Part V: The Global North (North America and Europe)

Chapter 17: Male Sex Work in Canada: Intersections of Gender and Sexuality

Nathan Dawthorne

In this chapter, the author explores the experiences of male sex workers in a midsized Canadian city. He critiques the legal and political perspectives that portray prostitution as exploitative, regardless of what sex workers say or feel, (re)producing gendered stereotypes of masculinity and femininity and naturalizing a certain type of heterosexual behavior. This, the author argues, overlooks how intersectionality shapes autonomy and vulnerability. Through their stories, the author addresses the structural violence that these men experience.

Learning Objectives
  • Define and describe the diversity of sex work and sex workers.
  • Summarize the gendered nature of sex work law and policy in Canada.
  • Articulate how the experiences of male sex workers over the lifespan are shaped by gender and sexuality.

Introduction

For every hundred girls peddling their wares on street corners, there are a hundred unobtrusive male prostitutes, of all ages, offering their services to both heterosexual and homosexual clients. Students, university graduates—some married, some with other jobs—they are almost invisible, and the police hardly know of their existence. (Taylor 1991, 97)

Labor involving “sexual, sensual, and erotic energies and parts of the body” (Truong 1990 as cited in Kempadoo 2001, 38) has been interwoven into the fabric of many societies throughout world history. Nevertheless, sex work and the people involved remain misunderstood, marginalized, and devalued. Between 2014 to 2017, I conducted ethnographic research with forty-three male sex workers in London, Ontario, Canada. Through semistructured interviews they shared their life stories while also giving insight into the sex industry in the region. These stories help inform this text. All names are pseudonyms, and descriptors of occupation, activity, or behavior are self-identified labels. London is a midsized city located two hundred kilometers (125 miles) from Toronto and Detroit along the Quebec City–Windsor transportation corridor. With a metropolitan population of close to a half million people, it is the eleventh most populous municipality in Canada (Statistics Canada 2016). I chose London for study in part because it has served as a historic epicenter of female-centered research and advocacy in Canada since the 1970s and 1980s. This reinforced and created (Nathanson and Young 2006) with fewer (if any) equivalent services for men, and is linked to the lack of previous research on male sex work.

Due to the mostly underground nature, contentious legal status, and stigmatization of the sex industry, defining its actual size and scale is problematic. In Canada, like much of the world, policymakers and service providers use statistics from incompatible and biased samples of limited size and inconsistent scope, privileging gender as the essential factor involved in sexual transactions. Declaring that women selling sex to men is the primary form of sex work ignores a spectrum of gendered and sexualized interactions, situational and cultural contexts, historical variability, and the complex socioeconomic conditions that produce sexual relations and desire. This practice and belief, however, does not explain why men (and those of other genders) who sell sex are most often overlooked (Dennis 2008).

What Is Sex Work?

Generally defined, sex work encompasses activities related to the exchange of intimate services for payment. What counts as intimate (or sexual) and what counts as payment varies from person to person, over time, in law, and by society and other structural conditions (Gozdiak 2016). Sex work occurs in a variety of settings and includes a multitude of behaviors, including escorting, massage, prostitution, erotic dance and stripping, pornographic performances, professional domination (sadomasochism), fetish work, internet cam shows, and phone chatlines (van der Meulen, Durisin, and Love 2013). Informal sexual encounters in exchange for small cash gifts, a meal out or a bar tab, or a place to sleep, as well as relationships that prioritize the economic security of the other partner (sugar relationships), press at the edges of what may be classified as commercial sex (Mitchell 2015).

Sex work and prostitution as terms convey specific cultural histories that are not universal. The Latin root of the term prostitute signifies “to dishonor” or “expose someone to shame and rebuke” (Buschi 2014, 726). This resonates with prostitution as a social category, used to ostracize and stigmatize; to deny women the same rights as average citizens (Pheterson 1989). Resisting this and other discourses that delineated sex workers as diseased, deviant, criminal, or disturbed, American activist Carol Leigh conceived the term “sex work,” redefining prostitution as a type of labor (Bell 1994; Bindman 1997; O’Connell Davidson 1998; Parent and Bruckert 2013; Pateman 1988; Tong 1998). While Marxism depicts all labor as exploitation in capitalist systems, this paradigm helped illustrate that regardless of how they feel about their jobs, people sell sex for the same reason everyone else works: to make money. Meanwhile, some feminists define prostitution as violence against women (symptomatic of patriarchal oppression), which for them means that selling sex could never be “work” (Dennis 2008).

