Photograph by Iflwlou (拍攝), via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Steak is like sex, is like art: bloody; gets you high; is disgusting if you think about it for too long. And blue steak, then, is like sex work: a carefully crafted artifice that allows for the presentation of something ostensibly raw to the consumer, without the risks of actual raw consumption. The person who orders blue steak feels it as real, and animal, though it is sanitized, and carefully so.
In SoHo, there is a boutique hotel whose rooms are blue. Blue carpet, blue ceiling, blue-patterned sheets. I met a client there several years ago, when I still had short bangs. I wore a vintage skirt-and-top set—black, with colorful flowers—and black lingerie from l’Agent, the now-defunct, less expensive little sister brand to Agent Provocateur. My client wanted our time together to feel like a movie. He didn’t say this, but his behavior made it clear. He booked me for only an hour but wanted an experiential arc: he sat me first in the small living room area of his suite, presenting liquor he had put on ice for me. Music played softly through the room’s sound system: “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” by Cigarettes After Sex, a song that I’d only ever heard as the background of a bad television show. He moved me into the bedroom, bantering, as though he had to charm me. I have absolutely no recollection of what he looked like or what his name was. This isn’t because I was seeing so many clients I couldn’t keep track, but because it’s useless information to retain after the fact. I remember how he behaved—the only salient thing—which was annoying, and also standard, fine. I overstayed our appointment because the sex refused to end, as happens often with older men who want to paw at a young woman but don’t quite care whether or not they finish, and certainly not in the allotted time. “Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby” returned to the playlist; it was looping, as was the experience.
I played the song for myself after, alone in my own room. A user called “i’m cyborg but that’s ok” had uploaded it to YouTube along with a compilation of scenes from Lost in Translation, a movie I’d never seen but that I knew was about a relationship between a washed-up older man having a midlife crisis and a beautiful young woman. The video compilation looked like an escort advertisement: in the opening scene, Scarlett Johansson sits in a hotel room window wearing only a large men’s shirt—blue—looking down at the wide expanse of Tokyo beneath her; in the next scene, she dives into an enormous, empty hotel pool, at night—the pool and the surrounding windowpanes all blue, too. The images spoke of money and alienation. The song captured the affect of a certain type of client: slightly flat; grasping toward a Daddy-esque certainty but falling short; single-mindedly offering reassurance, but of what he hardly seemed to know. I grew oddly attached to the song and to cyborg’s music video for a period. I would watch it on my way to work, flattening my own affect, compacting myself into a version of a girl aligned with the lyrics:
Whispered something in your ear
It was a perverted thing to say
But I said it anyway
Made you smile and look away
Nothing’s gonna hurt you, baby.
I’ve still never seen Lost in Translation, but it came up again during a duo a few months ago, when my friend bantered with our shared client about favorite films while I pretended to keep up. She said she felt hateful saying so, but that she bought into the rumor that it was Sofia Coppola’s boyfriend at the time, Spike Jonze, who really directed the film, because when they broke up, her work went immediately downhill. Leaning in, my friend made us swear we’d never repeat her secret belief. Our client laughed and put one hand on each of our legs, the part that is somehow both knee and thigh. I smiled placidly, sipping wine. Later he, too, failed to finish in the allotted time, but, blessedly, he ended the sex anyway of his own volition. He said, “Enough,” and briefly took us to his chest, before stepping away and counting our money. Afterward, my friend, new to the work, was surprised: “I can’t believe he didn’t come?” We walked down the street holding hands. “It’s common,” I told her, “and usually more annoying than that.”
A couple years after my first visit, I returned to the blue hotel, seeing a different client. I wore a mini schoolgirl skirt, which he remarked on favorably. When I met him in the hotel lobby—the elevator required a key card after a certain hour—he said to me, “I think about you all the time.” It was the first time he said it, though I’d been seeing him for months, and it was the first time I would have believed it, too. He said it almost by accident, which is a way to discern the truth. This client knew who I was: knew my legal name and, therefore, true aspects of my life. I know who he is, and who his wife is, and where he works and lives, who his friends and his boss are. For the duration of the time I saw him—somewhere between six months and a year—he claimed to fear, above all, his wife discovering his infidelities and the subsequent destruction of his domestic life, but his behavior suggested otherwise. He was reckless with information and found me not on an escort ad site but a sugar dating site, where men who want or need to pay for sex, for one reason or another, but are reticent to do so, look for women who are willing to sell sex while pretending, adamantly, that they are not professionals, and that no exchange of labor for money is taking place.
