Male Sex Work – Little Research, Many Stigmas

When we talk about or research the industry of providing sex for payment, our focus tends to return to the plight of the women involved. It’s far rarer for male sex workers to be reported upon. The little information we do have about male sex workers, however, shows that their sex work has a very different side to it than the female experience.

DIFFERENT MOTIVATIONS THAN FEMALE SEX WORKERS

Even if the majority of sex workers are indeed female (the figure in the USA, for example, is 80%), it is astounding that quite so little research has been done, and so little written, about male sex workers. The result has been the emergence of a very one-sided portrayal of those working in the sex industry, because while female sex workers are often lured to Austria on false pretences – with promises of employment as nannies, for example – male sex workers usually know what they are letting themselves in for. Most male sex workers don’t have pimps, preferring to work independently instead. This doesn’t automatically mean they have chosen this job entirely of their own free will, however. 

Some of the sex workers are better off, frequently offering their services over the internet by working as call boys. Many male sex workers still come from poorer circumstances, however, and view sex work as a necessary evil to earn some money. This is shown, for instance, by a document from 2015 describing the situation at the Rüdiger, a bar frequented by rent boys in Vienna’s 5th District. Young men from Bulgaria and other East European countries earn money for their families at the bar by offering blowjobs for the primarily homosexual clientele. While some male sex workers are themselves homosexual, and have chosen this path to live out their sexuality, there are also many who are heterosexual, and view sex work as purely a source of income. 

Unlike “call boys”, male sex workers from more difficult circumstances who are dependent on sex work are described as “rent boys”. According to this definition, call boys are more aware of their value and skills, and would be happier to describe their work as a career. There is also criticism of this distinction, however, based on the argument that the individual biographies and ways of working of male sex workers are very different, and cannot simply be pigeon-holed into two categories in this way.

HIV AND HOMOPHOBIA AS CHALLENGES

Although most male sex workers are presumed not to be victims of human trafficking, then, many fall back on the job due to money problems and precarious circumstances. Apart from financial problems, however, which male and female sex workers have in common, male sex workers find themselves confronted by different challenges than female sex workers. In the past, the two core problems were the HIV epidemic and regulation of homosexuality. In general, female sex workers have been more strongly regulated than male, but the advent of HIV meant that the focus of governments returned to men as, along with homosexual men, they were portrayed as being responsible for spreading the virus.

The research on HIV infections amongst male sex workers is not clear-cut, however. Some surveys have revealed that figures for infections were higher amongst male sex workers, while others showed the level of risk was no higher. Some male sex workers are exposed to higher health risks than female sex workers, as they are more likely to be needed for unprotected sex or want this themselves, and because fewer offers of help exist for men in the sex industry. Bans on sexual acts have always been, and continue to be, a major restriction on male sex workers in many countries, the main targets being homosexual men. In the Caribbean, African countries or Thailand, however, women are more likely to use sexual services while on holiday

Apart from these legal restrictions, male sex workers often experience violence, exclusion and stigmatisation, although not usually to the same extent as their female counterparts. Homosexual sex workers are impacted by “double discrimination”, against both their line of work and their sexuality. As a consequence of stigmatisation and marginalisation, many male sex workers harbour feelings of shame about their work. One survey carried out in Dublin showed higher numbers of participants, particularly male sex workers working on the street, were prone to depression and suicidal feelings. The biography of male sex workers often also includes abuse as a child, dropping out of school and drug-dependency. Despite this, it is important that we do not reduce male sex workers to nothing but a problematic past. Instead, they should be viewed as individuals with very different histories, and attitudes to the work they do.

TOO LITTLE RESEARCH

The same problem as we see in the general perspective on (male) sex work exists in the field of research. As already mentioned above, very little is known about male sex workers, and the existing research is mainly concerned with drug use or cases of HIV amongst male sex workers. Other issues, such as stress or psychological strain, have often been excluded when researching male sex work. As a result, many data are now missing that would offer an insight into the life of male sex workers and the way they work, and support social work in the field. 

The fact that so little research and reporting has been carried out also results directly in a lack of offers of help, either because the need is not recognised or because areas where male sex workers need help are not clear. It is also notable that male sex work, similarly to female, is often considered from a problematic perspective. Instead of concentrating on the problems of male sex workers, the sex work itself is portrayed as the problem.

Over the long term, this approach doesn’t just harm male sex workers themselves, but also us as a society, since it means we can only completely understand the phenomenon of (male) sex work, and react accordingly, if we have all the facts at our disposal. Along with the problematic aspects of sex work (which undoubtedly exist), future research and social work should also be looking at the situation of male sex workers, rather than criminalising or ignoring them from the start. 

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