Thousands of Mets fans are streaming into sleek new Citi Field to
watch their team take on the Brewers. It’s 10 minutes before game time,
and I’m sitting on a bench outside the left-field VIP entrance,
wondering if Carlos is going to show.
We’ve never met before. All I know about Carlos is that he’s
five-foot-six, Asian, likes baseball, and is looking for a “cute,
smart, and fun chick to enjoy the game with.”
That chick is supposed to be me.
My “date” with Carlos has been arranged by the Austen’s Janes
Agency. Three unemployed women in their mid-twenties set up this
business—with its awkward name—earlier this year to provide
men with an unusual service: platonic female company for a price.
For $60 an hour, the agency arranges for a smart young woman to
accompany you, laugh at your jokes, and make you feel interesting and
special. It may sound like just another escort service—with
additional sex services available by negotiation—but it’s
The young women who set up the agency are adamant about this, and
they spell it out on their website: “If there are any attempts at
sexual activity, the girl has the right to end the date
In other words: No touching. Not even a little kiss. But despite
that firm ban on fooling around, the women are getting business, as
quaint as their service seems. Which made me wonder: What sort of men,
in this financial climate, were willing to spend hard cash for brief
companionship and absolutely no chance of physical intimacy?
I figured the best way to answer that was to go on one of the dates
myself. The women agreed, so I e-mailed a few photos of myself and a
brief bio for them to share with potential clients. After a few false
starts, I was eventually sent to the ballpark to meet Carlos. The women
instructed me to wear something “date-like,” to send a text to confirm
my arrival and departure so they’d know I was OK, and, above all, to
get the money up-front.
And that’s how I ended up on this bench, in jeans and a flowing aqua
top, nervously retouching my lip gloss and conjuring up worst-case
scenarios in my head: What if Carlos is a total freak and tries to
grope me, or attempts to strangle me behind the concession
stand—or, God forbid, takes one look at me and decides I’m not
worth the price?
The ballgame is about to start, and the crowd outside is thinning,
so I take a deep breath and send him a text message. As soon as I press
“send,” I notice a short man in a Mets hoodie and aviator shades
staring at his phone a few feet away. He looks up, we make eye contact,
and he grins. Much to my relief, Carlos appears to be a normal guy. He
has a round, tan face, short dark hair, and a slightly crooked smile.
He looks vaguely like a CHiPs-era Erik Estrada, mostly because
of the glasses. He’s also a little on the small side—shorter than
me—and this, too, I find reassuring. If, for some reason, he
decides to try something funny, with years of martial-arts training
embedded somewhere in my memory, I could probably take him.
We shake hands, and Carlos pulls a Coach coin purse out of his
backpack that I stick in my bag. (Later, in the privacy of a ballpark
bathroom stall, I verify the purse’s contents: ten $20 bills.) But
right now, we’re running late, and we hurry toward security. Carlos
hands me my ticket, which also has a $200 price tag, and we head for
the elevator to the VIP section. While we wait, we make small talk:
Carlos tells me that he’s originally from the Philippines, but now
lives in Jersey City, where he works as a computer programmer. Then he
turns the questions on me.
“So, you’re from California?” he asks.
“Yep, I came out for graduate school,” I reply.
I’d vowed not to lie about anything—just to omit. Everything
the agency has told him about me is true, except that it exaggerated my
interest in baseball. I don’t dislike the game; I’m just disinterested
and know little about it—and I’m hoping my enthusiasm will mask
“An MBA?” he continues.
“Uh, no. Writing.”
Thankfully, he doesn’t press. Apparently, it’s an answer that
explains why I probably don’t earn a lot of money and have to turn to
this line of work. The girls told me that the men they go out with
prefer to talk about themselves and don’t ask a lot of questions.
Carlos appears to be an exception, which makes me a little anxious.
Fortunately, it’s our turn to pile into the elevator, and we put the
conversation on pause as we squeeze inside. A minute later, the doors
slide open, and we walk through a sparkly new restaurant, which looks
like it belongs in a chain hotel, and out into the blinding sunlight.
Our comfy leather seats are just behind third base. The crowd is awash
in blue and orange. The game has begun.
