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UB student doubles as male escort, gay porn star

'Elliott Vance' comes forward to dispel misconceptions about sex work

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Elliott Vance isn’t afraid to Google himself – even though a quick search reveals hundreds of images of his lean, tan body stripped naked and having sex with other men.

Having sex with people he barely knows has helped Elliott pay his UB tuition, work toward a biology degree and afford rent in a quiet suburb.

Yusong Shi | Photo illustration
Elliott keeps a low profile on campus and he and his parents have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on his work. But online, he’s a minor porn celebrity.

He’s a male escort, stripper and former porn actor. And he’s a small businessman of his own brand, who says it takes education and know-how to manage a career and the money he makes in the sex industry.

He’s not afraid to Google himself because he doesn’t see anything wrong with what he’s doing.

It’s the other people – like the ones who are ashamed to admit they watch porn and the ones who think he should be ashamed to Google himself – who have the problem, he said. They are the ones stigmatizing sex and attaching labels to people like him who practice sex openly and joyfully and teach others how it’s done.

He agreed to use his performer name and be photographed for this article because he wants to take the stigma away from sex work and change the way people think about the sex industry. It’s not dirty and ugly and dehumanizing, he says.

It’s empowering and life-affirming.

He’s not worried about what a potential employer might think or what will happen if and when he decides to get a mainstream job.

He, for instance, wants to be a medical technician after graduation this spring, and says he’s unafraid future employers will discover his past as a sex worker.

“If somebody doesn’t like it, I really don’t care. My past doesn’t dictate my future and it doesn’t make me any less of a candidate than somebody else who hasn’t,” he said.

Elliott has traveled the country as an escort over the past two years and filmed nine pornographic scenes during the course of three weeks in the fall of 2013. Officially, he said, escorting means getting paid to spend time with a stranger for an agreed-upon time. Sometimes it leads to sex – but not always, which, he said, makes it different from prostitution, which is illegal.

Sometimes, he said, it’s about companionship, about giving another human being the feeling of being less alone. What’s so wrong with that?

He knows what most people think of escorts and porn stars: they’re uneducated, poor and don’t have any other options.

Elliott does have options – like the bars and cafés he made good money at before going into the sex industry. But, none of them gave him the flexibility to travel or the cash that the sex industry offers. Appearing in porn has given him connections to appear as background extras in several TV shows. He knows there are risks, but is staying safe with condoms and pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a HIV-preventative drug he takes daily.

And he says he’s been smart with the cash.

He’s used his sex work money to pay off almost all his student loans, invest in stocks and even set up a retirement account. He can make an average of $5,000 a week if actively traveling and escorting. With those numbers, an escort working just six months out of the year could bring in a six-figure salary.

But, again, he says, it’s not just about the money. He sees his work as helping people.

And despite the stigma some attach to it, the porn industry brings in $10-12 billion a year in the United States and rises every year. Porn accounts for 30 percent of all Internet bandwidth, according to some estimates. Fifty-six percent of the UB student body watches porn at least a few times a month, according to The Spectrum’s sex survey.

A porn set just may be one of the safest places to have sex: a controlled environment with vetted partners who’ve been tested for sexually transmitted diseases within the past two weeks.

Still, escorting and pornography are widely looked upon as immoral, wrong and in some cases, illegal.

Part of the problem, said Reid Mihalko, a sex and relationship educator based in California, is that mainstream culture doesn’t accept a porn star as an entertainer or an escort as a person providing a service.

“We just don’t look at sex that way because there’s so much sex negativism,” he said. “We have to acknowledge how culturally biased our culture is against sex for commerce or sex as a profession.”

“More times than not, it's not about sex at all. Yeah it happens but it's not set in stone.”

Indeed, should having a porn career as a student mean you can’t get a good job later? Why can’t two people consensually agree to sex – whether for therapeutic or recreational reasons – in exchange for money? Why would someone with alternatives – a college education, a chance at medical school – choose a life of sex work?

“A lot of people aren’t doing this out of dire straits,” Elliott said. “A lot of people are doing this because they enjoy it.”

