"My finance guys tend to contact me after big changes in the market—a day or so after it goes up or down. They rest, and then they call me," said Zoë,* a $600-an-hour independent escort in her mid 30s who's been in and out of the business since her late teens, alternating with stints in the legal $10-an-hour tip-based economy.
Among the half dozen women I've spoken to on and off the record in recent weeks about their work in the local sex trade, all of them agreed that there's no escaping Wall Street, since almost every sector in New York—real estate, restaurants, prostitution, you name it—opens its mouth to finance's trickle-down. As the Dow has ticked up and come to represent an ever larger share of the national economy over the past two decades, it's been a long, steady climb up for New York, setting aside the short but hard September crashes when the Twin Towers went down and when Lehman Brothers fell seven years later.
Lehman Brothers was how the French Whore—an American woman in her mid 30s who asked to be called that to protect her identity—said she ended up in the business. She keeps a sleeping bed in one room and a client bed in the other, and the walls are decorated with her own artwork (in her ads, she describes herself with phrases like "art student needing a hand"). Her story is a particularly perverse tale of what former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg once envisioned as the luxury city, a place to accommodate the rich and house the members of their servant class. In her telling, she's been forced to make a living fucking the guys who fucked the American economy because they took her down with it.
After studying fashion out west (she preferred not to say where), the French Whore came to New York to try to make it "doing custom-made fashion."
"It wasn't very profitable," the French Whore told me. "I never really made money. Long hours, bringing in fifteen dollars an hour. I worked in fashion for two years in the city. Someone like me, without money—I wasn't able to work my way up. It's for trust-fund kids. Money would have given me more chance to work on the right jobs—another five years in internships."
So when the market crashed in 2008, as gigs dried up and her rent soared, she started selling sex out of sheer economic necessity, she said. The clients she met through an escort agency, many of them in finance ("most, I think, but it's not like they gave me their business cards"), ground her down, so eventually she went "old school," dropping her price point and working for herself in a $200-an-hour volume business.
"It's a low rate—that way I can opt out of things," said the French Whore.
"The bankers, the upscale clientele, they care about getting good service and are willing to pay the price, but they're demanding. Now, I have no overhead but rent, and I make about three thousand dollars a weekend. It's a hardworking weekend. Nonstop."
When Zoë and I spoke over bourbons at the Maritime Hotel bar in Chelsea on a Tuesday night, her outfit stood out. She was dressed in her usual fall getup of shorts, tights, a warm sweater, and boots. Nearly every woman around us was in costume, most of them in spiky heels and high-slit gowns with low-cut necks. I asked her what she does that makes her worth three times more than the French Whore.
"Marketing, mostly," she said. "Selling—and giving, I hope—a sense of human connection. I know it's not that my sex is three times better."
Marketing has helped her diversify her client base and reduce her reliance on the finance crowd. "I'm an independent now, so I don't deal with your coke calls, your twenty-five-year-old hedge-fund dickheads, but you still feel the market," Zoë said. "My clients at least make plans to see me. The young guys who blow their money on agencies don't tend to be planners—they call for an appointment in half an hour, not a month out. The girls there are like tickers. They feel it when markets move.
"Not to play a violin for them, but it's tough," Zoë said, shifting to the demand side. "Wall Street's a pyramid—there are a lot more guys in their twenties scrambling up than guys in their forties who've made it there. The attrition is brutal, and they all have to be hungry and work ninety hours a week with their hair cut the same way. They seem sad, frequently, but are determined to have the kind of good time that's sexy and pricey.
"Their consumption is conspicuous even though they're not doing it front of other guys," she continued. "It's like a vote of confidence in themselves—they know there's only a small chance they'll get to the top of the pyramid and make portfolio manager by forty or get into private equity, so spending a lot on hookers and blow is a vote of self-confidence: I know I'm going to keep making a shit-ton of money, so I can spend now like there's more coming in."
February, when the bonuses come in, is a big month, making up for the usually slow December, Zoë said. (It also brings her real estate brokers and car salesmen and others who end up with a cut of that cash.) For the Wall Street guys, "I think it's a rite of passage," she said. "You get a hundred thousand, and you blow ten on hookers that weekend. It's very important to them that if they're going to be the kind of guy who's hiring an escort, it's a very expensive escort. The more you charge them, the happier they are.
"The guys like agencies because they don't want a person; they want pizza. This way, once you've been vetted, you can call and order and half an hour later someone's there."
Still, she said, finance clients are infamous for contesting credit-card charges ("almost like dining and dashing, but by guys making seven or eight figures"). So, almost inevitably, credit-card companies end up cutting off agencies' accounts.
When they're paying, the French Whore told me, the finance customers are "more demanding. The way they want you to suck their dick, they're very specific. And if the guy has coke dick you might suck the dick all night long.
A lot of guys want you to rim them, too. Even for five hundred dollars, it doesn't pay off. And if they think you do it bad, they review you badly. When I worked at an agency I had to do all that stuff," she said, explaining why she decided to go independent.
"Some guys can't get it up, and I just sit around naked and watch them do coke," she said. "Once they come, they are gonna go. If they don't come, I have to do a blowjob. The deal is if you're gonna fuck someone, even if it takes over an hour, they have to come."
Not everyone is so fastidious. "There's actually a term for it—a party call," Zoë said. "There are girls who specialize in that stuff because they really like doing cocaine. And there's not a lot of sex involved"—at least on relative terms. "It's just clients who don't like to snort alone, and it makes them feel important, or, I don't know, stylish, maybe, to do it with a naked girl there." Some agencies specialize in "champagne" delivery, with sex just a side item on the menu.
"I still don't like prefab lofts," Zoë added. "I hate their shitty furniture. I hate their getting-to-know-you questions that are awkward and make the transition from chitchat to the sexy thing brutal for me, and for them. 'Where are you from?' 'Do you like the city?' My normal sense of humor is a little shit-talky, like, 'I'm gonna mock you, you're gonna mock me, we'll be friends.' And those guys don't get that at all. You bring up a book they haven't heard of, and it's like, 'Oh, you're real smart, huh?'"
"These guys are making money," the French Whore said. "This is just buying a thing. They want the skill level, a level of service. And then they need to discard it, like a product, once it's used. And they're in denial. Some of them ask not to use a condom." She caught one guy, with his wedding ring on, trying to sneak his condom off midway through.
"They're so narcissistic. They are in complete denial that this is part of their real life," she said. When I asked her whether they think she has a real life, she just said no.
Zoë echoed that, then bounced in a different direction: "The finance guys are less interested and capable of seeing me as a person, an actual human, than anyone else." She paused and lingered over a sip of her drink. "And sometimes, I find that a relief. They don't need me to make them feel special. Just show up, do the sexy thing, and then get the fuck out of their home.
"The one client I dated, briefly, was a Wall Street dude, and one reason I dated him was because he was uninterested in things that weren't him, so what I did for a living really didn't matter."
Pearl Gabel contributed reporting.
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*Names have been changed.