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8/20/2016 Eat, Pay, Love | The Verge

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EAT, PAY, LOVE

A new app let women charge for a night out. Will dating join

the on-demand economy?

Emily Yo ead e


Tara* had struck gold. After spending a lazy Saturday afternoon

browsing through the dating app she was currently

experimenting with, she hit it off with a nice-sounding guy, and

the two exchanged real names and numbers. She found herself

Googling Stuart*, a Brit living in Amsterdam. He worked at a startup; he was

visiting New York on business. "I was like, oh, he’s kind of cute…"


Neither had plans that night, so they started figuring out where they could meet

up for a drink. When Tara suggested a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, Stuart

was into it: "Okay cool, my hotel is super close to there," he messaged back.

The mention of the hotel gave Tara pause, and she asked him what exactly he

had in mind. "We can go back after and have some fun," he said.


Tara hesitated. This guy seemed nice and normal and safe and she was down

for a fun night out with a visiting stranger, but she drew a hard line when it

came to sex on the first date. "I was like, ‘Listen, I don’t know who you’ve met

[on this app], but I’m not going to fuck you, I’m sorry,’" she says. Her match was

taken aback. "Oh," he responded. "I thought that was the expectation."


These kinds of conflicting agendas will be familiar to anyone who’s done much

Tindering or Bumbling or OkCupiding, where one person’s one-night stand is

another person’s chance at finding The One. But Tara wasn’t using any of these

apps. This was Ohlala, and Stuart had already agreed to pay Tara $600 for their

date.


The Ohlala headquarters are located on a sleepy block in the Prenzlauer Berg

neighborhood of Berlin, in an old prewar building one block from where the

Wall once stood. Though you wouldn’t know it from walking down the pin-dropquiet

residential street, the neighborhood has become home to several startups

including SoundCloud, which has an office a couple floors down from Ohlala.

When I arrive, there’s a mood of weary intensity among the eight or so team

members present. Pia Poppenreiter, the company’s CEO, stands and greets me

with a rushed hug. "You picked a great day to visit," she says, in a voice that

suggests more cigarettes than hours of sleep. "Search ‘hashtag escortgate’ on

Twitter." I do so as we step out to the balcony and she lights up a Marlboro Red.

A pink Ohlala banner tied to the railing billows silently behind her.


Launched in August 2015, Ohlala is a web-based app that facilitates what it

calls "instant paid dating." Male users post offers for dates, consisting of a time,

a duration, and how much money they’re willing to pay — a typical offer is from

1–4 hours at an average price of $300. While the request is up, women can

decide whether or not they’d like that person to be able to contact them.

Crucially, women are not visible to men before they initiate conversation — it’s

the inverse of the backpage listings to which it’s often compared. Here, the

buyers must come forward first. From there, the couple can chat and discuss

the whens and wheres of their impending dates, as well as a payment method

and their boundaries, if they so please. (In-app payment is currently in the

works, the team tells me.) When the terms are agreed upon, the chat is logged,

and presumably both parties are incentivized to show up. Though its ondemand

model has earned Ohlala the label "Uber for escorts," the company

insists it isn’t an escort agency, or even operating in the adult entertainment

space.

AS I SCROLLED

THROUGH THE

#ESCORTGATE HASHTAG,

I STARTED TO PIECE

TOGETHER AN

UNRAVELING SCANDAL

As I scrolled through the largely German #escortgate hashtag, one Bing

translation at a time, I started to piece together an unraveling scandal. That

week Berlin had been host to the NOAH Conference, an invite-only event

comparable to Code Conference or Disrupt back in the States. According to

multiple reports, the gala party two nights earlier had been characterized by a

high number of "attractive, glamorously dressed women" who flirted

aggressively with the male attendees and handed out business cards. It was

concluded that these women were escorts, and that they had come to the party

at the behest of Ohlala. Several women were rumored to be carrying credit

card readers.

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Glued to her Twitter feed as we sit on the deck, Poppenreiter dismisses the

credit card part, at least, as "ridiculous." But, she says, "It’s true, to some extent.

We did invite people [to the NOAH party], but it was more my friends." Her allfemale

guerrilla marketing team were dressed up, sure; it was a party, after all.

