MALE SEX WORK AND SOCIETY

Narcissus Magazine Male Sex Work and Society 1
Narcissus Magazine Male Sex Work and Society 1
Photo © Anthony Friedkin / Photo © Shutterstock

Written for brainiacs, but fascinating to us laymen just the same, Male Sex Work and Society is a collection of revealing essays and studies that explores for the first time male sex work from a rich array of perspectives and disciplines. It aims to help enrich the ways in which we view both male sex work as a field of commerce and male sex worker themselves. Victor Minichiello and John Scott have edited and amassed a huge collection of essays from leading contributors around the world who examine the field both historically and cross-culturally from fields including public health, sociology, psychology, social services, history, filmography, economics, mental health, criminal justice, geography, and migration studies, and more.

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Drawing © Tom of Finland Fondation / Photo © Anthony Friedkin

Minichiello and Scott say: “From the outset we wanted this book to provide broad coverage of male sex work. We sought to include multiple disciplinary perspectives, moving well beyond the public health or sociological focus of much of the earlier literature. We also wanted to capture a sense of the cross-cultural variations in the male sex encounter. Rather than simplifying or condensing our subject matter, we have brought together varied voices that can testify to its complexity and rich diversity. We hope and trust that this book, which presents original research from both young and well-established scholars in the field, brings both breadth and depth to the study of male sex work and gives coherence to the emerging voices of MSWs who are telling their stories. It also provides a broad overview of the literature on MSWs, including studies that have emerged over the last 20 years, and identifies areas for future research.”

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Photo © Landesarchiv Berlin

Male Sex Work from Ancient Times to the Near Present by Mack Friedman

Mack Friedman reminds us that evidence of same-sex eroticism can be found across history and cultures. When the old cliché about prostitution being the world’s oldest profession is rattled out, we tend to think of females rather than males. However, there is evidence that male and female prostitution have coexisted throughout history. In fact, male prostitution was so entrenched in Rome that male sex workers had their own holiday and paid a tax to the state. Yet Friedman shows how the meanings and values associated with male sex work have varied considerably in various cultural and historical contexts. In the ancient world, for example, those playing dominant same-sex erotic roles had elevated social status.

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Photo © Wilhelm Von Gloeden

It is probably safe to say that power and hierarchy have always been influential in the world of sex work, yet recent research has found clear evidence that some of these encounters evolved into romance and love at various historical junctures. A similar point is made in Touching Encounters, the 2012 book by Kevin Walby, which states that, rather than all such exchanges being merely sexual or commercial encounters, an authentic romantic relationship can develop between client and escort. Male sex work is indeed about power and commerce, but it also involves friendship and mutuality. The real psychosocial nature of male sex work is waiting to be fully researched, explained, and shared with the world.

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Photo © Wilhelm Von Gloeden

Male Sex Work in Modern Times by Kerwin Kaye

Male sex work as a profession has changed considerably in modern times, as have many other occupations. Kerwin Kaye demonstrates the importance of economics, especially class, in understanding the new structure and organizational culture of male sex work that has emerged. Some early aspects of male sex work have remained important, such as its intergenerational nature (difference in age between client and sex worker), which can best be understood through the lens of status and active and passive masculinities. What has changed in modern times is the understanding of the male body; for example, a new eroticization has emerged along class lines, as the male body has been increasingly commodified and given a “market value” as an object of consumption. Nonetheless, older myths regarding the male body, especially relating to race and age, remain important in imagining the real world of male prowess and performance.

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Photos © Hustler White by Rick Castro and Bruce Labruce

Representations of Male Sex Work in Film by Russell Sheaffer

What stands out for us in this chapter is the way the images, understandings, and explanations of male sex work through cinematic representations have changed dramatically over time. This evolution highlights the important point sociologists make that subjective definitions and perceptions of a phenomenon play a central role in shaping cultural images. This chapter demonstrates that the male hustler is essentially an outdated cultural image that is no longer relevant in understanding the often dynamic and complex encounters of the male sex worker’s world. While the representation of these encounters in modern films remains largely unaltered, the settings and the language have evolved to reflect the changing definitions of gender and sexualities. In the early films discussed in this chapter, the sex work encounter frequently took place in a public place, such as a restroom, cinema, or seedy motel. We find this ironic, as these are public places, but the phenomenon of male sex work was not yet part of the public discussion or chitchat.