In Woody Allen’s 1970s short story “The Whore of Mensa,” about a
nonsexual escort service operated out of the Hunter College Book Store,
a madam who goes by the name of Flossie hires out brainy girls to
discuss Melville, Proust, Yeats, and the like, with men craving female
intellectual stimulation. For $50, you could “relate without getting
close.” For $100, you could have dinner with a girl, borrow her
Bartók records, and watch her have an anxiety attack. In the
story, Flossie turns out to be a man who underwent a botched operation
to transform himself into Lionel Trilling, and is carted off to jail
for blackmail. When you pull back the curtain on the Austen’s Janes
Agency, what you find is less farcical, but hilarious in its own
The idea started out as a joke: Cara, April, and Julie, three
26-year-old friends—who, for privacy and safety reasons, prefer
to use their agency-related pseudonyms and not their real names in this
story—all found themselves unemployed victims of the bad economy
at the end of last year. Cara, who has short-cropped hair, sharp blue
eyes, and a background in social work, was laid off on November 4 after
working on a state senate campaign. April, a tall, lanky brunette with
a button nose and wide-set eyes, had just finished a stint in the art
department of a cable-TV show. And Julie, a slender woman with an
unruly mop of brown curls, had just returned from a two-year stint in
the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe and couldn’t find a job.
With the extra time on their hands and funds running low, the girls
formed a little support group based out of April’s Gramercy apartment,
where, over coffee or wine, depending on the time of day, the three
trawled Craigslist job postings together. Initially, they only searched
in the “nonprofit” and “art/media/design” sections. But soon,
desperation and curiosity led them to the murkier world of “et cetera”
listings, where they learned that, aside from appeals to become egg
donors, there were people offering to pay women $200 to tickle them or
to see them in a pair of nylons.
And then one of the women—no one remembers which of the
three—pointed out how brilliant it would be if they could get men
to pay to go out with them. Both Cara and April had recently been
denied food stamps, and they joked about how being paid to be taken out
to dinner every night would be a great way to cut down on food costs.
Behind the laughter, there was a thread of seriousness: What if?
All three girls are, as Cara put it, “relatively attractive” and
never had a hard time landing regular dates. It seemed a little
far-fetched, but maybe there were guys out there, with money to burn,
willing to pay for a little company. In theory, it would be like going
on a bad date, and, like all single girls in their twenties, they had
plenty of practice making polite small talk on dates that didn’t go
As April pointed out recently over a slice of pizza and a beer at
Drop Off Service, an East Village bar, “I’ve been on so many bad dates,
it was kind of a joke because it felt like work sometimes. You might as
well get paid for it.”
Early this January, the trio decided to test the waters and posted
an ad on Craigslist in the “strictly platonic” and “women seeking men”
sections. The responses flowed in, eliciting a lot more giggles. April
stepped up to do the test run, but on the night of the
date—dinner and a drink on the Upper East Side—she was
nervous. She wore a short gray dress and black leggings and
text-messaged Julie before meeting the guy. Cara was waiting at home
afterward to hear how it went, but April never called.
“I was convinced I got her murdered,” Cara said at the bar, shaking
her head. “I was thinking about how I would have to tell the police
that my friends and I thought this was a good idea.”
April, it turned out, was fine. Her phone battery had died at the
end of her date. On the subway ride home, with cash in her pocket and a
box of leftovers in her lap, she felt an enormous rush. Someone
actually paid money to have dinner with her. And the guy?
“He wasn’t sleazy, he wasn’t gross—he was just a normal, nice
guy who wanted someone to go to dinner with,” she said. The next day,
he even sent a thank-you note.
Since then, Cara, April, and Julie have gone on about 35 dates all
told, weeding out the sincere inquiries from the hundreds of e-mails
they say they receive from men expressing interest in their services.
While the women aren’t raking in the big bucks, the money they have
earned has gone toward rent, groceries, and MetroCards, and—for a
few desperate weeks—was Cara’s sole source of income.
The men ranged in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties. About half
were white American-born males; the rest came from countries such as
India, Turkey, and Nigeria. For a while, Cara had a regular client whom
she would meet for vegetarian food on Friday nights, but most men
aren’t repeat customers.
One man I found who was willing to share his motivations was a
32-year-old consultant from India, who said he contacted the girls out
of desperation. “I was feeling bad and looking for someone to be with,”
he said. “I tried everything—Match.com, Chemistry.com. I tried everything for six
to eight months, and it didn’t work.”
After contacting the agency, he didn’t go through with the date. He
said it was because he was bound to have dashed hopes: “I thought I
might meet a nice girl, and then I realized these girls would just be
coming to work and then moving on.”
It’s somewhere between the bottom of the first inning and the top of
the seventh. I’m not really keeping track, and neither team has scored.