To complicate matters further, some individuals do not define their actions as sex work due to the type of activities involved. This is the sentiment shared by Mike, a gay, twenty-eight-year-old professional companion for men: “I’m not technically a sex worker. I’m more of a companion with benefits technically. The only reason is because it’s not always about the sex” (Mike, interview by author, July 3, 2015). Since there is a hierarchy among sex workers, some people do not want to be lumped together with other people selling sex (Simon 2018). Phil, a forty-three-year-old gay escort for men emphasizes his professional identity: “I’m not a junkie and I’m not a thief and I take my work seriously” (Phil, interview by author, July 20, 2016). Some people, like exotic dancers who do not actually “sell sex” as part of their primary job, do not consider themselves sex workers. Bashir, a twenty-one-year-old straight stripper and former model speaks about one of the two times he escorted: “Because I was at my prime and not completely broke, I got to choose. She looked hot, and she looked clean. I just don’t go after random girls . . . [she paid me] $1,500 for a . . . private dance” (Bashir, interview by author, March 11, 2016). There are also those who do not consider what they did or what they do as sex work due to the frequency of interactions or a change in their relationship with a client. This could include someone who sold sex once out of desperation; someone who does not receive money but receives payment in another form; someone dating a rich man who pays for everything; or those dating former clients.

Despite its political purpose, the term sex work can be problematic because it highlights the taboo part of the job, the sexual act, which is not always a requirement. As workers engage in , sometimes there is no physical contact of any kind as they provide companionship, a shoulder to cry on, or paid friendship. Some clients and workers develop long-lasting friendships or relationships, countering stereotypes of exploitation, objectification, and depersonalization. Of course, like other jobs, there are negative aspects of the work and undesirable people a worker must deal with. Depending on a sex worker’s level of financial freedom and ability to choose which clients they will work with, the enjoyment experienced in some sexual encounters can become integral to their nonwork sex lives (Walby 2012). For Phil, attractive clients were a fringe benefit: “Sometimes I’ll get a guy who actually turns me on . . . I should be paying him for this, I think, but I can’t tell him that. Your personal life crosses into work” (Phil, interview by author, July 20, 2016). When a sex worker does find a client attractive or engages in nonsexual activities such as mutual nonsexual massage, caressing, kissing, cuddling, and hugging, they further complicate the personal and professional, sex and work.

Overview of Sex Work Laws in Canada

The government doesn’t care about us. If you’re not a woman and you don’t have problems then we don’t really care.

—Dylan, twenty-three, flexible identity, escort for men and women (interview by author, October 10, 2014).

All forms of sex work have been subject to the changing whims of local, provincial, or federal police forces and lawmakers regardless of time period. The Indian Act of 1879 criminalized Indigenous women engaging in prostitution and barred others from providing these women housing. From about the 1890s to the 1970s prostitutes were depicted as subversives (vagrants), and any woman who was “found in a public place” without a chaperone and did not give “a good account of herself” was deemed arrestable under the Criminal Code (Martin 2002). For the most part, there was a narrow range of acceptable gendered behaviors, and for women “even minor deviance [could] be seen as a substantial challenge to the authority of the family” (Chambers 2007, 58). Under this patriarchal paradigm, prostitution was particularly threatening in that it defied gendered notions of the respectability of monogamous procreative relations where sexuality was consigned to the privacy of the bedroom of married heterosexual couples. Women and children of “good standing” needed to be protected from such public debauchery (Hubbard and Sanders 2003). No law was needed for men who sold sex to men because they fell under laws that criminalized same-sex sexual activity until 1969.

In the early 1970s, the institutionalization of women’s status and rights in the government structures of the Canadian nation-state helped to prioritize the needs of women-as-a-group (Stetson and Mazur 1995). During this period, feminist activism generally focused on issues of equal wages, affordable childcare, food, and housing, as well as access to reproductive health services (McKenna 2019). By the mid-1980s, feminists of color and lesbian feminists had been advocating against the “the dominance of white ‘Western’, ‘north’ or ‘First World’ assumptions about what it means to be a feminist and what women need to be liberated where race, class and other intersecting positionalities were de-emphasized” (Bunjun 2010, 116; see Bumiller 2008; Heron 2007; Srivastava 2005). During the same period, further debate and fracture occurred over “the effects of commercial sexuality on the representation and treatment of all women” (McKenna 2019). Here stories of (male) violence against (female) sex workers were appropriated and whitewashed to illustrate the vulnerability of women and subsequently taken up in political discourse and policy.

