How much am I worth? It’s something we wrestle with through salary negotiations, existential meditations and marital separations. But the question gains a special clarity in the sex business. Putting a dollar figure on your body, your looks, your cock size and your sexual prowess can be empowering or demeaning, depending on how you go about it. And along with a burner phone and some naked selfies, it’s at the top of your to-do list when you start pulling tricks.
I was stumped when it came to setting my rate. I scoured different websites, looking at what other guys were charging. There were bulky bodybuilders and barely-legal twinks, a handful with genuine good looks, and some with (apparently) gigantic dicks. People’s prices seemed arbitrary. Guys I thought were stunning were charging less. Guys I wouldn’t give a second glance were near the top of the heap. How exactly should I situate myself in this scale?
I’d spent the bulk of my life believing I was positively hideous. A brief chubby stretch from age nine to 11 had left me feeling perpetually fat, no matter how thin I was at any particular time. Though I’d turned into a tall, lanky teen, I was decidedly un-athletic and nerdy. Girls tended to give me a wide berth. Many of my early gay experiences played out in dark rooms where I didn’t have to be confronted with my own body. By my early 20s, I’d come to see myself as not totally unattractive, but still somewhere near the bottom of the gay totem pole.
When it came to setting my prices for hooking, my tendency to undervalue myself led to what I thought was a pragmatic business decision. I looked at what other guys were charging and decided to charge less. If I wasn’t going to make as much money per hour, my bargain basement prices would mean more clients and, ultimately, more money. Two months into my sex work career I was forced to re-evaluate this approach.
I’m not especially fazed when Lou opens the door. He’s like most of the guys I see: chubby and middle-aged with a receding hairline. But a longer glance reveals an extra layer of grime — his hair is a little greasier, his fingernails are a little dirtier. I’ve become used to all sorts of bodies, all kinds of faces. Still, something in his gaze makes me uncomfortable, the way his eyes move across my body as his mouth hangs open, revealing yellow teeth through strands of saliva.
He lives in one of those weirdly jumbled apartments I’ve become familiar with. There are cases of toilet paper and bottled water in the hall, scratched black lacquer furniture from the Brick and the pungent smell of a litter box long overdue for cleaning. He leads me to a tiny room; except for a single bed it looks nothing like a bedroom. No clothes, no photos, no books. There’s a small desk in the corner with a laptop and two large monitors. The rest of the room is lined with shelves, stacked floor to ceiling with thousands of VHS cassettes in unmarked black cases.
I ponder asking about the video collection, but quickly assume it must be porn. He sits on the bed leering at me. “Wanna join me, baby?” he says. His voice is high and soft, but there’s still something creepy about it. I kneel on the bed next to him, begin rubbing my hands up and down his back and kissing his neck. He unzips my jeans, pulling them down with my underwear, grabbing hungrily for my ass. He slips my t-shirt over my head and starts kissing my chest. His breath is hot and wet and smells like peanut butter.
Most times, I try to stretch things out, delaying gratification, making sure they don’t come too fast. I want people to feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. But right now, I just want to get this over with as quickly as possible. He continues to grab at my ass, spreading it apart and rubbing my hole with his fat, dry finger. I slide his t-shirt off to reveal an acne-riddled upper-body. I pull his drawstring sweatpants to his knees. His cock is small but rock hard and I bend to get it in my mouth. Just get him off and get out, I think. Who cares if he wants to see me again?
“You like that cock, baby?” he says. People call each other baby during sex all the time. But there’s something decidedly unsexy about the way he’s talking to me — somehow infantilizing, as if he really wants me to be a kid. I’ve role-played every conceivable incest scene over the years. I’ve been the daddy. I’ve been the uncle. I’ve been the boy. I’ve been the little girl. It’s never been weird and it’s never freaked me out. It’s always just felt like a performance. But with this guy, there’s something not quite right.
He sticks his finger in my ass. It hurts but I moan like it feels good, hoping that will edge him closer. “Spread it open for me, baby,” he says. I just close my eyes and keep sucking, occasionally gulping air through my mouth so I don’t have inhale through my nose and smell him. “Wanna taste my hole, baby?” he says. I moan something vaguely affirmative and press my face into his zitty ass. I count to 60 and return to his cock. “Are you gonna give me your cum?” I whisper. “I want it so bad. Give it to me please.” It feels like it takes him forever to shoot, but in reality it’s only a few minutes. As soon as I feel the white strands of jizz dripping from my tongue I pull away, flash a smile, and say something about going to clean up.
His bathroom is filthy: mildewed sea-foam green tiles, black hair and Q-Tips on the floor, toothpaste all over the sink. I rinse my mouth with Listerine and splash some water on my face. As I’m pulling my underwear on I suddenly freeze, thinking back to the room and the stacks of VHS tapes. Was he recording me? He could have easily hidden a camera on one of the shelves. Fuck, what should I do? Ask him? Would he admit to it? What would he do with it, put it on the internet? Should I threaten him? Maybe I’m just being paranoid. Should I just be happy he didn’t knife me and get the fuck out?
I realize he’s staring at me through the crack in the door. I smile at him again. “Just getting dressed and I’ll be out of your hair,” I say. I pull my jeans and my t-shirt on, grab my bag, and head for the door. I’m about to leave when I realize I haven’t even collected my cash. He comes to unlock the door and wordlessly hands me a small wad of crumpled bills. I mumble thanks and step into the hallway.
A few blocks from his place, I stop in a park, sit on a bench, and stare at the cash in my hand. Until this moment, I’ve always been happy with what I was making. But somehow, this doesn’t feel like enough. Is this all I’m worth? If so, should I really be doing this? An hour later, I log into my profile and double my rate.
I almost immediately start getting more calls. Among veteran clients, I realize there’s an understanding you get what you pay for. By charging less, not only was I attracting less desirable guys, I was scaring off the good ones who thought I was a two-bit scam artist with fake pics. Through all my years of therapy, self-help practices and non-commercial sexual relationships, nothing has clarified the value of what I can offer people more than putting an hourly price tag on it. Among the many things I’ve learned about the world through sex work and about myself, one of the most important is this: when it comes to the question of what we are worth, the answer is usually always more than we think.