Could you spread your legs a little wider?” the woman said in a throaty Bronx accent. I was standing naked in a townhouse on Fifty-Sixth Street in Manhattan. Leah, the strident young woman standing in front of me, wanted a better view of my muff. I widened my stance so she could see the curves of my inner thigh.
I had answered an ad on Craig’s List that sought “young women to accompany wealthy businessmen to industry events and dinners.” I thought I’d meet some shy finance type who wanted a cute, cheeky girl to hang off his arm while he discussed venture capitalism and drank champagne. I thought I’d smirk at the wives and conspire with the girlfriends. Even though the posting was suspicious — it advertised earnings of $400 to $1,000 an hour — I hadn’t expected to apply for a job as a hooker. And I had certainly not expected to enjoy it.
Not that I’m opposed to having sex for money. In fact, I’ve been paid for sex before. A few summers ago, I took a job as a nude model. On my first day, the artist said, “I use models to fulfill my erotic fantasies. This won’t work if you’re not into it.” I was. Twice a week for three months, I went to his studio, where I was drawn, photographed, wined, dined, fucked, then given money. It was fantastic. I’d always wanted to experiment with BDSM, and part of the job was playing the submissive during sex and the dominant when it was time to pick out wine and order dinner. It was unlike anything I’d ever done before, and a lot more fun than being a waitress.
But then, I had known exactly what I was getting into from the beginning.
The “escort agency” was on the fourth floor of an office building in Midtown. A restaurant with crystal chandeliers and pristine, white-clothed tables occupied the ground floor, but the agency’s waiting room was strictly IKEA. Bright overhead lights revealed smoke stains on the off-white walls. A staircase led to what I would later learn were bedrooms. Polaroids of girls’ faces and nude bodies covered the walls. Three girls sat on the room’s single plushy beige couch. Like me, they were in their early twenties and dressed for an informal interview.
Ray met me inside. In his wrinkled khakis and faded button-down, he looked more like a poster boy for Bud Light than the proprietor of a high-end prostitution ring. He offered an enthusiastic hello before introducing me to Leah. “She’s the madam I work with.” Madam. Okay, he said “madam.” Time to readjust my expectations. He had lied in his Craig’s List ad.
But everyone lies on the Internet. And the situation wasn’t threatening; it was exciting. So I stayed.
Before going on, I should explain something. In high school, I was that girl. The one who spawned rumors that spread across town and sometimes across state lines. “Did you hear? Sarah Harrison has sex with girls.” “She had a threesome in a London hotel room.” “She had sex on a pool table with a line of guys waiting outside the door to take their turn.” Some of the rumors were true (sex with girls, London threesome), others weren’t (gang bang). To my puritanically minded peers, I was a brazen sexual adventurer. Gossip came with the territory.
After moving to New York eleven months ago, I was free to explore my sexual boundaries without the threat of reproachful whispering. I wanted to find out if I would be comfortable selling my body. I’d read Brothel, a book about the prostitutes of the Mustang Ranch in Nevada, and I knew that being a call girl didn’t have to be exploitive and degrading. Some women choose sex as a profession, and they’re proud of their work. I could be one of them.
At the agency, Leah flashed a crimson-lipped smile and extended her hand. She was in her early twenties, and cute in a ’50s pin-up way. She wore a short red cotton skirt, ankle socks with ruffles and red mary janes. Her gestures were theatrical and exaggerated, like a practiced drag queen. She showed me into the back room (which was bare except for a couch and a full-length mirror) and offered me a drink, which I declined. I wanted to keep my wits intact.
“So, you know what this business is, right?” asked Leah.
“Um, yeah.” I said. The “madam” comment had sort of given it away.
“Because some girls come in here thinking they’re just taking these guys to dinner,” Leah smiled. Right.
She asked if I had any experience in the adult industry. I didn’t: no go-go dancing, no stripping, no foot-fetish modeling, no sensual massage. That was okay, Leah said, lots of their girls had no prior experience. She assured me that if I got the job, I should definitely take it. “We get so many applicants. So many women want to do this, because it’s so lucrative.” Her eyes caught mine like I was her confidante. “But we only take the ones we really like. We’re very selective.”
Was she lying? I know lots of girls who would go to dinner for $600, but when dessert is sex, the number drops dramatically. In fact, I don’t think I know anyone who would do this.
“We’ll need to see you naked,” said Leah. “Bra, panties, everything off.” She left the room so I could strip. Off with the tall black boots, black pinstripe pants, and the deeply V-necked electric blue blouse I’d so carefully ironed that morning. When Leah returned, she looked me up and down, then asked if I would mind if everyone else came in. I was proud that I could say, “No, I wouldn’t mind at all.” She opened the door to the front room and called out, “Come see her naked!”
Ray bounded in, followed by the girls from the front room: Catherine, Marisa, and Emilia. I stood in the corner next to the mirror while everyone spread around for an unobstructed view. Emilia and Marisa quietly sat down. They looked uncomfortable; apparently, I was the only interviewee that day to opt for an audience. I suddenly regretted not having shaved my legs that morning. I could feel the blood rushing to my face.
