Even sex hits hard times

by on October 30, 2008  •  In Culture, Sex work

The Nation

By JoAnn Wypijewski

…Act I. Scene I. Before. Ed Hayes, New York attorney and man about town, has long gauged the stock market's temperature by a High-End Girlfriend Index and High-End Stripper Index. "When times are really good, guys spend fortunes at strip clubs: $2,000, $5,000… You got a 20-something-year-old, he just got a $3 million bonus, he might spend $20,000 in one night. This guy in a club once says to me, 'Listen Eddie, whatever I spend it's cheaper than the divorce.'" Likewise, a courtesan's time, even if it cost $10,000 a month, was a bargain next to the package for courting the young, fashionable girlfriend: the lease on a car, the $2 million Lower East Side condo, the dinners and baubles and $1,265/night weekend getaways at the Mandarin Oriental….

Such was the situation before panic set in at the top. In the intimate economy, sex has always been the least of it, particularly at the levels of mad wealth, where transaction costs take a different form. Average townhouse: $17 million. Baby: $50,000. One-day Yelling Center evaluation of the child's bad behavior: $4,250. … In the web of exchange relations, perhaps the only person who fully grasped the extreme privilege and vulnerability of her situation was that relative rarity, the high-end call girl who had hustled her way up from the cheap brothels and champagne bars, and whose survival has always depended on a careful calibration of spreading her risk.

Scene II. The phone stopped ringing. Sandra was the new girl with the agency in July, when she was getting twenty calls a night for phone sex, while established workers got fifty. Most callers wanted her "co-ed" character–blond, petite, barely legal. Some wanted her mature lady. About five times a month someone called for her "ebony" character. Sandra is 35, creole–black to white men, unless she tints her hair red and wears green contacts to bring out her Latin features, as she sometimes does to get a gig dancing in a club. Since the crash, her twenty callers have dwindled to six; the other girls' to twenty. …The day the bailout passed she got fifteen calls.

Phone sex agencies accept credit cards. Sandra, who is a member of PONY (Prostitutes of New York) but lives in Philadelphia, knows massage girls who have stopped taking cards. "I always believe in having cash on hand, and I always believe in having a civilian job." Sandra also works as a midrange escort and picks up jobs housekeeping and catering. She recently dropped a longtime client because he demanded a deep discount. He'll find it somewhere.

On Craigslist, escort rates have been moving like the Dow ticker. Women who had $400-an-hour rates are running specials. Low-end ads are chockablock, but hourly prices are dropping: $180, $160, $100; indoor workers are offering out-calls, offering car dates. Amateurs are entering the market. You can smell danger. Sex workers in New York have been under heavy weather from raids and surveillance all year. $pread magazine estimates that "commercialized vice" and prostitution-related arrests nationwide have swung between 90,000 and 110,000; one editor, Monica Shore, worries that those will rise as cash-starved localities see opportunity in extracting fines.

Scene III. Deleveraging. As Lehman employees carried out their things in champagne crates, a friend and former sex worker remarked, "The worse shit gets, the more people escape to sex: paid-for sex, free sex." The question is how the scale might tip. Ed Hayes speculated that this might be a good time for some high rollers, those who have watched their net worth collapse, to get that divorce. On the Internet a debate swirled around the "depreciating assets" of high-end girlfriends…..

As the tongue-in-cheek analyst team of longorshortcapital.com, parodists of investment science, replied to a question about the relative position of high-end players in the intimate economy:

"In good times, men are flush with cash and looking for strange but are also less dysfunctional; this leads to an allocation towards a basket mainly consisting of High-end Wives, with maybe a 15% position in High-end GFs and a 2-5% position in High-end Hookers. As markets worsen and/or crises take hold, Man is increasing dysfunctional and looking for ego offsets. It is also in this time when Man typically contemplates or engages in life restructuring which can entail simple cost saves, like headcount reduction, or even full-on recapitalization, flushing out the junior capital. A successful market-timing Man will typically have a portfolio composed of 60% High-end hookers, 30% High-end GFs and 10% value High-end Wives when the market is bottoming. As the cycle comes around, the High-end Hooker position is reduced opportunistically, some of the High-end GF portion transitions organically to High-end Wives and the value High-end Wife position is added to with more growth High-end Wives. As to relative vulnerability, obviously Man will be ok and everyone else will (still) be fucked in a recession. This is what historically has been true according to the data we have. Additionally, the cross-cyclical trend we see is that everyone else will still be fucked."

Tongue in cheek, but there's a truth in every joke, and the first act of this crackup has just begun.


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