This week’s issue of the New York Observer features a cover story entitled “The Luxury Rental Girlfriend,” which you can read here. The article is about escort culture among wealthy elites, particularly in New York. Responses to this article have been all over the map, mostly focusing around the question: Does escort culture support or undermine feminism?
I think that the answer to this is somewhat complex, but ultimately, a “No.”
Before I explain why, I should point out that the article is entirely heteronormative, dealing only with wealthy males purchasing dates with female escorts. Not even a mention of gay escort culture (or, for that matter, any mention of hetero- escort culture, but with the female purchasing a male for a date).
Straight female escorts might see their work as a liberating kind of sex work, parlaying their talents (which are not only sexual, but also intellectual and emotional, as the article points out) in the service of monetary gain. In many ways, these escorts are reminiscent of the long tradition of courtesans. They have beauty, brains, and style; they are up to date on culture and politics; they maintain a sense of independence and autonomy due to the nature of their relations with men– exchanges of their time for money. One escort is quoted in the article as saying to another escort, “Well. A few hours in the Hamptons, and cookies. Did we really just make $3,500 to do that?” Why judge these women for making money having sex with and spending time with wealthy men in refined settings, often with fine food and drinks?
I don’t think it is right to judge the women for their choice of career. For them, it might seem like an ideal situation. What concerns me is not their individual choice, but the broader social structures and outdated gender norms that permit such a career to persist. I am reminded of feminist theorist Luce Irigaray’s essay “Women On the Market.” Here, Irigaray offers a critique of a culture that values the “accumulation of women” and that perpetuates, albeit in subtler forms, the economy of exchange of women that characterizes practices such as literally treating women as commodities. Here we see that the phenomenon of child brides in Afghanistan and the phenomenon of female escorts in the U.S. stem from the same root: namely, an insidious tendency to commodify women, regardless of stark differences in the overt situations of women in Afghanistan and the U.S.
Take the description in the Observer article of the websites that many men use in order to find escorts. Here is what the article says about The Erotic Review, a Yelp-like website used to review escorts:
“Created a decade ago by a john who was tired of being misled, TER sees about 350,000 visitors a day, men between the ages of 35 and 55 with a median income of $80,000. They wax nostalgic about Mistress Natalie and Emma of New York, and if you pay for a membership, you too can read about how WkndWhacker found VIP Daisy’s breasts even fuller in the flesh than they looked on her website, and how the way she kissed was like “honey warming in his mouth.”
This kind of website and the kinds of reviews that are posted on it perfectly illustrate Irigaray’s claim that “The economy of exchange–of desire–is man’s business.” On these websites, the values of the female escorts are discussed exclusively among men, the way that Yelp reviewers would discuss the values of a restaurant. Where one talks about the rosewater martini, the gooey mac and cheese, and the pleasant ambience, the other talks about the breasts, the kisses, and the conversation. This occurs in a context in which the male clients are the only voices, and women are up for sale the way “wife sales” were conducted in the colonial U.S.
Thus, I think that what is to blame here are not the particular women who are escorts. These women may live with a genuine sense of fulfillment and contentment with their work, and may feel that their work is personally liberating. But these feelings are nonetheless imbricated, as perhaps all of our feelings are, in a capitalist ideology that complicit with patriarchal misogyny. Though the female escorts may not feel like commodities, they are. Although they may feel independent based on the fact that they are paid for their services and that their clients are subject to their terms and conditions, the relation is not one in which they are masters over their clients. And in fact, it is not the other way around, either: the men who hire escorts are not masters over these escorts, even if just for the night. Rather, the condition of possibility for the career of these escorts is an economy in which the males are the arbiters of value: as Irigaray says, “It remains the case that the establishment of relationships cannot be accomplished by the commodities themselves, but depends upon the operation of two exchangers.” The exchangers in this case are the community of males who purchase escorts and discuss them in online review boards. The particular female escorts may feel liberated, but this does not discount the fact that their careers are made possible only by virtue of a society that allows this feeling of liberation to persist while in actuality it is not merely making these women dependent on their male clients, but is rather denying them status as subjects at all. Escort culture reveals the entrenched relationship between sex and capital characteristic of our bourgeois society, particularly in its heteronormative and hom(m)o-sexual* perpetuation of the exclusion of women from the systems of exchange in which they are the very things being exchanged.* The term “hom(m)o-sexuality” comes from Irigaray, using a play on words between “homosexuality” and “homme,” which means “man” in French. Thus, “hom(m)o-sexual” does not indicate a sexual orientation, but rather the reduction of economy into one exclusively pertaining to men.