Seriously, I Just Want an Escort

Are there any who aren’t prostitutes?

Screengrab from Villiage Voice's classified section.
Screengrab from Villiage Voice’s classified section.

The Village Voice is under attack for its classified advertising service Backpage.com, which includes an adult section with listings for body rubs, strippers, and escorts. Critics say that these advertisements are thinly veiled offers of prostitution, which sometimes involve child sex workers. Are there any escort services that don’t peddle sex?

Yes, but they’re rare. Strictly platonic escort service pop up every now and then on the Internet and in classified ads, but people inside the industry say they rarely stay in business for more than a few months. Part of the challenge is that they’re confusing to both the clients and the employees: The term escort is so universally euphemistic that people don’t believe agencies that advertise as nonsexual. In addition to this small handful of true companionship services, some well-established agencies offer escorts for fetish activities and sensual (but nonsexual) massage, which would not satisfy legal definitions of prostitution. The overwhelming majority of escorts, however, are at least open to the idea of trading sex for money, even though few would consider themselves prostitutes. An escort offers an evening of companionship that may include sex, while a prostitute sells sex itself.

Operators of escort agencies flatly deny that they are in the business of selling sex. They charge a fee to connect a client with an escort, and whatever happens between them is up to those two consenting adults. (Technicalities and legal fictions pervade the sex industry. Some Islamic countries have a longstanding, if controversial, tradition of temporary ad hoc marriages known as sigheh, which can add a veneer of religious legitimacy to prostitution.) Most escort agencies maintain plausible deniability by collecting a fixed payment that does not vary based on what services were provided. The escort negotiates that independently. Smart agency owners hang up on clients who mention sex during the booking process, because such calls might be part of a police sting. For the same reason, escorts themselves often walk out on clients who talk too much about sex before it happens.

Escort agency owners are also quick to point out that many encounters don’t involve sex, even if the escort herself has engaged in prostitution in the past. Operators say that men hire escorts for business functions, high school reunions, or even the prom. In those cases, the clients may just want to impress their friends and colleagues, and aren’t interested in sex. Drug users may also hire escorts to accompany them while they get high.

High-end prostitutes report that, more often than not, their clients are more interested in their companionship than sex. Wealthy clients typically hire escorts by word-of-mouth referrals rather than going through an agency, but those who do the latter often pay thousands of dollars for nonsexual affection.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Melissa Broudo of the Sex Workers Project; Michelle of ExoticPublishing.com; Tracy Quan, author of Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl; Dan Sytman of the Washington State Office of the Attorney General; and Ronald Weitzer of George Washington University.