Here's what happens when you—a slightly neurotic, straight, white male who's been in a committed relationship for years—goes on a "girlfriend experience" date to write an article about it. First, you make a clumsy and ill-advised tense shift because the situation's extreme specificity makes the second-person perspective invalid.
Then, I asked my lovely and kind partner for her approval.
"No sex," I said.
"Sure, whatever," she said.
With that pesky detail out of the way, I went to Google to find the right gal for me. The appropriate search terms were obvious: "Girlfriend experience," or "GFE" for short. I added my own location because I didn't have a travel budget. If you're living in or near a city, you're among escorts. The more money that city has—if you haven't heard, the Bay Area's busting—the more escorts there are who offer "GFE services." They are expensive, roughly $500 an hour.
During my search, I ignored listings on BackPage (too many pimps) and Eros (too forward for what I was trying to accomplish), and focused on personally created websites, looking for independent freelancers like me. At the very least, we'd be able to commiserate over the looming tax day. After that self-imposed restriction, I tried to find someone I'd "connect with." The world of sex work is a rich tapestry hidden from public eyes, so research is important when you're searching for someone to spend time with. After a weeklong search, I found Jessica. I can't go into exactly what I enjoyed about her site—Jessica is not her real name—but I emailed her, explained I was a writer, and gave her information to locate me online. She responded.
Here's a good place to disclose my awareness of the observer effect principle—how the act of observation changes the thing being observed. Maybe I could even get into the inherent problem that comes with trying to document anything, even mention how the first documentary film, Nanook of the North, was filled with forced recreations. It would, if anything, at last recoup some value from my college film minor. But you're smart, you get all that. So when we planned the date with a brief phone call—not necessarily her norm—I broke down how, while this would technically be a date, there'd be no sex.
"I don't want to say dates have a guarantee of sexual activity, because they don't," she said. "A, because it's illegal. And B, they simply don't. There have been a good number of instances where I have not been able to get there with somebody."
OK. But still. Sex is a big part of the experience, and that could be an issue in terms of finding whatever capital-T Truth could be captured about the business. She responded honestly. "Based on your boundaries and motivations, your 'girlfriend experience' may not resemble the more 'authentic'—if I can even use that word—experience that my other clients receive," she said. Which means sex, yes, but also the "flirting and physical touching" that make up a huge part of dates. This was non-negotiable, both due to the aforementioned relationship and because VICE's legal team presumably didn't want to make the legal case for paying off that invoice. As long as we were both OK with those restrictions, we could proceed.
Here's my justification: This project's about finding out what the "girlfriend experience" is. That is, how it differs from other sex work like "escort services," "fetish specialists," or "body rubs." It's all semantics, sure, meant to funnel customers toward the correct service. But is the GFE simply a marketable buzzword meant to bump up costs, like realtors who extend the borders of "hip" neighborhoods to jack up rents? Or does it actually "blur the boundary between financial transaction and a romantic relationship?" Taking the sex out and focusing on the interaction would, ideally, lead toward finding out.
In any case: My deep-seeded lingering Catholic guilt wouldn't allow it, VICE was like "whatever," and Jessica was good with it. So we moved ahead.
After the new couple agrees on the first date, the gentlemen caller picks where it occurs. Usually this means a hotel room ("a nice one," said Jessica), or maybe a cafe to start, before moving toward a more private destination. Bars and dinners are for regular customers; weekend jaunts away are for very regular customers. Since this date's with me, I had to decide. I like dive bars and Mexican food, so I found some joints nearby, making sure to avoid the locales where I know bartenders, partially because I was role-playing as a cheating husband (Jessica says this happens, of course, but that most of her clients are single), and partially because I just didn't want to explain myself to anyone. I sent her the details.
The night before, I was full of nerves. My body turns grotesque when that happens. My stomach contorts into a tight retch and forces me into the bathroom often. Also, apparently, my gums now bleed. That's a fun new quirk. As I was leaving, I made sure to get my "date outfit" approved by my partner, less to ask if it was appropriate and more to assure I didn't look like a fool. It's been awhile since I've been on a date, is the goddamn point.
When I got to the restaurant, Jessica was waiting outside, wearing heels, a dress, and showing off midriff in a charming way. We hugged—she had a really warm hug—and I could feel she had nerves, too. "People are nervous for the first meetings," she said, "I'm nervous!" We moved inside, and I showed her my driver's license, her standard move for first-timers. Over dinner, I had her walk me through how a first date would go down, if not for the previous 1,000 words of reasons.
"The first date is the first big step of trust, on both ends," she said. "They don't know who they're meeting. I'm trusting they're going to be respectful, they're going to be safe, and they're going to treat me well." She also feels out the client in terms of attractiveness. More than once she's stopped dates because hygiene wasn't appropriate. "I've had people ask me if I was attracted to them, and I've had to very sadly say, 'I find a lot of things about you very interesting.' I'd pull one of those cards. I'm not going to lie. You can't find everyone attractive."
