Tuesday, June 2, 2009

It Isn't Just Us II---$homer Negiah?

Well, it turns out there's a market for tznius, in a sense.

Maybe this'll solve the shidduch crisis, what between "bad dates" and religious authorities claiming that "once you touch each other you'll never marry each other" [real quote].

This is an excerpt from an article from the May 26 Village Voice.

See Dick Pay Jane: Chaste Dating for Cash
Recession desperation produces a quaint throwback
By Emily Brady
Tuesday, May 26th 2009

We've never met before. All I know about Carlos is that he's five-foot-six, Asian, likes baseball, and is looking for a "cute, smart, and fun chick to enjoy the game with."

That chick is supposed to be me.

My "date" with Carlos has been arranged by the Austen's Janes Agency. Three unemployed women in their mid-twenties set up this business—with its awkward name—earlier this year to provide men with an unusual service: platonic female company for a price.

For $60 an hour, the agency arranges for a smart young woman to accompany you, laugh at your jokes, and make you feel interesting and special. It may sound like just another escort service—with additional sex services available by negotiation—but it's not.

The young women who set up the agency are adamant about this, and they spell it out on their website: "If there are any attempts at sexual activity, the girl has the right to end the date immediately."

In other words: No touching. Not even a little kiss. But despite that firm ban on fooling around, the women are getting business, as quaint as their service seems. Which made me wonder: What sort of men, in this financial climate, were willing to spend hard cash for brief companionship and absolutely no chance of physical intimacy?

The idea started out as a joke: Cara, April, and Julie, three 26-year-old friends—who, for privacy and safety reasons, prefer to use their agency-related pseudonyms and not their real names in this story—all found themselves unemployed victims of the bad economy at the end of last year. One of the women—no one remembers which of the three—pointed out how brilliant it would be if they could get men to pay to go out with them. Both Cara and April had recently been denied food stamps, and they joked about how being paid to be taken out to dinner every night would be a great way to cut down on food costs. Behind the laughter, there was a thread of seriousness: What if? As April pointed out, "I've been on so many bad dates, it was kind of a joke because it felt like work sometimes. You might as well get paid for it."

Since then, Cara, April, and Julie have gone on about 35 dates all told, weeding out the sincere inquiries from the hundreds of e-mails they say they receive from men expressing interest in their services. While the women aren't raking in the big bucks, the money they have earned has gone toward rent, groceries, and MetroCards, and—for a few desperate weeks—was Cara's sole source of income.

The men ranged in age from mid-twenties to mid-fifties. About half were white American-born males; the rest came from countries such as India, Turkey, and Nigeria. For a while, Cara had a regular client whom she would meet for vegetarian food on Friday nights, but most men aren't repeat customers.

The first thing nearly every guy requests when he first contacts the Austen's Janes Agency is, "Pictures, please." Though the girls still post on Craigslist, they now have a website, designed and built by April, with partial photographs of the trio and their carefully crafted bios. Even for a platonic service, the physical is clearly important. The three white women field requests for Jewish, African-American, and Asian women. And once, a guy requested someone who looked like Uma Thurman, which Cara still laughs about: "Uma Thurman for $60. Seriously?"

Some men change their minds after seeing photographs. One turned down all of us, saying that he was used to dating "really pretty girls." As Cara says, you have to have a thick skin.

According to agency rules, the girls only meet in a public place and won't ride in a car. Most date requests are along the lines of dinner and a movie, but the ones that stand out range from the poignant to the kinky. Early on, Cara learned about the fantasy angle. When a guy didn't like her photograph and said he preferred long hair, she put on a long black wig and took another photo. He agreed to a date. "Some men just want you to be a certain way," she says.

When I asked Elizabeth Bernstein—a women's studies and sociology professor at Barnard, and the author of Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity, and the Commerce of Sex—what she thought about Austen's Janes, she pointed out that the bad economy that had motivated the women to start the business may also be motivating the men to patronize it.

Poking around the agency's website, Bernstein found the style—flowery purple writing on a black background—very "neo-Victorian and demure." She then burst out laughing when she read about Julie's professed advocacy for victims of sex trafficking, which can be found in the bio section of the site.

"Part of what they're selling is the sexual fantasy that goes along with the chaste woman," she says. "It's part of the 'no-touch' fantasy, like strip clubs and peep shows."

Julie herself uses the same analogy when she explains the service. "Women are often objectified in regular life—now we are finally getting paid for it without contracting any life-threatening diseases!"

Cara, meanwhile, has found a full-time job at a nonprofit, and April is on unemployment again after a short-term government job. Both continue to "date" on weekends. Julie plans to work for the agency again upon her return to the States this summer. Though they've noticed a recent dip in business, which they attribute to the Craigslist Killer case, like the savvy entrepreneurs they are, the girls dream of expanding, hiring others, and taking the agency to other states.

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