In political response to public pressure to “do something” about the problem of street prostitution and violence against women, Parliament set up committees on pornography and prostitution (Fraser 1985) and on sexual offenses against children and youths (Badgley 1984). Fraser identified prostitution as symptomatic of women’s inequality and recommended partial decriminalization and strategies to reduce social and financial inequities. Badgley labeled young prostitutes as victims of abusive homes but favored criminal law strategies that would “help” fallen women and girls. In both cases no attempt was made to acknowledge or explain why men and boys (or others outside of the binary) sell sex. In the end, all aspects of street prostitution were criminalized and the “systematic murder of poor, racialized, and disproportionately Indigenous, street-based sex workers” was ignored for decades (McKenna 2019).

Between 2007 and 2013, both the province of Ontario Superior Court and the Supreme Court of Canada declared that the criminalization of prostitution had, in fact, violated the constitutional rights of sex workers by creating unsafe work conditions. In cases of violent or abusive clients, workers could not go to the police, hire security, or work in groups for fear of criminal punishment (Pivot Legal Society 2013). While sex worker rights organizations advocated for complete decriminalization, some radical- leaning feminist organizations such as the London Abused Women Centre had extensive political and public influence (Dawthorne 2018). They dominated media coverage declaring that prostitution reinforces gender inequalities “allowing men . . . paid access to female bodies, thereby demeaning and degrading the human dignity of all women and girls” (Department of Justice 2014).

For those outside of the gender binary, their erasure in antiprostitution arguments is a continuance of systems of . Under the frame of exploitation, sex work is reduced to penetrative (penile-vaginal) sexual intercourse, relegating heterosexual behavior to one assumed form, while heteronormative monogamous families and relationships are deemed universal (Dawthorne 2018). Here men are positioned as always sexually interested in women, and an ideology of is reinforced, where “men are not supposed to be the objects of lust” or pursued as they are socially constructed as dominant, in-control, and virile (De Cecco 1991; Phoenix and Oerton 2005; Satz 1995).

Combined with the pressure to belong to an international system of antitrafficking states (with Canada ratifying the in 2002), prostitution laws were harmonized into the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) by 2014. Instead of targeting sex workers themselves through arrest, the law focused on “ending demand,” arresting and fining male clients, reeducating them in , and criminalizing the means to advertise sexual services (Hua and Nigorizawa 2010). Reflecting this change, police started labeling all incidents of men buying sex from women as sex trafficking, making it seem as if Canada was in a growing crisis.

Men Who Sell Sex

If I was a girl, it would be the biggest deal in the world. They’d be worried about my wellbeing and me getting hurt . . . there’s no such thing as a Jane school.

—Matt, twenty-three, heterosexual, “whore-for-women” (interview by author, May 24, 2016).

Men who sell sex in London are not copies of each other nor do they share any sort of collective activist identity or sense of community. They are a diverse group: at the time of interviews these men were between the ages of eighteen and fifty-one. Approximately 40 percent (n=18) entered the sex trade between fourteen and eighteen (μ=19.78) years of age. While a quarter (n=11) of the men grew up in lower-income families, more than half (n=27) reported coming from the middle class; seven men never completed high school, yet almost thirteen had completed or attended university.

Seventy-five percent (n=33) identified as white Canadian/Caucasian. One man identified as Southwest Asian, another as Cree/Indigenous, one Black/Rwandan, and another Arabic/Muslim from the Horn of Africa. The remainder identified as mixed ancestries of some variation: white, Black, or from an Indigenous community. Although some white men were racialized in their own way (i.e., working-class emotionless heteromasculinity), men of color discussed being fetishized. For nineteen-year-old Blake this extended to “acting black,” using street slang and acting aggressively, or requests for slave and master roleplay. Those few who had immigrated to Canada when they were children described having to deal with the heteromasculine norms and expectations of their parents’ home cultures. As 75 percent of the men identified as gay, queer, flexible, bisexual, , or , this was also common regardless of racial or ethnic background.

Reasons Why Men Sell Sex

Often, experiences fit with normative ideas of causation and the preconceived notions of outsiders. These types of connections illustrate attributional biases, considering the fluidity and complexity of people’s lives and identities. Not all people with negative life experiences partake in the sex industry, and the industry is not solely composed of people with troubled pasts. While the internet facilitated about half of the men’s ability to sell sex, a third were introduced to the sex industry by male or female friends already in it; others had a friend or sibling who served as their broker. Regardless of the method of entry, earning money is the main motive for most when it comes to selling sex.

