<p>It was on the fourth of these dates that I met M——. M—— was a large, wide Croatian man. His belly peered ahead of him, and his hair was badly balding, with only the too-long stragglers remaining around his crown. He pulled a seat out across from me at the Lindt Cafe´ on Little Collins Street and seemed to fill the entire window we were next to. He looked down at me and shook his head, letting out a sputter of air. He pushed his palms out in the shape of a cross, perhaps to cover my cleavage,
There was a brief time in my life when I dated men for money. This says little about me other than that I was young and broke enough to seek sly ways to earn cash and a free meal, but too lazy to make a real job of it.
It was on the fourth of these dates that I met M——. M—— was a large, wide Croatian man. His belly peered ahead of him, and his hair was badly balding, with only the too-long stragglers remaining around his crown. He pulled a seat out across from me at the Lindt Cafe´ on Little Collins Street and seemed to fill the entire window we were next to. He looked down at me and shook his head, letting out a sputter of air. He pushed his palms out in the shape of a cross, perhaps to cover my cleavage, and gave another distressed sigh.
“I’m sorry,” he said, gesturing me up and down, “too young.”
M—— could have been anywhere between a sickly thirty and a young-for-his-age sixty. His skin was coarse, dotted with thick stubble—though he may have shaved that morning.
“I’m sorry,” he said, again, as though he was letting me down. “It’s okay,” I said. “I can leave, if you want.”
“No, no. We get coffee. We talk. It’s just,” he made the cross gesture with his palms, shading out my breasts, “too young.”
And he was right. I was too young. Too young to offer much but to listen, and so I did.
M—— was born in Croatia. He lived there with his family, a good family, where he studied to be an optometrist (“You know, doctor for eyes,” he told me). He moved to Australia three years before our date, to work in a lab making prescription lenses. His English was badly broken. When he spoke, fat pearls of sweat swelled on his upper lip, like dew on a stubbly fish.
The work was fine, but he was lonely. To talk to him—to make meaning from his fractured English—required time and patience. At work, he spoke to no-one. He drove home by himself at the end of the day, went to bed alone.
“I try dating online,” he said, “but nothing. Then this. What do I get out of this?” He gestures between the two of us, and it feels crude, like he’s asking for sex, but he’s not. He says that he’s paid for three dates so far—paid to use the website, even—but all the dates ended nowhere. The women, women like me, had taken his money and never called him back.
He slumped back in his seat, angry. Not at me (“too young”), not even at women, but at the “what’s the point” of it all. How does a middle-aged Croatian man find love when language and culture and attraction feel like insurmountable barriers? When he feels like he needs to put money on the line for a first date—a first chance—but the women who agree are there for entirely different reasons.
In an essay for the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino revisited a series of interviews she conducted with virgins, early in her career. “None of the people I interviewed believed that they were owed the sex that they wished to have,” she wrote. I thought of M——. Sex was part of the package he wished to have, alongside connection, love, dependability, someone to be kind with. But all of that felt trapped behind an inaccessible blockade of youth, attractiveness, thinness, coolness, whiteness, cultural sameness.
Growing up, we’re told that looks don’t matter: it’s what’s on the inside. The princess kisses a frog, who was really a prince all along. Or marries the beast, who was really a prince all along. Or falls in love with that Seth Rogan character who was definitely not a prince, but you get the picture.
Yet in the same breath shows like The Swan—where so-called ugly women compete with one another to be the least ugly at the end of it all—tell us something different. Miss Universe pageants are framed as being about inclusivity and scholarships, but let’s face it: looks matter.
When I describe M——, I worry that I write him too grotesque. I don’t mean to imbue values on his appearance; he looked how he looked. Would it be fairer to say that his frown, while grumpy, was never snarly or unkind? That the collar of his white button-up shirt was perfectly pressed? He was not beautiful, for better or for worse.
M—— told me that he went to a brothel but called it something different.
“Very busy, that day,” he said. He took a seat in the waiting room, watched men walking in and out. Then, right before his turn, he saw the man before him walk out of the room, still pulling the zipper tight on his fly.
“I couldn’t do it.” He shook his head. “I left.”
I imagined him standing there, his big body tight with anxiety—with the fear of being just another number, with the un-specialness of him—and thought that was the end of it. Then he told me he went back.
I lived next door to a brothel at the time, and remember the clouds of men shuffling out the front. They were almost always the nervous first timers, never aware of the more discrete entrance by the rear of the building. I imagine him amongst them. I must have seen dozens of them, but they all struck me as flat silhouettes with bean-like faces. There’s nothing in them that carries the distinctiveness of M——: all small anxious energy in that tall man’s body.
