually this would result in his immediately being let go had Nathan not stepped in and become the manager of his contract. George now tends to work with those suffering from other illnesses or AIDS and he, as he put it, “always, always, always,” uses protection with clients. It would not be surprising to note that AIDS adds a great deal more stress to his life.
Other, non-sexual diseases may add to stress levels. Thomas suffers from ulcerative colitis, and he felt it made both his personal and work life more stressful. His girlfriend Erika had at one time suffered from anorexia, a problem she described as being very common among the girls in the agency. This, however, is also monitored by management; the condition is allowed to continue until girls become “unattractively thin,” at which point administration steps in and forces them to see a psychologist. Management will also regulate women who have gained too much weight, creating a specific standard of attractiveness and body type and health among the women.
There were no given statistics on life expectancy, but when I asked the escorts, few predicted to live to very old age. Females were less willing to guess how long they would live to (Erika cited that she did not have a great many abusive clients so there was no reason to suspect she would die particularly young, others just had not given it much thought), but Thomas only estimated his lifespan to about 50. “Because that’s pretty old to me, and most people here don’t live past that.” David was far less generous, believing he would only make it to 30. As a very feminine man, he felt he was in a target group for abuse and murder, and in fact those killed in the Amsterdam murder spree had tended to be more feminine in feature. Given the amount of physical and emotional abuse the escorts are under, a low life-expectancy does not seem surprising; even with psychiatric and medical care provided by the agency, if there is no consistent means of relieving these work and life stressors sufficiently, then mental and physical health of escorts can be expected to decline. This could mean that escorts either have difficulty defending themselves when abused by clients, constant stress lowers their body’s immunity, or they feel their only option is suicide.
Only one person expected to ever quit escort work – Nathan, as the top escort and at age 45, was pretty certain he would, but that was because he was in line to become an escort manager (a distinction few may aspire to). That would make his life expectancy considerably higher, but he added the rather frightening caveat, “If I survive the next five years,” since that is when he will be able to retire from escort work. While Nathan believed he could survive, given the many near-death scenarios he had come through, it is still an uncertain future. Despite the fact that most escorts feel they will be in this business for the rest of their lives, this was not an added stress factor. They considered it a type of job security, and while it was not a job they necessarily liked, they preferred having it as to not. Some did not think they would leave even if they could since escort work could finance a rather lavish lifestyle and allow them to comfortably support their families. This would indicate a weighing of values for the escorts – namely that benefits such as pay outweigh deficits such as abuse and stigma. It would also indicate that many do not let the stigma personally negatively affect them to the point that their work becomes intolerable, and perhaps also that they are able to separate the abusive scenarios they undergo at work from their private lives and relegate such experiences only to the workplace environment (this is discussed in greater detail later).
While not everyone reported hating their job as escorts, neither did they really like it. Not a single person reported any kind of sense of fulfillment or satisfaction in their work (one subject noted there was no real end result or anything accomplished, which would have possibly added to satisfaction) excluding occasional physical satisfaction. This probably adds to stress levels as well. Escorts are, in essence, denied the opportunity by society to feel a sense of usefulness since they are consistently portrayed as deviant. In order for them to lead healthy lives, they must generate enough of a sense of satisfaction outside of work – in personal lives – in order to handle the stresses of work properly. Those who cannot do this may be those that drop out or die.
There is also the issue of guilt, which was a very mixed bag: some escorts felt guilty when they had affectionate clients, which increased their stress levels; one felt a very deep sense of shame about the job in general (this was not helped by his homosexuality and having been raised in a Southern family that was un-accepting of homosexuals); but the majority had absolutely no feelings of guilt associated with their work whatsoever and felt that shame and guilt were totally unnecessary. They tended to feel they were simply doing what they must to get by and that stigma and guilt was foolish. This is probably the healthiest approach – guilt adds to the stress and tension the escorts undergo, and feelings of legitimacy in labor and that guilt is unnecessary are probably important to keeping stress levels lower.
