Originally posted at The Billfold
Henrik was in debt.
Not crushing or ruinous or inescapable debt, the kind that makes you ignore letters in your mailbox and private incomings on your mobile. Just irritating debt. In June he had taken a five-week trip to New York, where he had spent money like a 33-year-old gay man who hadn’t bought new clothes in two years—which he was. He left his home in Copenhagen with one suitcase and came back with two.
‘I needed an auxiliary,’ he told his friends, ‘just for the shoes.’
A month before the trip, he had remodelled his kitchen. This decision was about as prudent as a suitcase full of shoes, but whatever. At least he could finally cook properly.
Six weeks after returning from New York, he took a look at his spreadsheets. He has one for his band rehearsals, one for his freelance piano-playing gigs, one for his internet hook-ups, one for his photo collection. Those are just the ones he’s told me about.
He fills each spreadsheet not only with quantitative whats and wheres, but expository whys and hows. That’s how he can tell you not only the time and location of a wedding he played in 2004, but that he played ‘The Greatest Love of All’, got paid 1,500 kroner ($260) and cycled home in the rain.
On the night when he first began his transition from IT administrator to freelance prostitute, Henrik opened the Excel file called ‘personal economy’. He had taken out a loan of 50,000 kroner ($8,500) to pay for the kitchen remodel, and had overdrafted his credit cards in New York. He was paying them off, but not fast enough. He was still 40,000 kroner ($7,000) in debt.
Ordinarily this wouldn’t have been a big deal. Henrik had lived through self-imposed lean times before, scheduling extra wedding gigs, quitting alcohol, spending weekends in sweatpants and Blockbuster. But this time he couldn’t inch his way back into solvency. He was going to be a father in six months.
He and his ex-wife had been trying to have a baby for two years. The divorce had been literally as amicable as humanly possible, and they still slept over at each other’s apartments once or twice a month. They had divorced when they were both 25 and now, eight years later, she was a partnered lesbian and he was a single gay man.
‘What, did you guys just look at each other one day, say “let’s have a baby” and high-five?’ I asked him when he told me they were pregnant.
‘Basically,’ he said.
Henrik didn’t want to be in debt when the baby was born. ‘The way I figured it, I had six months to get into the black,’ he says.
Prostitution only occurred to him after he pursued other options. Bartending, nightclub work, baristing, these are not only poorly paid, but require regular shifts, which his day job wouldn’t accommodate. He looked into freelance work—translations, proofreading, various musical transcription stuff I don’t really understand—but those come from contacts and networking, something he didn’t have time for.
‘I needed work that was part-time, well paid, required little preparation and no professional skills,’ he says. ‘What else is there?’
Over the next six months, Henrik earned more than $4,000 having sex with men for money. He reported all of this to the tax authorities, and even deducted expenses for things like his SIM card and classified ads. In total he had 32 clients, some of whom now, between daycare pickups and vaccine appointments, he still meets, fucks and charges.
Because Henrik is Henrik, he entered every transaction into an Excel spreadsheet. Even before that, when he first started to seriously consider prostitution, he sat down and wrote a to-do list. The following is what he wrote, and what he did.
1. Call Tax Authorities
The first thing on Henrik’s list was to make sure he wasn’t breaking the law.
Denmark has a complicated relationship with taxes. According to the OECD, it is the world’s 4th most taxed country. The top tax rate, which applies to whatever you earn above 389,900 kroner ($70,000), is 56.1 percent. The word for taxes (‘skat’) is also the word for ‘honey,’ as in ‘honey, I’m a socialist.’
In Denmark, you can call up the tax authorities, tell them your problem and they’ll give you on-the-spot advice to help you solve it. The concept of paying a private company to do your taxes is as foreign to Danes as students getting a salary to attend college is to Americans.
So in keeping with his nationality, Henrik called up Skat and told them he was going to be earning a ‘B-income’ giving piano lessons, and what did he need to do, paperwork-wise, to make sure he was following the law?
No problem, Skat told him, just keep track of all your income and your expenditures. At the end of the year, let us know both numbers, we’ll calculate your tax and send you a bill.
‘That’s it?’ I said when he told me this. ‘They told you to track everything? It’s like telling a dog it’s legally obligated to chase a tennis ball.’
‘I know right!’ Henrik said.
Henrik needn’t have been coy on the phone. Prostitution is legal in Denmark. You just have to report your income, stay under 50,000 kroner ($8,500) per year and only sell your own body (selling other people’s is technically pimping, and prohibited). As far as the authorities are concerned, you might as well be having a bake sale.
2. Get New Bank Account and Mobile Phone
‘I need to stress how not that major of a transition this was for me,’ Henrik says. ‘The only real difference between prostitution and what I was already doing was the logistics.’