Elliott isn’t the first college student in the sex industry to come forward. In 2014, porn star and Duke University freshman Belle Knox received national attention after her identity as an adult performer was outed on campus. That same year, a male student at Columbia revealed in a submission to the university’s online student paper that he works as an escort.

Elliott knows participating in this article with his performer name and face included may mean he’ll never be able to bury his past as a sex worker in the future. He doesn’t think he’ll ever want to, though. He’s content with his decision and is happy with his choice regardless of whether or not it's deemed acceptable by the majority of people.

“I think really with this generation, we’re doing what we’re told to do,” Elliott said. “You’re gonna have that realization that you know what, ‘I’ve done what everyone wanted me to do, I’m gonna do what I wanna do.’ But unfortunately many people have that too late in life. I consider myself fortunate.”

Becoming Elliott Vance

You wouldn’t know Elliott was a sex worker if you walked past him on campus.

He has the attire typical of a college student: Abercrombie and Fitch jacket, jeans, along with a trendy man bun and septum piercing. He’ll pick up lunch from the Subway in The Commons on campus and lament the chocolate chip cookie he shouldn't be eating.

He doesn’t go around with a large crowd either. His friend circle doesn’t include his classmates at UB. Nothing against them, he says, he’s just at the point in his life where’s here to get his degree and get out.

And up until two and a half years ago, Elliott was just a recent graduate with a common fantasy of doing porn. Then his car got broken into.

Yusong Shi | The Spectrum

It was the fall of 2013. For several months he’d been working jobs at bars, restaurants and a café in Buffalo after graduating with his associate’s degree in veterinarian technology from Medaille College.

He was happy with the money he was making, but Elliott had always considered himself an entertainer, whether it was performing in plays or musicals during high school.

“I kind of had this realization my senior year of high school that I’m never going to Juilliard to play in a symphony orchestra ... I’m never going to be on Broadway,” Elliott said. “What can I do that entertains? Well, sex is always there and that’s enjoyable.”

But what would his family and friends think?

He’d grown up in what he describes as a conservative Roman Catholic and Jewish household, where even coming out to his parents about his sexual orientation was “not pretty.” His friends warned him against doing porn and told him he’d regret it later in life.

He always felt he was doing things for other people, whether it was earning a college degree or going on dates with girls in high school to, as he puts it, give being straight one last try. Elliott didn’t fully accept he was gay until college.

He’d always wanted to be in control of his life and sexuality. Porn would allow him to do just that.

“The exact words out of my mouth were: ‘f*** this, I’m going to do what I want,’” he said.

Though the demand for men in the porn industry isn’t always high, becoming a porn star is as easy as applying online. Elliott said it’s like applying for “any old job,” although he admits the questions are little different than what you may find on a normal job application.

Porn production mostly happens on the West Coast, so Elliott found work with a small production company in San Francisco, California to shoot nine porn scenes over the course of three weeks.

He says there’s more to porn than what a viewer sees on a computer screen for a few minutes.

A 20-minute video could be an entire day or days’ worth of work. During his time filming, his shortest scene took two hours. His longest: eight hours – enough to make a person reconsider putting a needle in their genitals to keep an erection after hours of filming.

Not everything is as glorious as it may appear either. His first scene required him to have sex with a stranger in the cramped and slippery confines of a shower as a camera crew stood feet away.

But it did provide him an opportunity to entertain, which he considers his calling. He smiles to this day thinking about the possibility there’s someone out there right now masturbating to him. The sex could be pretty enjoyable too.

Elliott hasn’t done porn again after wrapping up what he called an “intense” and “exhausting” few weeks. Besides, fewer porn stars are actually making the bulk of their money from porn, and more are making their money from appearances, stripping and – most predominantly – escorting, he said.

“You would be hard-pressed to find a performer who does not escort or, at the very least, strips on a regular basis to make money,” Elliott said. “How I look at it is porn is kind of like your commercial and you are your product.”

Elliott spent 2014 traveling the country escorting – meeting strangers in cities like Chicago, Washington D.C., New Orleans and New York City, racking up 80,000 miles on his car and living out of hotel rooms.

Inquiring minds often want to calculate how much Elliott earns. But for sex workers, it’s not that simple.

