Jemima Lewis: Sex, love and the reality of gigolos

Insecurity is the enemy of the female libido: most of us need to feel desired to enjoy ourselves in bed
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Say what you like about Heidi Fleiss, but the woman has a formidable work ethic. Since her release from jail in 1999, the former Hollywood madam - who served 21 months for pimping for the rich and famous - has tried her hand at various new careers, from publishing books on brothel-keeping to designing her own range of latex lingerie. But none of her business ventures have caught the popular imagination - until now.

Ms Fleiss, 39, announced this week that she plans to open a "rooster ranch" - a brothel providing gigolos for women - in the Nevada desert. Prostitution is legal in most of Nevada, and there are bordellos all over the place, but this will be first to cater exclusively to female clients.

"I'm going to have the sexiest men on earth," says Fleiss. "Women will love it." That remains to be seen. Fleiss and her business partner, a pimp called Joe Richards, plan to convert an existing brothel, ditching the cowboy theme in favour of tinkling waterfalls and palm trees. Interior decor aside, however, their business model remains unchanged. "The service will be available exactly as is presently offered," says Richards, "except for the gender reversal between client and prostitute."

As far as he is concerned, it's a simple matter of equality: women are now rich and emancipated enough to indulge in the same vices as men. "Say a guy gets into an argument with his wife. What does he do? Lots of times, he goes out, gets a drink, goes to a place to be serviced. Now women can say, 'Hey, if you can do it, I can too.'"

Ms Fleiss, likewise, regards it as tit-for-tat in the war of the sexes: "You've got the situation with the old husband leaving his wife for the younger girl, and the lady sitting at home crying. Well, now she has a place to go and say, 'Right back at you, buddy, and on your credit card.'"

I suppose it is not surprising that a pimp and a procuress should take a somewhat bleak view of gender relations; and I dare say they know more than me about what husbands, at any rate, get up to. But I wonder whether their grasp of female psychology is quite so assured.

You don't have to be much of a sexpert to know that for women, arousal takes place largely in the mind. Insecurity is the enemy of the female libido: most of us need to feel desired, and desirable, in order to enjoy ourselves in bed. Paying a man to have sex with you is not the obvious way to make yourself feel more attractive.

Neither is it much use as revenge. If your husband runs off with a younger woman and you respond by hiring a prostitute, is he likely to be seized with jealousy and regret? Or is he more likely to think: "Poor old stick, she must be really desperate," and snuggle back under the duvet with his secretary?

The lonely singleton, the abandoned wife, the female executive with more money than time - they may want sex, but on the whole they want love more. And that, as we know, is the one thing money can't buy. In fact, the biggest market for gigolos may not be single women - for whom meaningless sex with a stranger is relatively easy to arrange - but happily married ones who already have the love they need.

A few years ago, I watched a television documentary about male prostitutes in Melbourne, where the profession is legal. The star of the show was Joel Ryan: an ordinary-looking carpenter, married with four children, who spent his spare time servicing randy housewives. Most of his clients, he said, were devoted to their husbands but unsatisfied in bed. Rather than break up their happy home, they came to Joel to take care of that side of things.

One woman was interviewed sitting in a hotel bed, waiting for Joel to arrive with his box of tools. She was sweet-looking: middle-aged with plump cheeks and a nightie buttoned to the chin. It was her first time, and she confessed to being a-tremble with nerves. But when we next saw her - lolling wonkily against the headboard, her hair on end and her cheeks aflame - she was jubilant. "Well!" she exclaimed. "I never knew it could be like that!"

In the popular imagination, gigolos look like Richard Gere, and their clients like Lauren Hutton - bored, beautiful nymphomaniacs. The language used by male escort agencies is relentlessly upbeat, peppered with exclamation marks and management jargon to reassure both client and prostitute that this is a glamorous, upmarket trade.

"Do you want to make top dollar with the best profession in the world?" reads the website of Gigolos International. "Then you've come to the right place! Modern upscale (working) women are always busy and have become more emancipated regarding paid (erotic) company. Join now and upgrade your lifestyle for only $49.95!" In theory - though perhaps not in practice - it is every man's dream.

Whether it is every woman's we will leave it to Ms Fleiss to discover.