When faced with unfulfilled needs and impeded financial goals, sex work is one of the few options available for some (Smith and Grov 2011; Vanwesenbeeck 2012). Younger men who leave home for whatever reason can obtain earnings in sex work that they could not get anywhere else. In Canada, rental housing costs alone are higher than a full-time minimum-wage worker makes in any province (Macdonald 2019). Those who receive disability support payments typically only receive half this amount and those on unemployment even less. For postsecondary students in Ontario, campus grants and government student loans also place people in precarious positions. Compared to other jobs, working in the sex industry can mean more pay and fewer hours; the flexibility in working hours provides the freedom to attend to other commitments such as schoolwork. Furthermore, having a criminal background (over a quarter [n=12] of the men did disclose that they had some sort of criminal record), lack of qualifications, or the seasonality of work restrict the job options available.

The lower emotional, social, or cognitive requirements of particular sex work encounters, as well as flexibility and fewer hours also make sex work appealing for those who struggle with or are not accommodated by traditional employment due to substance use disorders, physical health, mental illness, lack of well-being, or mindset (Dawthorne 2018). Jobs in retail and fast-food restaurants (and manual labor) were found to be oppressive or demoralizing; coworkers, employers, and customers were said to be abusive; and the paycheck and hours were exploitative. Matt illustrates the point:

I have a lot of mental barriers, it makes it difficult for me to do certain types of work . . . not a lot of people are understanding of my different abilities, so it can really become stressful at times and I don’t always perform the best . . . they make you feel like children . . . I thought making a sandwich would be a lot less mentally stressful than having to put my dick into something that could potentially disease me, you know? But no, no, it was—it was way harder on my head. I—physically it was easier, it wasn’t a lot of back motion, it was more just standing there all day working with the hands, but mentally, like, when someone’s sitting there watching you make their food, it freaks you out, you know? (Matt, interview by author, May 24, 2016)

Given the discourses that men have available to them about their own sexual agency, the discourse of men’s sexual pleasure in sex work is fairly common (Dawthorne 2018; McLean 2013; Vanwesenbeek 2012). Some men like Doug, twenty-five, who is sexually fluid and escorts for men and women, expressed that sexual pleasure and curiosity were motivators to sell sex, with the breaking of taboos adding to the excitement:

It was mainly the pleasure of it, but it also was the rush—the adrenaline rush. I even have had sex outside with people. Just when you’re done, your heart’s beating and wow, you feel more alive. Sometimes you do things that you only see in a movie . . . I was thinking to myself, oh I heard that in a movie once. Now I’m actually doing it. It’s like wow, I never thought I’d be here and now I’m doing this. (Doug, interview by author, July 20, 2016)

Money becomes eroticized, and a worker may derive a sense of value from being admired and feeling desirable (Kort 2017). For a male stripper like Bashir, (hyper)heteromasculinity is vital: in other words, staying in prime physical shape and knowing how to talk to and please women. Moving beyond stripping, these men are often offered large sums of money for “private dances.” Instead of being framed as pursued, the ability to choose a client that he finds desirable and his penetrative act (and climax) serve as the ultimate expression of heteromasculinity (Dawthorne 2018; Montemurro and McClure 2005).

Some like Dylan identified sex work is a part of a significant downward spiral in his life, where he was indeed exploited due to his vulnerabilities and drive to purchase drugs:

My uncle had molested me when I was twelve. And then a year later he did it to me again . . . my mom stopped like paying attention to me and really giving any care to me. Yeah. So, when I was twelve I attempted suicide twice. She kind of just put up a wall and said, “You’re not mine.” When I was about fourteen she told me that she wished I was adopted and that she’d rather not breathe my air anymore; when I was sixteen she drove me downtown, said that I was going to a meeting for school, and then left. And I was not allowed back in the house after that. (Dylan, interview by author, October 10, 2014)

On the streets, Dylan dropped out of school and was quickly introduced to drugs, partying, and drinking and would wake up in the morning not knowing where he was:

[The clients] were like doing what they wanted to me, and I really wasn’t okay with it, but I was out there selling . . . so taking advantage of me . . . because they know I’m young, they know that I’m vulnerable, they know that I’m gullible, and they’re still willing to give me a load of cash so that they can satisfy themselves. (Dylan, interview by author, October 10, 2014)

Growing Up

I grew up the same way any other person would.

—Bill, twenty-eight, straight, escort for women, (interview by author, June 24, 2014)

I don’t know where to start because it’s like a huge chain of reaction—like a huge chain of things that happened.

—Ted, twenty-one, gay, escort-for-men, (interview by author, January 22, 2016).

I feel depressed about my past a lot. It actually really bothers me. It haunts me . . . I actually had a very troubled childhood.

—Grant, twenty-one, gay, sex worker for men (interview by author, September 14, 2016).

