The (Massage Parlor) Interview

It was during one of my freelance lulls one summer when I was 26, that a Craig’s list ad seeking erotic masseuses caught my eye. $80 an hour was a lot more than I was making doing design work, and the tone of the job description suggested an unassuming bashfulness that inspired me to respond.

I arrived a few minutes late at the address in Hell’s Kitchen. It was hot out and I was sweating. The lobby was modern and spacious, and without a doorman, so I was buzzed in. I pressed PH in the elevator. Penthouse.

The elevator let me out into a long corridor in blue and grey tones under fluorescents. It was bland but well-kept. I found the door and rang the buzzer. Soft steps padded up to the door. I always look away when I know I’m being observed through a peephole or camera, as if it’s impolite, or perhaps suspicious to admit you know you’re being observed. The door opened partially and a curly redhead peered around it’s edge. She looked both ways down the hallway before inviting me in, which I found curious.

It was a comfortable suite inside, carpeted and furnished with a large red brocade sofa in front of big windows looking out onto the city. The redhead, let’s call her A, asked me if I wanted any water and offered me a seat on the sofa before she sat down at the adjacent computer. She said J would be there shortly to conduct the interview but she was happy to answer any questions I had.

I wanted to know if she did massage. She did. I wanted to know if she’d ever had an unpleasant customer, and if so, how did they handle these things. She motioned to a spreadsheet on the computer screen and explained that sometimes people get blacklisted, but for the most part clients were respectful of boundaries.

Another girl, black and lanky, arrived. She’d also responded to the ad. She sat on the sofa next to me. We chatted with A, the redhead. I asked if she’d ever done anything like this before. She said no, and we giggled.

J arrived. He was petit, rotund and caucasian. He was dressed neatly in office casual, and I wondered if he had a day job. We shook hands. It was like any interview – He thanked us for taking the time to respond to the ad and come for the meeting. He did not waste any time in talking about the business. They considered themselves more upscale than the other shops in the city. They were looking for people that genuinely enjoyed the work and who wanted to make it their own with a personal touch. To this end, they made efforts to to protect girls from unscrupulous customers. He asked us about our experience. I had none. The other girl interviewing had been giving her young son massages, so she’d been learning some techniques to this end. He said they trained everyone before giving them customers. Training entailed one session of learning massage techniques, and another session where we would receive the treatment so we understood both sides of the transaction. If we were hired, our photos would go on the website where clients could peruse the wares and request girls personally. I asked if we had to show our faces in the photos. He said it was optional, but that including a face tended to garner more personal requests. As with temp work, I knew those personal requests were one’s bread and butter.

Most job interviews eventually arrive at the point when they want to see what you can do. To this end, J explained that each of us would conduct a massage session, just as we anticipated we would in a real client situation. He would be the client.

I went first. I was to enter the massage room, and prepare, before being presented with my client. I undressed, down to a black string bikini I had chosen for the occasion, hesitating a moment before removing my bra. J and the girls had explained that the work was performed in a thong or underwear. Customers could touch you anywhere except between the legs. I sat down in an armchair next to a round glass table with a floral arrangement, and looked at the massage table in the center of the room. There was a rice cooker plugged in underneath it.

I don’t remember if J entered from the dressing room wearing a towel or if I went into the dressing room to wait for him to lay down — my memory skips to him lying on the table under a white towel. I approached gingerly and mimicked the friendly strokes he had mentioned earlier in the interview; “Touch is how we say hello.” I think I asked if he had any injuries or if there was anything in particular that was sore today. He responded no. So I started with a back massage, the platonic sort, which, I’ve been told I’m good at. I go to a similar such massage parlor to get massages, without the happy ending, and I’ve picked up a thing or two.

I made my way around his rotund body with my fingers and forearms in the red-pink light of the room. I did my best to impress with a thai massage stretch and some handwork. He did not touch me. I gave it about ten minutes before asking him to turn over. I continued kneading, and eventually made my way to the central attraction, bobbing with anticipation like a buoy. There was a surreal element to this place and this uncomplicated rod of flesh in my fist. I thought about the late-night talks I’d had with roommates and fellow dorm-dwellers, some 7-8 years prior in college, when sex was still so thrilling and unknown it occupied almost every conversation. “What made someone good in bed? Good at oral? Good at hand-jobs?” We would ask the boys next-door after a night of blunts and backgammon. All together we would snort and giggle, while trying to figure out who else might also be a virgin. I remember quite distinctly one roommate, who was a bit more experienced than the rest of us, saying that she defaulted to oral sex and never bothered with hand-jobs because she knew hers could never compete with his own clenched fist. The extraordinary logic of this struck me, and as a result, I’d never really properly developed my jerk-off game.

