If there’s one element Pretty Woman is most commonly maligned for, it’s the improbable ending of a street working prostitute whisked away by a filthy rich client. Civilians love to crow about how wildly unrealistic it is to think that a john will ever marry his sex worker and yeah, if you’re entering into sex work with the goal to use it as a dating service, you’re probably going to be a disappointed. That goes for clients and providers. But it’s not uncommon for sex workers to have romantic, unpaid relationships with men they first met as clients. I’ve been in just such a relationship for almost six years. And at last count, I know five married couples who fit the same bill. (I should stipulate that two of these are now divorced, which is consistent with the national average.) It’s not just escorts; strippers, too, can end up with a patron. Nor it is limited to folks who work indoors. A street worker I know spoke to me once about a burgeoning unpaid relationship with a former client, although she made it clear to me (and to him) that she had no intention of quitting work just because she began dating him.
That’s where Pretty Woman really gets it wrong: even when sex workers find a man willing to support them, they often want to keep working.
If only someone had told that to Robert Brot, the man who sued his escort after he spent over $100,000 on her in the hope of wooing her away from hooking. Or to several of my clients who thought they were poised to rescue-marry their favorite prostitute but were dumped when she got tired of them and returned to frequent escorting. What can I say? It’s tough to quit The Life. Every time I think I’m ready to retire, it sucks me back in. When I wasn’t working and my boyfriend was supporting me, I felt claustrophobic and atrophied. It wasn’t healthy for me to be a kept woman, though I hold no judgments against those who find it appealing.
Maybe this equation sounds reasonable to non-sex workers; sure, you all can marry those gross clients, who else would want them? Professor Marina Adshade may well fall into this camp, as she recently recommended that any men who’ve seen prostitutes should never admit as much to girlfriends. Her article is mostly an excuse to talk about the findings of a study interviewing sex worker clients, and it doesn’t seem to have much of a point. Her subsequent argument, which only emerges in her conversation with commenters, is that she’s concerned about how a man who pays for sex perceives it. “This particular boy friend,” she tells us, meaning a boyfriend of hers who admitted to spending at least a decade regularly hiring prostitutes, “once compared receiving oral sex to having his car washed.”
So, her boyfriend viewed sex mechanically and dispassionately—I wouldn’t want to date the guy, either. Nor would I want him as a client. I can admit that lots of guys, maybe even the majority, are only seeking a physical encounter when they pay a sex worker, meaning they want to get off but they don’t want there to be an emotional element. There are different reasons for that, and they are not all evidence of sexual dysfunction. The man may be nervous about being vulnerable with a stranger or he may feel that emotional engagement is more of a betrayal of his significant other. But there are also many men who do want an emotional romantic component when they pay for sexual intimacy, and plenty of sex workers attest to this time and time again. I’ve written about it before and I won’t regurgitate it all here, but the men I see overwhelmingly associate sex with tenderness and connection. For them, it is not like visiting a drive-through.
We know what type of client Chris Rock is, for example:
If taking a prostitute to dinner is a waste of time—lots of guys do exactly this, by the way—it’s because you’re either a) cheap and don’t want to pay for time out of bed or b) you’re not that into conversation with the person you’re about to fuck. You go into a paid sexual encounter with that attitude—it’s not something you develop after the fact.
Lots of men who’ve never hired prostitutes or spent much time in strip clubs are perfectly capable of regarding sex as an emotionally neutral experience. Some of the men I’d been with in the past, men who were too broke and too cocky to be paying for it, saw sex as a game. They wanted to get laid as often as they could, however they could, and they often assumed that manipulation and outright lying were required to make that happen. At least a man who hires sex workers might be beyond that stage. Rather than developing the habit of plying women with false promises and alcohol, he just goes to an ATM.
This is what makes Adshade’s closing paragraph so weird. She says she’s not willing to call johns “dates” because they’re only spending $20 for a blowjob whereas a civilian man is going to spend closer to $100 or more on wooing a woman he hopes to get a blowjob from. Not only is she admitting, then, that codified dating rituals are a form of (unreliable) prostitution and therefore shouldn’t warrant all of her hand-wringing about guys who see prostitutes (since, basically, every man is trying to barter his funds for sex.) She’s also admitting that she thinks sex work terminology should be determined by how much someone spends.
So if a “john” spends $20-$50 and a “date” spends $100-$300, what do you call a client who drops $100,000 on a prostitute? I guess you call him a “husband.”