People think you're just this f--king hooker, someone who's money-hungry, dirty and gross. But that's not my reality," said Boomer Banks on a recent March afternoon, looking up from his sewing machine. "It isn't my be-all, end-all. It's just a way for me to be able to get what I need for the rest of my career."
Strewn around Banks’ cozy Chelsea apartment are glimpses of this future dream -- scraps of cloth draped on chairs, naked dress mannequins covered in pins. Banks might be an escort and porn star, but he sure as hell loves to sew.
His passion for silks and skirts brought him to New York City in 2011 in hot pursuit of a career in fashion design. But with opportunities scarce, he soon found himself jumping from unfulfilling retail job to retail job, plotting a plan B.
Then, early last year, Banks put together his first profile for Rentboy.com, the unabashedly NSFW ad-listing website for male escorts. This, he thought, could be his ticket out.
So he paid the site a small fee to post a number of risque photographs of himself, as well as a short bio that includes information about his penis (“extra large”) and sexual fetishes (“S&M, water sports”). He then kicked back and waited for interested parties to contact him.
His first escorting experience “wasn’t horrible,” he said, “and it kind of just went from there.”
Today, Banks has become something of an “it” brand in the adult industry. In fact, he was recently crowned the top escort in the world at the Hookie Awards, a ceremony co-produced by Rentboy.com that honors male escorts. And life, he says, is really good: “I made a choice, and I’m owning it.”
Before the Internet, a man interested in hiring an escort like Banks would’ve had to riffle through the classifieds pages of print magazines or check fliers left in bars. Alternatively, he could’ve reached out to escort agencies, where rent boys pay a fee to be listed on the roster.
But times have changed. Exchanging money for a night of intimacy may still be taboo, but thanks to sites like Rentboy.com, it’s never been easier -- or safer -- to do. As a result, industry insiders say, more people than ever are hiring rent boys. More are also choosing to become escorts, despite the stigma and challenges that come with the job.
Today, prospective clients can browse the nearly 3,000 escort profiles listed on Rentboy.com and sort them based on personal preference -- down to eye color and foreskin.
Said to be the first male escort ad-listing website, Rentboy.com was founded in 1996. Though comparable sites have since popped up -- including the similarly named Rentmen.com -- Rentboy remains the largest and most popular of its kind.
Company Director Sean Van Sant says that on a daily basis, the site gets about 500,000 unique visitors, about 70 percent of whom access the site from the United States.
The average escort on Rentboy.com is in his early 30s, and most of the escorts live in big cities and identify as gay. However, Van Sant said “all types of guys” advertise on the site. There are, for instance, “escorts in tiny nowheresville,” others who identify as “gay for pay,” and some who are older than one might expect. (The oldest escort on the site is 64.)
The site is free for clients and those who merely want to gawk, and other than a monthly fee -- between $30 and $60 -- that escorts pay to post their ads, Rentboy.com doesn’t levy any other charges.
"We’ve cut out the middle man,” Van Sant said. “Guys work for themselves and not us. We're not pimps here, not an agency.”
S everal rent boys, all of whom make between $200 and $400 an hour escorting, told The Huffington Post they see sex work as a job and not a career. “Most people work in the industry so they don’t have to [return to it],” former escort Hawk Kinkaid explained. “Sometimes they’re between jobs or they’re students or they’re starting a business and need supplemental income.”
Take Eli Lewis for example. He's a 22-year-old former professional ballet dancer who says he got into escorting a couple years ago to pay off his student loans. "I figured it'd be a way to make a quick buck, while also allowing me to explore my sexuality through a different avenue," he said.
Lewis, who attended Sarah Lawrence College before pursuing a career in ballet, says he never expected to become a sex worker. But spurred on by a need for quick cash after a dance injury and encouraged by how easy it was to get started, he eventually took the plunge.
Like many others in the industry, Lewis says he also go-go dances and works in porn to make extra cash. Industry insiders say about 60 percent to 70 percent of porn actors also work as escorts.
But unlike porn, escorting is much more than just, as Lewis put it, a "whack and go."
"You're devoting an hour or more to another human being,” he said. “Sure, sex sometimes happens, but most of what I do is psychological work.”
One of Lewis' longest-standing clients is a businessman in his mid-30s with whom he says he’s never been physically intimate. "He's constantly traveling, and whenever he gets into town, he just wants to have dinner, wants a distraction from his very busy schedule," Lewis said.
Other escorts shared similar stories. Most said about half their escorting sessions don't involve sex. Many clients are seeking “intimacy,” said one escort, “and not necessarily penetration.”
