Sold Age

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Sold Age by Austin Bunn

We have come to the end of our time together, Nelly and I. We’re lying across from each other on two single beds shoved together, fitted with a sheet spotted with yellowish stains. We’ve barely touched — we’ve simply talked — and now we’ve managed a warm, appreciative silence. In the room around us, there’s an industrial-sized bottle of antiseptic on a chintzy night table, a bouquet of fake flowers with the $2.99 price tag stapled to a leaf and a pair of five-pound weights in the corner. Nelly herself is comparatively glamorous, in a plus-sized way, with cropped blond hair, a black skirt, black heels and a tight, red sweater. It’s only when she pulls back her sleeve to check her watch that she transforms from $160-an-hour elegance into the sixty-nine-year-old woman that she is. She squints to read the numbers; the clock face is a fog to her.


Nelly is the oldest prostitute that her Manhattan-based madam, Gina, has. Gina specializes in mature women, and Nelly, in the marketplace of the troisième age, is the matriarch. She’s Brazilian, her thin lips are painted brown, a tiny mezuzah hangs around her neck. I want to call her grandmotherly, but that would ruin everything. She’s been working for Gina for nineteen years and escorting for forty. She tells me this will be her last year. “I had lots of friends,” she says, “but I don’t keep looking for them. I don’t put out ads. And so they disappear year by year.”


In her red sweater, her breasts are impressive. When I ask to see them, she hitches up her bra and out they roll: firm, effulgent, with a deep blue vein running up to the areola. They are entirely without wrinkles, untouched by plastic surgery. I run my fingers across them and cup them appreciatively. “Young men, they want to be between them,” she says proudly. “American men love breasts.”


I’ve come to meet Nelly because, according to the world of sex research, she shouldn’t exist. Male desire isn’t supposed to attach itself to her. The main studies of American male sexuality — the Kinsey Report, Masters & Johnson, the University of Chicago Sex Survey — look at nearly every other key of erotic attraction but the one lying across from me. We have stats on how many men have had sex with animals (8 percent in the total population, 17 percent among rural boys) but no idea how many have lusted after their English teachers, their aunts or a classy, bossy “governess,” a role that Nelly considers her forte. She maintains twenty-five regular customers a month, not despite her age but specifically because of it. When I ask her if she knows other older prostitutes, she says she knows a lot, some even older than her. The fact of Nelly, and others like her, suggests a dynamic of attraction overlooked by social sciences.


More than half the guys Nelly sees are in their twenties, thirties and forties. They are her preferred clientele.

They’re more gentle, they listen. Men her own age have precise instructions for her to follow.

They’re slow, she says, and “they only talk about diseases, how their friends have died, and how they have physical problems.” Younger guys want romance. They want to surrender control. “I make the decisions, I’m the boss,” she says, although domination doesn’t figure into Nelly’s work. It makes Nelly depressed. Usually, she doesn’t even have sex. One guy in his thirties, who only wants women sixty and up, arranges to have her bestow gentle kisses on his head. Others only want to grope her. Though she enjoys their company, Nelly has never fallen in love with a younger client. “I feel something for them in my heart — I care,” she says. Her longest, most faithful companion is Oscar, the Yorkshire terrier that rides shotgun in her purse.


Prostitutes have long been the substitute teachers in sex ed, and Nelly’s clients come to her to be trained. “They want to do a lot of things they have read about, but they don’t know how. So I have to teach them. I had this one guy who was twenty-five who wanted to know how to do . . . you know . . . oral sex, and I taught him.” It’s strange to see Nelly turn suddenly shy at the details, but it is one of the sexiest things about her. Nelly’s clients have to overcome a double shyness: not only are they inexperienced, but they have sought out an older woman, an attraction that’s not socially endorsed. They feel a social censure for finding women like Nelly sexy. This is where Nelly comes in. She’s not intimidating, nor judgmental about skill, lest she be judged by her age.


Gina, Nelly’s frosted-blond, full-figured boss, thinks that the desire of younger men for older women is a kind of narcissism. When the woman is so much older, she says, the younger man’s beauty necessarily becomes the center of attention. “I ask them, ‘Why do you like older women?’ They say it’s because they’re more experienced,” she says. “But in the end, they all want the same cliché. The women compliment them. They always say, ‘You have such a beautiful young body.'”

Sophie, a fifty-three-year-old Jewish publisher, prostitute and “accomplished consultant” living in northern New Jersey, plays the librarian and the teacher for her younger clients. Like Nelly, she acts as a forgiving mother. “I give zero judgement,” she says. “I give them permission to be boys.”


