If you haven't heard by now, Starz has a risqué new show called The Girlfriend Experience, starring Riley Keough as Christine — a law student and legal intern by day, moonlighting as Chelsea the escort by night. And there's a lot of sex in this definitely NSFW show — prepare yourself for hours of heavy breathing in the first season and scenes that will make you want to turn the volume down low if you have roommates or kids. But the sex in this new series is interesting because it isn't the type of glossy Hollywood sex we're used to seeing on camera — it feels gritty and real and appeals to our voyeuristic side, especially as the show is about an underground industry most of us will never experience — that of paid sex among the uber wealthy.
I was intrigued by the types of male characters The Girlfriend Experience chose to represent men who would pay for sex. Because when you look at actual research social scientists and psychologists have done on men who frequent sex workers, The Girlfriend Experience seems like it's done its homework when it comes to representing plausible reasons its wealthy male characters might pay escorts for sex. Check out some of the clients Christine (or Chelsea, that is) sees in the first season:
When Christine meets Michael (Nicholas Campbell), he tells her he's a widower who just needs someone to talk to — of course, it helps if that someone also happens to be a beautiful young woman. While Christine and Michael do have sex, their relationship actually seems to be more rooted in his need for companionship. He's clearly lonely and tells Christine that his adult children (who could well be older than Christine) rarely contact him, and that he only hears from his daughter when she wants money. Christine and Michael's relationship is interesting, because they seem, on some level, to genuinely care for each other. However, clear client and service provider boundaries still exist.
How realistic is Michael? According to a 2006 Swedish study published in Sexologies, loneliness was one of the top five reasons men hired sex workers. And even though Michael is clearly not in the best health — Christine seems worried the aging Michael will drop dead at any moment — we shouldn't be that surprised to see someone his age purchasing sex. After all, a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that as men advance in years after age 60, they become increasingly likely to buy sex.
One of Christine's more disturbing experiences is with a younger client, Jack (James Gilbert). Jack is a controlling creep [spoilers ahead] who, despite initially acting as though he had romantic feelings for Christine and buying an apartment where the two of them could spend time together, continuously disrespects Christine and her boundaries. He engages in stalker-like behavior when he attempts to make contact with her using her personal cell number and her home and work addresses (all details she'd concealed from him).
Jack's failure to respect Christine's boundaries show that he likely has some of the negative characteristics a recent University of California, Los Angeles, study found that many men who visit sex workers often share with aggressive sex offenders. These men often view sex workers as intrinsically different than other women, and share “a preference for impersonal sex, a fear of rejection by women, a history of having committed sexually aggressive acts and a hostile masculine self-identification" — all of which makes them more likely to commit violent acts against women. It's easy to see why Christine feels threatened by Jack and installs a security system in her home.
Ryan (Shaun Benson) is different than many of Christine's other clients in that he doesn't try to pretend their interaction is anything other than what it is. He's one of Christine's first clients, and gleefully calls her bluff when he catches her in a lie about her fake life as Chelsea. "Come on, you've got to rehearse this stuff!" he teases. Christine's agent at the time tells her that Ryan has seen many of the other "girls" she works with, something that Christine later learns is having a detrimental effect on his marriage. When Ryan's wife actually pays Christine a sizable sum of money for her to stop answering her husband's calls, it's clear she doesn't believe he's capable of stopping the relationship on his own.
Ryan admits himself that he's selfish, saying sadly, "You're so smart and I'm so selfish," to Christine. So what's the deal — is Ryan a sex addict? If this were the real world, that would be doubtful. Sexual addiction is not actually a common reason for seeing an escort, with only 3 percent of men admitting this was why they bought sex. But Ryan seems to enjoy the fact that Christine is an escort, which is realistic for some men. In her recent book Paying for Pleasure, U.K. researcher Teela Sanders says that many men are attracted to the idea of sex work because it's illegal, and there's a certain thrill in "getting away with it."
In a later scene, we see Christine with an unnamed client who has a cuckold fantasy. Christine has to play his wife, who he catches having an affair with another man. She then has sex with a male escort while her client watches them through the door.
Sound weird? It's really not. If a recent Reddit thread where people claiming to be sex workers or former sex workers is any indication, a lot of clients have some pretty wild fetishes. And given that nearly half of people report having fetishes that are considered abnormal (according to a recent study of over 1,000 people from Canada) combined with the fact that many people are conditioned to feel ashamed of their fetishes, it's hardly surprising that people would try to fulfill them with sex workers.
Time after time, we meet clients who casually mention their wives. Christine often fulfills a need that's not being met in their relationship. For instance, her client Alex (James McGowan) tells her that she probably doesn't want to listen to him talk about his job crunching numbers, as it entails quantitative analysis, something he says most people find pretty boring. But Christine encourages him to talk about it, saying, "I think it's pretty hot," (somehow with a straight face). To reassure him she wants to listen to him (because not even Alex can believe that line about data analysis being hot), she goes on to explain that she's turned on by the fact that he's good at his job. He admits to her that his wife isn't interested in hearing about his work, revealing that he's not entirely happy at home.
Here's the thing about Christine's married clients that viewers might find surprising, though — overwhelmingly, these characters are seeing escorts because they're looking for no-strings-attached encounters, and they have no desire to end their relationships. According to a study conducted by psychologists that tries to understand why men around the world purchase sex, for 20 percent, being dissatisfied by a current relationship was a big reason, while another 15 percent said they were drawn to the no-strings-attached aspect.
So what can we glean from the characters in this new show? Not all of them are bad guys, but misleading their spouses leads to hurt on screen. But what this show's writers seem to want to drive home is that when sex work is involved, things get morally complicated for these characters. There are no clear black and white good guys or bad guys — instead, the directors leave the judgments about each character up to us.
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