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.”
Over by the door, a chubby, dark-haired man was talking with the bouncer, who was explaining that the best deals on women are in the Dominican Republic. “One hundred dollars,” he said. “All night, you’re the fucking king.”
“Some of the guys from my work?” the hobbyist said. “They’ll rent a van, take weekends down there. I’ve never gone, but it looks great.”
“I think,” the bouncer said, his voice turning philosophical, “that it’s a cultural thing. American women, they’re raised selfish—take, take, take, take, take, take, take. D.R. women, they’re more family … oriented. You act like you love ’em just a little bit, they’ll do anything you want.”
Vadhaman—who in real life is a tall, silver-haired man—roved among the guests. At one point, he walked up to a group of loners standing off to the side and tried to persuade them to join the party. “Come on, guys!” he said, clapping his hands in encouragement, like a football coach giving a pep talk. “This isn’t how you do it! Wallflowers never win!”
Later, I asked him why he organizes events like this one. The host seldom, if ever, makes money and bears some legal risk. (Vadhaman insists he’s not committing any felonies. “I’m putting consenting adults together in the same room,” he told me. “Whatever agreement they come to, that’s their business.”)
He thought for a moment.
“I guess I like the camaraderie,” he said. “I’m just a communitas kind of guy.”
And it’s true. Hobbyists are unusually friendly; the reigning attitude at the mixer was one of mutual support, not competition. There was no showing off, no alpha-male bravado. There seemed to be an understanding that the women would be shared without rancor and that everyone could get laid.
Plus, mixers are a place where johns can be surrounded by dozens of men who also visit prostitutes and talk openly about it. It makes buying sex feel normal. “We’re not perverts,” one john told me. “We’re just normal, red-blooded men with an interest in healthy, normal sex.”
Mixers have their own code of etiquette, one that’s surprisingly prim, and men are encouraged to keep the tone respectful. (Most hobbyist message boards hold to similar rules, forbidding the use of words like bitch and whore.) Even vulgar language is considered unseemly. “Most times, sex doesn’t even come up. It doesn’t need to—we all know why we’re here,” one provider explained.
“Flirting is about as far as it goes,” a man in a cream-colored three-piece suit said. “No one tells a provider, ‘I’d like to fuck you tonight.’ We like to consider ourselves gentlemen.”
But toward the end of the night, some of these rules seemed to fall away. A few girls from an agency, all in their twenties, grabbed a round of tequila shots.
“To love, sex, and paychecks!” yelled the chubby man.
“To tits and ass!” yelled an agency girl.
I watched a hobbyist, his shirt opened wide enough to reveal a gold chain, slink over to one of the agency girls, an impish-looking brunette.
“You,” he said, “have a great body.”
“I know,” she said, curtsying.
“But you also”—he waved his hands in front of her face—“have this going on.”
“Oh, you charmer.”
Later he was standing alone, looking vaguely put out. “Honestly, there’s pretty much no one here I’d pay for,” he told me. “Most of them are too old. If I’m paying, I’m paying to fuck the snot out of a girl in her twenties. I can fuck 40-year-olds on my own time.”
I asked if he was married.
He held up his left hand and winced. “A wife,” he said. “And a mistress.” He shook his head with a practiced weariness.
As the night wound down, some of the men had paired off with women and were carrying on long, intense conversations. Against one wall, a short, gray-haired man was furiously making out with a black woman in a sequin dress. The woman was a good foot taller than him; he looked ecstatic. Such public displays are frowned upon, and Vadhaman walked over and asked them to cut it out.
“You can put your arm on her,” he explained to me. “You can maybe put your hand on her ass. But grabbing her tits? Sucking face? Right idea, wrong time. Get a room.”
Some of the women, in fact, had rented hotel rooms nearby, and some of the men went with them. Others left alone, their wallets filled with business cards.
When I got to the subway, I found the chubby hobbyist from the party. He greeted me warmly, slapping me on the back. We chatted for a while. But when I began to ask him about the mixer, his face fell and he clammed up and I quickly changed the subject. For the rest of the ride, we talked about the election.