But the desire for admiration flows in both directions. I was set to visit with Sophie at her home, but at the last minute she called off our meeting. “I don’t want to see you. I’m afraid of what you will think of me,” she told me. “I’m afraid that you won’t find me beautiful.” Her honesty was sudden and strange, as if a fault line in her ego had broken open. Her rejection revealed something to me: Sophie’s sex with younger men is a defense against aging, against the “ugliness” of getting older. At that moment on the phone, she didn’t believe in her own aging beauty.


It’s an equation we make all the time in American culture: youth is beautiful, age is an affliction. In a study released in 1995 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Douglas Kenrick and a team of psychologists analyzed the eight hundred personal ads in newspapers like the Village Voice, the Arizona Republic and the Detroit News, and created a chart of all age preferences. They found that straight and gay men preferred youth, and, as they aged, they wanted their partners progressively younger in relation to their own ages. Straight women, meanwhile, preferred men between ten years older and four years younger almost unvaryingly throughout their lives. Only at one moment do men prefer older partners: when they’re teenagers.


Kenrick would be hard-pressed to explain how Nelly, Gina and Sophie have careers. Though his conclusions support our sense of how sex in America plays out, a recent sampling of ads in the Village Voice did not replicate Kenrick’s findings. The May 2, 2000 edition, for example, had 107 “Men Seeking Women” personal ads. Seventeen were looking specifically for older women, over 15 percent. (Forty-one of the ads didn’t list an age preference.) One “recent Ivy grad” was “searching for Mrs. Robinson.” Another twenty-five-year-old “Butter Pecan” wanted to find a thirty-five- to fifty-five-year-old “Vanilla.” Now, it’s true that the Voice caters to sexual niches, and the inversion of age preference could be a New York thing. But it’s also possible that Kenrick missed an important, if subtle, counter-indicator to his conclusions: a certain segment of the male population prefers older women.


G. is among them. He is a forty-four-year-old, Native American academic administrator in Boston and targets women from forty-five to sixty-nine. He believes his desire might be Oedipal; “I definitely lusted after my mother,” he tells me. This inclination was solidified when he was nineteen and had a seminal sexual relationship with a sixty-nine-year-old grandmother during his Army tour in Germany. He’s been chasing older women ever since. Physically, he goes for women who have “Rubenesque figures.” He’s not attracted to thin women, and rejects the idea that he should be. His icon of beauty is the ’70s porn star “Aunt Peg” (Juliette Anderson), who was the “premier mature woman,” he says. “She wasn’t afraid to show a little gray.”



Austin Bunn and Nerve.com


Sold Age by Austin Bunn

The chemistry for G. is as much psychological as physical, a dynamic that seems pronounced among younger men who fall for older women. G. explains his attraction this way: “Women who have gotten over their failed relationships tend to live life to the fullest.” Older women are easier to fall for, he says. They have resolved their issues. They’ve already divorced their first asshole.

I found G. in a Yahoo! club called “Younger Men WLTM [Who Love Their Mature] Women Over 45,” one of dozens of such clubs catering to G.’s preference. Normally, G. meets women at libraries, museums and bookstore readings, “especially if it happens to be a romance writer doing the reading.” But recently he’s tried the Net, and already had dates with three different women. If most of the culture dismisses older women, “their loss is my gain,” he says.

In a study released this year in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, psychologist Zebulon Silverthorne tried to measure the age of ideal beauty in straight and gay men and women. He administered the Kinsey test to 192 people that he found in two coffee shops and a gay bowling league. The test is comprised of thirty facial pictures — fifteen of men, fifteen of women, all from different age groups: 15 years, 20 years, 30 years, 40 years and 50 years old. His sample was equal parts straight and gay, men and women, with an average age of 32.

In the test, each subject is shown the faces and asked to rate how attractive he or she thinks they are. In Silverthorne’s sample, straight men consistently picked the faces of the women who were about 20 years old (the 15-year-olds’ faces were only marginally attractive to them). Straight women, meanwhile, favored the men 30 years old, consistently selecting the faces closest to them in age. Lesbian women were the inversion of every other group. Their curve rises; they picked the 40- and 50-year-old faces as the most attractive. Dr. Beverly Greene, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Lesbian and Gay Psychology: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications, offers that “it’s rumored” that lesbians are not so interested in youth. “Women’s social currency in a patriarchial culture is how attractive they are,” she adds. “That’s not true for gay women.” Gay men, by contrast, exhibited the most intense preference for youth, finding the photos of 15-year-olds’ faces the most attractive, their interest sloping off as age increased.

