"I wanted to know what it would be like to be held, kissed and caressed," the author writes.
Note: This essay includes details about the author’s experience with sexual abuse.
I had my first date when I was 25 years old. The guy was someone I’d shared a class with in college. We had a chance meeting and chatted for a few minutes, and he asked me out. After seeing a movie, we drove to a park with a view of the moonlit river.
I liked this man, but I tensed up. He put his arm around me, drew me close, kissed my neck and stroked my hair. I froze. He whispered to me to relax, and I wanted to, but by the time he kissed my lips, I was trembling so much that he stopped and drove me home. I never heard from him again.
That night foreshadowed the next four years of my dating life. If a date did something as simple as hold my hand, I became frightened, and I came across as so icy that no one asked me out a second time.
I have autism. I am “high-functioning,” which means I was able to be academically successful and have a career, and I appear to be neurotypical most of the time. But I was the kid whom the others bullied and mocked, the teen no boys wanted to date, and the shy, weird girl with no friends. As an adult, I am overwhelmed by crowded, noisy places. I knew how I had to act at work, but it was just that ― acting. The performance drained me. Once home, I retreated to a soft rocking chair, where the rhythmic motion soothed me.
As I approached 30, I grew desperate. An older man at work started flirting with me. I didn’t find him attractive or nice. My gut warned me to stay away from him, but he kept telling me he could teach me everything I needed to know about sex, and I didn’t want to be a 30-year-old virgin.
I met with him on and off for seven years. I don’t know why I continued to see him, but I did. When I was with him, I was stiff and cold, but he didn’t care. I never had vaginal sex with him, but I endured painful activities that frightened me. He made constant sadistic threats, and I never knew what he would or wouldn’t do. Once he threatened to bite off my nipples. He laughed when I was afraid. I think he enjoyed keeping me scared. I hated all of it, but I never said so. I finally broke it off with him, but by that point, I no longer wanted male attention. Even watching sex scenes in movies turned my stomach. I felt worthless as a woman.
Over the next 11 years, I worked, bought a house, made a couple of good friends and enjoyed my hobbies. Then my life changed drastically. I was diagnosed with idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy at age 48. I was told there was a 70% chance I would die within five years. Exhausted and short of breath all the time, I was advised by my cardiologist to retire on disability. For the next year, I slept more hours than I spent awake. But then a new medication hit the market, and my heart responded to it well enough that I could function again.
I had things I wanted to do, and I was determined to get started on them. I took a vacation to the West Coast to see the ocean. I finally wrote the novel I’d been meaning to work on. These things were satisfying, but there was still an emptiness inside me. I felt broken.
I dreamed about celebrities ― Brad Pitt, Bruce Springsteen, Kevin Costner ― men who were far out of my reach and safe to fantasize about, because I would never actually have the opportunity to be with them.
The five-year deadline for my potential demise came and went, and I was still alive. One evening, I decided to watch “Legends of the Fall.” Before the movie was over, I found myself filled with desire for Brad Pitt. Now I knew what was missing. I still wanted to experience affection and tenderness from a man, but I didn’t know how. Like a silly adolescent, I dreamed about celebrities ― Pitt, Bruce Springsteen, Kevin Costner ― men who were far out of my reach and safe to fantasize about, because I would never actually have the opportunity to be with them.
More years passed. My medicine quit working, and my heart failed again. My cardiologist told me about a new kind of pacemaker that might help, or I could be added to the transplant waiting list. I chose the pacemaker. I was one of the lucky ones for whom the device worked, and my heart improved to its best condition since I had been diagnosed. But now I felt an even stronger sense of my own mortality ― a sense of time running out.
I wanted to know what it would be like to be held, kissed and caressed. My friends suggested that I hire an escort. That way, they said, I would have control of the situation. There would be no pressure to have sex unless I wanted it. I liked the idea of being in charge of what happened, but I didn’t think I could ever really hire an escort.
Still, I was curious, and I began to browse agencies and independent escorts online. But when I read their descriptions of themselves, none seemed promising for my circumstances.
Late one night, I came across the website of a man I’ll call Antonio. He seemed genuine, respectful and gentle. Day after day, I went back to his site. I started fantasizing about him. I finally decided I had to contact him. My fear was that he would say no to taking me as a client, or that when we spoke, my social awkwardness would scare him away. I didn’t know what to write in my email to him. I chose to simply be honest.
“I’m a middle-aged woman with very little experience. What experience I do have was, for the most part, unpleasant. I feel like I’ve missed out on one of life’s great joys, and I want to do something about it. My timidity around men makes it impossible for me to find what I’m looking for. In my heart, I still feel like a naive young girl. Once in my life, I’d like to have a sensual experience with a man I find attractive, and who is patient, sensitive, and doesn’t put pressure on me. I want to touch and be touched by such a man. I think that you are my only chance at that. I’ve looked at many sites of both agencies and individuals, and yours is the one I’m drawn back to.”
Within a few hours, Antonio replied. He told me: “I believe I can make this fantasy a reality and an exciting adventure for you, to pamper and hold you and kiss you and give you the affection and tenderness you were denied in your relationships in the past.”