Absolutely none of the escorts interviewed expressed any kind of religious view. A few were even deeply antagonistic to the idea of religion. Religious faith and/or spirituality has been shown to positively affect a myriad of serious health concerns, including heart disease, cirrhosis, chronic pain, cholesterol levels, stroke, kidney failure, and cancer mortality rates, as well as increase longevity (Seybold, 2001). Since religion’s affect on stress was not the focus of this paper, guesses as to why absolutely none of the subjects had a belief system would remain guesses; however, given world religion’s generally negative stance towards all forms of sexual labor and prostitution, it may be that the escorts felt religion had no place in their lives and might have only served to be another point of stress. It could also be that much of religion’s positive affect comes from social, rather than spiritual, interaction, and the social bonds of those interviewed replaced the need for religious affiliation.
“Heart-Revealing Intimacy:” How Relationships Mediate Stress Levels
Four of the escorts interviewed maintained ties with their original nuclear family members. In the case of two, they were a source of major financial support for that family, so their status as sexual workers was not an issue. Nathan only maintains contact with his siblings, and his mother shuns him not for his job (she is unaware of what he does for a living, though his siblings do know) but for his homosexuality. His siblings apparently do not have any objections to his line of work, though his discomfort with the subject means it is a topic he probably tries to avoid with them.
Three of the subjects were in a relationship; Thomas and Erika have been dating each other for about a year and a half, Nathan has had a civil union for just under two years, and Olivia has been seeing one non-escort for eight years, though she could not put the relationship in certain terms (when I asked her if she was in a relationship, she said she wasn’t sure she could say that, but there was someone she was seeing). This provides examples of several different types of relationships and the mediation of stress that goes along with them. The other subjects were all single but were also all interested in getting into a relationship.
The stressors listed above are not small, and dealing with them is critical to the health, safety and happiness of the escorts. Almost always the first “line of defense” listed by the escorts was socializing with family, significant others or friends. A few listed hobbies first, but many of the hobbies given were social. Even when socializing was not given as the first example of how the subjects relaxed, social behavior always – without fail – came up and was always a very integral part of relaxing for the escorts.
Those who were in a relationship said friends had been critical in helping them relax when they were single, and those who were still single found their friendships to be very deep and important to them. Friendships were still important means of relaxation for those in relationships, though were no longer listed as the biggest means of their relaxation. Those in relationships also were sure they had been more stressed and unhappy prior to getting into relationships, and single subjects felt they would be happier and less stressed were they in a relationship as well.
Escorts are required to be intimate with members of a sexual identity they may or may not be attracted to. This was not an added stressor except in one case; one lesbian subject who primarily works with men found working with men much more stressful. However, homosexual men did not report women as being more stressful to work with, and sometimes were even less stressful than male clients, as women tended to degrade the escorts less than men did.
Escorts in relationships described them as very fulfilling and the frequency of fights were low (often less than once a month, and sometimes only once every few months); the one notable exception is Olivia, the escort dating a non-escort for eight years. Despite the length of their relationship and having a child together, the status of their relationship was uncertain, and Olivia’s status as the major financial provider caused strain for them. According to her, without fail they would fight once a month, when his bills would be due. It is unclear whether this relationship would be less stressful were it more clearly defined (which would be a result of a mainstream cultural standard which may not even apply to this relationship) or were she to be in a relationship with a fellow escort (single subjects said they were willing to date outside the agency but felt a fellow escort may be more sympathetic to the issues they face.) Even with this added tension, Olivia found the relationship to be a rewarding one, and that “it’s better than being alone.”
It could be that these stable relationships provide a key element of choice and control that escorts are otherwise missing in their working lives, and the more control felt in personal lives the more stable the relationship. For more on control and relationship strains, see Meyers, 1999.
While financial problems are a common reason for fighting in couples of any sexual orientation, Olivia’s was the only example found within the research sample. It could be that, due to their high pay, escorts do not have financial burdens that weigh on them so heavily as other workers, but I would be more inclined to believe that these couples instead have developed mechanisms for dealing with large problems more effectively. In essence, a couple can make any problem, small or large, into the subject of a fight, but because the work lives of escorts are already so fraught and stressful, they take that much more care to ensure their personal relationships work well. They may also learn what will negatively affect relationships from their clients, many of whom are already in relationships and come to escorts for some sense of fulfillment they do not otherwise receive at home.