Which makes one wonder how Curtis, a gay male prostitute in his late fifties, finds his clients. He works through an agency called Maturity Escorts, which runs an ad of him in Next, one of the Christopher Street zines. He models and does the occasional commercial, but he makes his most consistent money as a hustler. His ad lists him as “Eric,” fifty-two years old with a nine-and-a-half-inch-long, six-inch-around penis. In reality, he’s a little older and it’s a little shorter. When I ask him why he exaggerates his assets in the ad, he tells me that “if you say your real length, everybody will think you’re an inch shorter anyway.” I’ve come to visit him in his immaculate one-bedroom apartment in the West Village, paying two hundred dollars for the privilege of his company. He opens the door, wearing a bleached white tank top and boxers. He looks like a taller, grayer Cary Grant and has an absolutely sculpted physique. The veins in his arms and legs pop out like cabling.

We sit and drink whiskey and talk about his career. Curtis started working concertedly as a prostitute last year (“I’m always late starting everything,” he says). When the hustling began, the work was “so-so” until he ran a photograph of himself with his ad and printed a false age. Suddenly, business got very good. Now he makes about three thousand dollars a month, and sees upwards of thirty clients.

The strange thing about Curtis and his work is that a few blocks away, at practically any Christopher Street bar, young men can get exactly what he’s offering, not for two hundred dollars an hour, but for free. Curtis himself sometimes gets together with younger men — most recently a twenty-four year old and a thirty year old. No money trades hands in these situations. It’s just the normal organization of gay sex.

Which is why, when Curtis glides his hand into my crotch, my first thought is not that I’ve coerced him with two hundred dollars, but that he’s actually attracted to me and that this is seduction. Older men commonly desire younger men, but the frankness of their attraction is usually considered desperate. In this case, my arousal is the evidence that it’s working. His interest is getting me interested. I suspect this is what happens with the younger men who visit Nelly, Gina and Sophie. They aren’t paying to have their way with these women. They’re paying to be seduced, to be found sexy. To be found desirable is to be turned on.

So why do men pay for Curtis when they can get other older men gratis? In part, it is clearly for his body, but Curtis adds that it’s also the “fantasy of hiring somebody for sex.” Then he adds that younger clients believe he’ll be nicer because he’s older. “Some people think if you’re older you’re going to pay them more attention, you’ll be more responsive,” he says. “Some younger escorts are scared and will say at the beginning, I don’t do this and that and the clock is running . . . I’ve never taken that approach. I want to be liked.”

My theory is that Curtis is successful for much the same reason Nelly is. Younger men’s desire for older men is another kind of closet; they feel that double shyness, and Curtis offers convenience and privacy. As a friend of mine who finds older men beautiful says, “You have to come out twice: once because you’re gay, and once because you’re interested in older men.” The culture of age-discrepant desire in the gay world, just like in the straight one, is submerged and secreted. It takes a courage to admit to it, and more courage to find it. Curtis is a shortcut.

Later on, Curtis and I are in bed. When horizontal, Curtis is incredibly attentive. He is determined to get me off — he does want to be liked. I can’t get over his body. Even at the fleshy juncture between his lower back and his ass, where all men’s bodies fail, Curtis has taut muscle. He works out constantly. He’s growing old but he’s growing stronger. It’s disorienting to be with a body simultaneously this mature and this young. He has designed himself to be adored, but in the vocabulary of young beauty. He is a reflection of the idealized ridges and etchings of gay men’s bodies, but I came looking for the story of scars. He says to me twice while we coil about each other, “I think you like me.” He’s afraid, like Sophie, that I won’t find him beautiful. There’s yearning in that — a yearning for yearning.

Later, spent, I pack up to go. I’ve stayed for three hours, but Curtis doesn’t seem to care. He doesn’t even wear a watch. With every client Curtis sees, he enters their name into a spiralbound book. He logs how much money he earned, where he saw them and a couple of notes about them. I tell Curtis I want to see it. He sits at his glass table and opens it to the final page — there’s a list of first names and locations — some in D.C., some in hotels, some right where I’m standing. Curtis fills in the final row: “Austin, Writer, 27.” He adds, “Hope to see him again.” He looks up at me in our reflections in his window, but he’s also looking at me looking at him. He caps the pen and closes the book. He smiles. “I’m a romantic.”

Before I met him, I had imagined Curtis would be an older man settling into his age, much as Nelly is settling into hers. I was wrong. Curtis’s beauty can be known in an hour; it’s loud and ferocious. He’s fighting age off. Curtis tells me that he rarely sees the same man more than once. Nelly, meanwhile, has regulars who can’t get enough of her. They come because she continues to unfold, like a good long book. Her beauty is subtle, somewhere beneath her mezuzah, her shyness, her layers of sultriness; it is, at the same time, a function of these things. But both Nelly and Curtis remain attractive because they resist the idea that age precludes beauty. They know that age is a gift, and it opens.



Austin Bunn and Nerve.com