Last week, The New York Observer published a story called ‘The Luxury Rental Girlfriend’. Penned by Lisa Taddeo, the article kicked off with the teaser, “Why buy the long-term relationship when short-term does the trick?”
Admittedly, I was hooked. Despite not having had a girlfriend, I couldn't help picturing the relationship equivalent of an upscale timeshare in the Caribbean. Could it be that a whole new era of sexual commerce has evolved before us while we lay, bleary-eyed and monogamous?
To help us navigate the premise, the author introduces us to Jack -- a thirtysomething Manhattanite who hangs out at downtown hipster haunts and is “good-looking, makes money, and has a nice apartment”— in other words, a trifecta of single male triumph.
'The Luxury Rental Girlfriend' on The New York Observer.
But first, Taddeo wants us to take a moment to feel the weight of his unique burden:
“You’re Jack, and you take a girl out to dinner ... and she spends three hours deciding if you’re the kind of guy who will like her more if she sleeps with you or if she doesn’t.”
The trouble continues: “There are girls who ride horses and lawyers and designers and tall ones and short ones, stacking their needs up across his walls and then saying those are not needs, they are shadows.”
Maybe it’s the trauma of finding strangers "stacking needs across his walls" (actual meaning unknown)or maybe it's the neurosis of the dinner-eating women who wouldn’t put out -- either way, it’s at this point that the author reveals that even though "Jack can have any girl he wants", he now prefers the company of expensive escorts.
According to Taddeo, Jack is part of a new, aspirational breed of johns who call themselves 'hobbyists'. Their hobby being “sleeping with beautiful women and then reviewing and categorizing them." This happens mostly on an escort directory, The Erotic Review (TER), a massively trafficked site which gets between 250,000-300,000 visitors a day and functions like "Yelp for the sex trade". (But which sounds more like a kind of sexual Mordor). Anyone who signs up as a member can leave their two cents about the escort they hired, rating details like, "Hair length? Photo Accurate? Shaved? More than one guy at a time? Full, no rush session?"
You can almost hear Taddeo telling this story at a pub -- the way urban legends are told -- pausing to savour our reactions. Here’s a growing group of Esquire-reading, globe-trotting men who are opting for paid sex over relationships. The most obvious explanation? The wives and girlfriends just can’t seem to get things right.
We’re told that a rental girlfriend “puts out every time like she’s bucking for a rating” and “knows how to dress a roast and when to listen”, while a ‘Wife in Training’ typically dreams about her wedding after a first date, is either overweight or obsessively working out, underestimates the importance of a night being over and wonders about things like why men don’t walk four flights of stairs to pick her up for dinner. Most importantly, she also lacks the “magic switch” that lets her have sex without imposing oppressive “emotional requirements” thereafter.
It’s hard to say which is more disappointing -- that these wildly dated stereotypes still exist or that a female writer expects us to buy into them. Isn’t there an alternative explanation to the popularity of the Girlfriend Experience? Or why someone like Jack who finds relationships suffocating has no problem paying his escort’s car insurance, taking them out to dinner or hanging up their plasma TVs?
Interestingly, a 2012 study shows that up to one third of men who pay for sex “also want to have a personal relationship with the escorts”. Researchers analysed the 2,442 postings from the online forum of The Erotic Review and found that “regular clients of a particular sex provider often come to experience feelings of deep affection”.
A huge part of the fantasy, it seems, is being able to simulate intimacy while staying firmly in the emotional driving seat. “Sometimes it’s just that I can have this beautiful girl sitting on the couch beside me,” says Jack, “I don’t even want to fuck her necessarily, it’s just nice to know I can reach across and touch her right boob, if I want to.”
“Like any other commercially packaged leisure activity, intimacy is now readily available for a price,” wrote study co-authors Ronald Weitzer and Christine Milrod. In fact, the high price tag could even create the illusion that paid relationships are better than ordinary dates. “You take care of expensive things…The more you charge, the more worth it a man thinks you are," explains professional escort Katelyn.
Ultimately, Taddeo believes that men want to “make love and nibble on lips and watch television and Herbal Essence a woman’s hair in the shower and even tell her that they love her, and know she won’t turn it into something else.”
For the men’s sake as well as ours, let’s hope this isn’t the full picture.