When you live in such a popular gay city like New York City, the ever presence of sex in culture seems to go together like Peanut Butter and Jelly. With all the different apps and sites that are out there to find that particular someone that “strikes your fancy”, Rentboy seems to be one of the top ones. In a recent survey by CHEST (Center for HIV Educational Studies and Training) where they interviewed some of the top male escorts in the industry, they found that their biggest concern is actually how to brand themselves while they are in this industry. So it got me to think, is this something that can actually be taken seriously as a career with long lasting benefits? To get more in depth, I sat down a couple of days ago with the super smart & cute (and fellow music aficionado) Hawk Kinkaid to learn more about his involvement in Rentboy, the survey results and what he sees for the future in the industry and himself. Quite a good read. Check it out!
How did you get involved in Rentboy in the first place?
Rentboy.com was one of the first contacts I made many years ago when HOOK (hook-online.com) was transitioning from DIY ‘zine to online portal of information for men working in the sex industry. I reached out to the team leading the site, and unlike any other listings site on the web, they responded positively and supported the effort. I have always been impressed with the commitment the Rentboy.com team has always shown in both running a solid business and also publicly, actively supporting the men that advertise through fun events like Hustlaball and The Hookies to more education and resource events like their support of Rent U (rent-u.com).
When you were on the other side of this industry what was your overall thought process on it?
Without getting mired in the unquantifiable nuances of each interaction, the core of my approach as well as many other men in the industry is that choosing to work in the sex industry is an entrepreneurial exercise. For some, like myself, it might be a short-lived one that extends to particular goals and then you move on to other components and commitments, but for others, their time in the industry can extend decades. What was always crucial to that mindset was that I needed to create clear boundaries for myself personally and professionally, keep my eye on my goals, and find a constant compassionate connection with my clients.
How would you define a Rentboy and what they do?
Rentboy is a fun term culled from the Brits. Call it Escort. Call it Trade. Classic gay authors like Rechy romanticized the Hustler. The difference in how things are framed today is that the men who participate in the sex industry are selling time, and on a larger framework, that is all any of us really do, whether you are folding shirts at the Gap, project managing at Citibank or acting as a stylist on the set of a feature film. What we do in that time is what demands the price, and being higher in demand commands a higher price. The stigma and ignorance surrounding the subject of men choosing to work in the industry complicates what is otherwise a very simple scenario. Sex may be involved, but that is not what clients pay for. Dinner may be involved. A night at the theater. It might even simply be time spent over tea. That time is what a Rentboy sells, and in the way that a bartender or a hairdresser act as an external ear to your world (and are often paid well because of it), so are the men in the sex industry. You don’t invite your hairdresser to your parties or your bartender (and if you did, few would come, really), but they sometimes know more about you than your closest friends because they are safe, secure and set apart from your day to day existence. That hasn’t always been the history of the Hustler or Trade – and that would be a different topic – but in today’s world where much of the industry is online and much of the escorting world has learned thankfully to think about their approach to business pro-actively through programs like HOOK, the modern escort knows that smart sex sells.
The CHEST survey was quite interesting. Did you feel certain concerns should’ve netted a higher percentage?
I am not convinced anything should’ve been different, no. There is so little data out there about men working in the sex industry that many of us that are engaged in businesses and non-profits that come into contact with these men are eager for any insight. Conversations around the industry often bypass men, women and transworkers who choose to work in the industry living constructive, satisfied lives for those whose work in the industry is secondary to the primary issues of homelessness, homophobia, drug-addiction and transphobia, for example. Many in academia and the media love to dig claws into the images of society’s most vulnerable communities and then parlay it to the suburbs where people can devour it in gross acts of self-righteous indignation in order to avoid the fact those suburban husbands are likely the largest block of clients for the industry (male, female and trans). I’m glad to see this study prompt a conversation about the interests of a broad swatch of men working in the industry.
Let’s break down that survey. How does a Rentboy attract the right clients that can ultimately be repeats for them?