Carlos and I are sipping beer and munching on the pulled-pork
sandwiches we had delivered to our seats. I’ve already learned that
baseball is not big in the Philippines and that a former IT colleague
of his got him into the game a few years ago. He prefers the Mets to
the Yankees for underdog reasons.
“The Yankees are too easy,” he tells me. “They always win.”
The sun is bearing down on us, and I’ve borrowed the black Mets
baseball cap Carlos bought on Opening Day to deflect some of the heat.
Every few minutes or so, an airplane glides behind the stadium’s giant
Pepsi-Cola sign in its descent into nearby LaGuardia. The second video
congratulating Gary Sheffield on his 500th home run the previous night
has already played, and I’ve asked, “Who’s Sheffield?” and “When’s
Our conversation moves in fits and starts, as small talk does with a
stranger with whom you don’t have much in common. To keep things
rolling, I find myself asking silly questions, like who his favorite
player is (José Reyes), and wondering if the Dominican players
have a hand in selecting the reggaeton songs that are blasted every
time they swagger up to the plate (he thinks so).
And then it’s Carlos’s turn.
“So what do you normally do on Saturdays?” he asks.
“Depends,” I say. “Last week, I went for a walk and made dinner for
a friend. And you?”
“I go to a lot of friends’ kids’ birthday parties,” he says.
The conversation lulls again, and Carlos pulls an SLR camera with an
expensive-looking lens out of his bag and begins snapping shots of the
players on the field. Watching him out of the corner of my eye, I
notice that he’s into brands: He’s wearing Prada shoes and has a Prada
backpack, and his sunglasses are Hugo Boss.
I hear Cara and April in my head telling me about the types of guys
they tend to attract through the agency. April told me she gets a lot
of recently separated, depressed guys who need someone to listen to
their woes. The shy, reserved types are drawn to Cara for some reason.
She says she’s OK with it because she can carry the conversation if
necessary. Despite the occasional questions, Carlos seems to fall into
this latter category.
I slip away to a clean and quiet ladies’ room, from where, after
exploring the contents of the coin purse, I send April and a concerned
friend text messages to confirm that all is well, if not a bit surreal.
I think about how Carlos and I have not yet discussed the obvious: why
I’m working for a dating agency and why he’s paying me to watch the
game instead of bringing one of his friends or a real date. There’s so
much I want to ask, but I’m reluctant to broach the subject for fear
that he may freak out. He seems to prefer this façade of
normalcy. I remember April telling me that she thinks a lot of the men
like the fantasy that they are on a real date. Standing in front of the
mirror, I’m suddenly struck by the oddity of the situation. There is
nothing to prevent me from hightailing it out of the bathroom and out
of the ballpark. Not that there’s any reason to, but I contemplate
fleeing for a second. But then, I head back my seat.
The first thing nearly every guy requests when he first contacts the
Austen’s Janes Agency is, “Pictures, please.” Though the girls still
post on Craigslist, they now have a website, designed and built by
April, with partial photographs of the trio and their carefully crafted
bios. Even for a platonic service, the physical is clearly important.
The three white women field requests for Jewish, African-American, and
Asian women. And once, a guy requested someone who looked like Uma
Thurman, which Cara still laughs about: “Uma Thurman for $60.
Some men change their minds after seeing photographs. One turned
down all of us, saying that he was used to dating “really pretty
girls.” As Cara says, you have to have a thick skin.
According to agency rules, the girls only meet in a public place and
won’t ride in a car. Most date requests are along the lines of dinner
and a movie, but the ones that stand out range from the poignant to the
kinky. There was a guy who wanted to pay a girl to sit in a park with
him and feed squirrels on a sunny day. Another wanted to take a
“really” Asian girl to have a pedicure. There was “lacy underwear guy,”
who had a lingerie fetish and didn’t seem to understand that the most
he might see is an accidental glimpse of his date’s bra strap. A few
weeks ago, this odd request came from someone who identified himself as
Naughty Good Man: “I wish to meet a tall gorgeous female with perfect
shape and well structured. Not very lean and not very fat.” Naughty
Good Man might have even landed a date with April if he hadn’t
expressed his desire to share his “hobby” with his date by giving her a
“nonsexual, relaxing, safe, and clean massage.”
One guy who did get to indulge his fantasy had a payment fetish: He
claimed to be happily married, but he liked the idea of an affair and
the exchange of money. So, according to Julie, he met up with her for
lunch and a few glasses of wine and, by paying her for her time, he
felt satisfied with this pretense of an affair. What was he like? “He
was educated, attractive, and successful,” Julie wrote in an e-mail
from Eastern Europe, where she is on an extended trip.
