We can change that. Our Healthy Mind, Healthy Body series shines a light on mental health issues that everyone should be talking about.
We can change that. Our Healthy Mind, Healthy Body series shines a light on mental health issues that everyone should be talking about. Share your own moment of #HowIGotHelp and let your voice inspire other men.
It was 1:00 a.m., and I was having a hushed telephone conversation with a total stranger. I am a phone sex operator, so these conversations are fairly routine: men call me after their wives and kids fall asleep, or from their offices during lunch, or before going on a date they are nervous about. Sometimes, they want nothing more than for me to talk dirty. But often, they want a lot more than that.
On this particular night, I sensed that the client fell in the latter category: he seemed less interested in having actual phone sex, and more interested in reflecting on his experiences as a client.
“What would you like us, as providers, to understand about you?" I asked him.
After a long pause, he finally replied: “Hmmm… I suppose the good ones already know this, but that we [male clients] are lonely, and that we are vulnerable," he said.
He was absolutely right.
I've been doing sex work for about a year. "Sex work" is a broad term that encompasses a wide range of sexual services, from stripping to escorting to shooting porn to having phone sex to prostitution. (Going forward, I'll be using the term to describe forms of sex work that are both legal and consensual.)
In my experience as a sex worker, sex (or dirty talk, in my case), is probably the least important part of the job. Clients call for a wide range of reasons, but underlying all of these desires is a need for connection. Because if there's one thing I've learned from doing sex work, it's that many men are extraordinarily lonely.
"If there's one thing I've learned from doing sex work, it\'s that many men are extraordinarily lonely"
Our country is steeped in a quiet mental health crisis: the suicide rate for men is much higher than it is for women, having risen nearly 50% between 1999 and 2010, and men tend not to seek help for depression, due to the cultural stigma associated with mental illness.
In her book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendship and the Crisis of Connection, Harvard researcher Niobe Way attributes this in part to the absence of an emotional support system for men. Before becoming adults, Way theorizes, young men have extraordinarily intimate friendships with each other; but as they grow older, they are pressured into giving up these close ties and becoming stoic and independent, leaving them totally isolated and unable to speak with anyone about their struggles.
It's no wonder, then, that many of these men, not knowing where else to turn, discuss their most intimate secrets with sex workers: their relationship struggles, their insecurities about their bodies, the kinks that they are embarrassed to share with their partners. That's why sex workers have a unique window into men's mental health issues: they share things with us that they would not share with anyone else.
In light of Mental Health Awareness month, I spoke to 4 sex workers across the board, from exotic dancers to porn performers to escorts, to see what they've learned about men's mental health through their work. Here's what they had to say.
Trait is an online sex worker who specializes in producing custom porn videos for her clients. She writes, stars in, shoots, and edits her own videos; many of them are based on fan requests, giving her a unique window into her clients' sexual fantasies.
"I consider myself an empath, and I think this is why people talk to me," Trait told MensHealth.com. "But it is a heavy emotional load."
"He needs me to put him in this vulnerable place that he wouldn’t dare go with his wife."
Trait says most of her clients work with her because they're afraid to tell their wives and girlfriends about what they really want in bed. For example, one of her clients is straight and married, but has intense fantasies of having sexual relationships with other men. Most of his fantasies involve Trait ordering him or tricking him into performing sexual acts on other men. “He needs me to put him in this vulnerable place that he wouldn’t dare go with his wife, for fear of rejection," she says.
This is the case for most of her clients, who care deeply about maintaining the stability of their lives and families, but are afraid to reveal their feelings or desires with their partners. Men "have such a hard time talking about sex and what they are into" that they view sex workers like her as one of their few outlets for their secret desires, Trait says.
Moriah Ella Mason is an interdisciplinary artist, dancer, massage therapist, and educator. For two years, she worked in a strip club, an experience that she recounts in a one-woman play, Sex Werque.