What makes you return to the same retailer? The same insurance agent? The same barber? A connection followed up by a proven history of both discretion and pleasure. Would you return to an insurance agent that shared your information with other clients and other people? Would you return to the same barber if they treated you terribly, ignored what you asked and then charged you double? In the sex industry, reputation can be an important piece of the puzzle, and so guys that treat clients poorly get a reputation and their pool of clients will dry up. The newest factor in that is engagement in social media, which is an opportunity for men investing in their sex industry persona to build a following, cultivate a strong voice and engage with a larger pool of potential clients.
What do you think is the best way for them to market themselves?
You have to be where clients can find you, and that means accessing technology in a way that provides security and safety for all the individuals involved. Listings site are part of the advertising platform for any entrepreneur. Reputation and social media are important assets to your messaging, but putting yourself on a site that clients know to trust like Rentboy.com is critical. It’s why Angie’s List has supplanted Craigslist for being an authority in the industry, and I love Craigslist. But you know on Craigslist that you will get a lot of chaff. Sites like Rentboy.com only maintain active listings where the escorts represented are real participants in the site. Not all of the sites out there can say that.
Best advice on financing for the future and healthcare.
I think the big question on that hinges on the length of time a worker will plan to spend in the industry. Is this a quick fix visit of a few months or are you making this a full-time role? If it is a quick fix, you have to set your target so you can make a clean entrance and exit. Put the money away you planned to, and if you have excess, do what you will. The important thing is to hold to that contract you make with yourself. If you are in for the long haul, then your strategy has to be a much more strategic one and should involve online presence, dependencies on escort reviews, listing site placement and agreements as well as planning for retirement and healthcare. Also, I should note, planning for time to recharge. It’s easy to get caught up in a work schedule that could exhaust you mentally and physically, and if you plan to run the marathon, you don’t sprint the first half.
Has there ever been a situation that has put the particular Rentboy at risk, such as self defense?
Men don’t often consider themselves at physical risk when they are engaging with clients, but that’s because in this society, men don’t often perceive themselves at physical risk, in general. Women’s bodies are under attack from the moment they are born, whether treated like second-class property or faceless subjects of legislative debate. Men enter few situations where they are in a position of defense, but with HOOK, we really try to keep men aware of the very real risks that come with the work. These very real risks which have occurred include intoxicated clients, clients who may drug a worker, a group of people jumping a worker, and so on. There was one story from years ago that I read and then disappeared into the ether of a young undocumented escort that was strapped to a chair and set on fire. The history of violence to people in the sex industry is often one where a society’s stigma-driven prejudice is taken to heart by an individual that plays it out viciously on the bodies of workers in the sex industry.
Is dating tough in this industry?
I have been out of the industry for ten years. I STILL have to have the conversation every time I go on a date. Then, a month later, I have to have it again when they ask if I’m really still not in the industry. Then, again when they get concerned that they could never live up to the many men of my past as if this were a request or a feasible thing. And so on. Yes, it is tough. We all want to be loved, and I have been lucky to create a family around me to provide that support, but dating is tough. Many men in the sex industry date other men in the sex industry because in order to date someone in the sex industry you have to be confident in who you are, the boundaries you set, and the investment you are making in another person. Even then, a lot of those relationships falter in ways that all relationships falter. Dating while you work in the industry adds one more complexity to the amorphous uncertainty of affection. For many people, that is too much.
Do they find it difficult to balance two or more jobs with this occupation?
Many men working in the industry have other lives, and their time in the industry is to support that other life or that life that they want to have. In other words, many men working in the sex industry want to be doing something else. Their time in the industry is to support the initiative like going to school or to fill in the gaps while they are not employed in that particular area. As for those that work part-time and escort, many of these men are successful in constructing boundaries for that time so that only certain nights are work nights. Many people in America hold more than one job because most people in America have to. This is not a country of a single job anymore. Those not in the upper echelon have always worked multiple jobs. It’s a skill that many of us have found easy to do because we have been doing it all of our lives.