This is a different kind of pretending than the pretending that is still legally necessary within straightforward prostitution, where (good) client and prostitute conspire together to communicate in such a way that it could conceivably appear to any interested law enforcement parties that—as the disclaimers on most escort sites read—“money exchanged is for time and companionship only,” and “anything that happens during that time is a matter of privacy between two consenting adults and has not been contracted for nor compensated.” I think implicit in this contract—the unspoken contract between client and escort— is professional discretion, but only insofar as the client understands he is hiring a professional, for a service. If, instead, you find a girl on a sugar dating site, and if you insist that she is not a professional you are hiring—which then requires all kinds of affective labor on her part to make this feel true—it follows that she should not, then, be held to professional standards of discretion and secrecy. It would be so much wiser for men in need of discretion to strictly hire, rather than sugar date, but many are too proud to explicitly acknowledge the labor involved in seeing them. It never ceases to amaze me what men are willing to risk to protect their own egos.
The point is, I could ruin his life. Easily. I won’t though, not out of loyalty to him, necessarily, but because I simply have no interest in doing so. I think he had an interest in me doing so; I think it might have been his greatest fantasy. The second time we met, his wife was away, and we spent the night together. I was still feeling out how high I could set my rates and insisted on a bonus fee when he asked me beforehand, over text, to shave my pubic hair. I had never shaved all of my pubic hair off before—the most I’d done was a landing strip—and it had always seemed a bit impossible to me. The kind of thing other, more aesthetically perfect girls do, that I could never do. I did it, though, because I was paid to, and it wasn’t as difficult as it seemed. Afterward, bare, I thought I looked amphibian-like, and years younger. I was embarrassed when I fucked my boyfriend; I took my underwear off to show him but kept my shirt on, which made me look even more naked than fully nude.
This client also wanted our time together to be cinematic. I suppose all clients do. The first time we met, I was struck by his impulse to narrate what was happening, as though by speaking aloud how good something is one could will it to actually be so. It’s not that it wasn’t good, or was bad—it was just mundane, the way formulaic excess often is. He loved cocaine, and he liked to inhale it off my body, and wanted me to do the same. He seemed to want to be in a party scene from The Wolf of Wall Street; a nearly prescriptive commitment to hedonism turned him on. He was also frightened by this fantasy, though that fear was blunted, a bit, by the drugs.
That first time, he took a phone call in the bathroom, and then peeked out from behind the half-ajar door, mouthing to me with his hand over the mouthpiece, “I just like watching you,” while I stretched and smiled, offering myself up through studied pose to be seen as beatific, natural, relaxed. Our afternoon was peppered by comments like that, observations of what he wanted to be so, not necessarily what strictly was so: “I’m with a hot girl in a hotel room in the middle of the day, drinking champagne, how did I get so lucky”; “Look at us, I’m doing lines off your perfect ass”; “I feel so comfortable with you, like we’ve known each other forever.” It didn’t matter that he wasn’t lucky, he was just rich; it didn’t matter whether or not my ass was perfect, because perfection is in the eye of the beholder; and it didn’t matter that he felt comfortable only because I made sure that he did, receiving every stray thought and confession with warmth, or laughter, or a doe-eyed openness. He talked himself into believing it was all happenstance, fate.
The next time, high and glassy-eyed, close to my face, he whispered, “I can trust you, right?” “Yes,” I answered, “of course.” He wanted to open up the world to me, and so I pretended my world had been closed before him. “You have no idea how beautiful you are, do you?” he asked, while undressing me. “No man has ever cared about your pleasure like this, has he,” while he spun his fingers around inside me, an unwieldy carousel of self-validation and drug-addled clumsiness. He brought me to his home that night, under the guise of wanting to show me a book he had there. We took a cab, and he insisted on rolling the windows down even though it was winter, “because of COVID,” which I found absurdly funny—the idea of any kind of risk mitigation while taking a stranger to one’s home that one shares, monogamously, with one’s wife, in a pandemic. In the cab, he used his phone to disable their security cameras. Once at their place, he showed me the book—like an afterthought, or a forethought to rush through as a necessity before getting to what he really wanted to do—and then gave me a tour. His apartment was beautiful; I didn’t like being there. We reached the master bathroom and he pushed me against the mirror, bringing my hand to his belt buckle. I left him for a moment, to find my bag and get a condom out of it, and when I returned, he fucked me over the sink. I noticed his wife’s clothes in the laundry hamper and, after, the books on her side of the bed, and felt not quite guilty but astonished by his betrayal, which I was witness to.