Many escorts said they’ve masqueraded as clients' boyfriends at fancy galas, and most had stories about surprising fetishes that clients wanted satiated. One escort, for instance, told a story of a client who wanted nothing more than to masturbate while watching the rent boy break No. 2 pencils on his own backside.
A typical client, according to the rent boys interviewed by HuffPost, seems to be a working professional in his 30s or 40s who is either gay or bisexual and has no time or interest in dating; otherwise, he’s someone who publicly identifies as straight. (Or in some cases, virulently straight, like staunchly anti-gay pastor George Rekers, who caused a mini scandal in 2010 after being spotted at Miami International Airport with a young man he’d allegedly hired on Rentboy.com.)
It seems, however, that each escort attracts a very different kind of client. Christopher Daniels, a popular escort who’s in his early 30s, says about 80 percent of his clients are closeted gay men who tend to prefer "vanilla" sex. On the other hand, Leo Forte, a 29-year-old escort who specializes in S&M, says he attracts mostly gay or bisexual men whose “sexual desires are hidden from the world.”
Across the board, rent boys say they’re starting to see a rise in younger clients. One escort said he’s recently been contacted by "a lot of trust fund babies and some college students." Many also said they had clients who were celebrities, athletes and politicians. One said his clients included coaches of college sports teams.
With such a variety of clients seeking companionship, Daniels -- who recently published a tell-all memoir about his experiences as an escort -- said connecting deeply with the men who hire him (and their whims and eccentricities) can make the job "exhausting.”
"This is an industry where people want so much of you," he said.
E scorts say that establishing and upholding boundaries -- whether physical, sexual or emotional -- is critical for their well-being and success in the industry. But it can sometimes prove difficult.
Porn mogul Michael Lucas, founder of gay porn company Lucas Entertainment, said that perhaps the "biggest challenge facing escorts is the 24/7 nature of the job."
"Most escorts become slaves of their work. They have no private life," said Lucas, who worked as an escort in Europe in his early 20s. "They have their phone next to their ears constantly, and if it rings, they think, 'If I don't pick up, I'll lose $300,' so they stand up and skip dinner with their friends.”
Psychologist Jeffrey Parsons, a distinguished professor at Hunter College who has conducted research into Internet-based male sex workers, agreed that “riding high on a load of cash” can be a “very addictive” experience; however, he noted that people working in other industries sometimes demonstrate similar behaviors. “Realtors, for instance, may act that way,” he said. “You may see it in any industry where workers are commission-based.”
But Parsons pointed out that escorts, unlike real estate agents or telemarketers, face a slew of unique challenges that stem from the job’s illegal nature and society's distaste for sex work.
Other than in a handful of rural counties in Nevada, selling sex for money is illegal in the United States. The escorts who spoke to HuffPost all said they had never been targeted by law enforcement and that arrests among rent boys seem to be rare. However, most also seemed aware of the risks involved. Some escorts said they avoid incrimination by telling their clients they’re merely “selling their time.”
Rentboy.com, which prevents escorts from explicitly offering sex for money in their ads, has never encountered any legal troubles in its 18-year history, according to a company representative.
Still, though legal woes don’t seem to be a pressing issue in the rent boy community, the perceived shady nature of the job means that some escorts harbor anxieties as they go about their daily lives, and some often keep their work secret from the people around them. Some escorts said that leaving the industry (or the prospect of doing so) and finding other employment can be daunting for this same reason.
One former escort said he reluctantly returned to sex work after a long hiatus because he found it so difficult to find a different job, while another said he hasn’t dared tell his current employer about his past as a sex worker out of fear of getting fired. In 2013, adult entertainment lawyer Michael Fattorosi told Salon.com there are no protections for former sex workers under current employment discrimination laws.
Firing someone for being a sex worker is “not like saying we’re letting you go because you’re black or Jewish or you wear a turban,” he said. “Those things are not a result of a life choice you make, and being a sex worker is.”
The fears of social alienation and judgment also weigh heavily on the minds of some in the industry. Leo Forte, who served in the military before getting into porn and escorting, said he waffled for years before deciding to pursue sex work.
“I never wanted to hide anything from people, but I was afraid of rejection,” he said. “As it is, everybody is judging you all the time, and this is just another big elephant in the room to talk s--t about."
Several escorts said the lifestyle has strained relationships with family members, and many expressed that dating can be extremely difficult.
"It's very hard to find someone who would be cool with you sleeping with other people," said Ryan Rose, a 28-year-old escort based in Fort Myers, Fla. "When all the clients are gone and the porn scenes are over, it's just you in that hotel room or at the airport, and yeah, it does get lonely."