Several in the group were Ohlala users, but Poppenreiter puts those numbers

in the low single digits. Poppenreiter herself did not join them. "I was

exhausted, I was at the conference the whole day."

There’s no question the group was pulling off a stunt. A leaked Facebook

invitation for the party-within-a-party encouraged invitees to "grab a drink and

mingle with men who crave the finer things in life." A publicity stunt involving a

controversial app doesn’t sound like the stuff of trending topics, until you

consider NOAH’s abysmal female attendance rate — at this year’s event, only

11 out of its 108 speakers were women. The presence of escorts at the evening

events have long been a wink-wink assumption. By symbolically associating

themselves with these women, Ohlala’s party crashers made the company a

scapegoat for these rumors. But they also got people’s attention.

Poppenreiter had already released a statement earlier in the day in response to

the outcry, apologizing for letting things "get out of hand." But part of me can’t

help but wonder if this was exactly what she had planned.

According to Poppenreiter, Ohlala seeks to improve upon two perceived flaws

that Tinder and other dating apps often fall into. First, the in-app chats that go

nowhere — or worse, promising matches who ghost on you. As more resultsoriented

users of Tinder or OkCupid can attest, if you’ve logged on with the

objective to meet up with someone that night, you can often be left frustrated.

With Ohlala, everyone wants something, and everyone’s on a tight schedule.

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OHLALA ISN’T REALLY

AN "UBER FOR ESCORTS,"

IT’S A TASKRABBIT FOR

EMOTIONAL LABOR


And then there’s expectation management. People use Tinder or OkCupid for

everything from NSA hookups to long-term relationship hunting, but there’s a

high likelihood that you and the person you’re courting electronically might not

be on the same page, even if both of you put "casual dating" in your "looking

for" field. The chat stage of Ohlala prompts you to be up front and clear about

what you want. If you are definitely not open to having sex on your date, you

can establish that there. If you want to bring a third, you can propose that as

well. Either way, the goal is to get exactly what you want that night.


Getting exactly what you want as quickly as possible is the general goal of

countless other startups. But because the "what" in this situation isn’t cars or

bánh mì but human companions, Ohlala, and other apps that facilitate paid

dating, are most easily understood in terms of sex work. This isn’t a huge

roadblock in Germany, where the app first launched, and where sex work is

legal. But in February of this year, Ohlala crossed the Atlantic and launched in

New York City, where not only are the laws different, but social interface is as

well. Sure, sex workers and escorts can find plenty of work here, but it remains

to be seen if we’re comfortable calling that "dating."


In Poppenreiter’s vision, Ohlala is an app for any woman who thinks she ought

to be compensated for her time and efforts when she goes out with someone. It

seeks to turn leisure time — a precious, dwindling commodity — into billable

hours. In that sense, Poppenreiter’s right: her app isn’t really an "Uber for

escorts." It’s a TaskRabbit for emotional labor. Perhaps that makes it more

radical than anything else — with its tasteful design and young, hip founder,

Ohlala suggests a world in which there’s no "kind of woman" who sells her time

and affection, because every woman could be that kind of woman.

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P ia Poppenreiter is hardly a stranger to provocation. The first time I

met her was at an Ohlala party at SXSW, where she held court

while inviting guests to draw interpretive vaginas on sketch pads

distributed around the bar. ("You are going to come. Let us tell

you when," the pastel-pink party invitation read.) But the second time we meet,

I barely recognize her. In her casually conservative street clothes — chambray

button-down, messy updo — she looks more like a J.Crew model or Lauren

Conrad acolyte than the bawdy Berlin cybermadam whose name elicits youcan’t-

be-serious emoji eyebrow raises on German Twitter (in German

"Poppenreiter" can roughly translate to "fuck rider").

Poppenreiter was born in Schauersberg, Austria, a town of about 5,000 people,

and the kind of village where everyone knows your name and your business.

She originally came to Berlin for grad school to study business ethics after a

year of working in finance in Frankfurt. She was in between jobs, and out at

night with some friends, when she noticed sex workers looking for customers

on the icy-cold streets. It was 2013, apps like Seamless and Handy were

starting to introduce an on-demand lifestyle to the modern city-dweller and the

whole process of waiting around on street corners struck her as rather

impractical. She struck up a conversation with the women and got the idea for

her first startup.