As we continued to see one another with increasing regularity—as the months went on—we began a dance, wherein he acknowledged himself as a client, but only insofar as he was unavailable to be a boyfriend because of his marriage. I gave him the impression that were it not for his wife, I would date him for free; that he paid me, essentially, to make up for the fact that he could not date me, that the relationship was on his terms and his timeline, and that I expressed no emotional needs, save for the ones he wanted me to, to stoke his conception of himself as a sensitive guy. I told him as much in a hotel known for its claw-foot tubs; we passed bubbles back and forth and listened to a bad Spotify playlist, and it was, all things considered, easy and nice. He left to meet his family for dinner and I took Polaroids of myself on the bed, by the tub, in white lace underwear and with my dress half-buttoned. I wanted to document myself as I was then: unkempt and paid, but for what, exactly? For becoming that person, that particular version, for him, on a Friday afternoon.
The next time I saw him was in the blue room. It was different than I remembered; brighter, but also emptier, rid of a minibar due to pandemic restrictions. He did fuck me from behind, in front of the mirror, and he mimed Christian Bale’s choreography in American Psycho, which alarmed me, given that Bale murders the sex workers he fucks. But I think my client’s mimicry was still more to do with the unbridled wealth of Bale’s character, rather than his killer tendencies; he was intoxicated by the money and the social dominance it gave him. Bale sees no difference between these girls and the blue steak; my client, I believe, did. Nonetheless, he often joked that if I told his wife, he’d have to kill me. “I’d like to see you try,” I always wanted to say, but instead I would laugh, as though the threat was funny, rather than sick.
An hour into our meeting, I remembered that an application for an arts residency was due before midnight that night and I leapt up, surprised by my transposing of dates I’d checked several times, determined not to let the possibility of guaranteed studio space slip away. I cocooned myself in an armchair ten feet from the bed, promising I’d be no more than a half hour. I broke character for the first time, taking myself off the clock and tending fully to the tedium of uploading documents, made harder by the absence of a computer. “Could you do your typing with your other hand on my cock,” he half whined. Where usually I’d relent, I said no without so much as a raised eyebrow, too distracted to placate him. The spell burst, but, still, with only us in the room, nothing could rush in to replace it but a slightly different version: no choice but to see me as his studious part-time girlfriend, his aspiring artist—or else admit our circumstances to be little more than an elaborate joke. He had no ground to stand on to refuse me.
Later, he kissed me in front of a second mirror, thrusting the bitter taste of cocaine into my mouth, and then directed me downward. “Look how hard you get me,” he said, “no one gets me this hard.” He said it as though I hadn’t noticed him take a pill out of his bag and pop it, as though his erection was proof that all the money he’d spent on me to that point was worth it: tens of thousands of dollars so that we might mutually make believe a manufactured blood flow was instead born of wild desire, desire only I could draw forth. That’s what fucking like a whore—like an artist—is, doing the work to make us both seem good at it. There’s no secret save for willful deception, bought into by both parties. An American dream.
Neither of us ever fired the other, but at a certain point, we stopped seeing each other. I wasn’t working as much while I was writing, and he seemed to glean, accurately, that whatever fantasy I could offer him had worn thin. He was the first person that I saw over a long period of time whom I disclosed my identity to, which I did because of art-world connections he offered, and because it would have ultimately been too inconvenient not to—he wanted it so badly. He was profoundly attached to an idea of me, and the more me I became, publicly, the less his idea could stay intact, like a favored T-shirt rendered unwearable, finally, with holes.
Sophia Giovannitti is a writer and conceptual artist based in New York. This piece is adapted from Working Girl: On Selling Art and Selling Sex, to be published by Verso in May.
Last / Next Article