We understand the sex industry better when we approach it as highly intersectional, fluid, and subjective, rather than treating people and their experiences as fixed and homogenous (Mitchell 2015). Intersectional analysis moves beyond the essentialist notion that all members of a population are equally and automatically subordinate (or privileged) just because they occupy a particular social position (Berger and Guidroz 2009; Bowleg 2012; Rolin 2006). Just like everyone else, “a sex worker’s work life, personal life, family life, spiritual life, upbringing, and class background all interrelate and shape one another” (Handkivsky 2007; Mitchell 2015, 127). Despite this, we know very little about how family functions in the lives of male sex workers.

This story of a sex worker’s upbringing illustrates perceived degrees of . Regardless of class background, these echoed institutionalized (middle-class) notions of how children and parents should act and what children should be allowed or expected to do (Lachman and Weaver 1998). Those from working-class or otherwise less privileged backgrounds like Howie spoke of their hardships and how they adapted to or pushed against interpersonal stressors and structural violence. Howie, twenty-five, sells sex to older women that his brother sets him up with to pay for his addiction and repay his debts, including putting his girlfriend through university. His childhood fits with the mainstream images of the neighborhood he grew up in: one of the largest low-income housing complexes in the city of London (London Community Chaplaincy, 2017). This community consists of row housing built in the 1970s during a period of increased public housing spending by the federal government and is one of London’s seven rent-geared-to-income complexes administered by the city. The average income, as of 2015, is approximately CDN$15,000 a year, compared to the adjacent suburban community with an average income of about CDN$110,000 a year. This highlights an inner-city and suburb divide (Smuck 2015). The majority of these inner-city residents face the challenges of living in poverty daily. Many are single parents, working poor, and some are immigrants. Struggles with mental health, substance use, or abuse are common, and lack of food, crime, and financial insecurity are the norm. Howie tells his story:

All my uncles and my dad we were . . . in and out of jail doing dope their whole lives, so. It was inevitable, it’s just in the family . . . I found out my uncle was selling [hard drugs]. I was getting it dirt cheap, bringing it to school . . . one thing led to another, got kicked out of school, and . . . . When I was fifteen my dad got me and my brother our own place where he would pay the rent, but we had to cover groceries . . . [we started] robbing houses for food. My other cousin lived with us. (Howe, interview by author, July 9, 2014)

While those like Matt, with a lower-class background, felt the issues of his youth would be mediated if he had access to the perceived opportunities and choices available to the middle class:

I think that if I had money, I wouldn’t have been motivated to take [this] path. If I would have had more opportunities. If we weren’t—wouldn’t have been ghetto. If we would have had a house and a car. If I would have gone, like, in sports when I was a kid and been in clubs and made friends, you know, go on vacations and, you know, like that’s what normal kids do. They go on spring break with their parents, or they join like the soccer team and every Wednesday, mom has to take you and watch you not score a goal for an hour. You know, that’s what kids do. That’s what you see in the movies and media all the time, I never had that. I grew up, you know, playing, hanging out by myself, walking around the gulley, getting myself into trouble, you know, drinking and stuff like that. Like when I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities or options. I feel like if my family was loaded, that I would have never been that desperate for money; I would have never had to go on welfare at fifteen years old, you know? I wouldn’t have sold sex. (Matt, interview by author, May 24, 2016)

The culture of the Canadian middle class is consistent with ideals of being able to make choices, pave our own paths, and voice our ideas and opinions. For individuals from this background, these norms are often taken for granted, and they had little to say about their pasts. They tend to live in a relatively certain world where their basic needs are met; food and shelter are rarely an issue. Some of these expectations include fulfilling employment, educational opportunities, the supports of family, and recreational pleasures, while clean water, abundant food options, and ample lodging are taken for granted regardless of age (Kohn 1969; Miller, Cho and Bracey 2005).

Coming Out

Regardless of upbringing, mental illness, sexual abuse, substance use disorders, and coming to terms with one’s sexuality permeated all backgrounds. While London tries to maintain an image that equates certain local industries like the biosciences and education with cosmopolitanism and tolerance (Bradford 2010), other dominant sectors such as finance, manufacturing, and military-industrial have been associated with , masculinized, and sometimes homophobic work cultures and environments (Lewis et al. 2015; McDowell et al. 2007). Located within a socially conservative regional Bible Belt, London does act as a magnet for younger, rurally situated LGBT people moving from homophobic environments (Bruce and Harper 2011). Despite this, there is a small LGBT public presence and lack of LGBT-oriented services, so the city serves as a transition to larger cities like Toronto where these supports exist (Lewis et al. 2015).

