These are just initial thoughts for a much longer piece. Comments are welcome. I have not put links in this piece but will in the next.
Male and trans sex workers often share the same clients as female sex workers and the same working spaces, yet our voices are almost silent. There is an undercurrent of prejudice toward male sex work, on both sides of a debate, which is primarily about human rights, about workers rights, about the role of subjective morality in denying rights to people who sell sex. Such prejudice should be unacceptable, but it exist.
Cultural perceptions of what sex work is and about who sells and who buys sex have framed sex work as being exclusively a womans issue. These assumptions have meant that research on male sex work, on how cultural attitudes affect how male sex work is bought and sold and tolerated, have been considered less important. A gap exists in our knowledge about sex work if we ignore the rich history that is male and trans sex work, work which has run parallel to female sex work, but which also has its on distinctive character and history.
Once, in ancient Rome, male sex workers had their own national holiday. Tragically, it was also in Rome, that men selling sex to men, experienced the full horror of a new Christian morality. By order of a Christian Emperor, male sex workers where dragged from their brothels and burned alive before a cheering mob. Christian intolerance of homosexuality, the assumptions of what maleness is within patriarchy, has for centuries negatively influenced a prevailing social attitude toward men who sell sex. Whilst female sex workers where grudgingly tolerated, considered a necessary social evil, male and trans sex workers were simply considered an abomination.
Today, in a more tolerant western society, the social and legal acceptance of homosexuality has allowed the commercial sex market to emerge where, especially men who sell sex to men, can advertise openly.
Male sex workers however are subject to the same legal restrictions as female sex workers. Laws that limit the freedom of sex workers to work together, to hire a third party to represent them, effectively to take measures to protect themselves or support each other, remain illegal in the UK. Similarly, the growing threat of what has become popularly referred to as the Swedish model, which criminalises the clients of sex workers, also does, or potentially will ( if it should ever become law) equally affect male sex workers.
A growing acknowledgment of human rights has encouraged the emergence of groups of sex workers, academics and other supporters, to advocate that sex work is work and that workers deserve rights. Both sex worker rights groups and anti sex work advocates, however have focused almost exclusively on sex work being a woman only issue. The voices of male and trans sex workers have been, if not ignored, then treated as second class and at best recognised in debates with a parting, almost throwaway acknowledgment of, “Oh yes and there are male sex workers, oh and some trans as well.” It is hardly surprising that these prejudices exist considering the historical context in which male sex work and male sexuality has been stigmatised within western culture. That stigma is often expressed to justify ignoring, sidelining, male and trans sex workers.
The two most common prejudices are :-
1) Male sex work carries less social stigma than female sex work and male sex workers are less affected by slut shaming.
That is a hard claim to call as definite.
For men selling sex to men, the gay community, whilst traditionally publicly liberal and containing elements that identified closely with the outsider, has equally harboured and expressed many of the same prejudices as the straight community. As the gay community becomes more accepted into mainstream society and increasingly conforms to the heteronormative hegemony of monogamous sex based around property and ownership, those prejudices against the sex worker within their community may increase, not decrease. Certainly in the battle for sex worker rights the gay community, has at best, been cautious in any expression of support. In general, male promiscuity is less problematic, in a society where maleness and masculinity is still defined by a man’s sexual libido, by his ability to bed many sexual partners. These attitudes however are reversed when a man, sells himself sexually. The selling of sex for men equates to being submissive. It makes him unmanly. A common depiction of a male sex worker within current debate and historically is of an effeminate man, as someone lacking masculine prowess, without agency.
This effeminisation of the male sex worker is a recurring and dismissive theme in anti sex work rhetoric. It is an image that confirms that strand of feminists thought, that now influences government policy, that equates all sex work as violence toward women and girls and therefore all sex workers, including feminised “boy” sex workers, as being victims of male sexual aggression. For trans sex workers, prejudice against trans people, within wider society is made more aggressive. Trans sex workers report more abuse and assaults from the public, the police and from criminals who target trans sex workers specifically to express their transphobic aggression and hatred. For male and trans sex workers the public prejudice shared by all sex workers, that they are transmitters of infection and disease, in effect means they are carriers of HIV.
2) Male and trans sex worker are too few in number to deserve a seat at the table.
Everything you read about the numbers of sex workers working is pure guess work. No one knows how many sex workers are street based, how many work indoors, how many are women, how many are trans, or how many are men.
The idea that you can even try and create a sex work policy, when you do not know the numbers within the community for which you are creating policy for, is derisable, yet this is exactly what happens. For the UK, the estimates for sex workers, range between 30,000 and 80,000 but it could be double that. The estimate for male and trans sex workers varies between five per cent and fifteen per cent of whatever that guessed total number is. At least one academic, I remember reading about, suggested that the number of male and trans sex workers in Europe was nearer a third of all current sex workers. The truth is, no one knows anything for definite. It is possible, cultural differences may play a part in the numbers of male or trans sex workers and their visibility, but it is all guess work.
The big problem is the lack of research. In Partial this problem is cultural. Aggressive sexual advertising aimed at the male consumer is something our society understands. The infamous red lights, the photographs of genitals, male and female, are images used by both female and male/trans sex workers to sell sex to men. Researchers, like the rest of society are familiar with these images and presume that this is the whole story, but is it?
The gigolo, a man who sells sex to women, is a culturally recognised figure, but unless he is advertising or operating in a similar manner to his gay or female counterparts, he remains mostly invisible. Does that mean that women do not purchase sex, or does it mean that the purchasing and selling of sex for a female market operates differently?
I have met women who have made arrangements with men, yes usually younger men, often less solvent than themselves. These women, buy those men presents, cars, clothes, and pay their rent etc in return for sex.
If anyone visits resorts in countries like Turkey, or parts of Africa for example, do they even notice the older women, especially from Europe, who have, share local boyfriends, often many years younger than themselves. They claim that they are in love, but it is a love affair where they pay all the bills and get sex and company in return. Cynically, feminists may argue that these women are being used. I would argue back that both the men and the women know what they are doing, they are buying and selling sex. They choose not to acknowledge it as prostitution because prostitution, culturally, is about women selling sex to men.
Popular prejudice and assumptions about what sex work is, about who buys and who sells sex has influenced sex work legislation for too long. What is needed is more evidence and more awareness of the diverse layers of commercial sex that exist within societies. Male sex work is a part of that missing evidence.
In ancient Japan red light areas, where sex workers, both male and female, sold sex, were once referred to as the “floating world” referencing the peculiar space in which they existed. Not quite part of society, not quite separate from society but I think in many respects all sex workers still exist in that special and precarious place. It seems that that special and precarious place remains more so for male and trans sex workers.