“Doesn’t she have nice breasts?” Leah said to Ray. He nodded.
“Turn around,” Ray told me. I did. “What part of your body do men like most?”
“My legs, ” I replied. Should I add something more? I fumbled for words. “They look good in short skirts.” Fuck, why did I say that? Everyone laughed.
“Do you like girls?” Ray asked.
“Don’t ask her that!” Leah giggled. “Sarah, you don’t have to answer.”
“Maybe,” I said, thinking, yeah, I love girls, but there’s no way I’m gonna tell you about it right now.
“Can I show you something?” Ray asked me. “Look at this.” He lifted Leah’s skirt. She turned around and bent forward, and he pointed to her rear. “Now isn’t that something? Isn’t that great?”
Was he joking? It was, for the record, a great ass. Leah’s cheeks swelled out of white lacy underwear, her flesh smooth and plum-round.
“That’s my favorite tush in the business,” Ray said. With her back arched and head held high, Leah looked like a peacock displaying her feathers. They had performed this routine before; she was his star.
“Okay, you can put your clothes back on,” Ray told me. “But only if you want to.”
Apparently, I had passed the first test.
When I was in the third grade, I discovered Penthouse. I was with my friend Ariella in her brother’s tree house, and we found his stash. Giddy and flushed, we pored over each magazine, carefully inspecting the curves and body hair we hadn’t yet developed. There was one picture I lingered over: a woman lay on a massive white bed, surrounded by silk sheets and fluffy white pillows. Her legs were spread toward the camera and she was holding her pussy lips open. This was my introduction to sex work. It was also the first time I was attracted to a woman. It didn’t occur to me that the woman was being objectified or degraded. To me, she was S – E – X.
For years, I imagined being that woman, baring myself in front of a camera, turning people on with my body. She was the center of attention, the focus of everyone’s desire. To me, the woman was powerful.
After I dressed I went to the front room, where Leah gave me an application to fill out. There was a section for measurements. Next to “cup size” were two choices: real or implants. I checked “real.” On the following sheet I listed my turn-ons (tattoos, piercings, massages and good food) and turn-offs (egregious amounts of body hair and poor personal hygiene). I didn’t want to sound prissy, silly or smart. I just wanted to seem unobjectionable. I gave the completed forms to Ray, sat down and asked for a beer. I figured it would impress them if I hung around.
Throughout the night calls came in, which Ray and Leah answered. At some point, someone called a delivery service and ordered pot. Someone switched the CD, someone else vetoed Justin Timberlake.
A caller requested a thin blond girl. Ray cupped his hand over the receiver.
“Who wants to go?” he asked. “Short Chinese guy, comes in two seconds. Last girl had an easy time.”
“I’ll do it,” said Bella. She was a ballroom dancer with a narrow face, sky-colored eyes and bony shoulders. She’d arrived a few minutes after the delivery service guy left, taking the place of Emilia, a thick-boned Monica Lewinsky type who’d gone home early to write a biology lab report. This was Bella’s first night on the job. She fidgeted in her chair, smoking cigarettes and twisting her dry, bleached hair around her fingers.
Ray spoke into the phone. “Okay, we’re sending over a beautiful girl. Hottest girl we’ve got.” He paused and gestured to Bella. “He wants to know what kind of shoes you’re wearing.”
Bella looked at her scuffed tan high-heeled sandals. “Nine West,” she whispered.
“Manolo Blahnik,” Ray told the receiver. Bella’s eyes went wide. “Okay, we’ll send her over. She’ll be there in thirty minutes.” Ray hung up. “Are ya ready? We’ll send you over in a car.”
“He’s gonna see my shoes!” shrieked Bella.
“He’s not gonna be looking at your shoes,” Ray sighed. “Now listen, we said seven hundred. But see if you can get a thousand. Do it right off the bat, as soon as you walk in the door. And do it with your clothes off. You’re much more powerful with your clothes off.”
Bella nodded. She didn’t look eager to negotiate. “What if he doesn’t want to pay a thousand?”
“Well, that’s up to you,” Ray shrugged.
“You’re worth a thousand,” Leah interjected firmly. “If he says no, leave.”
Bella glanced at Catherine, Marisa and I. “All right guys, wish me luck. No less than a thousand.”
Ray’s excitement approached that of a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. “Remember, clothes off first thing!”
As Bella left, a sleek young Asian woman — shiny, black shoulder-length hair, pointy-toed boots, high cheekbones, impeccable skin — stumbled downstairs with a stocky, dark young guy. They were bleary-eyed and startled to see us. The guy nodded, head down, and left. The woman sat down, smoothed her hair, crossed her legs, and introduced herself as Sandra.
“How’d it go?” asked Leah. “That was her first time,” she explained.