How do they avoid burnout if they want to last?
As I said before, the biggest factor is taking time out to recharge. Setting boundaries will do that. This can include days to yourself or with your support network of friends. Days not working, but simply doing things you enjoy. Work in the sex industry is physical and emotional labor.
What’s your best advice for rentboys who want to set up boundaries with clients?
There are a multitude of articles on HOOK (hook-online.com) that deal with setting boundaries and Rent U (rent-u.com) has had a few classes on the topic where escorts talk about how they manage those boundaries. Every guy working in the sex industry has his own tactics for setting that dynamic, but there are some pretty commonly shared ones including never exchanging real names, no weekend retreats with first-time clients, and clear rules for smart play.
Why do you think gay men have a fascination with this industry?
I don’t have a short answer for this, so you are forewarned 🙂
The sex industry has always been a critical component of gay culture for any number of reasons. At points, you could argue that the exchange was a way to get past the stigma-laiden act of sex with another man. In other ways, it was a component of a culture centered on bars because gay men were shoved into the dark corners of cities along with other socially maligned behavior. Another view may be that sexual vitality is still a remnant measure of value for gay men that they have yet to evolve from and so we idolize men who represent that image since we struggle to find it internally. Another take might be that we celebrate our sexuality in all its forms because it is that fundamental component of ourselves that society continues to attack.
It is easy to forget that the sex industry has always been around, and easier to forget that the people within it have always played a role in our social dramas, ranging from the presences in religious stories to the political movements that have brought about incredible change. Every culture is obsessed with it, but very few people acknowledge it. Worse, I fear that gay men cannibalize the men that make up this very culture that they participate in.
In the rush to whitewash the struggles of both the AIDS era and the LGBT rights movement, many in the gay population have thrown men working in the sex industry to the shadows. They pretend they weren’t integral within movements such as ACT UP or that the sex industry in all its forms was a critical element to the insular enclaves like the West Village that provided safety for gay men. For example, both the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot and Stonewall were made of a diverse group, which is often mentioned in historical accounts. What isn’t included in those accounts? That many were also turning trade. They were artists, trans-identified people, hustlers. We hail what they stood for and then as a ‘community’ denigrate the real individuals and the decisions they made.
I’m not saying that men in the sex industry are martyrs or all (most?) are politically minded, but I think it says a lot about us working to secure LGBT rights and first-class citizenry that we have to cop to hetero-normative Puritanical hypocrisy to gain that respect. The people I look to for inspiration within the movement would be disappointed. A friend and great writer Matthilda Bernstein Sycamore recently tweeted that he was “Remembering when we wanted to be a threat.” As a fan of Foucault, I always wanted us to be changing the dynamics of institutions that were vestiges of arcane thought. Instead, we seem to be replicating them.
When looking to hire one what do you think a client should look for first before making that decision?
Clients should look for a connection, really. Same as with an escort when talking to a potential client. It’s good when you feel like the person you are going to be spending time with will be interesting, interested in you and capable of responding constructively to the experience. To find that out, many guys in the sex industry have online profiles (such as those at Rentboy.com) as well as social profiles where they are sharing information, insights, and some of their personality. A client would do well to convey a little of his personality in introductions and, just as we instruct escorts, establish clear boundaries to make the session a great one.
For you and Rentboy team, what is next and what are you most hopeful for?
I am just dipping my toe in the water at Rentboy.com. I couldn’t ask for a better, more experienced team of professionals that understand the sex industry and embrace the men within it. The next stages of the company are focused on continuing to deliver the best listings site in the world while enhancing opportunities for guys working in the business to optimize their entrepreneurial initiative and celebrate their success. My goal is to continue the company’s growth while both introducing new ideas to the marketplace and positioning Rentboy.com as a critical advocate in achieving rights and resources for men working in the sex industry. As a long-time activist and successful User Experience Strategist, this is really the first time I feel like I can bring these two parts of my life together to expand one kick-ass company.
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