The Hipster Rent Boys Of New York

Courting danger, some rent boys will say, is part of the initial draw to the job.

Way back in 2001, one young man interviewed by The Observer found himself killing time looking at personal ads on the Web (he thinks it was on the Web site gay.com). Life was tough in the way it often is for 20-somethings in New York: income, from waiting tables, had to be squeezed in between five days a week of dance and acting classes. And there it was, sticking out among the “long walks on the beach” and “not into the bar scene” lies: someone who wanted to pay $100 to perform oral sex on a man.

“It was kind of titillating, exciting and…simple,” he said. “In those situations, you’re thrilled and nervous at the same time.”

Sitting in a packed Flatiron District lunch spot on a recent Friday afternoon, and speaking as discreetly as possible so as not to scandalize the middle-aged businessman and peppy 20-something girls he was sandwiched between, he described how six months of being a rent boy at about $250 an hour earned him enough cash to get him back on his feet, financially.

He spent the next few years party-promoting in the East Village and working as a real estate broker on the side. Then, last year, he got into independent film production, racking up a huge personal debt. So he returned to the Life and earned another $30 to $40 grand in six months.

But even though his finances have dictated his forays into the oldest profession, he thinks there’s more to it when someone decides to go the rent-boy route.

“Yes, someone’s situation at whatever present moment he’s at can lead to getting into hustling, but every New Yorker’s in debt, or laid off, and not everyone chooses this as a solution,” he said. “There’s something more psychological and deep as to why you’d go that route.”

That said, he wouldn’t have any qualms about doing it again if he needed the money to fund another project, though he’ll avoid it if he can.

Prof. Venkatesh said that aside from the fact most male escorts work independently while female escorts usually have madams, one of the biggest differences between male and female sex workers is that men have a quicker turnover rate, while women, who generally can charge higher fees (Ashley Dupre was worth more than $4,000 an hour), tend not to go back to “legitimate” employment. Yet sources with ties to the secretive world of high end male escorts said that rent boys who ascend to the topmost ranks of the business can make thousands upon thousands of dollars an hour. At the upper crusts of society, they said, the bulk of compensation is not tendered in currency, but gifts, property, tuition, etc.

As for Robert, he said he doesn’t see himself being a rent boy for all that much longer. Eventually, he said, he wants to work in fashion, which was one of the reasons he came to New York in the first place.

In the meantime, at least he has a job.

“So many people hate their jobs but they need to keep them because they need to make money, and they can’t look for another job in this economy,” he said. “I’m happy that I’m able to make money and be happy at the same time. It’s like, I understand what a hooker is, but the difference between what a hooker is and what I think I am…”

He paused.

“I don’t think I’m a hooker. I guess I don’t really know what I am. A companion? I’m selling my time, my affection. Not my dick.”

jpompeo@observer.com