The second time, M—— went when it was quiet, when most people were at work. He was led upstairs to a room by one of the sex workers (“lovely, very beautiful”). She took him to a small room with a double bed and an ensuite, like a hotel. She handed him a towel, smiled at him and told him she’d be back in a moment. M—— didn’t know what to do. He stood there, with all his clothes on, staring at the empty space where she’d just been.
Some minutes later, when she returned, she laughed. You haven’t showered? she asked. M—— panicked, must have made some desperate shrugging gesture, and she (“so lovely”) comforted him. She took his hand and led him to the small ensuite, helped him take off his clothes, turned on the shower and bathed him. Once he was lathered and rinsed, she towelled him off and led him to the bed, sat down next to him, and tried to kiss him. He leaned away.
“No, no, I couldn’t,” he told me. “I keep come back, just talk to her, only talk.”
He paused, dabbed the sweat from his lip with a napkin.
“Then, one day…” he shrugged, threw his hands up like what can you do?
Our coffee arrived, and I was unclear whether M—— ever saw her again, not after that. What can you do?
M—— and I had met on a website called What’s Your Price, where men (or women, but mainly men) bid for a first date. Offers range from fifty to a few hundred dollars. The site is explicit about not being an escorting site (that would be illegal), but the boundaries are unclear. It’s a place where people pay for a chance with someone who otherwise may be “out of [their] league”. An article in Forbes describes the site as like “the scene from Revenge of the Nerds, when Robert Carradine finally woos his beautiful blonde Betty in the moon bounce. He never would have had a chance with her other- wise”. Unattractive people have a chance thanks to the other commodity our capitalist society deems attractive: money.
Monetised dating sites aren’t the only places out-of- luck in love individuals turn to. Since the late nineties, online communities have bloomed for men who are unable to find romantic or sexual love. They call themselves ‘incels’ (involuntarily celibate) and use forums as a place for confession, airing their grievances, and ranting about struggles that “femoids” (women), “normies” and “noncels” will never understand.
Perhaps surprisingly, the seeds of the ‘incel’ community were well-intentioned and promoted inclusivity. The founder of the term “involuntarily celibate” was a young, bisexual woman named Alana. “I was trying to create a movement that was open to anybody and everybody,” she told Elle in 2016. She wanted men, women and nonbinary people to be able to explore their difficulties in relation- ships and grow from them. She wanted them to break away from social isolation and find self-loving, consensual relationships. Many people learned from the community, grew from it, and moved on. Those who didn’t, however, stuck with the community, and let their resentment fester.
‘Incel’ communities now have violent branches. In 2014, Elliot Rodgers killed six people in what his 137-page manifesto described as revenge against the ‘blonde sluts’ who had ‘deprived’ him of sex. Other self-described ‘incels’ have praised his actions, or staged their own. Alek Minassian killed ten people by driving his van down a busy street in Toronto.
Rodgers, Minassian and ‘incels’ like them go against the inclusive, feminist ideals with which the involuntarily celibate community was formed. These are men who violently believe they have a right to women, that women have value solely based on looks and sex. I mention the community’s violence not because I believe M—— was capable of such, but because it obscures the more interesting issues below the surface. What is now a forum for misogyny and hatred
was once a place for acceptance.
I don’t know whether M—— identified with the label ‘incel’. I doubt it. The stories he told me spoke of someone struggling with relationships and continuing to try anyway. Transactional sex, like the sex M—— had, can help people become more comfortable with themselves, their bodies, their sexuality. But sex, once again, was hardly the whole idea. While What’s Your Price is undoubtedly wrapped up in values of looks, money and sex, it also offered an appealing alternative to M——: perhaps, once the first date was out of the way, something more could bloom.
If that were the plan, I wasn’t upholding my end of the bargain. My then-partner was waiting at home; we’d planned to use the money to go see a movie that night. If I were to accept
that M—— couldn’t get a date because of the very same constructs that made it so easy for me, could I also accept that my partner would not be with me, would not love me, if I were less young, less thin, less attractive? Worse still, would I love them?
M—— took a sip of his short black and dabbed the dark espresso stain with a napkin.
“What do I get out of this?” he asked again, gesturing to the space between us. The question was rhetorical, but I felt put on the spot. I told him I didn’t know, that I could see his point. His shoulders slumped; he rubbed the napkin against his forehead.
“I bought credits for the site,” he said, “you pay to message women. I use up the credits, then that’s it.”
M—— put his empty coffee cup down on the table.
“You leave first,” he said. He pushed six crisp $50 bills across the table. It’d be nice to say I left them there, thanked him for the talk, but I took them. I stood up and he shook his head once more, made the palm gesture, “too young”.
I slipped through the cafe´ doors into the mid-afternoon sunshine, folding the $300 into my pocket. I walked around the block twice, just to be safe, before heading back to my apartment. I didn’t go on any more dates after that. It didn’t feel worth it. So, I stopped.