The invitation for Rent a Gent's "Exclusive Launch Party" (above) shows a buff, shirtless (but not bow tie-less) man propping up a glass surface with his hands and knees. It looks heavy; there are glasses and bottles and plates and candles all over it. Above him, four young women with space hair sit gathered on a couch, cackling. They look delighted and the man-table beneath them looks miserable.
BuzzFeed had a lot of questions about Rent a Gent — a new site that, per the invitation, "boasts a wide ranging, exclusive assortment of sexy, smart, and sophisticated men for rent," for $200 an hour — but none more pressing than "What...is this?"
It seems, at first, confused glance, like an escort service. Sara Shikman, former corporate attorney and Rent a Gent's founder, explains it in terms vague enough to allow a dirtier mind to run free. In an email to BuzzFeed, Shikman wrote, "It's fun. It's a luxury, being able to dispose of a good looking and smart guy, show him off, or be entertained by him."
Welllll... wink... what kind of fun? "Not sexual fun, because other agencies seem to already provide that," Shikman explained in a follow-up. "Usually women don't need to pay for it, but intellectual fun, that, unfortunately is more difficult to find."
Per company policy, the gents cannot have sex with their clients, or go halfway to second base with them, or kiss them. Some of the gents are strippers, and with them it's easier to imagine situations in which their services might be requested: bachelorette parties, predominantly, or various ladies' nights in.
But for non-stripper, non-prostitute gents (and that's most of them), what exactly do they offer? The party invite email says they can "assemble furniture," but surely there are much cheaper ways. They can be your party or wedding date, but is this real life, or that movie with Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney?
We decided to rent one — to come to the BuzzFeed offices for two hours, "to blog," we said — and find out.
Harrison Schultz, 31, is advertised on Rent a Gent's site as "The Philosopher." He's slim and rakishly handsome, a little like Orlando Bloom with a Van Dyke beard. When he arrives at BuzzFeed's New York office, he's wearing a black suit and tie and cologne. He was the clear favorite of the women of the office when we browsed the site, and we specifically requested him. [Full disclosure: BuzzFeed did not pay for Harrison's time; the visit was arranged by Rent a Gent's publicist as a sort of human "review copy."]
Schultz, in addition to working as a rental gent, is an organizer for Occupy Wall Street (who earned a bit of Fox-based notoriety in the movement a few years ago), a Ph.D. student, and, per his bio, "a true sapio-sexual intellectual-activist." When we asked Harrison what type of woman he thinks might be interested in hiring him, he told us: "I can do a really heady intellectual conversation for chicks who wanna talk and get into philosophy or politics."
The brand of politics Schultz subscribes to is made up of the libertarian-ish values that can perhaps best be described as "redditor." Throughout our two-hour chat, he frequently took our questions on Rent a Gent, dating, and sex as opportunities to pontificate on topics like ending the Federal Reserve, legalizing marijuana, and the general flaws in our capitalist society. He has a girlfriend, but they're exploring polyamory, and he said she doesn't mind his work with Rent a Gent.
Harrison learned about Rent a Gent through one of its founders, whom he happened to know from weekly pickup artist (PUA) meetings and bar outings in Manhattan. (Women of New York: Harrison told us that every Saturday night the Standard Bar is swarmed by a pack of pickup artists, sometimes with cameras, which they use to record PUA practice, using the footage as lesson material in following classes. Take heed!) Before joining Rent a Gent, Harrison taught pickup artist lessons, and said the idea of dipping his toe into something that skirts the line of sex work appealed to him.
We asked Harrison to share details about his other clients, but in order to maintain privacy, Harrison demurred. "I can't talk about things I've done with clients, but it's nowhere near as juicy as what I'd like to do," he said. One of the things he said he'd like to do is erotic hypnosis.
The Rent a Gent launch party, held at burlesque venue The Box on New York's Lower East Side, took place a week after we first meet Harrison. In attendance were various bloggers, PR reps, PR reps' friends, and several gents — identifiable by their muscles, suits, and miniature pink top hats.
In a small, nearly pitch-black, chintzy room off the main party area, we talked to two gents named Ray ("The Football Player") and Brian ("The Comedian"). Neither is a stripper, and both thought it was very funny we assumed they might be. We asked what kind of client outings they've been on; Ray has made breakfast, with another gent, for a group of women, and Brian has been hired to tell jokes. We were, earlier in the evening, told that Rent a Gent offers its services to gay men, and that some of the straight gents will "play gay" if asked. Ray didn't really say either way, but Brian told us he'd be up for it. They don't hook up with clients, so if it were a matter of "putting on an affect," he said, then sure. Nobody asked him what that meant.
An additional area of some confusion concerns the gents' pay. Their online rates are listed as $200 per hour each, but when we asked Harrison what he's earned so far, he says, "I don't really know," and, "$50 here and there." He is admittedly haphazard with his finances, and said he didn't read his Rent a Gent contract thoroughly and hasn't asked what exactly he'll be paid, and when. "I should talk to Sara," he said.
But another gent, nicknamed Romeo, told us he's personally taken home $200 per hour on each of the seven or eight client outings he's been on thus far. He said the company earnings come from a surplus fee that clients pay on top of that hourly rate. When we emailed Shikman to follow up the next morning, she wrote, "We split everything with the Gents 50/50, so Gents usually make $100/hr." The "usually," in conjunction with what various gents told us, suggests there's some flexibility here, or at least some fairly important details in need of clarification.
And if our meeting with Harrison and the subsequent launch party taught us very little else about what Rent a Gent is, they made clear that most — if not all — gents view their participation in the service as just one in a series of part-time jobs. Ray does it in addition to his work as a fitness model, Brian on top of working as a comedian and bartender.
And Harrison, for all his "sapio-sexual" theorizing, does it largely for cash. "It's an intellectual exercise, but I want to make ends meet. Activism takes a lot of work to get things done." Harrison estimated he is $400,000 in debt from student loans and medical expenses for injuries incurred while protesting. "You can't really have a full-time job and really make an impact as an activist. So this is a good way to hopefully make a lot of cash in a little amount of time."
In the few months since Rent a Gent's launch, most of the gents have yet to see many (paying) customers. Shikman said Harrison has only been on three paid gigs so far. It's hard to imagine that a sexless escort service, particularly for the non-stripping gents, can prove marketable beyond its buzzy launch. But it's early, and the company has certainly left itself room to shift, explain itself, and prove it's something real people might want. Harrison, for one, seemed to enjoy the company's ambiguity. "The cool thing about it is that we don't know what this is yet," he said.
"It's like bitcoin."