On Wednesday, the Institute for Women's Policy Research released a report that calculated the year the pay gap between men and women will close in America: 2059. A long ways to go, it goes without saying.
But millennial women, at least, are making more than ever before, and that's worth celebrating. More money means more opportunity to invest in recreation, and sex has a way of working itself into that realm. According to those with different hands in the pleasure industry, from professional dominatrixes and porn distributors to escort agencies and more, an increasing number of women are coming forward to invest in their services.
While reliable data on the sex work industry is notoriously scarce, research would seem to confirm their word. One study by UK researchers Dr. Sarah Kingston of Lancaster University and Dr. Natalie Hammond at Manchester Metropolitan University—one of the most extensive to date to explore how women are purchasing sex—combed through over 27,000 online escort ads, and found that between 2010 and 2015, profiles of male escorts rose from 5,246 to 15,732, a nearly 200 percent increase. Profiles of female escorts rose from 11,056 to 28,614 in the same time, a 158 percent increase.
What's motivating women to spend money on sex? One reason, it appears, is to take the reins back from men.
Angie Rowntree first entered the porn industry in the early 1990s, and it didn't take long for her to notice that the content, almost always, was created by men. Though that's slowly changing, too, it was a factor behind her eventual decision to step behind the camera and start her own women-focused, subscription-based porn site, Sssh.com, in 1999. In the past few years, she said she's experienced an increase in the amount of women signing up for subscriptions, and has a working theory as to why.
Porn is a logical step for women looking for an easy way to explore the different sides of sex. "Technology allows women to engage with the industry at a part time level and not feel like they are going all the way," said David Ley, a clinical psychologist and author of Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man's Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure. But those looking for a more hands-on approach to their sexuality are turning to their local BDSM dungeons to find lessons and role models to emulate.
Snow Mercy, a professional dominatrix for the past 12 years, said she's seen a sharp rise in the number of women walking through her doors as of late. While some are there to enjoy her more traditional services, others are looking to learn how to emulate dominatrixes in their personal lives. "I'm getting more women who want to learn how to be dominant," she said.
Justine Cross has seen something similar. She's been in the BDSM scene for the past ten years; a few years back, she started managing dungeons around LA. These days, she's been getting more and more calls from women wanting to rent out her spaces.
"I think more women are talking to their partners about what they want," she said. She suspects more mainstream depictions of kinky sex are to thank for helping kickstart the conversation. Take 50 Shades, for instance: "That was everywhere," she said. "It was advertised on billboards. You could find it in the airport. It was featured in your mom's book club. You couldn't escape it."
According to Dr. Carol Queen, an author, educator and staff sexologist at the San Francisco-based sex shop Good Vibrations, these kinds of in-person endeavors can help women map their progress toward sexual self-discovery. "In an era when people feel they can learn it all online, I think many feel the next step might be exploring in a controlled environment," she said.
For the past few years, Cross has organized "play parties" around LA. Like Queen, she recognizes the need to provide a space for those interested in pursuing certain sexual desires. Doing so in a "controlled environment" means certain rules have been put in place: no smoking inside the venue, for one, and limitations on how tickets can be transferred between individuals, too. Also, men aren't allowed in. Cross said turnout has increased year-by-year, only getting stronger.
Of course, a female-only event sounds like an easy sell to those active in the queer community. But it's not just about queer women, said Cross. "There are a lot of straight women who want to explore BDSM in a safe way, without men present," she explained. For them, securing a spot in a low-risk, sex-positive play space is worth the cost. And keeping men out of the picture is one way to keep those conditions intact. "Women don't experience same-sex contact as being as intrusive or threatening, so it lets them ease into situations more easily," Ley noted. He also makes the point that women tend to feel safer around other women: "They have less fear of sexual assault or their boundaries being violated."
But there are other ways for straight women to take the reins on intimate encounters. Garren James started the male escort service Cowboys4Angels back in 2009. The company, which caters exclusively to women, launched with just 15 working companions. Today, they represent around 95 guys, with demand for their services rising daily.
"I keep hearing about women going on bad date after bad date," he said. "With us, you're paying to get the perfect boyfriend for the night." James notes his employees are selling companionship and time; per the company's website, "anything that may or may not happen is a matter of personal choice and personal preference between two or more consenting adults."
According to James, the women walking into his office are doing so armed with increasingly fatter wallets. That money buys them the luxury of calling the shots. "The women, they're thinking, 'I'm paying. You're going to act the way I want you to act. We're going to do what I want to do.'" And the men he represents are compensated to do just that.
Women may not be the most likely demographic to spend money on sexy forms of fun, but those who do do so for very specific reasons. Escorts interviewed for the 2015 UK study echoed Ley's conclusion that the rise is partly attributable to technology's ease of access; another possibility is that women may have less need for relationships today, preferring the ease of access to male companionship that the sex work industry provides. Either way, men have enjoyed safe, secure and stress-free ways to experiment with sex and pleasure for a long time. Better salaries, less stigmas and more options mean women can finally get in on that game, too.
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