Subjects of fights were usually smaller annoyances or problems: Erika objected to the amount of time Thomas spent playing violent video games; Nathan’s husband felt he was not always emotionally available enough. None of the fights had anything to do with work (though in Olivia’s case, she suspected her interactions with other men due to her job probably did not help her relationship), and they were not seen as a major issue between the couples.
Both Nathan and Olivia had children (Nathan has five, three of which still live at home, and he may in the future adopt more, and Olivia has one), and Thomas and Erika were hoping to eventually have children. Those with children did agree they came with stressors, but these were very low, especially in comparison to the ones the parents undergo in their jobs. Subjects without children agreed there would be some added stress, but that raising children would be an overall benefit. Child-rearing concerns were also far from outside normative concerns; parents and prospective parents were interested in making sure their children were raised “right” and “well,” and ensuring success in school (it is also interesting to note that, when I asked him how many children he wanted, Thomas replied, “Two. I think that’s normal.” A sense of normality was generally seen as a good thing by the escorts, though impractical and unattainable, even in family situations). These could be the concerns of any parent, regardless of their work. Children also helped alleviate (or were predicted would help alleviate) stress by their love and support. Parents never reported their children having any issues with their line of work, and in fact said they were very supportive.
The work-home and home-work negative and positive influence survey also returned interesting results (survey questions are included in the Appendix). There were almost no positive influences given of work on home life, excluding pay and the friendships forged at the agency. Equally so, the only negative influence work had on home life was possible abuse.
The escorts surveyed were remarkably adept at separating their home and work lives (perhaps this is something that is lacked by those who ultimately commit suicide, though it is difficult to say). Home stressors, what few there were, had no reported negative impact on work, though this may partially be attributed to the fact that escorts are told to leave home issues at home if they want to remain employed. Home did, however, influence work positively in the cases of those subjects who had children; the children were very influential in helping their parents deal with their work stressors and made life more pleasant overall. Erika separated work into a category of “fantasy” and home life into one of “reality:”
Erika: [Work and home] are completely disjointed. Our job is sort of a fantasy thing, so if you can separate fantasy from reality, it’s very easy for work not to affect it.
Nelson: […] However, what happens at work bleeds into the rest of your life, like being hurt, for example. So is it completely a fantasy?
Erika: No, but the emotional aspects are. Let’s be honest. If we let physical matters interfere with our relationships, they would suck.
This could be considered wise insight into any relationship, not just ones between escorts.
The categories of “fantasy” and “reality” were a binary pattern worthy of Lévi-Strauss that came up frequently in interviews. Escorts must enact a role of the fantasy lover for their clients who pay a great deal of money to escape the reality of their actual home lives. In becoming a fantasy, however, they must give up a great deal of self-agency – if only temporarily – and submit to the wishes of their client, which can often run very contrary to their own desires. Given the lack of control this can involve, it is perhaps unsurprising clients are such a stress point for escorts and that their actual relationships, rooted in the reality of the lives they pursue based upon their own wishes, are so extremely important in their ability to relax.
Ultimate Examples of Stress
It would be wrong to present all escorts within the agency as angelic, innocent people who might have gone on to live perfect lives had matters not been as they were. While clients were listed by the majority as the biggest factor of stress in their lives, a few listed them as just as big of a problem as dealing with their fellow escorts. Erika explained it as a particular problem among the women: “[…] There is so much bulls—t with them. They are catty and nasty and they make you feel pretty awful […] I avoid them as a group when I can.” Competition may be more severe among the female escort because there are more of them, but George took issue with many of his coworkers regardless of gender. His status as the only escort with AIDS in the agency had more or less relegated him to the position of a societal leper, but he also had a group of particularly close friends that provided a great deal of support. The escort agency, then, is much like any other place occupied by humans – diverse and imperfect, with some good and some bad1.