With approval given, Jessica will get a sense of what her client is looking for through general questions. What do you like? What feels good to you? Sometimes, people know exactly how to answer. "They're like, 'I like it when someone licks all around the head of penis while massaging my balls and every so often licking up and down the shaft.' I'm like, 'Those specific three things?' And they're like, 'Yep.' 'Do you want anything else?' 'I'll tell you if I do,'" she said. "It's amazing." But many times, Jessica has to guide her clients toward finding themselves.
"Some people have been married since they've been twenty-five, have never been with anyone else," she said. "To be even asked that question, they short-circuit. It's like eating nothing but burgers and then going to Asian fusion and being asked what you want." In those cases, she'll move slowly, asking questions before taking the next step.. "Can I kiss you?" she'll say. After that, she'll start taking off her clothes, with the same continual questions to make sure they're still comfortable. "Can I take this off? Can I take these off? Usually the answer is, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes,'" she said. "I ask so people feel comfortable rather than just ripping their clothes off before they're ready. Although, they're usually pretty fucking ready." You can imagine where it goes from there.
But, in terms of this investigation and our boundaries, what happens after sex? We closed our tab and headed to a bar.
When I asked some of my friends who've had GFEs, they described the act like so: There's sex, then lots of talking, then sex again. Kind of like a therapy session sandwiched by sex. When I lobbed this description toward Jessica to gauge its accuracy, she agreed.
"They'll tell me stories about their ex-wife, all this stuff about their childhood," said Jessica. "The more time you spend with anybody, the more drinks you have, the more hours you talk, the more things open up." The conversations are, of course, mostly one-sided. "If someone wants to see me casually, then me going on and on about my life isn't what he signed up for." And so, to get that part of the experience, the nebulous thing that makes the girlfriend experience the girlfriend experience, Jessica allowed me to use her as a sounding board for the more anxious goings-on in my life. We moved to a couch, she slipped off her shoes, and we got into the muck.
I'm not going to go into specifics here, for obvious reasons, but I'd like to get into how it feels to speak to someone like Jessica. There's a freedom in it, an allowance to voice issues without consequences, which, turns out, is super rare to be able to do. Consider your deepest, darkest secret. Now, consider everyone you'd tell it to. Mostly, you'll come up with a list of confidantes you trust because you've known them for so long. But if they've been around that long, they most certainly know many of the people who constitute your social and familial network. So are they really the best people to talk to? Of course, they're not going to tell anyone, but they could. If that were in your mind, would you hold back?
So it's not just that someone like Jessica isreally good at being conversational—practice makes perfect, and what not—but that she's someone with absolutely no stakes in whatever you're talking about. The conversation is in a safe space, with a distinct start and end point. There's no need for "damage control"—the profound apologies, the insidious bluffs of "I was just joking."Feelings don't matter here. It's stream-of-consciousness bluntness, a coalescing of words that bring to light new possibilities, but also allow one's bullshit to stand and be exposed.
After two or three beers, I told her about this insight.
"I get that a lot," said Jessica. "'These are things I'm frustrated about, and I'm telling you because you're not in any way going to be affected. Whereas, if I tell my wife, or kids, or boss, or friends, something's going to happen. They're going to try to intervene or do something that isn't necessary. I just want to talk.'"
Sometimes, that's all you need. (And yup, time for me to duck back into the second-person.) Sure, maybe there's a falsity to that situation, since your "sounding board" is only hearing your side. There's a bubble effect happening—your confidante only knows what you're choosing to tell her, so she's going to agree with you. Meaning, these conversations won't solve any long-term anxiety, or "fix" depression. Unless steps are taken outside this sexually enhanced therapy, nothing's going to change for you, you sad sack. But it is a short-term consolation, a brief opening of the valve to let off steam. That has value.
It makes sense, then, that you—the respectful client with a substantial level of disposable income—would want to expand these dates past the two-hour minimum. That you'd want to spend as much time as you could in this constructed dreamscape, where an exceedingly attractive young woman is not only bringing your deeply hidden sexual proclivities to life, but also hearing you gripe about the world and nodding along with every declaration about how so-and-so doesn't "get" you. That you'd want to expand the date to four hours, or six, or a full day, maybe even a weekend trip. And when you become one of her "regulars," to push even beyond those boundaries, sending a text or email when she's "off the clock," looking for advice, or just telling her you're thinking about her, you're excited for your next date.
And she is, too. By that point, she does have some version of feelings for you. Maybe not love, but close. That's the best scenario, for you and Jessica both, when there's a mutual attraction that goes beyond clear-cut escort/client roles. "That's the dream, to see the same person I'd see outside of work," said Jessica. When she doesn't have to fake anything, when she can laugh at your jokes heartily and with enthusiasm, when it doesn't even feel like a job anymore.
"Then it's like actual dating," she said, before she smiled. "But they're still paying me."
The Girlfriend Experience on VICE is a two-part editorial series. Read part 1 here.
Sponsored by The Girlfriend Experience, a STARZ Original Series that follows Christine Reade played by Riley Keough, as she enters the provocative world of paid intimacy and high-end escorting. Every episode available beginning 4/10 on STARZ.
This article was paid for by Starz and was created independently from VICE's editorial staff.