Honestly, I’m ambivalent about the very idea of the so-called ‘Girlfriend Experience’. It’s a phrase I find myself using, just because people know it. However, I find the term being placed in the wrong context too often—I feel it has lost it’s force by repetition. I frequently write about it for SEO purposes, but my interpretation of the ‘Girlfriend Experience’ is slightly different from the industry standard. Rather than pretending to be a girlfriend, I view it as an honest interaction—bar expectations outside the meeting—that, when treated respectfully, can be transformational.


Allow me to explain. ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ shunted together two post-Y2K concerns: first, a quintessentially Gen Y obsession with the value of ‘experiences’ over ‘things’ (that conveniently ignored the fact that experiences and things aren’t actually that different); and, second, a renewed appetite for sex-talk. As well as increasing access to porn, early Web 2.0 incubated a piece of Twilight fanfiction that would, eventually, introduce BDSM to middle England in the shape of Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). New online journaling technologies, meanwhile, transformed self-published blogs into essential reading, the stuff of water-cooler talk, none more so the anonymous Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl, published as a book in 2005, and turned into a television series, starring Billie Piper, in 2007.


It’s impossible to say, with any certainty, who first started talking about ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ or in what context. It’s likely a literary invention. Alecky Blythe’s well-received but little-known play for the Royal Court, The Girlfriend Experience (2008). Steven Soderbergh’s experimental film, The Girlfriend Experience (2009), probably etched the concept onto mainstream consciousness. Ostensibly, Soderbergh’s lo-fi reportage follows a beautiful New York call girl, Christine, played by a young Sasha Gray, as she goes about her daily business. Contemporary audiences were likely intimately familiar with Gray, an adult pornstar best known for her virtuoso [X] videos, but her character’s life is an oddly sexless one. Leveraging the popularity of Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics (2005), which explored, for the first time, the microeconomics of sex work, Soderbergh treats Christine as an undifferentiated unit of human capital, to be nestled alongside the personal trainers, cab drivers, website designers, early social influencers, accountants, therapists, and shop assistants that she visits during her working day to further her career, each doing their best to earn a crust against a sobering backdrop of global financial meltdown.


If ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ began as a commodified, wish-fulfilment ‘experience’ that, superficially, mimicked a real ‘girlfriend’, it quickly became even more problematic. Blythe’s characters long for authenticity and love and Soderbergh’s Christine secretly pins her future on the hope that a client will turn boyfriend, only to be stood up in the final denouement. Billie Piper channels the will-they-won’t-they romance plot of Sex in the City for her Belle de Jour and becomes a raunchy, latter-day Bridget Jones with lube. In the hands of popular culture, ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ becomes a vehicle for high-flying libertine antics, but is also soon pinioned by a strict moral conservatism. ‘The Girlfriend Experience’, we learn, is a trap, both for client and escort; a sticky, seductive mirage in which neither party get the relationship they each truly crave.


My point is that the ‘Girlfriend Experience’ is so much more than a messy bun hairdo and some Financial Times pillow talk over breakfast. That’s not what it is. Or, at least, that’s not what it should be. What’s almost entirely hidden from view, here, is the courtesan tradition that’s being tapped, which offers a pragmatic and sustainable alternative, deeply rooted in historical precedent.


In an interview for The Times in 2005, Jet Set Lara explained that she herself was ‘a high-class courtesan […] The courtesan’, she noted, ‘divides her time between several lovers. She is differentiated from other working girls by her intellect, beauty, class, charm, honesty, humour, style and sex appeal’. That’s true, as far as it goes, but Jet Set Lara barely scratches the surface of the tradition she invokes.


The courtesans of history were titans, occupying positions of influence and power at the very heart of human civilisation, even as it formed. Phryne, born 371 BC, was the most desired courtesan of ancient Greece. She was the model for Aphrodite of Knidos, one of the first life-sized sculptural depictions of a nude female form, and one that single-handedly challenged previously male-dominated standards of beauty. So wealthy did Phryne become that, when Thebes was razed in 335, she offered to rebuild its walls.


The word ‘courtesan’ is, itself, a Renaissance invention, derived from the Italian ‘corigiana’ or ‘woman of the court’. The sixteenth-century courtesan-poet, Veronica Franco, whose clients included Henri III of France, argued forcefully for gender equality, insisting that ‘we [women] have equal hearts, minds and intellects’. Her poems would be collected in the first anthologies of women’s poetry that appeared in the eighteenth century, strong fuel for the Enlightenment revolution that would irrevocably shape the world that was to come.

Nor was Franco alone in exerting such influence. Other courtesans would pick up the same mantel, shaping culture and society according to their own design: in nineteenth-century Paris, Marie Duplessis would host a salon bringing writers and thinkers together, acting as both mistress and muse to many, including the novelist Alexander Dumas, and composer, Franz Liszt. You can still hear the rustle of Duplessis’ silk brocade in Verde’s La Traviata.


Massive social upheavals in the twentieth century effectively put an abrupt end to many of the world’s courtesan traditions. In India, that end was particularly brutal when colonial rule lowered and standardised rates of pay, and kettled the last of the courtesans into ghettos at Lucknow, newly marked with red lights. Sexuality became so reined in, homogenised and intractably conservative that, by the time Foucault wrote his History of Sexuality (1976-2018), the past would seem like a strange and alien land.


Today, the very notion of jumping into an ‘authentic relationship’, reads like an absurdity, a far-fetched fantasy of historical fiction or melodrama. Perhaps consider the ‘Girlfriend Experience’ as really an invitation to connect; a meeting that allows our self-centered consciousness to be dislodged and swept away in the stream of the present that is us. When we are open and allow the gentle unfolding of a situation, trust develops. In trust we explore and enjoy spaces that extend beyond the borders of our imagination, with the assurance that if one party ventures too far, the other will gently pull them back to center.