One also cannot discuss sexual labor in America without at least some acknowledgement of its highly stigmatized status in the mainstream culture. While stigma was already an established part of the interview process, a comment of George’s on his struggle with aids merited further insight: “That’s the worst part about AIDS […] it’s people treating you like s—t because they don’t f---ing get it.” While his comment was not about the stigma associated with sexual work, it did make me wonder if the same could be said of the sex work taboo; was the worst part of the work abuse by clients, or by an outside world that simply did not understand and was not particularly inclined to attempt to understand?
This prompted the creation of another survey, this time which was thought to be worse – abuse or rejection. The results surprised me: while a few subjects did agree that stigma was a problem in their lives, and that if the stigma were to be removed their treatment might improve, most regarded it as a non-issue. Even those who had a very hard time dealing with the stigma of the escort service gave it a second-place position to the more immediate concerns of surviving their abusive clients in the day-to-day. As David put it, “The rejection isn’t a big deal […] It’s like what’s more threatening, a feather or a tiger.” This creates the distinction between outside stigmatization and self-stigma (Shih, 2004). Those individuals who did not find the stigma to be a point of stress in their lives apparently did not internalize it, creating a healthier mentality than would be found by perceiving oneself as a victim, minimizing self-worth and self-agency. In the case of Erika, who did not find stigma to be a major source of stress in her life, she questioned the validity of stigmatizing escort work and not actors in pornographic films. This action may empower individuals while at the same time reducing the power and legitimacy of the stigma.
Examples of “the tiger vs. the feather” were not lacking if the Amsterdam serial murder may be considered a case in point. Between December, 2009 and February, 2010, the killer or killers preyed upon the agency’s male workers. It ended with another 16% of the male escort population dead and created intense stress for some of the escorts; David had a great deal of difficulty talking about it as he had been in the target group of those being killed. Thomas had lost both of his mentors during that period. For their own protection, the surviving male escorts were removed to a different location (details of the murder were available when I asked, but by request are not included here as the investigation is still ongoing).
Even after removal, life did not become less stressful for the agency’s male workers. Administrators were apparently at a loss of how to handle the escorts when they were not working and might otherwise be left to their own devices, and turned to strict and militant rules to try to keep the escorts in check. It may be an understatement to say the plan backfired. As Nathan explained it, “The rules were harsh, and their lives were micromanaged far more than when they are actually working […] They were restricting times when they could eat into three one hour slots.” Socialization was also heavily restricted. It was a misstep on the part of the managers, one which the escorts did not appreciate, and 86 men signed a petition threatening to chemically castrate themselves were conditions not improved upon. To keep that in perspective, the measure would have taken 95% of what remained of the agency’s already reduced male population out of the work pool. The bosses had to step in and remove the administrators, leaving Nathan in charge, after which tempers slowly cooled, though not without incident or labor.
However, political conditions within New York City are beginning to improve, and some escorts are already returning. It may not be long before the agency is running at top-speed again as though none of these events took place. While it would be interesting (and beneficial) to study the agency in a more normative environment, it would also mean an increase in the kinds of client stressors that subsequently increase stress, abuse and suicide rates as well.
One of the goals of my research was to dispel some of the stigma associated with the escort service. I felt that if I could show that the stressors of the escort service were not truly different from those in legitimate labor – and that the release of stress was also similar – it would prove that holding a stigma against sex workers is an untenable position. This was not accomplished. One of the main questions of my research was “Are the stressors involved in the escort service unique to that service?” and the answer is “Yes.” I cannot think of any other industry wherein interactions with clients is not only so degrading but also physically and mentally dangerous to this degree, except perhaps in services like law enforcement or military work where officers and soldiers must put their lives on the line. Yet even in these situations, their labor is applauded by the mainstream culture, not reviled. Escort work is unique, it is unlike any other legitimate business, and while escorts experience job stress in the areas they cannot control (as predicted by Spector, 2002), the exact cause of that stress is experienced by no other form of labor.
