It’s after midnight and Paul, a 24-year-old man prowling the beachfront of downtown Mumbai, knows he’s finally got lucky when the driver of a swanky car pulls over. It’s a game Paul has played many times over. The driver — a woman — asks for directions, and Paul, in turn, asks her for a light. Moments later, they drive away into the darkness together.
Men like Paul — some call him a gigolo, some a sex worker — boast of being able to see sexual desire in the eyes of a woman. Hari, who lives and works in a Mumbai train terminus and claims to have been there and done that, says he can instinctively recognise a woman who’s seeking to buy sex. Many of his clients, he says, are middle class and rich women, looking for vulnerable young men with a bewildered, starved look. “They stop by, make an offer of food and clean clothes, or a job,” he says. The man is then taken either to the woman’s home or a hotel, where he is cleaned up, fed and suitably loosened up with alcohol for bed.
Welcome to Mumbai — a city that never fails to shock. Here women buy sex from men willing to sell their bodies. And while most of their clients — an estimated 90 per cent — are men, there are women in the city who haunt Internet sites and dark alleys in search of sex.
Mumbai leads, but other cities are not lagging far behind either. In Hyderabad — which is said to have 130 identified pick-up joints — women have found innovative ways to buy sex in the city’s public parks. Srilaxmi Akula, a Hyderabad-based researcher who has studied male sex workers, describes the modus operandi. Young women, some under 25, and some in a burqah, visit the city’s parks in groups, in search of paid sex. The men are already hanging around there. On the pretext of offering them jobs, the women get talking to the men. A deal is struck and a pair walks off — usually to a hotel nearby. Another woman in the group hits off with another man and the game goes on.
Chennai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chandigarh — name a city and you’ll find women in search of paid sex. Though still a minority when compared to men buying sex, women are openly approaching male sex workers. The Internet is full of sites that aid interaction between sex buyers and sellers. There are blogs devoted to Indian gigolos, and sundry sites lead to frantic messages such as: “...Very experienced and funfilled guy and good in pleasing females of any age and good in body massaging. I am from Pune if any female wish can mail me at ...” and “Hi females… I am from Chennai …Malayalee…25 years. And goood performance. I am available for lowest price (500)..….!!!”
There are risque resumes on the Internet — postings from both men and women. There are ‘aunties’ who are looking for young men and college students or young and unmarried working women looking for “uncomplicated fun,” says Anand, a Bangalore-based gigolo, many of whose clients visit him from Pune, Mumbai and Delhi.
Not that you have to be Net savvy to find a gigolo. Despite gigolos becoming increasingly organised, a lot of the business still comes through word of mouth. There are other tell-tale signs — such as a red or white handkerchief worn around the wrist or the head, a peecap worn backwards, a red T-shirt, a key chain dangling from the pocket or tattooed arms. There are some covert selling points for gigolos, too. After midnight, in Mumbai’s tourism district, Colaba or other seafacing quarters like Juhu, macho men strut along pavements and traffic islands, their trained eyes darting about in search of a willing prey. Late night Mumbai also sees rugged masseurs drawing clients on beachfronts, ringing a quaint sounding handbell and offering a massage.
It was, however, in cyberspace that Amrita, a 17-year-old college fresher in Chennai, found Mahesh, a manager at a music recording company and a gigolo based in the southern city. She invited him over when her parents were out, but stopped at foreplay. But Amrita had marathon phone chats with Mahesh almost every day. And finally when she couldn’t handle him anymore, she dropped him.
But Amrita’s style is typical of most seekers of anonymous sex. Which is why Bangalore-based Anand, who is also a branch manager at one of the city’s freight companies, says that while he may take his women clients out to the movies, discos and restaurants, he avoids getting to know them personally. Most women like it that way, too. “Gigolos have blackmailed women clients for money, by sending MMS messages on their bedroom acts, as a marketing tool for themselves,” he says.
But money, some sex workers stress, is not what eggs them on. Mahesh and Anand, both married, claim to be in it purely for the pleasure of sex. Anand, however, adds that gifts like high-end cell phones, jewellery, designer wear — or even apartments — are always welcome. Mahesh, on the other hand, says he once even financed his trip and stay in Bangalore, where he went to visit a 34-year-old married client. He “liked her very much,” but, no, he wasn’t infatuated with her. “Not at all. It’s like a movie. If you like it, you go watch it again,” he chuckles.