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Hustler White by Rick Castro and Bruce Labruce / Flesh by Paul Morrissey / My Own Private Idaho by Gus Van Sant

Viewing Midnight Cowboy (1969) was often a grim experience. Late 1960s New York, where the movie takes place, was an alienating and ruthless environment characterized by poverty and urban decay. Hustling is presented in this film as a demoralizing, sleazy, and violent practice. More recent films present a very different picture of male sex work. For example, in the romantic comedy Going Down in La-La Land (2012), a young man goes to Hollywood to act in gay porn movies and becomes an escort. Ultimately he falls in love with a closeted famous TV actor, who in turn falls in love with him. Who would have considered it possible that a romantic comedy about a male sex worker would emerge as a relatively successful popular movie? This contrasts sharply with some of the grim earlier films Russell Sheaffer discusses in this chapter.

Advertising Male Sexual Services by Allan Tyler

What Allan Tyler brings to the fore in this chapter is that men selling sex is a big business. Indications are that more personalized and elaborate escort services, such as the “boyfriend experience,” are considered more empowering than other forms of male sex work because they provide greater income, choice, and safety and are gaining an increasing share of the male sex work market. As the sex industry has become much more commercial, male sex workers need to learn how to market their services successfully. Body type, strategic positioning (top/bottom), and penis size are important elements in marketing male sex work, but advertising these attributes successfully requires communication and business skills. As sellers of sex have become more public because of the Internet and text messaging, the male sex industry has become more mainstream. Clients and workers can now connect almost anywhere at any time via the Internet and cell phones to enter into an immediate commercial transaction.

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Photos © Eric Lanuit

Economic Analyses of Male Sex Work by Trevon D. Logan

Trevon Logan’s analysis reveals a hierarchy of sexual preferences among clients, many of which have a high market value. What we find unique about his analysis is that it demonstrates that certain types of male bodies and sexual practices are objectified and commodified, which is evident in the market values different body types are accorded. This is not unlike what feminist commentators have observed with regard to the female body. Logan demonstrates how sexuality, race, and ethnicity are socially constructed, often symbiotically, and that cultural imperatives play an important role in determining what is and is not attractive to men. There is a market order among male escorts that is reflected in their physical and social characteristics, such as race and ethnicity, which influences sexual exchanges. Race is significant in the way we conceptualize masculinity and the male body, and can be an important indicator of sexual prowess. Blacks, for example, are likely to be perceived as aggressive and dominant sexual partners, whereas Asians are presented as passive. Research on how accurate these perceptions are is still ongoing.

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Photo Anonymous / Photo © Perter Berlin / Photo Anonymous

Race-based stereotypes tend to segregate sexual networks, and in so doing may create risk groups that are centered not so much on behavior as on racial categories. Regretfully, targets of stereotyping also may be more likely to engage in risky sex. Logan concludes that technological change has altered the structureand organization of the male sex industry and expanded the market for male sex workers into suburban and rural spaces. These changes have substantially increased the number of male escorts, created new markets for sex work encounters, and extended the reach of male sex work to a much wider potential clientele.

Clients of Male Sex Workers by John Scott, Denton Callander and Victor Minichiello

Despite the expansion of male sex work into suburban and rural spaces, it is not surprising that large cities continue to have high concentrations of male sex workers. These areas also have larger client populations and thus offer an attractive market for male sex workers’ services. These urban spaces are relatively cosmopolitan and thus are often considered more open and tolerant of sexual diversity. The urban client base is not necessarily gay identified, and male sex work can thrive in locations that do not have large gay populations.

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Photo © Le Cercle by Stefan Haupt

With the greater number of escorts in the large cities, we also find greater diversity of race, age, and body build, and a broader menu of sexual services offered. However, the client does not have to live in a large city to access these services. More affluent clients can travel to where the desired sex worker is located or transport the worker to them. The Internet clearly has significantly increased the reach of male sex workers and their potential clients, so that geographic distribution refers not only to a physical space but to the virtual environment. This means that sexual interactions can occur almost anywhere, any time.