Escort workers do, however, relieve their stress in culturally normative ways; they form deep friendships, relationships and family connections that help them to cope. As a social species, this may be exactly what we are expected to do (Kikusui, 2006). If it is not in their work that they resemble the “legitimate” economy, it is in the means by which they relax, with one important exception that is worth noting – members of the “legitimate” economy are able to exploit these members of the “illegitimate” in order to relax.
If stigma is ever to be removed from sexual labor, it will not be through anthropological fieldwork. Even were the research to show that escorts operate exactly the same as non-escorts, stigma would continue. Were anthropology able to solve these issues, our culture would not be so beset by racism, sexism and bigotry. It would seem that it should be clients of escorts, not the escorts themselves, who warrant the most stigma, given the amount of suffering they inflict upon escort workers. If legality were to be a measure of pain, escort workers would seem to deserve a much lower sentence since they apparently are made to suffer more than to make others suffer. As John Stuart Mill has put it, they should be left to their own devices since I have shown this to be the only means of livelihood left to them, “[…] without impediment from fellow creatures, so long as what [they] do does not harm them, even though they should think [their] conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong” (Mill, 1859 & 2010).
Stigma should not end simply because science has proven it to be inefficient or unnecessary – it should and must end simply because it is damaging in and of itself; because it prevents understanding between groups labeled as “us” and “them.” It is these labels that keep escorts out of the “legitimate” economy and away from mainstream culture in general.
My research was able to clarify the structure of the agency and its hierarchy as well as to define the stressors of escort work (mainly clients) and their release (deep social bonds). The influence of stigma upon the escorts provides new insight into the culture they create for themselves after being rejected from the mainstream.
I believe this research supports the view that sex work is neither inherently liberating nor restricting (Kelly, 2008). While the pay does give escorts the financial freedom to live in ways they tend to find satisfying, the strict rules of the agency, violence by clients, and the stigma of the broader culture still limits their self-agency and means for the future. It also falls into place with social buffering theory (Kikusui 2006) and work place control (Spector 2002); socializing appears to be critical to dealing with stress for the escorts, and they experience workplace stress in the areas in which they have the least control – interactions with clients. Given how important social relations are for the escorts and the lack of ethnographic material on this particular form of sexual work, I would hope that more researchers might pick this up in the future.
My research was limited by available resources and time, but a future study on the escort service as it usually operates within New York City would allow for greater exploration of just how social relations function in that environment, and would make for a larger pool of research subjects (it would also allow for a better understanding of ethnicity within the agency as it would allow direct observation of what ethnicities are present and how they all interact). More research should also be conducted on the higher management of the agency to see just where the antipathy between escort and administrator lies and how that contributes to or hampers interactions between the escorts and higher management. This research is only the beginning, and in fact many different directions could and should be taken to explore this very varied field.
My research has been significant in that no ethnography involving stress and relationships in the escort service has ever before been conducted. It has also questioned the validity of stigma and distinctions between “illegitimate” and “legitimate” forms of labor. While it has become clear that these forms of labor are very different, the data lays the groundwork for a future better understanding of how and why sex work operates as it does and just how it plays into the rest of American culture. If nothing else, it has been significant because it has expressed the frustrations, dangers and desires of a group of people who are too often relegated to a position of inferiority.
Survey 1: Which of these is the most stressful for you to deal with: bosses, coworkers, clients, or ___?
Survey 2: Does work ever negatively affect your home life?
Does work ever positively affect your home life?
Does your home life ever negatively affect your work?
Does your home life ever positively affect your work?
In what ways would having children make your personal life more stressful?
In what ways would having children make your personal life less stressful?
In what ways would having children make your work life more stressful?
In what ways would having children make your work life less stressful?
Survey 3: Which is harder for you to deal with: abuse by clients or stigma from the mainstream culture?
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1 Having said that, I would like to point out that extraordinary goodness can also be found at the agency. Nathan had stopped both George and Thomas from committing suicide and was generally spoken of with extremely high regard and affection.