Henrik’s only slightly exaggerating. Even before he was a prostitute, he had been conducting semi-anonymous hookups for years. He had profiles on all the major, and some of the minor, promiscu-net apps and websites. Grindr, Gaydar, GayRomeo, Adam4Adam, ManHunt: Henrik had a bouquet of identities and marketing pitches tailored to each one.
‘I took a long time having sex—I was 26 or 27,’ Henrik says. ‘But since then I went straight into a sort of belated teenage thing, making up for all the sex I’d missed.’
Somewhere around 30, Henrik realized that one of the most efficient ways to hook up a few times a month was to deliberately seek out business travellers who were only in Copenhagen for a night or two.
‘One, it’s an untapped market,’ he says. ‘All the Danes are pecking each others’ eyes out over the same, like, 200 eligible gay men. Two, travellers are uncomplicated. The sex is honest. You both know it’s not leading to anything. And you get to have hotel breakfast the next day.’
I met Henrik in 2008, when he was doing these hotel-room one night stands once or twice a month, and I was always amazed at how he talked about them like miniature friendships rather than anonymous transactions. He never dove right into bed with these guys. He insisted on chitchat before the sex and cuddles—‘which is what these guys really want anyway’—afterward, marvelling at the things they told him.
‘It actually made me feel really good,’ he says about them now. ‘I liked that bubble of instant intimacy with these guys. It felt unique every time. Anyway, I had a good time and I like to think they did too.’
These encounters were basically an invoice away from prostitution anyway, and were the primary reason Henrik knew not only that he could be a prostitute, but that he’d be good at it.
Still, he wanted to make sure his new hobby wouldn’t bleed into his old. He opened a new bank account and got a new mobile number he would only give to potential clients.
He also didn’t want his clients to know his real name. This is easy when you’re visiting hotel rooms, but in Denmark, apartment buildings list the name of every resident on the door. Visitors don’t buzz your apartment number, they buzz your full name, in black and white.
‘This was going to be an issue,’ Henrik says. ‘I came up with this system where I put a piece of red tape over my name on the door. I told them I had just moved in, and hadn’t put the nameplate up yet. My apartment’s so messy, no one ever questioned it.’
He then, obviously, began a new spreadsheet.
3. Place Advertisement
You’re not officially a gay prostitute until you let the rest of the world know. In Denmark, the primary gay dating website, boyfriend.dk, doesn’t allow escort ads. GayRomeo, the most popular site in the rest of Europe, allows escorts, but it’s barely used in Denmark.
Henrik used to volunteer for an AIDS charity, and he remembered a master’s dissertation about gay prostitution in Denmark that had made the NGO rounds a few years previous. He pulled it out of the hard-drive equivalent of his sock drawer and read it cover to cover. Buried in the methodology was the name of the website where the researcher had gathered her contacts: Homospot.dk.
‘It’s just the absolute shittiest website on the planet,’ he says. ‘But for some reason, that’s the only place where you can feasibly sell gay sex in Copenhagen.’
Even by the standards of gay hookup websites, Homospot.dk is pretty dire. There are no private profiles or direct communication between users. All of the interaction is simply spit out into a common chatroom. If Match.com is a 747 and Grindr is an F-16, Homospot.dk is strapping feathers to your arms and flapping.
‘The worst thing about this whole experiment wasn’t the lonely old men, or the people who didn’t answer their buzzer after I biked to their place in the rain,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s that goddamn chatroom. It only shows 25 lines of text and then it disappears forever. You have to sit there and watch it like it’s a pet.’
Henrik had a friend take some pictures of him in various stages of undress and engorgement (‘Always with a big, empty room behind me. Nobody wants to commission a prostitute who looks like he needs to be doing this’), and chose a username that gave a fair representation of who he was: SellingCopenhagen33.
‘I wasn’t going to pretend I was some 18-year-old gymnast, or hung like the Empire State Building,’ he says. ‘I wanted to lower tricks’ expectations of me before we met, not raise them.’
4. Decide a Price
By scanning the profiles of both buyers and sellers on Homospot, Henrik found that there were essentially two tiers of gay prostitutes: Young and expensive (up to 5000 kroner, or $850, per hookup), and old and cheap (around 600 kroner, or $105, per hookup). For buyers, it’s like being given the option of a Honda Civic, a Bentley, or nothing.
By the standards of gay Danish prostitutes, Henrik was firmly a Honda. He’s good-looking, but more like a cool math teacher than a stalking sex god. He stays in shape (‘swimmer’s build’ is how a few of his customers would later describe him), but more like a floppy, flustered Hugh Grant than a dense, strutting Tom Hardy.
‘The first time I started talking price with guys online, I was amazed at how much haggling goes on,’ he says. ‘Everyone wants to fucking haggle, it’s infuriating. Some dudes were asking if they could get, like, a 10-blowjob clipcard.’
