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Assisted loving: Prostitutes and the elderly

Elderly men being serviced by prostitutes is a reality that is kept discreet inside the walls of retirement homes. Nele Obermüller dug deep to explore this taboo within a taboo.

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Photo by Lindsay Isola

Prostitution is hardly a taboo any longer, especially in Germany where ladies of the night can legally ply their trade in broad daylight on the capital’s asphalt, while contributing to their state retirement pensions.

More unmentionable is sex in old age. Elderly men being serviced by prostitutes is a reality that is kept discreet inside the walls of retirement homes. Yet, according to the Bundesverband sexuelle Dienste e.V., an advocacy group for sex workers and brothel keepers, prostitutes regularly visit every second retirement home in Berlin.

Nele Obermüller dug deep to explore this taboo within a taboo.

Nina: The client’s wishes come first

“Every time I go see him, I have to introduce myself again,” says Nina de Vries (photo), who works as a ‘sexual assistant’ for Josef, an elderly man suffering from dementia. “Then I ask whether he’d like a massage and he says ‘oh yes, that would be nice.’”

De Vries’ time with Josef involves them being naked, touching and holding each other, and it will end with him having an orgasm. A visit costs €120 per hour (€90 if the client comes to her place). Intercourse and oral sex do not usually feature in her arrangements.

De Vries doesn’t feel this sets her apart from other prostitutes, however. “I think differentiating myself from prostitution would be assuming,” says the middle-aged full-bodied brunette leaning back in a chair in her suburban garden, swathed in black, loose-fitting cotton clothes.

“I prefer the term sexual assistant because it doesn’t carry any negative connotations, but I don’t shy away from describing what I do as a sexual service for which I expect to get paid.”

The native Dutch woman has been living in Germany since 1990 and is seen by many as a pioneer in the field of sexuality among the disabled and elderly. She remains wary however of putting on false airs. “It irks me when people compare me to a therapist. My work is not therapy, because the client’s wishes come first.”

On occasion she has ceded to some wishes that go above and beyond her usual routine, like when she slept with a client who was dying of multiple sclerosis. “We had been seeing each other for a long period of time and it felt alright,” she says. A pre-requisite for crossing her self-set limits is that she ‘feels like’ it at the time.

Lisa: There’s a therapeutic aspect to my work

Before she chose to specialise on the elderly and disabled, two frequently overlapping areas, Lisa (who prefers further details of her person to remain anonymous) was a prostitute serving all types of clients. Now she also refers to herself as a ‘sexual assistant’.

“People should be more willing to play with their sexuality,” she says in a soft, light-hearted voice. For Lisa, moving beyond the pale is normal. She sees benefit in married men purchasing her services to “get fresh ideas for their bedrooms” or because their partners can no longer satisfy them sexually.

An hour with her costs €100 and usually includes tantric massage. “Prostitutes are particularly important in showing people who are a bit older, who haven’t had sex in a long time, that they’re still sexual beings,” she says, going on to diverge from de Vries: “There’s almost a therapeutic aspect to my work.”

Stephanie: Left to sneak in

Stephanie Klee, a 49-year-old prostitute with over 25 years of experience, counts many elderly or disabled men among her clients – but for her, they’re just regular johns.

And while ‘sexual assistants’ de Vries and Lisa receive invitations from nursing home staff, Klee is left to sneak in: “Of course you can’t just go to a retirement home and say, ‘I’m a prostitute and I’m going to be spending the next three hours satisfying Mr. So-and-so’. So instead you tell the receptionist you’re his niece or his former neighbour, or he just comes down to meet you and then you walk up to his room together.”

The clients who invite her are often men who solicited her before they moved to the homes – in other words, satisfied, loyal customers.

Klee’s resolve is etched across her face, and her throaty voice reveals no hesitation in her opinions. She dismisses the question of how much she charges an hour: “It’s a matter to be negotiated.”

There’s no doubt in Klee’s mind that sexuality in old age is a huge problem. “Whether it’s a taboo depends on who you’re talking to,” she says. “The clients and prostitutes don’t think so, but if you speak to relatives or staff from retirement homes, it is.”

Solicited sex in nursing homes

“People working in retirement homes have very ambivalent views towards prostitution,” says Marion Detlefs of Hydra, a self-help and advocacy organization for sex workers. “When they do encourage a visit from a prostitute, it’s usually only after a patient has been causing them problems, grabbing his nurses or touching himself too often.”