SEX WORKERS WAITING

AROUND ON STREET

CORNERS STRUCK HER

AS RATHER IMPRACTICAL


Peppr is a service that functions like a smart backpage, allowing escorts and

prostitutes to list their services, prices, and photos in a searchable, locationspecific

interface. Payment is processed through the app, and clients and

"Pepprs" can negotiate the specifics in the in-app chat. Poppenreiter

researched her user base relentlessly, spending months in Berlin’s streets and

brothels talking to sex workers and figuring out what her potential customers

needed.


When it launched in Germany in April 2014, Peppr was met with scandalized

headlines from around the world, and a huge amount of buzz. But only months

later, Poppenreiter was backing out of the company. "I was overwhelmed being

the CEO," she says. "I had no experience as such." The viral storm and influx of

users to the tiny startup proved to be a mixed blessing. "We weren’t ready, as a

team, as a product, nothing."


Shortly after stepping down she was back out there, mixing it up at an Axel

Springer networking event. It was there that she met Torsten Stüber, a computer

science researcher turned startup founder who would become the CTO of

Ohlala. His artificial intelligence company was floundering, and he was looking

for his next move.


When Pia showed up at the party, whispers spread — Oh, that’s the Peppr

woman. That’s the founder of the prostitution app. Stüber himself had never

heard of her or Peppr before. "I said, ‘What? Someone’s doing this?’" He was a

little wary of her at first, but they got to talking, and something clicked. "I said

from the very first day we met that we would be great co-founders,"

Poppenreiter says, in a "told you so" kind of voice. This was late 2014. By

March 2015, less than a year after Peppr’s launch, the two had started work on

Oglala.


At first glance, Ohlala could just be seen as Peppr with a different color

scheme. But the ways in which it differs are telling. For one, there is no way for

women to pay for dates with men, or for same-sex dates to occur. (I ask several

times about when that upgrade can be expected; each time the response is

"eventually.") There’s the aforementioned female-initiated communication

process. But what Pia would probably consider its biggest innovation is its time

limit. Each open date request only lasts 21 minutes; once a couple starts

chatting they have one hour to decide whether or not to go on a date. Using it

was a panic-inducing experience, even when I was only looking for male users

to interview for this piece. (Which was largely unsuccessful: "Lol! Seriously!

This is just like any other dating app. Nothing special," said one user to my

journalistic inquiry.)


OUR MOST URGENT

NEEDS ARE USUALLY

DRIVEN BY EITHER

HUNGER OR

HORNINESS


The time limit doesn’t help Ohlala’s "totally not a sex app" claims. We are

humans; our most urgent, time-sensitive needs are usually driven by either

hunger or horniness. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which I’d only give

someone 21 minutes to decide whether or not to have a stimulating

conversation with me over a nice Chianti. But other people are perhaps more

likely to be drawn in by the promise of such instantaneous interaction, with or

without sex — people who are (or consider themselves to be) very busy, very

important, and very impatient.

Poppenreiter isn’t a terribly patient person, which can be a helpful trait in the

startup world. She literally cut her losses when she sensed Peppr wouldn’t pan

out. When Ohlala expanded to New York City, it was a similarly impulsive

development. "We were a very small team at that time, I think just six or seven

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people," Stüber says. "And we said that we wanted to be done within two

months — going to a new continent, filing a new corporation, checking the

legal situation."


The legal situation, of course, is less permissive in New York than in Berlin. But

the cultural situation is really what Poppenreiter is trying to disrupt, despite the

fact that the team did no substantial market research before coming to the

States. During our conversation she’s careful not to use words like "escort" or

"sex worker" when describing the women who might use Ohlala (the app’s

website states in no uncertain terms that escorts are "not welcome" to use the

service). Everything about the site’s tasteful pastels screams "This is normal!

This is for you, normal girl! We’re all normal! We all charge money for dates!"

But no matter how much Poppenreiter may be trying to redefine our attitudes

around paid dating, in the United States, what she’s selling exists in the same

legal loophole as escort agencies. Charging money for a date is still charging

money for a date, whether it’s your sole source of income or not, and it’s hard to

unseat centuries of religious and moral baggage that come with the American

Dream. You can tell yourself you’re just a resourceful girl looking to offset the

cost of cab fare and a personal trainer, but in the eyes of the law, you may as

well be a hooker.


