Serious Girls

The escort service business, up close and unpleasant

He talks compulsively for several hours as I listen, supplying understanding background murmurs in response to tales about girls who rip off unsuspecting clients, of unscrupulous competitors, of hypocritical police officers. For about half an hour the conversation becomes explicit: how I feel about sex with other women, group sex, animal sex. What about Great Danes? Sex toys?

I imagine some lonely guy jacking off at the other end of the phone. Neil says he's a lawyer, that his clients in this business are other lawyers and doctors. But I wonder if this conversation is all there is, if his so-called service is just a fantasy.

Finally he gets around to proposing an interview. A "tryout" is how he puts it. To make sure I'm really suitable for this work. To find out what my strong points are so he will know how to pitch them to clients. We agree to meet the next afternoon at a hotel. He gives few personal details. He is more than six feet tall, he says, and weighs twice as much as I do. He tells me to come alone.

I take along a cell phone and a can of pepper spray. Neil is waiting for me, sunk into one of the plush chairs in the lobby, wearing a plaid short-sleeve shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He is freckled and pale and looks out of shape.

He stands up to greet me. I nervously suggest we have a Coke at the bar before we head up to his apartment. There's a better place to have a Coke, he says vaguely, gesturing toward the elevators. We descend to an underground garage, weave a path among the cars to a locked steel door. Neil has a key. Behind the door are more elevators.

A few floors up, he buys me a Coke at a newsstand and we head for his apartment. Unpacked cartons teeter in the entrance. The dining-room table is buried beneath stacks of paper, books, boxes, trash. The air is redolent of unclean-carpet odors, stale potato chips, and motionless bodies.

Neil sits on his couch amid unopened mail. I perch on a chair, pepper spray within reach. I tell him the truth: I don't want to work, I just want information. About him, specifically. About his girls. About the service he provides.

There is a split second of silence in which Neil quietly deflates, sinking deeper into the couch. But he takes the news well. Young girls, innocent girls with few inhibitions and unsated sexual appetites, are not easy to come by these days, he admits. Only four or five "serious girls" actually answer his ads annually, though he has distributed 40,000 flyers over the past two years. His clientele is small. He might arrange twenty dates a month.

Most of the calls he gets are abusive. Men who leave messages threatening to beat him up. Women who accuse him of being a pervert. He now prints a warning on his flyers that telephone harassers will be prosecuted to the full extent allowed by law. The irony escapes him. "Maybe I'm naive, but can't they just courteously say that they're not interested?" he grumbles.

He bridles at the suggestion that he is pimping. "My definition of a pimp is somebody who is exploiting people with coercion or other means and profiting from it financially. From a business perspective, what I'm doing doesn't make any sense at all."

Although the girls do get paid for going on dates, Neil claims he doesn't get a cut. For him it's more of a hobby, a recreational activity he subsidizes with the proceeds of his real job, financial planning. It's a perk he offers his clients. Believe it or not, he says, his girls actually like him, turning to him for comfort, for sex, for help out of a jam. "Girls come here to explore for a few weeks and then go on to other things and take the knowledge with them. A lot of the better girls are in college. They're looking for a career.

"Obviously I do it looking for something that is interesting and enjoyable for me, or I wouldn't do it," he says.

Before I leave I ask if I can speak to one of his girls.
I get a call from Sheila, who says she's eighteen. She is soft-spoken and precise about the few details she will divulge. She grew up in Broward and is studying psychology in college, though she won't say where.

She started working for Neil after being handed a flyer. She needed the money. "It wasn't like I expected," she says about her first date, a few months ago. "It went very smoothly." They met in a hotel. Sheila wore a suit. "Like a secretary," she says. "He was very nice to me. He knew it was my first time. I was in and out of there in 45 minutes."

Since then she has gone out on other dates, and though she is not crazy about the job, she prefers it to working for minimum wage. Sometimes she meets clients at their homes, sometimes they rendezvous at a hotel. "I hope in the long run it won't damage me," she confides. "But right now it's making me really look down on men. I just tell myself that I'm doing it for myself. I'm doing this to put me through school."

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