Five professional male escorts will compete Saturday in Fort Lauderdale to be named Mr. Florida, a regional contest presented by one of the world's top adult websites.
"Mr. Florida contest is a preliminary for the Hookies Awards, the international escort awards," said Sean Van Sant, director of Rentboy.com, an X-rated site where male escorts and gay porn stars advertise themselves. The Hookies will be awarded March 21 in New York City, following regional contests in Canada, Chicago, Florida, Los Angeles, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Van Sant says the men's work is totally legal.
"The term escorting has been around for a while. What the boys say and what we say is that they are selling their time only and not offering sexual services," Van Sant said. "We don’t allow them to actually offer sexual services for money on the website. They are engaging their time only. They can describe what sexual acts they like and it’s our view that what happens between consenting adults is not the world’s business. That’s just a private transaction between two people."
Florida has long been considered a hub for sex workers and the porn industry. Last week, much of the nation was shocked when Cocoa High School in Central Florida suspended an 18-year-old adult-film actor.
Some were appalled that a teenage high-school student would appear in bareback porn (no condoms) – and that his mother said she supported his career.
Others found it reprehensible that the school would kick him out.
Cocoa High found itself deluged with thousands of angry Internet postings about the suspension and several days later allowed Robert Marucci to return to class.
"Eighteen to me is a little bit early to be making bareback porn," Van Sant said, adding, however, that "many 18-year-olds are ready to be porn stars."
Van Sant, 45, said the web and technology have desensitized many younger people to porn, along with cellphone hook-up apps like Grindr, which use GPS to match nearby potential sex partners.
"The kids today are of the Internet age, they’re Facebooking and they’re Grindr-ing, everything all the time," Van Sant said. "They’re posting videos on X-Tube websites from a very young age. You can’t really compare everything they do to what we did, necessarily. They’re ready for all this."
Van Sant, who had his own experiences escorting during college, said he "wouldn't necessarily recommend" escorting to an 18-year-old friend.
"There are people who have asked me whether they should escort and I say no, they shouldn’t. I wouldn’t let you without a note from your psychiatrist. Just because there are some boys who are fragile and really shouldn’t enter that world. It’s not for everyone," he said. "But there are some boys who are just great at sex and they really want it. And they’re really great at showing off."
An 18-year-old is "absolutely not" ready for sex work, say porn star Ryan Rose, a contestant in Saturday night's Mr. Florida contest at Boardwalk Bar in Fort Lauderdale.
"Definitely not. I think they’re too young, too immature and they don’t know the repercussions of their actions," said Rose, 28, of Naples. "If they’re not old enough to make decisions with alcohol, how are we going to expect them to be old enough and mature enough to make decisions about their future career? You have to stop and think what’s later down the road. In the industry, a model has an expiration date. This is not a lifelong career."
Rose, whose advertised Rentboy rate starts at $350 per hour, said he became an escort and porn star after serving in the Marines and working in construction.
"It’s definitely made life a little bit easier. A little bit busier, as well," said Rose, Man of the Year 2013 for Falcon Studios, one of the nation's leading gay-porn makers. "Financially, it eased the burden of the bills. It allowed me to do more things. Travel more."
Friends and family know of Rose's career and most are supportive, he said.
Still, he warns, "there’s a certain stigma."
"You’re not going to be able to hide it," he said. "It's the Internet. Everybody’s going to know."
Escort and porn star Nick Cross of Fort Lauderdale, who grew up in Miami, agrees.
"My mom knows. She knows everything and what I do. She tells me that as long as I’m happy and I’m making the right choices and being careful what I do, she’s OK with it," said Cross, 25, also an entry in Saturday's contest.
Cross, who works full-time at a Wilton Manors gym, began advertising on Rentboy five years ago. His starting rate is $200 an hour.
"It was just something different," he said. "A lot of porn stars do it so I gave it a try. It works out really good for me."
"When I started, they used to tell me you’re not going to make it. It’s a really bad job for you," Cross said. "They were very judgmental and very negative about it. Right now, the same people look at me and they’re just all over me. 'Oh my God, I love your movies and you’re so hot in them.' I roll my eyes and say OK. Because I know exactly what they said before."
Cross is partnered with escort and porn actor Sean Duran, another contestant in the Mr. Florida contest.
"It's a little bit awkward, but we keep it going," Cross said of their relationship. "We’re OK with it. It’s nothing we’re going to do for the rest of our lives because we have plans for our future. For right now, it pays the bills. At some point, I want to have a family, a house, kids. We both think that way."
The other contestants are escorts Steven Ponce and Angel Rock.
Cross, Duran, Ponce, Rock and Rose all work with Howard Andrew of FabScout Entertainment in Fort Lauderdale, a booking agency for adult entertainers and a sponsor of Saturday's competition.
"My company, I don’t deal with escorting on any level. I do advertise with Rentboy and I sponsor awards and stuff," said Andrew, who describes himself as "Papa Bear" to his clients.
Andrew has been in business for 11 years.
"I had a life before. I put in 15 years at Party City before this," he said.
After leaving Party City, Andrew went to work managing Cupid's, a one-time strip club in Miami. "A casting person from one of the studios came in and wanted to hire one of my strippers and I said, ‘What?’ That person happened to have been Dirk Yates, the infamous porn man also known as Rick Ford. He taught me how to be an agent and how to treat people with the respect that they deserve. He told me the good points and the bad points what to watch out for. What to do and what not to do.
"The term ‘casting couch’ is a disgusting term. I barely have extra chairs in my office, let alone a couch," he said. "People are people and need to be treated with the respect they deserve."
Van Sant said sex work "is nothing to be ashamed about."
"Sex work is not for everyone. Porn work is not for everyone. You can be a plumber, you can work in McDonald’s, you can work in Starbucks -- the fact of the matter is that there are some people who would rather do sex work or they’d rather do porn," he said. "They’re really good at doing porn and sex work and so that’s what they’ve chosen to do. I don’t think they should be shamed for that. They should be applauded in some cases. That’s why we do the Hookies Awards, to try to give them a little support and credit for the work that they do."