Indeed, in Stephanie’s experience, only one retirement home was open-minded enough to arrange the contact between their patients and prostitutes.

This quotidian neglect of geriatric sexuality is problematic. “Particularly male management will tell its staff (most of whom are female) that they shouldn’t kick up a fuss just because a patient gropes their behinds,” Detlefs recounts. “They just ignore older people’s needs. I also heard of a rather singular case in which a male nurse brought his elderly patient to a brothel to live out his own voyeuristic tendency.”

Women are less inclined than men to display their sexual frustration as aggression. As a result, institutional failure to consider geriatric sexuality when it isn’t causing acute problems leaves elderly women’s sexual needs virtually unrecognised.

“They’re also measured by their physique more,” de Vries speculates – meaning that even if there were a demand, few callboys would be willing to have these women as customers.

A booming niche?

With symptomatically ageing populations, countries like Germany potentially offer an ever-growing market to specialised sex workers such as Klee, Lisa and de Vries.

Regardless of the prejudices faced by prostitutes entertaining elderly clients – ironically less about prostitution itself (which is formally recognised as a legitimate profession in Germany) than about elderly and disabled people’s sexuality – these women stand by their professions.

“I wanted to find a more challenging and personally satisfying form of sex work,” Lisa explains. “A lot of men go to prostitutes to experience an illusion – and a good prostitute can offer that. I was never particularly skilled at it though, and I didn’t want to have to pretend that some guy was this fantastic lover when he just wasn’t.”

Lisa can’t imagine working the ‘old way’ anymore, when the first questions asked typically concerned her age, bust size and whether she was clean-shaven.

“There isn’t the same focus on intercourse in this line of work. Men have an extroverted sense of sexuality – it’s like their dicks, which hang outside – and when they’re younger that’s all they think about. That changes with age. One of my clients is in a wheelchair for instance, and we just lie together and cuddle. Sometimes we even fall asleep.”

Detlefs says that making that kind of conscious choice to specialise is rare in the field of prostitution. “Generally, there is no neat separation between what types of clients you receive. Men of all ages go to brothels and they’re all serviced. What’s different is when a woman is spending a lot of her time in homes; Hydra only has around 10 women for work like that.”

Klee’s experience confirms Detlefs’ comment. Working with the elderly was a completely natural procession in her professional life. “Older men continue visiting brothels like all other men, especially if they’ve had good experiences there previously,” she attests. “And if a physical condition means a man isn’t able to come to you anymore, then you go see him in his retirement home.”

There’s no big mystery: a prostitute ages alongside her clients, says Klee. Catering to older clients might also be a way for prostitutes past their physical prime to stay in the game, although most of them refute the argument.

From puppies to dogs

Some have also argued that older prostitutes were driven towards the niche of sex with the elderly and disabled (which remains a relatively uncompetitive domain) by the influx of young prostitutes from Eastern Europe, as well as the financial recession.

Klee and Lisa vehemently oppose that idea. “That’s rubbish,” Klee says. “Yes, our industry felt the financial recession, but it didn’t force us into niche work. I don’t want to offend any of my younger colleagues, but generally speaking, working with older men requires the right kind of approach, appropriate guises, time and experience.”

Lisa says she “would not have felt up to this job” when she was younger and knows very few sex workers who’ve specialised in the niche who are under 40. And she knows none, she adds, “who don’t enjoy their work.”

This idea of a prostitute who wants to do her job is hard to digest for many, however. We live in a time when well-respected feminist scholars such as Catharine MacKinnon have likened prostitution to being serially raped, and in a society that tends to see prostitutes as circumstantial victims.

The proposition that a woman could take pleasure in solicited sex with someone who is elderly, disabled or both is hence nothing less than shocking. “Our society is obsessed with beauty,” says de Vries. “And beauty is largely reserved for the young.”

It’s hardly surprising that a culture that shies away from parents’ sex lives fails to embrace grandparents’ sex drives. But these four women agree it’s high time society did just that.

“Sexuality is so much bigger than this,” de Vries says. “It shouldn’t just receive attention when a problem with a patient arises. If someone is no longer able to form relations himself – because he suffers from dementia or has brain damage – then it’s much better if there’s a woman who visits him who has made this into her profession. It’s that simple, and it’s been going on for millennia!”