Henrik decided to charge his first client 700 kroner ($120). They exchanged pictures in the chatroom, then negotiated price and activities by mobile. An hour and 20 minutes later, a 49-year-old man from Malmo, Sweden, arrived at Henrik’s apartment. Then they had sex, then he gave Henrik a fresh-from-the-ATM stack of 100 kroner notes and then he left.
‘It was really mundane,’ Henrik says. ‘It was sex with an old guy. It only felt different afterwards. I think I tried to kiss him, and he said, “I don’t think that’s so hot after sex.” He just wanted to get the hell out.’
So how is sex different when the two people having it aren’t lovers, partners, friends or even strangers, but customer and merchant?
‘I actually thought about this a lot before I started,’ Henrik says. ‘No matter how much I was fucking around, I always had this little motto that I reserve the right to be lousy in bed. That’s kind of problematic when they pay you money.’
I assumed that Henrik’s clients would take a kind of ‘customer is always right’ approach, acting entitled to get exactly what they wanted and complain if they didn’t.
‘If anything, it was the opposite,’ Henrik says. ‘You both sort of forget about the money as soon as you start fooling around. It’s more common for them to confuse it with real intimacy than to confuse it with, like, a haircut.’
Henrik’s spreadsheet lists what he did and what he earned for each of his clients. In six months of freelance prostitution, Henrik charged an average of 624 kroner, or $110, per encounter, with a maximum of 1,066 kroner, or $185 (‘I slept over at his hotel and he paid in euros’), and a minimum of 400 kroner, or $70 (‘this fucking guy and his fucking clipcard’).
Some of them he slept with more than once, but most were one-timers. In all, he earned just over 24,000 kroner, or $4,150.
Henrik only paid 6,300 kroner ($1,090) in taxes, or 24.2 percent, because he was able to deduct 11,000 kroner ($1,900) for expenses, including his Macbook. He had sex with a client in Croatia when he was there on vacation, and when he returned, he called the tax authorities to ask if he could deduct the cost of the holiday. Flights yes, came the answer, hotel no.
I asked Henrik why his spreadsheet listed the distance he cycled to each client.
‘Bike rides,’ he says, ‘are reimbursed half a kroner per kilometer.’
5. Make Policy Regarding Customers
In his to-do list, Henrik wrote ‘Is there anyone I wouldn’t sleep with? Do I need to validate their identity? What information should I get from them beforehand?’
And, right at the end: ‘… Viagra?’
‘Already back then I felt pretty sure that the world of paid-for sex isn’t filled with weirdos,’ Henrik says. ‘It’s filled with overweight old guys. And pretty much, that’s what happened.’
Henrik kept notes on each client in his spreadsheet. It reads like some kind of gay Xanadu as imagined by an Alabama talk radio host: ‘Porn playing on TV in bedroom…. Blindfolded, wanted dirty talk… Ends in doggy … Loves nipples … Chat while he sits on a buttplug … Wasn’t expecting second prostitute… Way too old, impotent … Met in the park…’
‘But what were they like?’ I keep asking whenever I see him now.
‘Honestly? The only thing they have in common is that they’re unattractive,’ Henrik says. ‘There’s a guy I still see once a month, he’s like 100-kilo plus. He works at PWC. There’s nothing wrong with him on the inside, just nobody wants to fuck a fat guy.
‘The funniest thing is that the sex is phenomenal. There’s this great big fat guy and I feel like I’m the only one who knows he’s great in bed.’
On a few occasions, Henrik texted his client’s address to a friend before they met, in case something went wrong. In the end, he never had to turn anyone down. He never used Viagra.
‘I did fake a lot of the orgasms though,’ he says.
‘Shut the fuck up,’ I say.
‘Seriously. Nobody ever notices unless it’s a facial situation.’
Like any other professional experience, though, Henrik remembers the people more than the tasks.
‘It’s really obvious that they just want conversation,’ he says. ‘They want a whiff of romance.’
It became a kind of competitive advantage. When potential clients asked Henrik what was included in the price, he said ‘we’ll have enough time’ to signal that some spooning, some conversation, some channel-surfing wasn’t out of the question. One guy invited him to a family gathering as his date, clock running the whole time. Another, a married guy in Norway, recommended Henrik to a friend.
Between the prostitution, his day job and extra piano gigs, Henrik got himself out of debt just before his son was born. He still sees some of his old clients, but doesn’t log on to Homospot anymore. He’s told only a handful of friends. Henrik, obviously, isn’t his real name.
‘My reason for paying taxes wasn’t because I’m a socialist, or a philanthropist,’ he says. ‘When someone confronts me with this, I want to be able to say, in so many words, “It was work, nothing else. I worked, I paid taxes. What do you care?”’