On a cold spring evening, 75 guests—more than half of them male—milled about in a private room beneath a midtown restaurant. The men, middle-aged and dressed in office clothes, looked nervous. To gain entrance, they had given a muscleman in a tight black T-shirt an unsealed envelope containing $120 in cash. In exchange, they were handed a neon orange wristband for the open bar.
The basement was low and dark, the walls lined with gleaming wood paneling. The guys stood awkwardly fiddling with their drinks, pretending to watch the Islanders game on the TVs above the bar. A few wore wedding rings.
Occasionally they would look away from the television and fix the women with appraising stares.
The women, for their part, huddled in groups. They were younger and wore tight dresses and stilettos, except for a petite one in a cable-knit sweater and jeans, every inch the bookish undergrad.
A woman in a shimmery evening gown walked up and introduced herself. “Is this your first mixer?” she asked me. Her eyelids were caked with glitter.
“It is.” I motioned to the anxious men. “Is this how it usually is?”
“Pretty much. Guys are always shy at first. If you don’t go up to us, we go up to you.” The woman reached into her purse and handed me a business card, which read COMPANION. She leaned in close to my ear. “Call me sometime.”
Throughout the night I would receive a half-dozen other business cards that bore job titles like “entertainer,” “VIP concierge,” “hostess.” One card read SHOWGIRL. “It used to say ‘ballet dancer,’ ” said the card’s bearer, a statuesque blonde. “But ever since Black Swan, everyone’s a fucking ballet dancer.”
One woman had a card that said she was a sales rep for a wine company. Next to her name was a little photo of a red wineglass. “In case his wife finds it,” she explained.
In the world of prostitution, a “mixer” is a meet-and-greet for escorts and johns. They are invitation-only affairs, the guest list drawn from a close-knit community of sex workers and their clients. In New York, large mixers are traditionally held about once every four months.
The purpose is twofold: Johns get to know escorts without paying their normal rate—the cheapest woman at a mixer usually requires a “donation” of no less than $350 per hour of her time, and a few charge double that amount. So the men have a strong incentive to shop before buying. “You can read her reviews, look at her pictures, even talk with her on the phone,” one john told me. “But there’s nothing like meeting her and seeing if you have that spark.”
Escorts, in turn, gain access to a room of potential clients. “It’s a business-networking event,” said one who describes herself on her website as a “courtesan.” “They get to see you’re a real person.”
Many of the attendees first learned about the mixer on the website the Erotic Review, or TER, as its devotees call it, which is like a Yelp for prostitution. Men post reviews of escorts, describing a woman’s physical appearance, services provided, and price. Conversations are riddled with euphemisms like “hobbyist” or “monger”—short for “whoremonger”—for the men and “providers” for the women.
Recent discussion threads were titled “Favorite Condom?”; “If a Provider’s Late, When Do You Bail?”; and “If Your SO/Wife Found Out You Hobbied, What Would She Do?”
It was on TER this past December that a poster named Vadhaman announced he’d be holding a mixer in the spring. Sex parties, at which providers’ services can be purchased on-site, are occasionally advertised on TER, but Vadhaman made it clear that his party would be platonic: “It will be a mixer only,” he wrote in another post. “Nothing on-site beyond eating, drinking, meeting and greeting.”
To maintain secrecy, Vadhaman never publicly reveals the location of a mixer, and to attend, posters RSVP using the board’s private-message system. Usually, a mixer host will only invite people he’s met, either from the boards or in person. Infiltration by law enforcement is always a concern, and if a host doesn’t know a person who wants to attend, he may ask for references from a provider or two.
In the private room, as the night progressed and the alcohol kicked in, most of the men lost their shyness and began to mingle. Some of them, the ones who knew each other from previous mixers, shook hands and slapped backs. But whatever intimacy the men may feel with one another, johns told me, personal questions are off-limits.
“There are guys whom I’ve known for years and I don’t know their first name,” one john said. “I know their face, I know their handle, I know what girls they’ve seen, but not what they do for a living, where they live, if they’re married.”