Selling sex (and hiring a sex worker) is not unknown among men who have sex with men, and male sex workers have an established (while contentious) place in gay history and culture (Scott, MacPhail, and Minichiello 2014; Koken et al. 2005). One turning point in the life of the nonheterosexual, however, is the coming-out story, which is an essential theme in the narratives of gay and queer men. Coming out is about reclaiming an authentic self in response to discrimination, concealment, and living a double life. With the knowledge that society treats homosexuality a certain way, “being gay” means learning to cope with stigmatization, having the courage to disclose one’s orientation in fear of retribution, and learning to feel good about oneself (Schneider 1997).

Coming out can be uneventful for some like Phil where “nobody was particularly surprised” (Phil, interview by author, July 20, 2016); others suffered from varying degrees of rejection (Padilla et al. 2010). Particularly traumatic were the reactions of extremely conservative and religious families. In the United States and Canada, LGBT youth can be kicked out due to parental disapproval of their sexual orientation or run away from homophobic abuse (Durso and Gates 2012). This is David’s experience. At the time of our interview, he was twenty-three years old, couch surfing with his boyfriend Ted, and trying to pay for his substance use and supplement his Ontario Works income through panhandling and sex work:

My family life was . . . really . . . unstable because my parents, my step-mom and my dad were Jehovah’s Witnesses . . . if you are gay you are basically hated [by] the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You are, like, shunned. Like none wants to talk to you. I’ve known since grade three that I was gay. I just didn’t like come-out or like know what my feelings were . . . until I was like seventeen or eighteen. So when I came out they [said] there is the door and you can leave. I was like ok I’m surprised you are doing this to your own son but whatever . . . there’s still some days where [I feel like] my brain is trapped in a cage because of . . . my upbringing and my parents . . . I still want to talk to them but they don’t want anything to do with me. (David, interview by author, July 21, 2014)

Youth like David disproportionately make up 25 to 40 percent of Canada’s 40,000 to 150,000 homeless youth (Abramovich and Shelton 2017; Keohane 2016). Such youth report resorting to living on the streets, couch surfing, or turning to . In addition to discrimination, isolation, and depression, hostile family reactions to sexual orientation significantly influence teen mental health (Ryan et al. 2009; Steinberg and Duncan 2002); for example, 10 to 40 percent of all LGBT people will attempt suicide once in their lifetimes (Marshal et al. 2011). Child services may intervene if alerted to school truancy after a youth has been kicked out of the home; however, there is often a lack of family welfare accountability in secondary schools. Many of the men I interviewed experienced inappropriate foster placements, homophobic group homes, rejection and discrimination at shelters, and a disproportionate lack of accommodations (Dame 2004; Dawthorne 2018). In this context, sex work is one of the few options left (Cianciotto and Cahill 2003).

Sexual Abuse

Regarding gay identity development and experience, there is evidence that gay males are at increased risk for sexual abuse as children, or at least they are more likely to report and recognize abuse (Brady 2008; Dawthorne 2018). Before the age of sixteen, one in six men (irrespective of adult sexuality) has been sexually abused (Gartner 2011). The men who sell sex (at any age) in my study reported similarly, and their stories of survival and victimization predominate their recollections of childhood. Due to shame and the prevailing view (and subsequent institutionalization) that sexual assault is a women’s issue, men rarely speak up (Millard 2016). Men and boys are socialized to experience sexual assault differently, through a form of masculinity that does not allow for victimization, leading to denial and psychological repression (Bera 1995; Bogin 2006; Gartner 1999). These men were never given the space to recover and are further traumatized by a culture of silence, lack of supportive resources, and the shame and humiliation they felt from friends and family. Men like Blake told me how, after telling family members of the abuse at the hands of an older relative, their mother’s boyfriends and siblings, they were neglected, ridiculed, and otherwise emotionally abused. It is this betrayal that dominates recollections and feelings of trauma (see Clancy 2009; Summit 1983).

Substance Use Disorders

Studies of substance use show correlations between adverse childhood experiences and earlier risk of substance use disorder (Mate 2009). Almost half of the men interviewed had experience using drugs before the age of eighteen, including nearly three-fourths of those who were sexually abused. Regardless of age, other men were introduced to drugs on the streets or from family, and for others, opioid use began after a doctor prescribed it to treat a medical condition. Dylan describes his use of a plethora of substances to self-medicate his mental illness and the trauma of childhood sexual abuse by an uncle:

I think it was an emotional downfall. And I definitely do think it was boredom. I mean when you’re on the streets what is there to do besides sex and drugs and sleeping with god knows who? And I think it also too was like just a longing for something. I have figured out in the last like couple of months that I look like, on the inside, I’ve been really longing for my mother. And I think just like, oh, I could have crack, and it won’t leave me behind. You know, it’s kind of like I replaced my mother with the drugs because it gave me that same feeling. You know? When I had it around it felt really good and I felt really happy. (Dylan, interview by author, October 10, 2014)

Overall, substance use can offer a way of coping with stress, pain, and other issues deemed outside of one’s control, such as grief and loss (Pickard 2017). With a lack of places to turn, the substance and the act of using become a substitute for the relationships men like Dylan do not have and for needs they cannot meet. The combination of hegemonic masculinity and substance use discourages men from help-seeking behaviors, especially for problems considered nonnormative (e.g., sexual abuse) or personally controllable (e.g., mental illness). This creates a vulnerability that encourages the use of numbing and comforting substances as an escape (Addis and Mahalik 2003; Lye and Biblarz 1993).

There does appear to be a connection between selling sex and substance use disorders (Minichiello et al. 2003; de Graaf et al. 1995; Pleak and Meyer-Bahlburg 1990) as more than a quarter of the men I interviewed identified substance use as part of their motivation for selling sex. Tim, twenty-nine, who sells sex to women, confirms this: “[Its] pretty much what kept me in. . . . Because if I didn’t have sex with someone to make the money then I’d be feeling like shit. You know, I’d just kind of wait it out. Like I’d feel like more shit if I don’t have the external source of endorphins that I’m used to” (Tim, interview by author, July 21, 2014).

Hegemonic Masculinity

Regardless of background, sexuality, or the gender of one’s clients, most men evaluate the benefits of sex work against the risks. Violating hegemonic masculinity by engaging in a “gender-inappropriate” form of work, a man sells sex at the risk of being shamed by peers, family, and the broader community. Simultaneously, hegemonic masculinity allowed men to shield themselves from shame. Jimmy, twenty-five and straight-identifying, has “prostituted” for men and women. He distances himself from female sex workers and feminized tropes of victimization and vulnerability: “I did this to myself. I’m not a victim. [Clients] didn’t approach me. They didn’t know what I needed the money for. They didn’t take advantage of me. I had no one to answer to. I lived by myself, I was doing whatever I wanted to do. It was easy” (Jimmy, interview by author February 9, 2015).

To “do what a man has got to do” to survive meant taking risks, being adventurous, and remaining resilient, with no help from anyone (including the government). Some also spoke of panhandling, selling drugs, breaking and entering, and stealing to survive in this manner. Emphasizing hypersexuality or sexual voraciousness, discussing attractive clients, and seeking out the taboo pleasures of sex with many different clients reinforced a man’s masculinity, shielding him from shame. This was another strategy to position oneself as in control. The act of making money to support himself, his spouse, and/or children allowed a sex worker to reify his masculinized role as breadwinner and generous provider (McDowell 2014).

For some like Doug, the ability to purchase luxury goods or make more money than people in other jobs symbolized personal empowerment:

I had everything I wanted. Went from wearing some ripped up jeans to like designer stuff like Makaveli and Banana Republic. I was wearing like Prada and Versace, Sean John and everything. I was loaded. I had real diamond earrings. [After I had a client], I’d go down and get my hair done, get piercings, contacts and everything all that. Live life. I kept buying like headphones, scarves and what not. (Doug, interview by author, July 20, 2016)

Lastly, workers took pride in their professional expertise and altruism. Maintaining a sense of professionalism with “disfigured” or otherwise undesirable clients was framed as self-sacrifice. Stuart, thirty-three, sells sex, is a model, and acts in pornographic films: he took pride in creating a safe environment that empowered emotional and sexual positivity, thereby giving his work some social value (Kumar, Scott, and Minichiello 2017). “You’re out there providing a service . . . everyone needs loving too. It’s all about faking. You’re in it . . . to make money. They’re in it to get off or the companionship. It’s more, ‘I want you to come home and cook dinner with me and watch a movie,’ and its rarely sex” (Stuart, interview by author, December 15, 2015).

Stigma

Masculinity can be a valuable tool to understand the experiences of some men but to appeal to masculinity that constructs men as strong and powerful is deceptively simplistic and seriously flawed. Not only does it perpetuate a fantasy that “victims” do not have agency, resilience, or show evidence of resistance, it assumes that those who do have power have not suffered. Stigma is a situation “when a person possesses (or is believed to possess) some attribute or characteristic that conveys a social identity that is devalued in a particular social context” (Crocker, Major, and Steele 1998). Nonheterosexual men discussed issues of homophobia ranging from being bullied, rejected by family, or being victims of hate crime. The intersection of other aspects of their lives along with the stigma of sex work intensifies feelings of shame and experiences of discrimination.

