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When she lost her job in the recession, single mother Scarlett O'Kelly turned to selling herself -- and was surprised to find her clients were decent, considerate men. Now she has told all in a new book, writes Emily Hourican.
I guess it's a question most women have asked themselves: if it came to it, if all else failed, would I sell myself? Could I actually do it? And would anyone buy?
Well, Scarlett O'Kelly (not her real name, obviously) can answer both those questions, with a resounding yes. She sold, they bought; it was a transaction born out of recession-induced necessity but one that ended by confounding all Scarlett's preconceptions, about herself and about the men who pay for sex.
"I'm a hooker, a prostitute, a whore or an escort. I'm also an ordinary mum getting on with life," Scarlett writes in Between The Sheets, a kind of Irish version of Belle de Jour's Secret Diary of a Call Girl. And that of course is the crux of it. The need to provide for her three children when all other options failed is what drove Scarlett.
She describes herself as "well-groomed, attractive, educated," but stresses that she looks like "any other woman my age. I'm nearly 40, I've had three kids, I have stretch-marks, saggy boobs, the whole lot, I'm not skinny, I have a fair bit of weight, I'm roughly a size 16". One discovery she made was that "men never commented, except to compliment. We might think they want these super-skinny, gorgeous women, but they don't".
Her insistence on absolute anonymity extends to speaking only by phone, so I can't judge her assessment of her physical charms ("trust me," she insists, "I'm not putting myself down"), but judging by her voice, she seems practical, matter-of-fact, articulate and well-spoken, with a slight hint of country in her accent, but nothing I can place. She does indeed sound like any one of hundreds of women we've all come across. A bit mammy, a bit office administrator. Nothing hooker-ish at all.
However, the book has been thoroughly vetted for accuracy by her publishers, Penguin. "Their legal department were involved to make sure everything I wrote was essentially true," she tells me. Obviously, she has camouflaged and fictionalised where necessary, to protect herself, but the substance, as well as her reaction to it all, is as written. Scarlett isn't a junkie, she wasn't coerced, has no history of sexual abuse, and she didn't find the work degrading. "I expected it to be seedy and awful," she says, "and it wasn't."
She is keen to stress that she wasn't making big money. She deliberately kept her client base fairly low, and there were many times -- school holidays, weekends when the kids weren't at their father's -- that she couldn't work at all. "There were no luxuries," she insists. "It was all basics I was covering. This wasn't paying for private education or spa trips, it was very basic -- the mortgage, bills, that kind of thing."
So how did she come to work as an escort for more than a year? Having sex with more than 150 men?
It all started with money, of course. Newly separated from her husband, with three children under 10, Scarlett lost her mundane office job when the recession bit, her efforts to find other work came to nothing, and she quickly found herself without any financial safety net at all. At the same time, her ex-husband's hours were slashed, and he stopped paying maintenance. Then she was told how much she was entitled to on social welfare.
"I went home and cried... it wouldn't even make a teeny dent in my monthly mortgage repayment," she says.
Faced with a dire situation, confronted by the very real possibility of losing the roof over her children's heads and of having to deprive them even further of the things they needed to thrive, Scarlett decided to use the only resource she felt she had left -- herself.
"Growing up in poverty is very detrimental to children's well-being," she stresses. "I had the choice, either provide for my children, or go under. I do know that if they find out, that will affect them emotionally in some way, but I am equally sure that if my children grow up in poverty, that there are social and emotional implications of that as well."
Scarlett researched carefully, finding out about price ranges, local availability, various sexual practices, and health and legal issues.
She decided to aim for the upper end of the market, charging €400 for an introductory session of 90 minutes, followed by €300 for subsequent 60-minute sessions, and eschewing any of the more specialist fetishes.
She met them in hotels -- which she rotated for discretion -- and sometimes short-let apartments. And she advertised online. Apparently there are any number of ads, for every corner of the country.
She sought out respectable, attached men -- who would have as much to lose as she would if they were discovered. And she deliberately pitched herself as 'a real Irish woman', "curves, stretch-marks and all" -- because she found so many men who complained of soulless experiences with foreign girls, who may have had perfect bodies, but who treated their clients with disdain.
To her own astonishment, she enjoyed the work, often finding herself as enthusiastic about the sexual encounters as her clients. "I am very open-minded," she tells me. "I enjoy sex and I'm very easy-going about bodies, and so yes, I found I actually liked it.
"I expected not very nice men -- desperate, dirty, awful men, reduced to the sex industry because no one else would have them. That wasn't the case."
What she found were lonely men, often married or attached, who couldn't communicate with their wives and partners, who were stressed and desperate, who felt unappreciated and isolated. These men, Scarlett quickly realised, wanted sympathy and consideration just as much as a decent shag.
Which makes her sound like the tart with the heart of gold, except that she never lost sight of her reasons for being there. It was, in the end, all about the money, but if she could get through the encounters with a degree of humanity, even warmth, so much the better. Plus, nice turned out to be good for business, with as many men as she could fit around her domestic schedule willing to pay her prices, and a couple of devoted regulars.
Having expected to grow increasingly disgusted with men, Scarlett found the opposite. "I'm probably a bit nicer to men these days. I probably see them as more human -- more like women than I previously thought. It was nearly like the sex was secondary to the conversation that took place around the meeting.
"They wanted as much of an emotional connection as women do when they have sex. And I think maybe, if I had known back when my marriage was in trouble, what I know now, I would have approached it different."