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Photos © Eric Lanuit

Regulation of the Male Sex Industry by Thomas Crofts

As Thomas Crofts shows in this chapter, the regulation of male sex work has been closely bound up with changing conceptions of gender and sexuality. In this respect, male sex work is not dissimilar to female sex work. However, the reasons for regulating male sex work and the targets of regulation have been quite distinct. The client often has been associated with intergenerational sex between youth and older men, and homosexuality. However, there has been a recent shift in the regulation of sex work, resulting in its decriminalization in some jurisdictions. This weakening of controls and policing coincides with more liberal attitudes toward same-sex relations. Whereas there has been considerable debate over the regulation of female sex work, such debates are largely absent with regard to male sex work. Does this mean that power and control are less important in our understanding of male sex work? While there is a strong indication that many male sex workers enjoy what they do and that a career in male sex work should not be considered much different from other careers, there is also evidence that some male sex workers are vulnerable to exploitation and that there is great social diversity in the industry in terms of status and reward.

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Photo © Rentboy.com / Photo © Manworks.com

The decriminalization of sex work has placed more demands on sex workers. As the male sex industry is decriminalized and regulated by occupational controls such as income tax reporting, we have seen not only the professionalization of services provided by sex workers but also states dictating protocols and expectations for service delivery. At an informal level, there are high expectations that sex workers will provide quality services and interact with the public in a professional manner. At a formal level, decriminalization may in time require sex workers to be certified to meet health and workplace safety requirements. Technology also has made male sex work at once more visible and more open to informal and formal controls—for example, a sex worker who offers poor services can be shut down in a matter of a few hours through bad reviews. In this way, the market itself plays a greater role in regulating opportunities for male sex workers.

Public Health Policy and Practice with Male Sex Workers by David S. Bimbi and Juline A. Koken

HIV/AIDS has had a significant impact on how we understand male sex work. The initial ambiguity surrounding HIV/AIDS—Where did it come from? What causes it? Who does and doesn’t it affect?—meant that it could have been characterized in a number of ways, but its being linked to sexually active gay men early in the epidemic meant that it was characterized as a sexually transmitted disease. The link between promiscuity and the risk of contracting HIV led to sex workers being identified as a problematic group—the possible vectors of transmission to the broader public.

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Photo © Karen C / Photo © Eric Lanuit

Before the HIV/AIDS epidemic, male sex work was rarely considered a public health problem. While sexually transmitted infections had long been associated with female sex workers, health professionals seemed unconcerned about the physical health of male sex workers and their clients. HIV/AIDS changed this, to some degree because at the time it appeared that a more fluid conception of human sexuality had emerged, which acknowledged that sexual practices were not equivalent to sexual identities. Bisexuality was viewed as putting people at risk of contracting the virus because male sex workers were thought to provide a bridge for infection between deviant and mainstream populations.

What stands out for us in reading this chapter, along with some of the others in the book, is the evidence of the benefits in decriminalizing homosexuality and the sex industry. These moves promote proactive public health measures that create safer and more professional interactions between clients and workers, and between these groups and society. Societies that have adopted liberal reforms fare much better on a wider range of indictors compared with societies that remain punitive. The more liberal societies report less violence, safer and more productive client-worker interactions, and the development of a leisure sex industry that is both professional and responsible. In contrast, criminalization tends to drive the sex industry underground and leaves it open to criminal manipulation and poor health standards, which have an impact on everyone. The sex industry need not have such a dark underbelly.

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Photo © John Kaplan / Photo © Ish Guevara

Mental Health Aspects of Male Sex Work by Juline A. Koken and David S. Bimbi

We are not surprised that some male sex workers and their clients use alcohol and drugs—people do drink and people do use drugs, often to alter their perceptions of their everyday worlds. What surprises us is that people are surprised when that change occurs. Perhaps the association between male sex work and substance abuse supports deeply held prejudice against the idea that a male would freely choose to engage in sex work as an occupation. Rather than seeing using drugs and violence as forms of exploitation, researchers perhaps need to understand what purpose drugs and alcohol play in recreational sexual encounters and what such things say about masculine behavior and power relationships between men. Some of these behaviors may in fact be interpreted as a reaction to the social stigma associated with male sex work. Recent research has found that, with the increasing acceptance of male sex work as an occupation, drug and alcohol use has been decreasing among some escort groups, such as those that offer a “boyfriend experience.”

