I'm sitting at a wonky Formica table at a corner cafe in Orewa, trying to look relaxed. My husband is waiting in our car around the corner, primed to come running at the first hint of trouble. Having him stashed at the ready shrouds the interview with a certain Bondesque anticipation.
I realise that I am about to meet a professional, sincerely providing a service like anyone else. But clearly I am still prey to my conservative upbringing in a sleepy north Auckland suburb that boasted the sexual wattage of a weak lightbulb. I found Marco on a website advertising mainly female sex workers, newzealandgirls. His profile promised he was approachable, but I wonder how closely he will match his online description.
When he walks up to the table my nerves immediately settle. He's got the "uncle next door" style down: blue check shirt, jeans, and manners that have a studied, old-world feel. With his small black eyes and grey stubble tingeing the skin on his jowls, he's more cute teddy bear than Velcro-yanking stallion.
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And then we get talking. In when he decided to give male escorting a try, he discussed it with his partner.
He gave her, hypothetically at least, a choice: would she prefer him to sneak around behind her back, bedding other women? Or would she prefer him to find legitimate clients and bring home some extra cash on top of his day job? The relationship survived. He says she has never doubted him. He has built his business around two types of client. The first is single but under-confident.
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She is often, in his words, "on the larger side", and is aged anywhere from 30 to plus. She is looking for a safe, gentle date who will not reject her.
Marco might go with her to a function or out to dinner before taking her behind closed doors for sex. The second is a married woman whose husband doesn't satisfy her sexually any more. Often she sees Marco behind her husband's back, but occasionally the husband makes the call to Marco for her. He might want to watch his wife have sex with Marco, voyeur style, or he may be much older and want to buy her the sex he can no longer deliver.
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Marco pampers clients with his personal specialty, an erotic full-body massage. He says 90 percent of his clients are satisfied with this, and 60 percent don't request full sex afterwards. From the moment a client walks in the door, he tries to make her feel important and beautiful. Then, ditching his high-minded ideals, he leans in to confide his views on women of various different races and social classes.
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He claims he can work out over the phone which nationality he is talking to, and what "level" she is. He prefers "upper class ladies". He says there are men out there who are happy to service "lower class ladies" — he'll leave it to them. He reveals the kind of old-school racism, blatant and unashamed, that I haven't come across for years. I feel a kind of culture shock, like I'm privy to someone operating in an alternate reality, where ignorance and prejudice are unchallenged.
What woman would want to buy time with this kind of guy? An extremely low-profile one, it turns out. These women are a small, tight-lipped minority in an industry dominated by the male client. Most male escorts service male clients, and escorts who service only women report almost unanimously that it's difficult to make a living.
It's something many do on the side for extra cash. Marco believes there are about six male escorts in Auckland catering exclusively to women. Most of the five Auckland-based male escorts I speak to confirm a recent increase in demand from women. Julie, co-owner of Sydney-based escort agency My Male Companion, says the company has also seen women clients increase by about 30 percent a year for the past few years. Since prostitution was legalised in New Zealand ina woman hiring a male escort is no longer involved in a criminal act, and this, combined with the ever-growing of women with large independent incomes and the discretion afforded by the internet and mobile phone, has helped create a mini explosion in this micro-market.
Changing views on female sexuality have probably also played a role.
Since the 90s there's been a slew of media boosting the idea that women, too, enjoy no-strings sex for physical pleasure not necessarily accompanied by emotional commitment: from Samantha of Sex and the Citywho singlehandedly took on the men of Manhattan, horny jock style, to ballsy stand-up comedian Amy Schumer, to the Fifty Shades trilogy, which rained its darkly erotic fantasy down on women worldwide.
Despite this shift, it's tough to unearth a woman who has used a male escort and is willing to talk about it. Now 51, Elizabeth used male escorts for two years from age 47, after her marriage ended when she was Who do you meet in bars? It's not pretty. Conservatively dressed, with cropped blonde hair and a pillowy figure, she has the feel of a jolly aunt. She remembers sitting in the lounge of the luxurious central Sydney apartment she had just bought, 47 years old, childless and newly divorced.
Her ex-husband viewed his sexuality as evil and had only been able to have sex with her if he thought of her as a "whore".
His solution was to replace sex with pornography. Things were just as distant between them emotionally, so ending the marriage was like crawling out of a desert desperate for a drink of water. She realised Mr Right might never show up. But she had money. So she began to explore. She first booked year-old male escort Steve, from My Male Companion. She went into it wanting to learn how to feel pleasure with a man. It took her a few tries to achieve this.
On their sixth date, his first sleepover, she pushed him away, afraid she was taking too long. He encouraged her to take her time. She relaxed, and the pleasure she experienced that night was off the charts.
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Afterwards she lay on the bed and laughed and laughed. Great sex — check. But she also craved the care and attention of a man. This desire for emotional connection has driven the main adaptation the escort industry has made to the female client: the boyfriend experience, or BFE. It's a service built around the fantasy of the ideal boyfriend, who compliments, listens, provides romance, and generally makes her feel like a princess.
Julie of My Male Companion says while male clients have the option of making a or minute booking with a female escort, women hiring a male escort average a two-hour booking time. The show follows five male escorts, beefy gym-boy types dedicated to conquering the sexual and romantic needs of Las Vegas women.
When they're not hammering away at a grateful client, they're playing table soccer or spilling their private thoughts in one-on-one camera chats. Male escort Jimmy confides to camera, "One reason women hire gigolos is because they've been hurt in some way.
Like it or not, our industry is fuelled by the pain of others. Armand is an oasis of calm among the hyper-male posturing of the show. His camera chats focus on the pillars of the BFE: being present to his clients and building a connection with them. I catch up with Armand at his home in Las Vegas via Skype. The call connects and he appears on my computer screen, all chiselled jaw and overcrowded muscles. He paces around, holding his screen so I can see him. In the background there are glimpses of stone Buddhist he, a sense of a large, light interior.
As he talks, he periodically gathers up his curtain of glossy, chest-length hair and throws it distractedly over one shoulder. He has elevated sex work into some kind of public service role. He describes his time with clients as a "moving meditation, a space for women to live out fantasies, to really experience their own sexuality in a safe space".
The son of an Indian mother and an American father, he grew up in Japan, immersed in the lulling rituals of the Shinto faith. And certainly, he talks more like a spiritual warrior than a male escort. But even spiritual warriors have to pay the bills, and consequently he has never met a client he feels unable to service.
He thinks men too often treat sex as a selfish act. He pedals "connected sexuality", the stuff people look for after a lifetime of bad sex. The sex was Olympic level — a pleasure fest. Her money bought his absolute focus.
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Ever the diligent professional, he immediately got into the spirit and adopted a dominant persona. Shocked, she shouted the safe word. He also coddled her emotionally. He got her into juicing; he taught her how to ride escalators without feeling nervous; he convinced her to revisit, with him, the children's home she spent four terrifying years in asto resolve the anxiety which still dogged her.
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But I can't help wondering about the efficacy of hiring fake love, when it's the real thing you want. Bettina Arndt, celebrity sex therapist and author of The Sex Diariessays it could work for a small minority of women.
For others the emotional kickback could actually make things worse. Elizabeth herself warns against jumping into bed with the meter running. I got more than it cost me. Things in New Zealand are still a little more down-home than the slick boutique agencies available in Australia and elsewhere.