NICE — We arranged to meet in a quiet bar on the third floor of a five-star hotel, located on the “Promenade des Anglais” of this French coastal city. The slim man, wearing stubble, short brown hair, a dark suit, and a luxurious watch, arrives on time. Slightly tinted sunglasses hide the color of his eyes.

“My friends always told me I did well with women,” he says right away to justify his career path.

“Prince,” 38, is an “escort boy.” Not the kind who accompanies rich and lonely women to social events, but instead the sort involved in the sex trade. He earns up to 300 euros per hour, more or less the same as what his female counterparts earn.

This “escort” euphemism is the standard term to describe prostitutes (male or female) who find their customers on the Internet.

There was no mention of this kind of sexual commerce, very different from street prostitution, during the French parliamentary debates that led to a Dec. 4 vote to penalize clients. This industry is vast, though unquantified. A sociologist counted as many as 10,000 different advertisements in a single day across dozens of websites.

Male prostitutes are barely mentioned in the latest law. The bill’s authors regard prostitution as a violent act perpetrated by men against women. They consider it a crime that must be eradicated. But some 15% of prostitutes are men, most of whom cater to male clients. It is believed that only a small minority offer their services to women.

But it’s a growing minority, Prince asserts. “It’s developing, that’s for sure,” he says. “Women feel freer, perfectly at ease, and want to consume sex just like men can. Soon you’ll be able to order a dude just like you order sushi.”

Prince has launched his own escort website for both genders. It has over 100 profiles. At his age, he is starting to think about a professional conversion.

Prince is a businessman. Before he became a prostitute, he was a trader. “I got a good slap in the face in 2009 with the financial crisis. I lost everything,” he explains. He tried getting hired at banks, but he did not have the necessary degrees. “When you’re used to a certain level of income and you find yourself with nothing overnight, what do you do?”

An escort friend of his that he met at a posh party helped him launch his new career. The first time “was with a pretty 48-year-old woman, and it went very well.” He now has more than 20 customers a month.

Inauspicious beginnings

“Bug Powder” started out as an escort after a friend of his, who was a female prostitute at the sex shop where he worked, died brutally in the summer of 2011. Her family could not afford to pay for her funeral, so he arranged for his first client to pay the bill. “I saw I could do it,” the 28-year-old man says. “I never thought that I was attractive, but on a sexual level, I’ve always been confident.” Since then, in addition to working for a sex chat line, he meets up with more than 10 clients every month, and turns down as many.

With a working-class background, and as a member of the Sex Trade Union, Bug has an almost activist vision of his work. “I charge between 150 and 180 euros per hour,” he explains. “There should be no privileged class.” The question of equality is also important to him. “It is acknowledged that men have sexual needs, but many women are also looking for sex, and just sex,” he says. “Should only men have access to this? I don’t think so. It’s still marginal because it’s not accepted on a cultural level.”

Compared to Prince and Bug, 37-year-old “Alexandre” seems like a veteran. He began even before the Internet was born. He often went to certain bars or restaurants around Paris to pick up customers. “We also worked the streets,” he remembers. “On the Champs-Elysées, more than 60 men did it in the 1990s. Nobody was aware of it except the women who were approached.”

Four years ago, he gave everything up to start over. He now works as a storekeeper for a major distributor but admits that he misses that time in his life. “I wouldn’t mind doing it again,” he says.

The clientele

These men are not very talkative about their clients, perhaps for the sake of discretion. Married or single, they are generally aged between 35 and 70 and come from all walks of life, although the upper classes predominate: senior executives, lawyers, doctors’ wives.

“Some have selfish husbands with whom they feel no pleasure,” Bug says. “Others are completely neglected.” Prince says that “it’s sometimes hard to find a partner. There’s lots of distress,” in part because the Internet has changed everything. “Male prostitution has always existed, but mostly in higher reaches,” Prince adds. “People exchanged calling cards in exclusive circles.”

“Many women looking for a partner think: ‘If I go to a bar, what’s going to happen?’ Bug says. “They’re looking for more security.”

These women do not seem to have extravagant requests. But escorts, male or female, establish by email what they will and won't do beforehand. “I don’t do uro or scato things,” Bug explains, referring to the unusual practice of urination and defecation to prompt sexual arousal. And condoms are mandatory.

“The toughest part is not the sex itself,” says “Tim,” another escort who has only male clients for now. “It’s saying: Yes, I’m enjoying it.” 

Like female escorts, these men take precautionary measures: Someone is always aware of their location and the client they are with. They try to take as few clients as possible to their homes. “Danger is included in the rate,” Tim says.

As for humiliation, they say they feel none. “Anyway, whether it is a man or a woman, the one who has the power is always the whore, because he or she represents the desired sex,” Bug says. The separation between their work and their personal lives is clear. Bug and Prince both have partners who are aware of their occupation and “accept it,” they say.

“The general perception of sex is that it involves direct intimacy,” Bug explains. “But you don’t do it the same way with everyone. With my girlfriend, there’s a real intimacy.” 

Even though their reasons are different, they all claim to be satisfied with their jobs. “We earn a lot, we’re free, we don’t have a boss,” Alexandre says. “There’s nothing bad about it, nothing dirty, nothing malicious,” Prince says. “It’s just pleasure you're paying for.”

“It doesn’t traumatize me at all,” Tim explains. “I only do it for the money, just like 90% of other people who work.”

Legislating prostitution

But there is a downside. They all lead double lives. Their parents and many of their friends are unaware of how they earn a living. “It would be a huge scandal for them,” Prince says. It is this taboo that pushed Alexandre to give it up. “There were moments when I felt down. It’s not always easy living on the fringe of society,” he says. “We’re always lying.”

The fact that politicians are instituting laws against prostitution makes them angry. “We’re not forced to do anything,” Prince says angrily. “It’s up to us to set our own boundaries,” Bug continues. “Not the feminists or the state.” “Saying we’re selling our bodies is nonsense,” Alexandre adds. “We offer a service. After that, we still own our bodies.”

As for whether there should be total legalization or something in between, their opinions vary. But they agree that punishing clients will have little effect. “We agree to meet up by email,” Prince says. “How do you prove there was a payment?”

They say the ones who should be concerned are the the men who seek out prostitutes in the forest with 30 euros in their pockets.