Other than seeking an emotional connection with someone, Eli Lewis, who has active accounts on dating and hookup sites like OKCupid and Adam4Adam, says he’s also always on the lookout for someone to have a casual relationship with. There’s a misconception, he said, that “sex workers should be getting enough sex so they don’t need to [date] or use something like Grindr.”
“But it’s different. When I’m escorting, I’m at work,” he said. “Sex with clients is not that fun for me, because I’m trying to cater to their fantasy, and sex in porn sometimes is just not as hot as it looks.”
Despite the drawbacks that come with the job, many escorts maintain the sacrifices have been well worth it. “It's a very good lifestyle that you become accustomed to,” Forte said, adding that he’s proud of the services he can provide to his clients. “When it comes to doing sex as a service, it becomes a little transcendent. You have to be almost like a healer -- sexually.”
The struggle to overcome common misconceptions about working in the business is a different hurdle altogether, however.
Research has shown that Internet-based male escorts are not the emotionally traumatized, drug-addicted "vectors of disease transmission" they’ve long been thought to be, Christian Grov, an associate professor at Brooklyn College, told HuffPost. Yet, the stereotype lingers.
Referring to research conducted throughout the last decade or so, including a 2013 survey of almost 500 rent boys, Grov said that unlike some other, more vulnerable groups of sex workers, the majority of rent boys are “well-adjusted” men who lead relatively low-risk lives.
Grov’s colleague, Hunter College professor Jeffrey Parsons, said that though there seems to be “some substance use and sex without condoms” among male escorts, the majority of rent boys are “not engaged in rampant drug use, are not having risky sex with their clients" and are generally "normal" from a psychological perspective. He said few show signs of mental illness or depression.
But that’s not to say this group of sex workers doesn't need access to critical care and support.
Though HIV rates and drug use seem to be low among the rent boy population, Grov said there’s “certainly room for HIV prevention work and substance use harm reduction” in the escort community. Moreover, some escorts are “alienated from things like health care,” he said. An escort “may have a mental health problem that he'd like to address, but he doesn't have health insurance because he's off the books.”
Additionally, some escorts may need help with money management or body image issues, while others need support figuring out an exit plan. “I think guys who have the toughest time are the ones just entering the business and who feel so isolated,” he said.
Grov and other experts say that to protect the lives and rights of escorts and other sex workers, there needs to be more discussions about the industry -- both in the community and outside it.
“We need to see the complexity of this issue,” said Patricia Kelly, an assistant professor at Haverford College who supports decriminalizing prostitution in the U.S. “People, policy makers don't often want to see the nuance. Murder is obviously bad, but the exchange of sex for money? That's a little blurrier, at least to me.”
For now, change seems to be slow-moving: Sex work remains stigmatized, and decriminalization is a long way off. But some escorts and former escorts are taking matters into their own hands by challenging the stereotypes that dog the industry and fighting to create safe spaces for escorts to find the resources and support they may need.
Former escort Hawk Kinkaid has long been leading this grassroots effort with his website, Hook Online.
Founded by Kinkaid in 1997 and run completely by volunteers, Hook Online is a platform where male escorts can share their stories and find resources and information that are useful in their line of work. Visitors can read blog posts about safe sex and filing taxes, as well as guides to marketing and dealing with police.
Since 2005, Hook Online has hosted educational sessions called “Rent U Classes,” where groups of escorts can meet in person to discuss topics as diverse as the Affordable Care Act and self-defense.
“We want to provide [escorts] with the education they need to make better, safer decisions,” Kinkaid said. “A lot of guys enter the industry for a short period of time. For them, we hope [the site] will help lessen that learning curve, help them make fewer mistakes.”
Some in the industry say Hook Online has been an invaluable tool for escorts, as the site has both disseminated crucial information and fostered a sense of community. Escort Eli Lewis says he hopes other safe spaces -- both online and off -- will emerge in the coming years to promote even greater unity and change.
For now, Lewis, whose day job is social media director at Rentboy.com, says he’s content with enacting change in his own little way. He’s active on his own social media accounts, and he runs a blog about his experiences as an escort. He regularly offers advice to others in the industry and talks to people who have questions about his life as a rent boy.
“At the end of the day, I’ve learned that an escort is just another person trying to get by,” he said. “Before I got into [the industry], I too was misinformed, and now I feel a responsibility to help shed light on what escorting is and who escorts are.”
Ultimately, it’s not the job of escorts “to change peoples’ minds,” Boomer Banks said from his living room sofa earlier this month, as he flipped through photographs of his fashion designs. But if a conversation starts, he said, perhaps perceptions will start to change.
“Everybody has a story. Everybody’s going through something. Who are we to judge?” he asked. “This isn’t who I am, it’s just what I do.”