Mason told MensHealth.com that when she was working as an exotic dancer, her customers fell into two main categories: men who were lonely and seeking interaction with women; and men who were using the strip club as a place to bond with their male friends.
“A big driver for a lot of men was loneliness. They sought to assuage their loneliness in private rooms with me at the club,” she says. While they often sought a lap dance or some form of sexualized contact, most often, they were simply seeking intimacy.
“It wasn't entirely uncommon for men to get back to a lap dance booth or private room with me and then ask if it was OK for us to just spoon and talk for a while," Mason says. "They didn't want the whole bump-and-grind performance. They just wanted some time alone to be close to another person. They wanted to talk about their day or their hobbies."
"Men would get back to a private room with me and then ask if it was OK for us to just spoon and talk for a while."
Mason also found that many of her customers weren't there to get lap dances or to flirt with the dancers, but to bond with their other male friends. At bachelor parties, for instance, the groom's friends would often buy him a lap dance, but much of the time they had absolutely no interest in getting one.
“The point of the bachelor party lap dance isn't really about a sexualized encounter for the bachelor," she says. "It's really about the bachelor's friends showing their love for him and reassuring themselves that their friendship will still be important, even after he gets married.” Mason says that for many men, going to a strip club wasn't so much about seeing naked women, but about men performing a specific type of hyper-masculinity for each other and building a community with their friends.
Secondhand Rose is a former escort and a current phone sex operator; she's also the founder of the virtual courtesan collective The Peck and Call Girls. (To protect her privacy, she asked us not to reveal an image showing her face.) She told MensHealth.com that while she sees clients from all walks of life, many of them have been men on the autism spectrum, and as a result experience loneliness and isolation.
“They live in a world where they are asked to conform and do things that make them uncomfortable and do not at all seem natural," she told MensHealth.com. "[To them], social pleasantries seem foreign and dishonest."
One of her clients with autism, for instance, had an extensive collection of frog memorabilia. Every time she saw him, "he'd walk me through the entire collection, always starting at the same place, with the same descriptions of each item, etc., whether there was anything new or not," she recalls. "His pride in showcasing his frog collection was a huge part of his identity, in being accepted. It was a necessary part of our date interaction.”
"Men want to be understood and accepted. Perhaps it\'s a way [for them] to understand and accept themselves."
Rose sees her role as not so much to provide sexual gratification for these men, but to provide a respite for them, so they don't have to work so hard to relate to other people. “I accept them as they are. I allow them to skip the pleasantries that drain them, and allow them to feel understood," she says.
At the end of the day, Rose says, all of her clients, regardless of whether they're on the spectrum or not, just want one thing: "men want to be understood and accepted," she says. "Perhaps it's a way [for them] to understand and accept themselves.”
A speaker, activist, and escort, Swimme said many of her clients saw her as an opportunity to "be vulnerable and confess to me all of their fears and insecurities," she says. For instance, she saw male clients who revealed that they had been victims of childhood sexual abuse. "They started saying things to me like: 'You are the only person in my life that I can say everything to,'" she said.
For this reason, Swimme saw her work as a gateway for men to get in touch with their authentic feelings. But dealing with her clients' emotional needs became taxing. One of her long-term clients continually pushed for more and more contact outside of their dates. “I told him that we could love each other within the bounds of our scheduled time together, but that it would never be more than that," she says. "But he needed to constantly push."
This client was one of a few who convinced Swimme to obtain counseling certification. But the vast majority of sex workers do not have any form of counseling experience, making them a poor substitute for actual mental health professionals. "I had to get my own therapy so that I could be more whole in these moments," says Swimme.
Swimme says that contrary to the stereotypes that men who see sex workers are "predators and child rapists," most of her clients are just normal guys seeking an emotional connection in a world that is resistant to men opening up about their feelings. "Everyone is hurting," she says. "Sex workers often are [an] in-between service on men’s way to help with that hurting.”
That said, traditional counseling should always be the first line of treatment. For more information on how to get help for anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, please check out our list of resources. If you would like to locate treatment services in your area, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).