Early on, Cara learned about the fantasy angle. When a guy didn’t
like her photograph and said he preferred long hair, she put on a long
black wig and took another photo. He agreed to a date. “Some men just
want you to be a certain way,” she says.
When I asked Elizabeth Bernstein—a women’s studies and
sociology professor at Barnard, and the author of Temporarily Yours:
Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex—what she
thought about Austen’s Janes, she pointed out that the bad economy that
had motivated the women to start the business may also be motivating
the men to patronize it.
“It’s a budget service for the client, who may have previously paid
more for sex,” she says.
Sixty dollars an hour is cheap for a college-educated, young,
attractive white woman, she said. Ashley Dupré was reportedly
charging then-governor Eliot Spitzer more than $1,000 an hour for sex,
and she didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree.
Poking around the agency’s website, Bernstein found the
style—flowery purple writing on a black background—very
“neo-Victorian and demure.” She then burst out laughing when she read
about Julie’s professed advocacy for victims of sex trafficking, which
can be found in the bio section of the site.
“Part of what they’re selling is the sexual fantasy that goes along
with the chaste woman,” she says. “It’s part of the ‘no-touch’ fantasy,
like strip clubs and peep shows.”
Julie herself uses the same analogy when she explains the
“It is similar to a strip club, [in which] a man pays for, as Chris
Rock reminds us, ‘nothing,’ but they get a beautiful woman to pay
attention to them and act as if they are the center of the world when
they need the attention,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Women are often
objectified in regular life—now we are finally getting paid for
it without contracting any life-threatening diseases!”
It’s the seventh-inning stretch, and a group of peppy young women
with swishy ponytails are racing around the field shooting free Pepsi
T-shirts into the stands. Carlos hands me his camera, and I snap a few
shots of the crowd and of him. Then he asks to take one of me. I let
him. It’s around this time that he gets a little flirty. I feel him
leaning in closer as we talk a few times, and I pull away. When the
game resumes, the Mets finally score the only run of the game, and the
crowd goes wild.
Soon, everything is over, and we join the masses heading out of the
stadium toward the subway. My time with Carlos is officially up, but I
figure it doesn’t hurt to ride the subway together back to the city. As
we walk down the stadium stairs to the 7 train, he gently places his
hand on my waist for a moment, and I quickly step out of his reach.
“That was fun,” he says, “even though you clearly aren’t that into
I tell him I had a nice time, too, and thank him for the beer and
sandwich. In the subway, we make more awkward small talk. When we
arrive at my stop, I stick out my hand. I ask him to send a little note
to the agency rating me, but he never does. Instead, I get a text about
an hour later that reads: “Hi Emily, it was fun going out with you. You
On my walk home over the white blossoms that cover the sidewalk like
confetti, I reflect on how, if this had been a “real” date with Carlos,
I would have thought he was a nice guy, but that there was no
chemistry. I didn’t feel objectified; it was more like I was obligated
to be friendly. In a pinch, I could even see doing it again as a
slightly uncomfortable, but relatively painless, way to make some extra
After I get home and take a closer look at the ticket, I realize
something is crossed out with black ink. Tilting the ticket at a
certain angle, I can make out a name underneath, and it’s definitely
not “Carlos.” It turns out he had his secrets, too.
Cara, meanwhile, has found a full-time job at a nonprofit, and April
is on unemployment again after a short-term government job. Both
continue to “date” on weekends. Julie plans to work for the agency
again upon her return to the States this summer. Though they’ve noticed
a recent dip in business, which they attribute to the Craigslist Killer
case, like the savvy entrepreneurs they are, the girls dream of
expanding, hiring others, and taking the agency to other states.
I do wholesome things with my earnings. Following Cara’s suggestion,
I donate the money to a local nonprofit called Girls Educational &
Mentoring Services, or GEMS, that works with teenage girls who have
been a lot less fortunate about where to draw the line with regard to
sex work. The little Coach purse, I send to my mom. As for Carlos, a
week or so after our date, I send him a message telling him that I’m
writing a story about the agency and our date and ask if there’s
anything he’d like to share about the experience and why he was drawn
to it. His response was refreshingly candid: With his longtime
girlfriend working in another country, he was feeling lonely and in
need of some female company. “I was only looking for a companion,
something platonic and temporary,” he wrote. “Going out with somebody
like you through Austen’s Janes is just simple. No complications and no
expectations.” Just what the girls had in mind.