T ara is not a hooker. Nor is she an escort. She’s a matchmaker, as

it so happens, specializing in the "sugar dating" niche. She found

out about Ohlala in the course professional research, and signed

up hoping to use it to find eligible women for her wealthy male

clients to meet. "When I realized I couldn’t," — Ohlala’s structure means that

there’s no way for women to contact other women — "I [thought], well, maybe

I’ll just meet cool guys."


MANY MALE USERS

ASSUME SHE’S AN

ESCORT, AND KICK OFF

THE CHAT BY ASKING

THE CHAT BY ASKING

FOR NUDE PHOTOS


When I talk to her, on a balmy afternoon in Manhattan's Bryant Park, she just

finished lunch at Koi. She sports oversized Prada sunglasses and a patent

leather Chanel bag. She’s an animated, mile-a-minute talker — it’s easy to

imagine her being great on first dates. She’s just been using Ohlala for a

couple months, but so far, she says, "It’s more rubbing me the wrong way than

the right way." Many of the male users assume from the jump that she’s an

escort, and kick off the chat by asking for nude photos and specific sex acts.

There’s also a transparency imbalance: Ohlala boasts about its verification

process, but far more women than men bother to add photos (something I can

corroborate, having spent time on both sides of the app’s gender line). "I hate

that guys who have unverified profiles will say ‘I need you to send more

pictures. I need to see what you look like,’" Tara says.


Which leads to another issue. Tara’s black, and she’s experienced a fair amount

of prejudice on the site — and in a more blatant way than she’s experienced on

Tinder. "I don’t think it’s racism," she says of most guys’ behavior. "The racism

comes when they’re hateful. They’re not hateful, they just don’t know, and they

don’t say it right." One potential suitor, after ending their chat abruptly, came

back to apologize — he didn’t mean to be rude, it’s just that he didn’t like

"African-American girls."


Tara appreciates Ohlala’s underlying philosophy, but in practice she’s found it

to be much more dicey. "They say to you, as a woman you have all the power,

you can either accept or deny something. You lead the conversation, you only

agree to what you accept." But it’s hard to feel like you have all that power and

agency Ohlala promotes when a gray silhouette is hounding you for nudes.

"Guys will go, ‘Well look at the site you’re on. Obviously I expect this.’ I’m like,

‘You know what? You’re right!’ I just leave the chat. Because what can I say?"


Poppenreiter prefers the term "paid date" to describe what Ohlala provides its

users. She claims the reason for this is as philosophical as it is legal: "You can’t

use an old word for a new idea," she’s said to me, and at least a dozen other

publications she talked to during the app’s US launch.


THE IDEA OF PAID

DATING IS HARDLY NEW


But the idea of paid dating is hardly new. And if it is, it’s just as new as the idea

of dating itself. In her book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, Moira

Weigel explains how dating as we know it today rose up around the turn of the

century as a working class practicality — a way for urban singles living in

cramped family apartments and boarding houses to get out and spend their

wages while enjoying a little romance. (Middle and upper class singles were

relegated to the practice of "calling" — a formalized form of courtship largely

conducted under the watchful eye of a parent.) But the market was far from

equal: "Despite the record numbers of women entering the workforce, the belief

remained widespread that they were working not to support themselves but

only to supplement the earnings of fathers or husbands," Weigel writes.

"Employers used this misconception as an excuse to pay women far less than

they paid men." Less than half as much, on average — which meant when it

came to spending money on leisure, women did not have nearly as much

financial freedom as men did. Accepting dates with men primarily as a way to

get out of the boarding house for the evening was very common among the

textile workers and seamstresses of New York City.