He invited me to call him, but I was too afraid. We began to email almost daily. I had soon told him most of my story, and he spent hours helping me work through everything, and teaching me how to understand and forgive myself. Then he called me. I was enthralled by his easy laugh and his fascinating stories. He told me he was happy to talk with me and help me, even if I never booked him for a date.
After a year of communication, I wanted to see Antonio. We arranged to meet at a hotel in a city near my home. As I waited for him to arrive, I almost changed my mind. I felt jittery and tense, but I forced myself to stay. I was so nervous that I struggled to unlock the door to our room. He took the card and let us in. When he kissed me, I froze, as I always had in the past. “Maybe it’s too soon,” he said, and we sat and talked for a long time.
He told me to just be myself, and not to worry about what he thought of me. As we talked, he gradually drew me close to him. I liked it. Leaning against him, I relaxed. He was gentle and tender. He offered me a massage, and though I wasn’t able to actually have sex that night, I relaxed under his touch. Before I knew it, I was undressed, and for the first time in my life, I enjoyed a sensual experience. We talked long into the night. By the next morning, I knew I wanted to see him again.
The next time I saw him, Antonio came to my home for a weekend. I still wasn’t ready to have sex, and he put no pressure on me. Despite what many people think, hiring an escort is not always about paying for sex. Men who are successful escorts have to be understanding, adaptable and unselfish, and Antonio possesses those traits in abundance. We went for walks, cooked together, slow-danced, watched a movie and talked for hours. I trusted him absolutely. I had thought I could never feel that safe with a man.
I decided to visit him in Los Angeles. I had always been afraid to fly, but I really wanted to do this. I flew out of an airport that was small and not very crowded. On the plane, I kept to myself by watching a movie. But nothing could have prepared me for LAX. The plan was for me to take a taxi to our hotel, and Antonio would meet me there. I followed the other passengers to the luggage carousel. Then everything fell apart.
I was overwhelmed by being around so many people, hearing the constant blaring announcements and getting inundated by all of the other stimuli in the airport. I felt trapped. I didn’t know how to find a taxi. I was close to having a meltdown, and I knew I had to do something. I saw a stairwell almost no one was using. It led to a quiet corridor where I found a bench. No one was there except a maintenance man. After some deep breaths, I called Antonio. He had me describe where I was, told me to stay put, and said he would come and find me. When he arrived, he gave me a long hug and took my bag. I felt safe again.
I continued to book weekend dates with him as I was able, sometimes at my home, sometimes in Los Angeles. One night, Antonio gently eased me into more than just making out. Finally, at age 59, I was no longer a virgin. It had been more than 20 years since I was in that sick “relationship.” After all that time, this new experience seemed like a dream ― a magnificent dream.
Had I not found Antonio, I'm not sure I would have encountered a man with the patience to accept me exactly as I am. I do not know if I would have ever experienced the affection I craved.
Antonio has shown me around Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Venice Beach and Santa Monica. He tells fascinating anecdotes about the places we visit. We linger over delicious meals in restaurants. He always caters to my need to be in a corner or next to a wall. At night, we cuddle and carry on deep conversations.
The uncertainty of cardiomyopathy will always be with me, but I am now more at peace with my situation. I will also always have to cope with my autism. Had I not found Antonio, I’m not sure I would have encountered a man with the patience to accept me exactly as I am. I do not know if I would have ever experienced the affection I craved, and I would have always felt I’d missed out on a significant part of life.
For women with issues like mine, hiring an escort is probably not one of the first options they would consider. But it can be a good choice. It’s important to research a potential companion thoroughly, but there are a number of reputable men out there. For some autistic or painfully shy women, this can be a step to overcoming the awkwardness and moving into the regular dating scene. For others, like me, it’s a relief not to have to think about that dating scene, which often comes with expectations. I don’t want commitments, and I don’t want to have to deal with the pressure to engage in sexual and social activities that make me uncomfortable.
I have no illusions about the nature of my relationship with Antonio. In fact, I like that I pay Antonio for his time. That aspect allows me to make decisions I wouldn’t be able to make in a “normal” relationship. I feel like an equal in the escort/client relationship.
Many people view hiring someone for a romantic or sexual relationship as degrading or even wrong, but there are people who have no other way to have such relationships. I feel that it should be a personal decision between two consenting adults. I have been seeing Antonio for a number of years, and in that time, I have become a much happier person. I no longer spend time worrying about how to relate to men. An acquaintance recently asked me what I’ve been doing that caused me to have a “glow.” I didn’t tell her, but I give Antonio credit for that.
Antonio has encouraged me to try to get to know some men more intimately ― to date, to explore. While I appreciate his encouragement, I doubt that I’ll ever want to do those things. What I do know is that, thanks to this wonderful man, I am no longer broken. When I’m lying in his arms, I am whole again.
“Leah Shefoe” is the pseudonym of a freelance writer who has published articles in a variety of small magazines. She enjoys alone time, being in nature and writing poetry.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.