“A lot of people think, ‘Oh you make this much money and work this many hours a day,’” Elliott said. “No, that’s not how it really works because you never know when you’re gonna work and when you’re not gonna work … Nothing is guaranteed.”

Demand is always shifting. One week – like around tax return season – he could bring in $10,000. A slow week, like in summer when clients are traveling or have plans, could bring in less than $1,000.

And Elliott escorts significantly less during the semester. School comes first. A weekend trip to see a client in Pittsburgh can happen – but on Elliott’s terms when his homework schedule frees up.

Sex as a living takes a lot of self-management. Elliott says that’s why the most successful people in the sex industry do have college degrees.

“A lot of people don’t realize, for strippers, escorts, sex workers, porn stars, they’re independent contractors,” Elliott said. “It’s a very hard business because you are managing wealth that you may not be used to.”

People always ask him how they can get into the sex industry. Elliott’s response is always: Why? Nine times out of the 10 the person says they want to make a lot of money. Elliott says a person won’t find happiness and they’ll come to resent themselves if their only motivation to work in sex is money.

“If your motivation for doing things is money, than don’t do it – especially in this industry,” he said.

Realizing he’d need a plan for after sex work, Elliott enrolled at UB in January of 2015 to get his bachelor’s in biology.

To this day, Elliott describes his parents’ knowledge of his porn and escorting career as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. He says their relationship is more of a “business relationship,” as Elliott sometimes works part-time for them. He says he’s at peace with it.

“They don’t want to know,” Elliott said. “I’m not gonna volunteer information. If they ask, I will tell them. I don’t think they think they need to know.”

Yusong Shi | The Spectrum

Elliott knows being open with this sex work could be a "disqualifying factor" with some employers, but he said he doesn't think it should matter and he wouldn't want to work for someone who would judge him anyway. 


Staying safe

Escorting has a dangerous side. Elliott will tell you that. He’s never had a negative experience while working, but knows that luck has played a factor.

Statistics about violence against sex workers in the United States generally focus on female street-based sex workers.

But men like Elliott in the indoor sex industry, where solicitation happens off the street, could also face violence but perhaps at lower rates.

It’s a judgment call every time he agrees to meet a client. Sometimes his only communication with them meeting is a phone call or text message, although he says he can get a good sense of people that way.

“You go with your gut,” Elliott said. “Your first instinct on someone is usually pretty right.”

Escorting could also mean unwanted attention from law enforcement and incarceration. Prostitution is illegal everywhere in the United States save for a few counties in Nevada. New York Penal Law Section 230.0 statesit’s illegal to engage, agree or offer to engage in sexual conduct with another person in return for a fee.

“It’s a very broad definition right off the bat of what prostitution is,” Elliott said. “But the one missing definition is: What is a sexual activity?”

Escorts never lay out a specific agreement for sex and they try not to even imply it. A client requesting to be hit and yelled at while wearing leather may not be a sexual act to Elliott, but it might be to the law. If a prospective client begins to establish the arrangement will be sexual, it could potentially be an undercover police officer.

Elliott says escorting is really about companionship.

“More times than not, it’s not about sex at all. Yeah it happens but it’s not set in stone,” he said. “It really is someone who feels lonely and wants to be in the presence of somebody else. So what’s stopping them going to a strip club? It’s the same idea.”

Yusong Shi | Photo illustration

Elliott balances sex work and working toward a biology degree at UB. 

Nearly five percent of UB students admitted to either paying or being paid for sex in a survey of 702 people.

Not all prostitution is recreational – some is therapeutic and allows people to explore in ways they couldn’t normally. Mihalko said a suburban couple that wants to have a threesome but doesn’t want to hit on a neighbor or someone looking for help lasting longer in bed can all hire an escort.

And sexual surrogates, who often engage in sexual activity with clients as means of therapy, have made headlines in recent years for creating a grey area in laws concerning prostitution.

Elliott feels the United States is stricter about sex than other countries in Europe, from limited sexual education in schools to the stigma surrounding just talking about sex. He says some of the problem stems from people pushing a religious agenda. Elliott currently doesn’t follow any religion, but said he’d choose Judaism if he had to choose one of the two religions he was raised in.