Wage equality in the United States has slowly crept toward parity over the

course of the last century, but when it comes to the big bucks, men still vastly

outpace women. According to a report this year, only one out of five CEOs in

the US is female, and only 12 percent of the world’s board seats are occupied

by women. The numbers for women of color drop even more precipitously. At

the same time, female-targeted consumer culture has only intensified since the

turn of the millennium, along with our growing access to the lives of the rich

and / or famous via tabloid journalism and social media. We always were aware

that there were people who had better, more expensive things than we did, but

now images of them stream past our eyes every day. Maybe this serves as

inspiration for some to work harder for that next raise, but the fast track to the

high life as portrayed by the Kardashians (or whatever affluent lifestyle porn

floats your boat) is to "date up." Having a relationship with someone you might

not otherwise pursue, the thinking goes, is a small price to pay for your material

self-realization.


Sites like Seeking Arrangement have profited off these appetites, and helped

perpetuate the notion that rich men want to date gorgeous young women, and

gorgeous young women want to stay in five-star hotels and wear Celine.

Brandon Wade, founder of SeekingArrangement, has become somewhat of a

mogul in the field of transactional dating, having launched a network of

compensated dating sites. In many ways, he’s the anti-Pia — his sites are

unapologetically marketed toward male users ("The odds are in your favor," the

landing page proclaims while boasting its 4–1 baby-to-daddy ratio), and his

business model is built on a prescriptive life philosophy in which women only

need to be plied with gifts and money in order to "expand their horizons" when

it comes to which men they’re willing to date.


"AS YOU TREND TOWARD

THE MORE

TRANSACTIONAL

APPROACH TO DATING, IT

DOES BECOME LESS

ACCEPTABLE."


In 2007, he launched WhatsYourPrice, a more cut-and-dry version of

SeekingArrangement, predicated on the idea that everyone has a dollar

amount at which they’d be willing to give someone a chance on a "first date."

It’s the most clear existing competitor to Ohlala, in that its daters deal in cash,

not the ambiguous promise of "gifts." A first date is the beginning and end of its

immediate goals. But nearly a decade later, its membership remains about onefifth

the size of SeekingArrangement’s, Wade says. "Primarily because it can be

argued that a sugar daddy is just a wealthy and successful boyfriend who’s

willing to be generous towards you." An ongoing "arrangement" provides

enough ambiguity that both parties can choose to unsee the monetary

exchange at the center of it. The clearly labeled price tags on the users of

WhatsYourPrice, and now Ohlala, are harder to ignore. "As you trend toward the

more transactional approach to dating, it does become less acceptable," says

Wade.

In a way, this means that its users really have to want to do what they’re there to

do. One of Ohlala’s selling points is its strict policy regarding no-shows — that’s

one way it preserves its "instant" and "on-demand" selling points. But if a female

user suddenly gets a bad vibe from her date, must she still show up at the risk

of getting kicked off the service? And if she does show up, how does she

guarantee payment if her date deems the evening unsatisfactory? In the end,

what’s on demand, and who’s demanding? Ohlala may put more power in the

hands of women when it comes to vetting dates, but the only people who are

finding dates on demand are the men. Women are first and foremost finding

work.


I t’s tough to be a female entrepreneur. Perhaps that’s why the people

who are most upset by Pia’s escortgate stunt were those who felt

their work was most invalidated by it — her female peers. "Being a

founder myself it was obvious to me that [they] were not founders,

nor investors but girls that were invited for entertainment purposes," read one

woman’s account of the NOAH party.


Back at Ohlala HQ, this is what Poppenreiter still can’t get over — what she

calls a "double-moral" within the tech industry, especially in Berlin. "People say,

‘Oh my god, those girls, they wore skirts and high heels; they’re hookers.’" She

says, "Okay, so, if you’re wearing a skirt, and if you’re wearing makeup, then

you’re a hooker?" She turns back to her feed, and laughs bitterly when she

reads a quote from a female entrepreneur who attended the party. "Crazy —

women saying ‘I’m glad I wore a business outfit so no one would mistake me for

an escort.’" (As it happens, many female entrepreneurs were mistaken for

escorts by their male peers, when Poppenreiter reads this she laughs again,

this time with a little more schadenfreude — "Oh man, now I wish I would have

been there," she says.)

