In The Client List, Lifetime's pseudo-steamy take on the world of sensual massage, Jennifer Love Hewitt plays a struggling housewife who takes a rub-down side job in order to support her kids after her husband disappears. The show, which jumps from scenes of Hewitt pleasuring executives to her dancing with her daughter at beauty pageants, has always struck us as more campy nonsense than an accurate portrayal of the erotic massage business. But how could we tell?
We asked an escort to watch the show and help us tell fact from fiction.
Q: Have you ever worked in a spa setting before? And if not, what's your closest experience to the setup on the show?
Watching The Client List with a Real Sex Worker
The Client List airs Sunday nights on the Lifetime channel/
A: I have not worked through an agency and I have never offered FBSM (full-body sensual massage) as depicted on the show. I do, however, have many friends who do, and I have been working as an independent escort for close to two years. Though I do not offer sensual massage, I can certainly relate to some of the show's imagery, as completely overdramatic and sometimes silly as it is.
On a light note, there is a scene in the second season in which Hewitt's character is getting tendinitis in her arm (pecker-itis, they call it) because she's working too hard. These types of on-the-job injuries are totally real. Blowjob neck pain. Hip displacement. Back pain from too much doggy position.
Q: Hewitt's character works at a spa that offers both regular massage and happy endings. Are there actually businesses that provide both, or is it usually one or the other?
A: FBSM [Full Body Sensual Massage] providers — the kind of folks that offer happy endings — certainly do provide real massages! Some are even certified masseuses or physical therapists. I heard a story, which may or may not be true, about a new girl starting at an agency offering FBSM, heading into her first session, starting right in on a hand job, and having to be instructed by the client that that comes in the last part of the massage.
While I can't say the walk-in massage parlor doesn't exist anywhere, all the FBSM providers I know either operate through in-calls (hotel rooms, apartments, houses that they either rent independently, collectively, or through an agency) or do out-calls, bringing their services to client's own homes or hotel rooms. In this model, clients book in advance or the same day either directly through a sex work provider or an agency.
Q: The show portrays Hewitt's character as an innocent mommy who has to stoop to sex work. Is destitution a common motivator for people entering the sex industry?
A: Gag. Yeah, that was annoying. They make it seem like she had been tricked into it, which is what she totally does to others when she becomes manager. Gross. However, money is absolutely the common motivator. Sex work is a job. Again, while I can't say no one would do it without the money involved, the vast majorities are in it to simply pay the bills the best, the easiest, and sometimes, the only way they can. Sometimes it can be very well-paying, though race, education (or the ability to fake it), body size and tone, age, style, and so forth all factor into how much a person is able to make and the kind of sex work they are allowed to do. Generally, the whiter the skin, the thinner, and the higher education, the more willing bosses and clients are to hire you.
Q: How did you start?
A: I got into sex work completely by choice four years ago. While doing research in my school's labor archives my junior year of college, I kept coming across documents from the unionization of the Lusty Lady [a unionized, worker-owned peep show in San Francisco]. Tired of working a minimum wage customer service job, I decided to audition. Since then, I've done a little bit of everything: performed at the Lusty Lady, stripped in a club, worked fetish events, performed in porn, and moved into being a full-time escort. Currently, escorting (a term which invokes class connotations within the world of prostitution) is my No. 1 source of income. This job allows me flexibility to do all the things I need and want to do — school, activism, partners, internships — while still making rent and accruing a bit of savings, the latter being an act few 25-year-olds can do.
Q: Besides blowjob pain, is there anything actually relatable about the show?
A: The main character's experiences around "being out." Some sex workers are completely open and honest about the work they do with family, friends, strangers, and partners. Others are not out about their job at all. Most sex workers that I know are somewhere in between, avoiding the shame and stigma where they can and cultivating acceptance and encouragement when possible.
Q: How do you deal with "being out"?
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A: I am out, to varying degrees, to my family. A few members of my family don't know a thing. Most know about my days at the Lusty Lady peep show and my activist work. A few family members, my partners, a few of my classmates, and all of my friends know about all the work I've done. For those who are in the know, there was no hard conversation or emotionally loaded coming-out period. I just did what I wanted, checked in, and was accepted. I wish I could be out to everyone, that the work I do could be accepted as just any other job, that more people in my family could be proud of the work I do and what I am able to do with my life because of it, but that is not the world we live in.
Q: The characters are constantly talking about "the rules of The List."
A: Yeah, from what I saw, the show's rules seemed nearly Fight Club-esque. "The first rule of The Client List is you don't talk about The Client List." I have made agreements for myself: Don't let anyone push my personal boundaries (there are acts I explicitly don't do); if someone makes me uncomfortable then do not see them again; wear fancy underwear on the regular, for myself and not just for work; always check references from and give references to other hos; and when doing out-calls with new clients, always leave info for a partner. If I need a break from work, I give myself one.
Most clients who want something specific like fetish play, CIM (come in mouth), or special music, will ask through our initial e-mail exchanges. Sometimes I don't offer that service, but can recommend others who do. I always encourage open and honest communication with clients, wanting to give them their desired experience in an authentic and organic way. I read body language. If I don't like something that they're doing, whether that be touching a part of my body that is ticklish or putting fingers where I don't want them, I try to disengage on my own to avoid breaking the fantasy. If that's not possible, I compassionately tell them what I want or don't want, while avoiding the act of shaming my clients.