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Photo © Matts Bakken

Gay Subcultures by Christian Grov and Michael D. Smith

Christian Grov and Michael Smith paint a vivid picture of early cultures of men who have sex with men (MSM) and their close relationship to male sex work. The history of male sex work closely reflects changes within and changing attitudes toward male-male sexual encounters. Early male sex work occurred in clearly defined spaces, often the underground spaces of cinema, porn arcades, beats, and bathhouses. New information technologies and changing social attitudes have bought male work out into the space of private homes, five-star hotels, organized sex tours, and mainstream cultural venues. These technologies also have allowed greater diversity in terms of services offered and sought. Some researchers have spoken of the new tribalism that has evolved in MSM culture in the last decade. There is now a wide range of highly visible MSM subcultures, which have flourished because of new opportunities for communication provided by the Internet. This has increased diversity and made visible the polymorphous nature of sexual desire, and also created greater opportunity to find peer support in terms of male sex workers’ health needs and general welfare. However, the new “tribalism” also poses challenges in terms of promoting public health. Unlike the early phases of the HIV epidemic, there now are clearly many gay communities to speak to rather than one clearly defined gay community. This noted, there has in fact never been a single gay community. It has always been fluid, contingent, and improvisational, with shifting boundaries and conflicts. This merely reflects the diversity among MSM in terms of how they themselves perceive and live their lives. Post-AIDS researchers have described increased division within gay communities, as men develop diverse responses and sexual expression relative to HIV. Thus the term “tribes” has been suggested as one that accurately describes homosexual sociality. Indeed, there is wide variety among the male sex workers who service MSM and their diverse tastes, once again making male sex work a microcosm that reflects wider changes in MSM cultures and subjectivities.

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Photo © Le Cercle by Stefan Haupt

Health and Wellness Services for Male Sex Workers by Mary Laing and Justin Gaffney

What is refreshing about this chapter is that it gives some attention to the issue of exiting sex work, whereas most research on male sex work has been focused on people entering. In terms of what brings people into sex work, most early accounts assumed sex work to be a product of exploitation and economic survival. Only recently has there emerged a professional discourse on male sex work in which it is examined as a rational career choice. Exiting sex work might also be considered a choice. If we can develop a better understanding and appreciation for the factors associated with exiting, it would help service providers deal more effectively with the health and welfare of male sex workers. Exiting sex work also brings into focus the mature male body and mature masculinities. Much of the research on male sex work has focused on the youthful male body and youthful expressions of masculinity, which promotes the idea that male sex workers are typically young men who have been exploited by older clients. The idea that older male sex workers could be desired by younger clients has remained largely unexamined, yet a cursory examination of escort sites from around the globe indicates that men of all ages are engaged in sex work.

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Photos © Eric Lanuit

Future Directions in Male Sex Work Research by Victor Minichiello and John Scott

The male sex industry is a topic that provides both opportunities and challenges for researchers and society. Consistent, reliable data will help us understand more fully the demographic diversity of MSWs and their clients. Additional study will enable society to openly acknowledge that the male sex industry is larger and more widespread than heretofore believed, and that enormously diverse sexualities and sexual practices prevail. Increasing our knowledge of MSWs will help us learn more about the meaning of masculinity in the context of transactional sex and may have a critical impact on our understanding of sexual relations in the context of gender roles. The male sex industry will continue to create considerable challenges in the broader society, and some policymakers are responding creatively to issues related to public health, homosexuality, and the professionalization and commercialization of the male sex industry. One thing is certain: we can confidently say, as this book attests, that the male sex industry—which includes highly diverse men of all colors, shapes, and sizes who sell sexual services—deserves significantly increased funding for future research on the basis of public health alone. We hope this book will open new doorways to that future.

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Photo © Justino Esteves

So, for smart folks and sexuality students, but also for those of us in the LGBT – particularly gay male – community, where we’re well aware – and perhaps more accepting – of the male sex worker, from cash friendly go-go boys to discreet online entrepreneurs to Rentboy.com’s Hookie Award tropy wielding escorts. Beautifully designed and stuffed with surprising statistics and historic photos as well as artfully shot man-candy, Male Sex Work and Society is an interesting, insightful and enlightening read.

Male Sex Work and Society / Edited by Victor Minichiello and John Scott / Published by Harrington Park Press / 512 pages / Cloth 120$ / Paperback 50$ / eBook 46,99$

Male Sex Work and Society

By Eric Lanuit