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Golden age of hustlers: The rise and fall of the B.A.R.'s famous escort ads

by Cornelius Washington

A two-page spread from six pages of escort and massage ads in the December 1990 issue of the Bay Area Reporter
A two-page spread from six pages of escort and massage ads in the December 1990 issue of the Bay Area Reporter  

In the LGBTQ community, the media that serves the culture addresses the needs, wants and desires of that culture. One point of ambivalence is the open expression of sexuality and its manifestation in marketing. As long as there is a demand, there will be a supply.

What's interesting is that that applies also to sex. In my many years as a photojournalist, writer and columnist, I've noticed the disconnect as it pertains to escorting. Sex, too, is a commodity. So, let's break it down.

The Bay Area Reporter, one of the LGBTQ community's premiere publications, has never shied away from expressing and exploring every aspect of the community. As I've pored through the B.A.R.'s vast archives of escort advertisements, feelings of nostalgia and romance swept over me.

They all had great smiles, seemingly containing all 32 teeth, great personalities and only slightly art-directed bodies. Did any of them rock a waistline over 32 inches? They were, at the very least, boyish, at one end of the spectrum, very dominant and masculine at the other. We embraced body and facial hair. We had no problem with hippies to S&M.

Not only were there porn stars, obviously there were men who were college students, plumbers, construction workers and just regular hot guys that you'd see in the grocery store or walking down the street. The ads being nestled between those for leather stores, safe sex, phone sex and second-hand erotica emporiums. The men's buyers, to my mind, seemed romantic, too. I envisioned middle-aged, well-to-do men who had chandeliers in their foyers or on vacation, birthday present for a friend or a stripper for a party.

On a certain level, it all made sense, as it was a more direct way for the customers to get exactly what they wanted without wasting anyone's time, or enduring judgment and/or stigma. Money was no object.

Then, I was brought back to reality by one of my closest friends, local black gay cultural anthropologist, Bob Mathis-Friedman, M.A., who stated, ''When I remember looking at the B.A.R.'s ads, they were very boring and homogeneous to me. They definitely were not representative of the city's diversity.''

I agreed, but came to the conclusion that the ads were about making money, not the United Colors of Escorting.

He agreed, but then, added, ''If someone of color were to take out an ad, what would be its optics, or would it be the same-old same-old?''

I too, was concerned with the optics, but, in a more positive way. As a photographer, I've studied the ads' imagery for lighting and posing techniques. However, for years, I've also noticed that the description of the models and their proclivities were also homogeneous, which brought up an interesting dilemma for me. Bob and I have very sophisticated, refined taste, so I called another friend of mine who was just beginning to make huge strides in the porn and escorting industries, in order to get his viewpoint on the culture of escorting.


Jared Erikson  

Sex, life
Jared Erikson is an award-winning porn star and producer who also escorts.
"When I was a young, gay man, my visceral response to escort ads was also romantic, that it has to be an awesome life, to be able to have sex with men and make a living at it. As a sober person, who does not use nicotine, drugs or alcohol, for me, sex is the ultimate vice. Therefore, sex work would be the ultimate work.

But as I got older, I fell for the stereotypes that escorts are uneducated, trashy drug addicts who are lazy and can't hold steady employment, and that the men who hire them are old, fat, ugly desperate men, which I now know is totally false. In my career as a sex worker, I've found the reality to be just the opposite. What determines that is money.'"

As technology and the virus have readjusted our sexuality, I've thought about present-day options, the proliferation of sex sites such as rentmen.com, M4M.com, and Onlyfans.com present visuals that are available on your laptop and smartphone, with transactions performed on your credit card.

A wave of romanticism is also killed for the newspaper. Long-gone are the days when, at the last minutes before Monday's deadline, a lot of flirting and teasing would take place when the men would come into the B.A.R. offices to pay for their ads in person. Ya had to love it!

Now, of course, the times-and the currency-have changed.

Jared said, ''The client/escort payment relationship has changed because we're now using cash transfer apps, where both parties must use their real names. In my opinion, the negative in present-day escorting is that it is in grave danger because of Kamala Harris' SESTA/FOSTA law, which has done major damage to escorting and sex work, in general.''

Those are serious realities, but, still, looking at the ads, over time, I missed the days when a man would strip off and get a passionate, clever photographer to create a sensual image that rode the razor's edge between that and hardcore pornography, have it printed, art-directed and laid out within a beautiful newspaper. They utilized trends, or bucked them, from hardcore leather fetish to Abercrombie & Fitch realness to Dolce & Gabbana hotness.

When I queried my two friends about the future of escorting and its ads, in general, Bob's conclusion is, ''It's difficult to say, specifically, but sex work should absolutely be utilized. Get over it and tax it like any other adult activity. As far as the ads go, I see that no one knows what they're doing with their cell phones. It seems that Grindr doesn't require much in the world of imagery.''

Jared's response was, ''People want a serious moment of connection. It's really impactful for closeted gay, bisexual and bi-curious men within and independent of sex. As a practice, escorting is not going away anytime soon. It's not called 'the world's oldest profession' for nothing."

Added Jared a salutation to the B.A.R., "Congratulations on your 50 years and your bravery around being transparent about sex work as a culture and as a business.''

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