The Queer Issue: The Rise of Rentboys

Hustling goes legit

Only 19 and barely out of high school, Jason Pitt looks like a typical small-town Georgia youth. But this good ol' boy is making a lot more than the stocker at Wal-Mart or a Starbucks barista. Cute, smooth, and blond, he has the twinkie good looks that a lot of older guys go gaga for, such as the man in Maine who flew him up for dinner and a massage—at a fee of $2,800.

Jason is also out-and-proud about his lifestyle. His mom has his Hookie—a male escort award voted on by clients—hanging up at home. Already a veteran porn actor, he attributes his high fee to his film work. "I've been on the cover of four magazines and done a lot of porn," he says. "I don't think any small-town kid can come out and be an escort and charge what I charge without making a name for himself."

At 37, Kevin Slater stands at the opposite end of a business that prizes youth above all. Still, seeing clients in or out of his Chelsea apartment has provided him with his sole source of income. "I'm not a 26-year-old twink with an expiration date stamped on my back," he says. "Most of my clients are gentlemen of a certain age and weight. They say, very kindly, 'Part of the reason I like you is that you're not intimidating.' "

Kevin and Jason are among the 2,000 escorts who advertise their services on Rentboy.com, a major listing service for johns looking to find the man of their dreams—for an hour, at least. Rentboy has been around for 12 years this month, and its expansion mirrors the changing face of the sex industry. In 1997, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani was closing purported hustler bars, such as Rounds and the Ninth Circle, while the police conducted raids and practiced entrapment. Most "respectable" gay men considered escorts to be sleazy hustlers (even as they utilized their services).

Today, hustling has gone legit. Sex workers, or "service workers" (as they now prefer to be called), operate in a high-tech sex supermarket; their job is considered a real profession. Buying sex is not considered a mark of desperation, either. "It's become a status symbol to be able to hire a guy," Will Clark, a former porn actor who worked in "the life," once told me. Partly, this reflects changes in the larger culture. We've moved from the Cinderella fantasy of Pretty Woman to the hardened businesswoman of The Girlfriend Experience. Ashley Dupré's private time with the then-governor of New York brought her front-row seats at couture shows and fawning celebrity-type profiles.

Anna David, author of the novel Bought, points to shock jocks like Howard Stern, who have long glorified call girls and made porn actresses like Jenna Jameson superstars. "These people are celebrated," she says. "It makes it sound like an alluring, almost glamorous, profession. It's not only become normal and accepted, but actually appealing."

In the gay world, porn actors have long been the equivalent of rock stars. According to Aaron Lawrence, escort and author (Suburban Hustler and The Male Escort's Handbook), "Porn stars are no longer sleazy. They're sex symbols." And nearly all porn stars are, as Clark says, "out-and-proud escorts."

If porn made sex stars coveted objects of desire at sky-high prices, the Internet gave them a business model. "The Internet has had a huge impact," David says. "We're a freelance culture. Anyone can hang out a shingle and put up a website."

"You can find guys across the country and have access to thousands of people, whereas before, you would be in one bar," says Sean Van Sant, who heads Rentboy's U.S. operation out of New York. On Rentboy, escorts can advertise themselves, while review sites, such as Rentboyreviews.com, allows clients to rate their services and warn others about rip-offs, guys who cop an attitude, or guys who won't deliver the goods. Over the years, Rentboy has grown to 10 employees in three offices, with more than 40,000 escorts in dozens of countries, including Singapore, Kuwait, and China. It has also become a bona fide brand, with parties like the popular "Hustlaball," cruises, and calendars. Its annual International Escort Awards has become a red carpet extravaganza for gaylist celebrities like Johnny McGovern and Michael Musto, who hand out Hookies in such categories as Best Fetish and Best Newcomer (Pitt's title).

Rentboy is currently expanding the possibilities for hookups to include that most vanilla of encounters, the erotic massage, with its new site, Manworks.com. "For lots of guys, paying for sex can be nerve-racking," says Daniel Lee, who heads Manworks. "Erotic bodywork eases you into it. It's a service and touch with another man—but, in this context, very safe."

The Internet also has its dark side. Sensational murder cases—such as those of Philip Markoff, who was accused of killing a masseuse, and John Katehis, who was accused of killing newsman George Weber—drew media scrutiny and public officials' scorn to Craigslist, which has since renamed its erotic-services portal, raised its rates, and banned nudity in ads. Van Sant and Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Davids believe their site offers a safer space for escorts and their clients. "We know our escorts better than Craigslist [does theirs]," Davids says. "It's not anonymous. We know who our escorts are. We call every new one. We verify who they are. If we get complaints, we can ban someone from our site, although we have to be careful: We've had more than our share of boyfriends and competitors telling us terrible things."

It also helps that Rentboy is a dedicated adult site, whereas Craigslist is America's virtual Main Street. "Everybody's mom and kids are on there," Van Sant says. "Craigslist gets a lot of oddballs. It's a lot harder to accidentally come across Rentboy."

Some prefer the old standby of the escort service, which still thrives in the age of the Internet. Nick Capra is one of the best-known porn stars in the industry. Now living in San Diego, he once worked for Chelsea Guys in New York. "It definitely has its advantages," he says. "They have great high-profile clients who know how to treat you. You're protected—they deal with everything. They used really great methods to screen clients, more than I had the time to do. It's like paying an agent."

All of those well-heeled clients are apparently still buying, despite the lousy economy. "Hustling does better in a recession," Clark says. "If you're going to have a high-priced treat, it's faster and cheaper than hopping on a plane for Hawaii."

On the other side of the ledger, massive layoffs have added to the ranks of those selling their wares. "There are a lot more new people," Van Sant says. "In the past, guys had day jobs and did some escorting on the side. Now, they've lost their day job. It's a great time to be a buyer."

The recession also means that men are working longer hours and have less time to cruise in the bars or online. "Ordering in," as Clark calls it, means no protracted flirting or fake "Give me your number" goodbyes. One trope that all hustlers know is that a john doesn't pay him to arrive—he pays him to leave.

If there's a downside to escorting, it's the familiar lure of easy money and too much leisure time. Capra fell prey to drugs and has since dried out. He's on Rentboy now, and when a client is "partying" (which happens "all the time," he says), he firmly but politely turns down offers to partake. Unsafe sex is also problematic: Some clients offer a premium for condomless sex. Davids says his site remains neutral, leaving it up to the individuals to negotiate the parameters of their transaction. "This is a place where the whole industry is taking sides," Van Sant says. "We decided to let people decide for themselves."

And what about those legions of gay men proudly holding up their newly minted marriage licenses? "They still do it," Van Sant says. "It's good entertainment. A lot of couples like to order in and make an evening of it."

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