Elle* knew she was attracted to women, but she was unsure how to actually meet women who might be attracted to her. "I never pursued it," she says, "in part because I wasn't sure who I could open up to about it, and I was a little too freaked out to go to a lesbian bar or anything."
At the time, Elle was in "a sort of sugar daddy kind of arrangement" with an older man who often encouraged her to flirt with other women at bars in the hopes of recruiting one for a threesome. "We never managed to get anyone interested in a threesome, so he finally decided to pay for a very expensive escort so that we could have one," she recalls. "That was really all his idea, but I was a little turned on by it... as an opportunity to experiment."
It was a memorable night. "She kind of guided me on how to touch her, go down on her," Elle recalls. "It was really incredible-the best sexual experience of my life up to that point."
After she'd broken up with her boyfriend a few months later, Elle got back in touch with the same escort to arrange a one-on-one meeting. "We just spent a lot of time exploring each other's bodies, and I felt like I got a much better understanding of what I like both as a woman and with women. It definitely did change things for me, and opened me up enough to pursue experiences with women outside of sex workers, too," she says.
Elle still does occasionally date men, but she says her experience alone with a sex worker "got me stop thinking of myself as just another 'curious' young girl experimenting". Ultimately, it helped her to "shed this stigma of women only being attracted to women for the sake of titillating men."
Women who hire female sex workers are certainly in the minority, but not unheard of. Throughout her 16 years in the sex work industry, "I've seen about ten or so women," says Domme Discordia, who's worked as a phone sex operator, sugar baby, and professional dominatrix, and keeps her identity private to prevent doxxing.
Discordia says that about half of her female clients have been lesbian women who are "pretty comfortable" with their sexual preferences and identities, often seeking intimacy or companionship with another woman. The other half have sought her out because they were questioning their sexuality and attraction to women.
"Some of them are nervous about being with a woman and they want to be with someone where touch is permissible, questions are allowable, and they know that rejection will not be a factor," Discordia says.
"They come to sex workers because it's the ultimate private conversation with a person they're allowed to feel a degree of intimacy with. I try to be as reassuring as I can about anything people need to express about themselves, and I think anyone who has questions about their sexuality generally comes away from sessions with me feeling a bit more comfortable with themselves."
Many escort agencies and independent sex workers offer woman-for-woman bookings for those interested in exploring their attraction to other women discreetly and on their own terms. Like Elle, female clients may be interested in experimenting with women before coming out as gay or bi, but are hesitant to venture alone into a lesbian bar or cruising scene. Picking up a stranger at a club, or even just flirting with another woman at a coffee shop, can be intimidating for someone who's new to lesbian sex or doesn't feel confident approaching other women.
"I feel my social skills are kind of lacking, so I didn't know how to navigate casual hookups," says Kristen,* a transgender woman who considers herself "lesbian-ish". "I'm pretty overweight, and navigating being trans [on the lesbian dating scene]-as a woman with a penis-was pretty difficult. But there are a lot of sex workers in the trans community, and that sort of broke the ice in terms of making it a more comfortable and acceptable option to me."
Booking a female sex worker can also be a safe, low-risk way for some women to find out what they like before venturing into the dating or hookup scene. "Money changes the property of relationships," says Paloma,* a sex worker who often works with female clients. "It can make someone feel better able to advocate for what they're looking for, and feel like they have a little more control. [They are therefore] able to do things they'd otherwise feel too nervous to do."
Though Kristen says she'd always been comfortable with her attraction to women, her gender "took a while to figure out", and hiring a sex worker was "an affirming experience". "One thing that made it memorable," she adds, "is that we did some butt play that I had never done before. I'm pretty kinky-I'm a masochist-and it's been pretty easy to communicate that to escorts. There's a little less fear of rejection."
But what women want from an experience with an escort often goes beyond experimentation, and can be incredibly varied. "I have multiple conversations with women clients about their sexual past and present and what they want for their future," says Eva Blake, a sexological bodyworker. "I get a sense of where they struggle in their body, in their self-talk, and in their relationships."
Blake adds that for some women, booking a sex worker can be a healing experience, emotionally and physically. "Most of the women I see are survivors of interpersonal violence, sexual assault, intense sexual shaming, or childhood trauma."
Some of Blake's work does include what she calls the "full service experience" typically associated with escorts. Occasionally, "I am naked and touching myself while they follow along and touch themselves or while they watch." Blake says this can help clients feel more comfortable expressing themselves sexually with a future female partner. However, "The bulk of our work is less about getting sexual, or getting off, with a woman, and more about healing the sexual experiences of the past."
Blake says the goal of many of her sessions with women is a "life transformation," and for some, this means finding the courage and confidence to come out as lesbian, trans, or bisexual. For others, hookups and dating may be inaccessible for health reasons, and seeing a sex worker allows them to be intimate with another woman without the emotional demands of a relationship.
"I'm celibate, I'm partnerless, and I have health disabilities and aging issues," says Rain,* an author, educator, and bisexual activist in her 70s. "I'm not really interested in a relationship right now. I don't have the emotional energy." She describes making an appointment with a queer-friendly erotic massage therapist who was well-known in her community, and describes the experience as "therapeutic, emotional, and restorative. It was a special experience. I did it as a gift to myself."
As a sex worker, working with other women can also be a rewarding experience-"not just for them, but for me," says Cassidy (Twitter), who describes "an insanely wonderful experience" she once had with a couple.
"When I pulled the woman aside, she said she wanted to do everything with me. She was really beautiful and I'm very bisexual, so I was excited but nervous," Cassidy says. "For so long I've been gearing myself to be desirable by men, and I know how to be sexy and what they want. [But] when I'm around a girl it's like I freeze up and forget what to do. She helped me really explore my own sexuality and we both were able to help each other."
When female sex workers see women as clients it's often transformative, healing, and life-changing work that isn't given sufficient social and cultural value, says Lola Davina, a former sex worker and author of Thriving in Sex Work: Heartfelt Advice for Staying Sane in the Sex Industry. She adds that censorship laws prohibiting honest online discussions about sexuality (like FOSTA/SESTA in the US) only make it more difficult for women to access sexual services that could be beneficial, and makes them less inclined to seek them out.
"As women," Davina says, "by rejecting the notion that we can hire someone to fulfill our sexual desires by asking for our bodies to be touched in precisely the way we want, what we're really doing is closing off one of the most ethical and direct ways of getting our needs met."
Blake agrees. "Women want to touch and love and to be well cared for," she says. "Women also want to fuck with anonymity and ease and curiosity fulfillment."