He placed his hand on mine to pause my strokes. “You want to be using more of a downward motion.” I sheepishly complied with an “oh, ok.” Good grief. Here I was, 26, unemployed, and incapable of giving a decent wack-job. “Maybe I should just throw myself out these oversized windows,” I thought. It would be a scenic end. Instead I followed his advice, and in not long his breathing became heavy, and he began to climax. It was shortly over in a few copious spurts. It wasn’t like being with a lover, where you might fling yourself down on the bed next to him with a giggle and look for a towel or a box of tissues. Unsure of what to do, I found myself massaging the goop around his loins until he brought his hand down gently again on mine and said “There are some washcloths in the rice cooker at the base of the table.” So that’s what that thing was doing there! I fished one out, and thought about my favorite part of flying Luftansa. Right before the landing descent, they bring you a hot, lemon-scented towel to wipe your hands and face before de-boarding. I cleaned him up, and he sat up. He told me the next part is very important – the hug, and a few kind of words. “When will I see you again?” — this is what we should say to the clients at the end of each session. “They’re not just selling sex,” I thought. They were selling love.

Over the course of the next week I went back a couple of times for training. I watched the other girl perform the same untrained exercise. She left her top on and was questioned about it. It had the feel of the first day of class, when the professor is trying to figure out where everyone’s starting point is. Another part of the training was to receive the treatment, which I did, in the same room where I’d offered up my fumbling version. It was… lovely. During the massage, I remember telling J that I was sore because of a guy I had just started seeing. I asked him to be gentle, which he was. I was not attracted to J, but I learned that when you’re lying there, and it’s good, and it’s not any further than a bit of manual stimulation, well… attraction kind of doesn’t matter. You can get your rocks off and it doesn’t have to be risky or with the guy you’re going to bring home to meet your mom. Just a happy ending. A fair amount of the training involved actual massage techniques — which way the muscle fibers run, and what direction the circles should be so as to move blood towards the heart. We learned how to drape the body, and of the erotic progression towards the phallus. At one point we were interrupted, for we were using the same penthouse that was set up to receive clients. Me, J, and the other interviewee scooted out to the kitchen while a customer was led out after a session. After one session, the girls came out of a massage room with grimaces, motioning as if to shake off some invisible slime covering their hands. The customer was apparently critical, uptight about ensuring he was getting his allotted time, and generally unpleasant. His record in the spreadsheet would receive an unfavorable note.

I was still unsure and consulted with friends. One friend, male, had done escort work decades before we met, while addicted to cocaine. He never told me I shouldn’t, but quietly described some problems with this type of work using our digital services (we both did video/multimedia production at the time) as an analogy. “Think about when you’re freelancing, and the client requests something that you think is totally retarded. But you need the gig, so you roll your eyes, do it anyway and send it off. With escort work, you start doing that with your body. You start to detach from your body.”

Another friend (female) that I knew occasionally helped out on domming sessions quipped “Look, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it. But everyone I know that’s in it, is trying to get OUT. And you HAVE a degree and skills, and yet you’re runnung INTO the fire. Why?”

In the end, I never took on any clients. I was living between NY and Amsterdam at the time, and was scheduled to fly back within a couple weeks of having made contact with the salon. They liked me, but I’d also picked up some freelance animation work that could be done remotely, while massage cannot. I got back in touch a month later on another trip, but they had hired another girl, and anyway, it was kind of apparent that I needed to BE in NY consistently for it to work. That’s a downside with the erotic stuff as a job – your physical body is part of the service, and thus cannot be done remotely. I suppose if you’re good with networking and attain a high enough profile, you can develop a client base in a few countries and never want for work. This wasn’t my ambition – I was just needed a steady way to get some cash in my pocket on a regular basis so I could spend the rest of my time doing art. Parlaying happy-endings into a “career” was not going to jive with my mid-twenties vagabond jet-setting lifestyle. For a while I regretted that it didn’t, and I wondered what might have been.

Is there a woman alive that’s never considered escort work? I’d be surprised. Maybe it’s been a playful fantasy, or maybe you’ve done some research. Maybe you’ve taken clients, or just come close. Maybe you’ve entertained a mediocre man’s affections because he spent lavishly on you. Maybe you desperately needed the cash. Maybe you yearned for the power to move a man to lay a purse of gold (or a preacher’s decapitated head) at your feet, solely with your desirability.

My thoughts on prostitution have changed a lot since my interview. While the salon where I’d trained appeared positive, progressive, and safe, what I once thought was empowerment in concept became darker the closer I got by talking with people who had taken paying clients. I wanted to find the great courtesans of ancient India, and I wanted to see sex as women’s power – so sought after that we could charge for it, while men could not. So why shouldn’t we use that power? Being able to pay my rent by working 4-5 hours per week glimmered with potential. And yet the thought of the disconnect from the body, as explained by my formerly cocaine-addicted friend, seemed utterly powerless, depraved, even pitiful. Regardless of how high I raised the hourly rate in my head, it didn’t reduce my recoil at the thought of touching someone that I wasn’t moved to touch out of desire. Pretty Woman it ain’t, and feigning passion and affection in a time-boxed performance felt like profaning the sacred.