Which is not to say that the book is all touchy-feely ruminations on the nature of male-female relations. There's plenty of explicit sex in there too. Descriptions of different encounters, preferences, anecdotes, a run-down of various sex toys on the market and what these will do for you, even a dissertation on the causes and cures of premature ejaculation, and a how-to guide to anal sex (yes, there is a right and a wrong way).
Scarlett writes about sex with the same matter-of-fact clarity that she brings to everything else. It's hardly porn-as-high-art, but it is approachable, open and honest -- much, I imagine, as she was herself in her role as escort.
After her very first paid encounter, with a young farmer, Scarlett got home and found a text from her client saying: 'Thanks very much, did you get home okay?' This makes her hoot with laughter.
"I thought, how many times have I had a one-night stand and there is no follow-up? No text, no thank-you. Nothing. It looks like men understand money! If you put a high monetary value on yourself, you set the bar high, and they show more... respect, I suppose."
In fact, the male-female dynamic seems to alter completely once money is involved, and never in the most obvious of ways. "There was no expectations of having a good time for me," she points out. "I wasn't worried about what they thought of me, if they were going to call me, how bright or witty they thought I was, so I was much more able to let go and enjoy myself."
These days, having pulled back from the industry, she finds, bizarrely, "that I'm slipping back into my old ways where I am more conscious in bed, where I'm thinking, 'What's he going to think of me?' It's mad!"
The worst part of it, she says, was the secrecy. "That was so hard. The juggling, the lies, I found it hugely stressful. The longer it went on, the more secrets I had to keep, and the worse it got. I had to always have an answer ready for where I'd been, I had different email addresses, sim cards, phones ... it was awful."
Does she worry that, having written this book, she will now be exposed, as Belle de Jour was in the UK (she was found to be Dr Brooke Magnanti, a research scientist with Bristol university)?
"Yes, I worry that I'll be hunted down. But I enjoyed writing the book, it was a fascinating time in my life. And just like everybody else, I still need an income. I hope I have been smart enough that it would be very difficult for anyone to recognise me."
By the end of her year as an escort, Scarlett began to find the supply of services in every corner of Ireland had substantially increased, and prices were falling. Her asking fee of €300 to €400 became increasingly unrealistic, and anyway, she had never intended to stick with it long-term. A regular client offered her a legitimate part-time job as his PA, because he was sufficiently impressed by the way she conducted her escort business, and Scarlett jumped at it.
She did fear that the offer might have strings attached, or at least run the risk of exposing her to disrespect, but one conversation with 'William' as he's called in the book, reassured her.
"When you've talked to somebody very openly about your wants and your needs and your sex life, and had sex with them for money, there isn't any need for lies," she says matter-of-factly.
These days, she is back working in an office -- part- time -- and only has sex for money the odd time, when "my own salary won't cover the additional expenses one sometimes has".
When this happens, Scarlett sends a text round to her former clients, and the results are pretty instantaneous. "I appreciate that this is not what the public wants to acknowledge is on our doorstep, but when I send a text round to my original clients to say I'm available for the next couple of days, I have my work organised within a couple of hours."
Does she feel any responsibility towards women who might read her book and think: 'That sounds grand, I think I'll give it a go,' -- only to find themselves having a more unpleasant experience than hers? "That's not my responsibility," she says firmly. "I'm responsible for my own actions and how I look after myself and my family, and that's it."
Is she in a relationship now? "I'm dating, nothing serious. I'm conscious that if I start dating seriously, if anyone ever found out about this, it could be very hurtful. It would take a very special, very open-minded kind of guy to understand it."
However, she can imagine herself telling her kids, when the time comes. "I obviously really need to think through the implications of that, but I think I could tell them, when they're older. Why pretend that life is easy? Life is not easy, it's difficult, full of difficult decisions to make, and that was a difficult decision. But it got me through, it put a roof over our heads, it served its purpose in that regard, and ultimately, I hope I can look back one day and say, 'I made a smart move there'.
"I've raised my kids to be fairly open, to not take things at face value, to question things and make up their own minds." She pauses. "I hope they will appreciate that I was doing what I thought best in a difficult time."
For any woman reading this who may suspect their husband or partner of playing away, what kind of advice would Scarlett give them? "If it was me, I'd have to talk myself through various possible outcomes before broaching the matter. What are you going to do if you confront him and he says, 'yes, I am'. Are you ready to hear it? What are you going to do next? How prepared are you to tackle what's wrong and work through your sexual difficulties? I'm pretty sure some women know or suspect what their husbands are up to ... "
So, in Scarlett's experience, are we a sexually confident nation? "God no. From the clients I saw, there are men who've been married for years and really still didn't know their way around a body. I tended to think, 'Maybe if I was your wife, and this was your effort, I wouldn't be that impressed either...'"
Even the younger generation, for all their porn-star posturing, are not really connecting she suspects. "They try out an awful lot of stuff, but are they doing it for the sake of it?"
Ultimately, and this is her constant refrain, "women need to take responsibility for their own pleasure. Tell your man: 'This is what I like, I'm going to show you'."
Yes, she believes she may have sent a few men home to their wives with a better idea of how to get results in bed, but the bottom line is, good sex is about personal responsibility.
"We're all unique sexually, our needs and desires are different, and that's okay, that's fine. Just sit down and have an open, honest discussion. Its all about communication."
[This news article was sourced from Independent Woman: I worked as a call girl to provide for my children]