“Most people have a very conservative view about sex and even relationships in general,” he said. “A lot of people claim morality … and assume these people have no morals. I would say just because I have different morals doesn’t mean I don’t have them.”

But the biggest danger of escorting may be HIV.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there are few population-based studies of sex workers in the United States or globally because of the illegal status of sex work, it does conclude risk of HIV infection is high among people who engage in sex for compensation.

Gay sex workers – and gay men in general – are at an even great risk as anal sex is the highest risk sexual behavior, according to the CDC.

Elliott protects himself from HIV with what he calls a “miracle” drug.

In addition to condoms, he takes PrEP, often called by its brand name Truvada, once daily to prevent an HIV infection. He gets tested every three months to make sure he’s negative and the PrEP is still working.

The drug is combination of two antiretroviral drugs often used for treatment in patients already infected and is up to 99 percent effective against preventing HIV if used correctly, said Mitchell Warren, executive director of AVAC, a New York City-based HIV-prevention advocacy group.

“If used correctly and consistently, oral PrEP can significantly reduce the risk of infection,” Warren said. “And that is a huge step forward.”

Warren said it’s estimated there is in excess of 50,000 people taking oral PrEP in the world, which he admits is “not a huge number,” but he also said it’s not a surprise.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration didn’t approve PrEP until 2012, and the drug has only been approved in three other countries: France, Kenya and South Africa.

“We’re still very much in the early days,” he said.

Warren said there are major “walls to break down” when it comes to PrEP, including simply educating health providers that PrEP is now for HIV prevention, not just treatment and breaking through any stigmas.

Elliott originally went to his local family doctor to get a prescription for PrEP, but the doctor refused, saying he didn’t feel comfortable. Elliott said the doctor wasn’t used to someone like him. Several doctors turned him down before Evergreen Health Services in Buffalo provided him with a prescription.

Warren said there’s a large number of health providers, insurance companies and HIV educators trying to make sure people are aware that PrEP is an option.

“But a lot of providers don’t know that and that takes time,” he said.

The other major wall is people not accepting they’re at risk and taking the action to get on the drug.

Elliott said most of his colleagues in the sex industry don’t use or have never heard of PrEP. He says some of those workers also don’t use condoms.

“It drives me insane,” he said. “Here we are with this miracle that everybody’s always been talking about: ‘Oh I wish there was a way to cure it or at least prevent it.’”

Elliott wants to become a “PrEP ambassador” – educating anyone at risk, not just sex workers. He thinks he has the ability do it, based on his experience and his openness to discussing it.

Why talk?

Elliott is a natural in front of the camera.

He’ll jump into whatever a photo shoot calls him to do. He’s more than comfortable with four fellow students he’s never met before reaching through holes in a white bed sheet to touch his shirtless body – even if the four students touching him aren’t as comfortable.

After a few minutes of nervous hands barely brushing up against his neck, chest and thighs, Elliott begins to give direction.

“No, put your hand here. Don’t be afraid,” he says. “Choke me a little bit, I don’t care.”

Soon enough the strangers’ hands begin to relax on Elliott as if they were his significant other or a porn star trained in the industry.

“I think if you have someone comfortable it makes other people comfortable,” Elliott said.

In several hour-long conversations, the only time Elliott stiffened up was when asked how he thinks the campus will react to him after he comes forward. He gives a nervous laugh. He’s not sure. He almost doesn't want to think about it.

Maybe he’ll get some second looks in the hallway. He only asks that, despite his openness, people still respect his private life as his private life.

He understands not everything is private, though. He said he feels bad for Knox when she was ousted as a porn star at Duke, but that if you try to hide something it’s going to look like you have something to hide. He’d rather be open.

“Technology is great for getting your face out there … but in this age, if you do something it will be found out,” Elliott said. “Whether it’s today, whether it’s next week, whether it's 10 years from now, it will be found and you need to be OK with that.”

He’s begun to apply to job at labs and hospitals in Los Angeles to hopefully work as technician. He said he would still escort and maybe even shoot some more scenes even if he got a job.

“Why not?” he said with a laugh. “I enjoy it.”

Tom Dinki is the editor in chief and can be reached at tom.dinki@ubspectrum.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tomdinki. 


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