“Fine. It was good,” said Sandra. “What I expected.” She didn’t elaborate, and no one asked her to. Sandra lit a cigarette, picked up an issue of Maxim and casually flipped through it. You never would’ve guessed she had just been naked, ass in the air, with some guy pumping at her. Had she just made a thousand bucks?
I looked over at Catherine. Tall and catwalk skinny, she had been working in a strip club in Queens but wanted to make more money. She had long, straight brown hair, and wore a lot of blue eye shadow and tight black pants. Her trashy club-girl look didn’t quite match her contained demeanor. At first I thought she was older than me, but she turned out to be only nineteen.
Marisa was a twenty-one-year-old Dominican with a charming soft accent. She was curvy and short — a couple inches over five feet — with breast implants she’d paid for by working at McDonalds. After a bit of Ray’s cajoling, Marisa opened her shirt and showed us her boobs.
“You can touch them if you want,” she told me shyly. I poked the right one, which was hard to the touch. Ray told her she was lucky to have such nice ones.
Like me, Catherine and Marisa thought they were applying to accompany men to dinners. They had gone through the interview process that day, had been accepted, and were hanging out to see what exactly they were getting themselves into. Unlike me, they had qualms about whoring themselves out. While Leah was on the phone and Ray was looking at something on the Internet, Catherine and Marisa began to talk.
“You know,” said Catherine, “I really thought I’d just be going to dinner.”
“Me too,” said Marisa. “We were so stupid.”
“I think you’ll feel better after your first time,” Sandra said.
“Really?” Catherine raised her right eyebrow.
Suddenly Leah was standing over us, flashing a tight smile. “How’re you ladies doing?”
“So, Leah,” said Catherine. “Do we have to sleep with the guys? Is that part of the deal?”
“Um, yeah,” Leah sighed. “You can’t take their money and then not go to bed with them. Of course, you don’t have to, if they don’t want to. Some guys just want to talk. But if they want to, you can’t say no. That’s what they’re paying for.”
“I don’t think I could live with myself if I did this,” Marisa shuddered.
“You mean you’ve never thought about it before?” Ray was incredulous. “You don’t pay all that money for fake boobs just for yourself!”
Marisa shook her head.
“Then what are you doing here?” Ray said.
“The ad didn’t say anything about sex,” Marisa murmured.
“Oh, come on.” Ray scoffed. “What did you think it was?”
“I thought it was for dinner!” Marisa said.
“No, you didn’t. Come on. Who pays that much for a dinner date?” Ray looked at Marisa, Catherine and me.
“Listen,” Leah said evenly. “How many people have you slept with?”
“Just two,” said Marisa.
“Two! And you’re twenty-one?”
Marisa nodded. “My family, my sisters, they taught us to wait until marriage.”
“Same here,” Catherine mumbled.
Ray turned to Leah. “Leah, my dear, how many have had the pleasure of your lovely body?”
“I’d say about forty.”
Everyone looked at me. “I don’t have an exact count. Fifteen, maybe.”
Catherine, suddenly the authority, turned to Marisa. “You shouldn’t be doing this if you’ve only slept with two guys.”
“A lot of girls who come in here have only slept with three or four guys,” said Ray.
Funny, I thought, he forgot to mention if those girls actually took the job.
“But two?” said Catherine.
“You should do whatever you’re comfortable with,” said Leah. “Some girls can do this and some can’t. If you can do it, good for you. If not, well, whatever. But it’s certainly worth it.”
Around eleven, I checked my cell phone. I’d been there for three hours; it was time to go home. I had to work the next day, and I needed to get some sleep. Before I left, I made an appointment to come back the next night so Ray could take my picture for their records.
Walking to the subway, I was elated. I’ve had my share of exciting sex. I’ve seduced guys into threesomes with me and my girlfriend, been drawn into a foursome with two friends and a stranger, gone to bed with a man twice my age, had sex in parks, in cars, in the kitchen while my friends watched TV in the next room. But this would be something completely foreign to me.
I imagined myself working there. I’d put on something chic and slutty, black eye-liner and a miniskirt, go to the agency, and wait for someone to call and order an athletic, dark-blonde, blue-eyed twenty-three year old. I’d take a taxi to his apartment, which would be on the top floor of a high rise: darkly lit, expensive but underused kitchen appliances, a view of Central Park. I’d take my cues from him: I’d be aggressive if he was timid, or take orders if that’s what he wanted. But is this just a naive fantasy?
Then I remembered a story Leah told me earlier in the evening about an upscale party she’d worked with a few other girls. As she and one of her colleagues were heading into the back room with a Gucci-suited guy, she told him she’d never been with another woman before. “They love that,” Leah explained. “They love feeling like they’re teaching you something new.” The words hung over me as I made my way home. Aside from the money, is sex work’s appeal — or perhaps the only thing that’s tolerable about it — the novelty? Would it be that way for me?
I guess I’ll have to find out.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s Personal Essays in 2003.