POPPENREITER COMES

FROM A DIFFERENT

SCHOOL OF THOUGHT

THAN MANY OF HER

FELLOW FEMALE

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FELLOW FEMALE

FOUNDERS

Suffice to say, Poppenreiter comes from a different school of thought than many

of her fellow female founders. "I always say, I’m a woman, and I’m a woman in

tech. And I don’t want to dress like —" she stops short. "I was wearing a black

dress on the first day I attended NOAH, because I want to be a woman in a

male-dominated environment. I don’t want to dress like a guy." And yet, she

rejects much of the female tech community — their meetups and initiatives and

representation quotas, which she considers reverse discrimination. "I think

women in the startup community are so aggressive about their points, and I

don’t think that’s the way to create the greatest amount of change in the

shortest period of time," she says. "What I want to do is be an excellent CEO,

and accomplish that myself, and then be a role model because I accomplished

that myself."

That Ohlala’s founder is a woman — and that she’s hired a staff that’s over 50

percent female (an anomaly in tech) certainly helps with public perception. But

it’s also a double-edged sword, and Poppenreiter is continually fighting to be

taken seriously as both a CEO and a disruptor of the still largely feminineencoded

dating industry, especially at events like NOAH. Not that she’d ever let

on as much. "Pia experiences this every day; I don’t, because I sit here when

Pia goes to events," Stüber says. "And she does not talk about this, because

Pia is [busy] proving that she’s really good at what she’s doing. So it doesn’t

come up."

A few days later, Poppenreiter posts a follow-up statement, this time on her

Facebook page. "We could spend time discussing how unfair the world is and

how we disagree with the tendencies of a [formerly] heavily male influenced

industry," she writes with barely concealed disdain. "You choose. And I will roll

up my sleeves and go back to work now."

The work pays off; just a few days after #escortgate, marketing director Lindsay

Buescher says she estimates signups have increased by 700 percent.


During my conversation with Tara, a homeless man approaches, looking

distraught enough that neither of us can ignore him. He’s lost his wallet and his

ID, he says, and he’s just looking for money for food and to travel back home.

We each hand him a dollar; he thanks us and moves on.


As soon as the man’s out of earshot, Tara tells me about a video she watched

that weekend, about a homeless man who seduced women for shelter. "He’d

go to Walgreens and Duane Reade, and just freshen up using [hair gel.] He

would go bar hopping, and he would sleep with girls, and he was like,

‘Depending on how good I fucked them, I could stay a three-day weekend.’"


"IF I CAN GET PAID TO

JUST GO ON A DATE AND

JUST BE MY LOUD,

CRAZY, FUN SELF, WHY

NOT?"


The hustle is real, and Tara has few illusions about it, which is why she had few

qualms about signing up for Ohlala. "People will let you exploit them to a

certain extent, and they’re okay with it," she says. "I thought, if I can get paid to

just go on a date and just be my loud, crazy, fun self, why not?"


And yet, almost despite herself, she thinks she may have found someone she

really likes. Stuart? From Amsterdam? After getting over the initial

miscommunication hump, they ended up going out anyway, with the

understanding that sex was not on the table. She still got her $600, too — he

PayPal’d her, and, like a true gentleman, waited to make sure she received the

transaction before saying goodnight. "He was like, ‘Just know this is for your

time.’


"He’s actually really cool," she says. "He’s someone that I’d right swipe on

Tinder anyway, so it was totally okay." Their date turned into a few hours of bar

hopping, and ended with a little bit of making out.

"Sometimes it’s nice," Tara says. "I’m single now. It’s nice sometimes, to be in

the company of a guy that I’m attracted to and see where it goes."

"I’m 100 percent certain I’ll fuck him," she says, with an ear-to-ear grin. "I like

him."


But throughout our conversation, she vacillates wildly on whether or not the

feeling is mutual. They still text, but Stuart has a wife and kids — even on their

first (relatively) chaste date, he expressed doubts about straying from his

marriage. The money only clouds the issue further. Perhaps, she says, she

would have been open to sleeping with him after the night went so well if they

had met any other way. But she couldn’t trust herself in that transactional

space. "I’d feel like… well, did I only do it because you gave me money? I don’t

know."


For this, and the reasons she’s already expressed, she’s probably deleting her

Ohlala account. In the meantime, if she wants to set up another date with

Stuart, she has his number. He’s supposed to be in town later that month, and

they’ve even discussed plans for a second date (Smorgasburg!). And because

she likes him so much, she’s lowered her fee — just $300 this time.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.


"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.