The term “sex economy” was coined by Wilhelm Reich, in his 1936 book “The Sexual Revolution” where he applies laws of economics to sex. Sex, just like pots and pans and gold, follows the laws of supply and demand. Building off the Marxist-Hegelian dialectic of materialism, he identifies the economic underpinnings of a sexually liberated society by first listing the practical needs of a tryst: a private room for relations, proper contraceptives, sound education about sex and sensuality. He criticizes compulsory, monogamous marriage for wrapping up our sexual needs and economic needs in one bond. It works as long as the two are in sync — but when the two fall out of sync and there is boredom and/or an affair, the result is anxiety, frustration, repression. The economic ties become shackles. He ultimately argues for a socialist society.

At the time of my massage parlor exploration, I remained neutral on the conflation of sex and money. Not for me I thought, but so what if others wanted to indulge. Reich’s book had the effect of intensely souring me on the oldest transaction. I have known of too many women that stayed in abusive relationships out of financial necessity. I don’t see much difference between marriage and prostitution. Why do people see one as so much better than the other? Neither would exist if not for the gross income disparity between men and women. When I look around at my male peers, 6-figure salaries, venture capital and business deals seem to flow with abundance and little required experience. My female friends who work so much harder are regularly put down, passed over, and held by managers (male and female!) to impossibly high standards. Men systematically deprive women of access to capital, and then demand favors in exchange for a few crumbs. And a woman must be careful about what crumbs she accepts and how. Systemic economic discrimination goes unpunished, but not prostitution. From higher up, rings, vows and financial security are dangled before us, and for these we must not just please sexually, but be poised arm-candy, and compliant but skillful houseworkers.

“The men go crazy when the girls penetrate each other” remarked an older friend of mine (female), who had recently helped out on a girl-on-girl show booked by a mutual friend of ours that ran an entertainment agency. We were hanging out in my apartment as I discussed my interview and research. She told me about her recent gig as the money-holding madam, dressed in a black suit in the corner of a room with a stage of dancers and a lusty male audience. As the girls lingerie filled up with bills from patrons, they would periodically step off-stage and hand her the cash to hold and organize for them. She described the girls smiling charisma as a kind of shield which came down when they turned away from the crowd and towards her with their payload, revealing the hatred on their faces.

I’ve come to believe that in all human relationships, the party with the money is the one with the power. Reich believed that sexual subjugation always accompanies economic subjugation, and when I think about war, slavery, and colonization, it seems indisputable. A friend of mine who does social work in LA once told me that most of her clients have done some sort of escort work, simply to pay for diapers or keep the lights on in their house. Would they still do it if they had everything they needed? If I hadn’t hit a freelance lull, I wouldn’t have pushed my nerves down into the pit of my stomach to answer the ad. I once thought these nerves and the reluctance to fuck thoughtlessly and brazenly were merely internalized puritan squeamishness. I thought that to be a good feminist was to eradicate this trepidation and screw indiscriminately, just like a man. Yet whenever I tried sleeping with someone I wasn’t attracted to, it was kind of disastrous. It’s hard not to feel disconnected in a disconnected culture.

The Mosuo of the Himalayas do not engage in either marriage or prostitution, and couples are never expected to live together or share assets. Chacuo, the woman interviewed in the video above, discusses her offense at being offered payment for sex, after she refuses to engage in the tradition of Walking Marriage out of lack of love. Her solicitor claims that it doesn’t matter, because he has money, and she slaps him in the face. In the industrialized west, money is the tool for vetoing womens’ desire.

I often wonder what the escort world would look like if women controlled as much capital as men. What if women didn’t have to bat an eyelash at the costs of raising a child, or of terminating a pregnancy, or getting treatment for an STD? I think everyone would be screwing around a lot for fun. And probably not bothering as much with marriage, which coincidentally, appears to be declining in an an inverse relationship to the steady increase in women’s average income. The increased supply of wanton sex would subsequently destroy it’s market price. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? And why sell your body when you have a steady paycheck and basic needs covered? Escort work pays the best in a sexually repressed society where someone out there with a warm body doesn’t have enough to eat. This is not where I want to profit.

One Response to “The (Massage Parlor) Interview”

  1. Jessica says:

    “Men systematically deprive women of access to capital, and then demand favors in exchange for a few crumbs. And a woman must be careful about what crumbs she accepts and how” -macrobiotic stoner

    -I can’t wait until we overcome this truth. I actually find myself flirting for the crumbs at times – the extra privelage, tips, etc. We shouldn’t have to feel it’s a given. Society is changing but we have a long way to go.

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