On the other hand, Lakhan, a Mumbai-based sex worker, does not mince words when the topic of money comes up. “I flatly refuse women who want to take me out and sleep with me, but not pay me,” says this lean 25-year-old who ‘off-duty’ claims to make Rs 5,000 an hour for a role in gay blue films.
Lakhan’s hourly rate for a massage-cum-sex is Rs 300 upwards, though foreign clients pay him Rs 2,500-5,000 a night. If lucky, he lands up with long-term or outstation, all-expenses-paid-for assignments. A couple of years ago, he made a neat packet selling sex almost every day, for a month-and-a- half, with a woman who could not conceive because of her husband’s supposed infertility. The husband, a taxi driver, would pick up Lakhan every day and bring him home to sleep with her, till his efforts bore fruit.
There is quick money to be made in the business, which explains why an increasing number of young college students are offering sex for money. And if they are not servicing women themselves, some are making money by acting as go-betweens. Ranvir, who’s also in the automobile business, and Ricky, who’s a bouncer at a city resto-bar, say they earn 10-50 per cent commission by passing on clients to their struggling-model-actor friends.
But in this world, money is spent as quickly as it is earned — on image-building clothes, exercise, non-vegetarian food, drinks and so on. Jyotirmay and Danny — 17 and 18, from Assam and Darjeeling, respectively — say they make Rs 5,000-10,000 a month from massage-cum-sex but are yet to send money back home.
They admit that their parents fear for their sons. Lakhan’s mother, a war widow in Uttar Pradesh, has been urging him to come back, fearing that he’ll fall into “bad company”. But Mumbai seems to have ensnared Lakhan who, like many others from his home state, entered the world of sex through massage with the help of relatives living in a slum who taught him the ropes of the trade.
It is a world where the older men worry about younger boys snatching their livelihood. “Most of these men smile a lot, but are very sad deep down. They do not realise the psycho-social consequences of their occupation,” says Jasmir Thakur, secretary and executive officer of Samabhavana Trust, an organisation working with male sex workers.
“For a lot of gigolos, women — especially older women whom they see more than the younger ones — are like a commodity, which is not a very healthy sign for society. By commodifying their masculinity, they see most women as potential clients,” Thakur says.
But then, there is little else that the men can do, for job options are limited. Paul, for one, cannot imagine going back home to Assam or getting a job that would take care of his wife and son. His last job as a waiter paid him less than Rs 1,000. Like Jyotirmay, Danny and Lakhan, he’s told his mother he has a respectable job. If only she knew, that on many days, her son is all dressed up with nowhere to go.
‘Sex is like chocolate’
Rashmi, a bubbly 47-year-old grandmother in Mumbai, has been sleeping with sex workers for the last 15 years. Sex, she says, is like chocolate — the more you have it, the more you want it.
In all these years, Rashmi’s been careful not to repeat her men. But that does not stop her from getting emotionally attached to some of them. A few gigolos borrowed heavily from her — and then refused to pay up.
Rashmi’s first such sexual encounter was sponsored by a female friend who introduced her to a man and a way of life. The two women used to hunt together, sharing the same gigolo. But Rashmi now scouts for men independently.
Rashmi grew up under a puritanical father who believed that sex was a dirty act. Her husband, too, did not try to ease her discomfort about sex. He was also unfaithful to her. “Besides using sex with gigolos as a weapon to hit back at her husband, the choice to sleep with them, she believes, gave her the feeling of being empowered to make her own choices for the first time in her life,” says Rashmi’s psychiatrist in Mumbai, Harish Shetty.
Rashmi no longer feels guilty about sleeping with gigolos. But like her, not all women live without the fear of being caught by their spouses. “One woman who was discovered in bed with a gigolo by her son was left feeling extremely sad and guilty,” says Shetty.
For some women, as the psychiatrist says, sleeping with a gigolo leads to problems. In some cases, it leads to no sex between the woman and her husband. There are also instances of women getting attached to the men who offer them sex for money. And since the men are not permanent fixtures, women often fall into depression and their self-esteem plummets. Even Rashmi, who prides herself on never repeating a gigolo in bed, has reached a point where she would like the man to linger around her bedroom a little longer. Much to her disappointment, they seldom do.
Of late, she has been trying to find happiness in watching, on video, one of her lovemaking sessions with a gigolo. Talk about cold comfort.