The perception or anticipation that people are not or will not be accepting has negative consequences on personal well-being (Allison 1998). Vulnerability can lead to feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, impairing self-esteem, and social functioning (Crocker, Major, and Steele 1998). Many men like Link, a twenty-four-year-old online escort for men, live double lives to protect themselves, concealing their involvement with the industry in order not to be judged or penalized (echoing those who have to hide their sexuality). “I am afraid to tell [my boyfriend] because I mean . . . I don’t tell anybody just to save face. I don’t like the lying and I hate lying about myself and about things that you know I feel I should be able to express” (Link, interview by author, November 14, 2014). Other men were reluctant to socialize or start new relationships due to similar fears of rejection. While many men do have strained relationships with family, those who do not were worried about causing them emotional pain. Others wish to avoid moralizing, ridicule, and removal of any form of parental financial support.

The knowledge that an individual has been involved in the sex industry has and can be used to discriminate against them in other work environments. For those who use sex work to supplement their income or are involved due to a desperate situation, the economic need to sell sex means that losing any other job would be devastating. Teachers, bankers, police officers, restaurant workers, and real estate employees are public examples of people who have been fired from their jobs because of their current or former involvement in sex work (Carey 2018; Dickson 2013; McLean 2011; Petro 2012; Schladebeck 2017). Rick, a thirty-four-year-old who describes himself as , describes this need for discretion:

Anonymity is [important] because like I do have a day job and family and stuff here that know nothing about what I do . . . I don’t think I’d get fired over this because that’s illegal, but I do think my boss is the type of person that would really look hard for another excuse to fire me . . . I work retail for a boss who is heavily religious . . . If he were to know that I’m like turning tricks, yeah that would be the end of it. (Rick, interview by author, July 7, 2014)

This secrecy is one factor in why myths regarding the number of men in the industry continue.

Some sex workers compared their desire for upward social mobility with their current quality of life. The loss of a middle-class lifestyle, inability to get ahead, or the precarity of their finances brought about feelings of shame. Though there are structural reasons for economic struggle, those from middle-class backgrounds internalized their failures as personal deficits, while those of lower-class upbringings felt they were set up to fail. The sector of the industry, the sexual practices, the types of clients seen, how much is earned, as well as their level of agency: these are all part of a moral hierarchy of more or less acceptable behavior.

Those men dealing with substance use disorders were shamed by peers and the public and some tried to cover up needle marks or otherwise remain discreet; to counter internalized shame some men engaged in downward comparison, separating themselves from being associated with “junkies.” Some nonsubstance users also separated themselves from “crack-whores.” The intersection of sex work and substance use served as a way for some like Steven, a bisexual thirty-eight-year-old man who cruises the downtown area as a “street ho,” to position himself as better off than other street workers. “You might think the odd woman that’s a junkie on the street with all picks and sores all over her face probably will suck their crack dealer’s dick for more drugs, but when you’re ho-ing . . . you’re walking up to nice people’s houses, and nice cars . . . it’s not for your next piece of rock” (Steven, interview by author, July 13, 2015).

Male sex workers can be victims of sexual violence as adults (just like everyone else). The trauma of being raped by a female client is exacerbated by stereotypical paradigms that frame men as perpetrators and women as victims; that rape involves penetration, and for men, all sex is welcome (Smith 2012). Matt gave an account of being raped by a female client as an adult and the traumatization and shame he feels. “They say men can’t be raped by women. Which is bullshit, like, it’s happened to me, I know it can happen. I experienced it” (Matt, interview with author, May 24, 2016). The stereotype of female sexual victimization by men reinforces ideas that feminize and stigmatize victims and that female-perpetrated abuse is rare or nonexistent (Mendel 1995); it prioritizes interventions for women and excludes male victims (Stemple and Meyer 2014). Matt continues, “Rape doesn’t have to mean just being penetrated . . . they’re doing things to you that you don’t want. . . . When we were done fucking I went to get up, she said, ‘You’re just going to lay there and when we’re done, we’re done, and if you don’t like it, good fucking luck, try getting up,’ and she was like three times my size” (Matt, interview with author, May 24, 2016). His account challenges the assumption that male victims experience less harm and women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence (Scarce 1997). It also undermines the stereotype that men are physically and emotionally stronger than women (Koss et al. 2007). Matt continues, “I couldn’t do nothing man. So I started crying laying there. Like it hurt so bad. She gave me the money and I was like—I just took it and I, like, looked down—I don’t know, but like that broke me man. I didn’t feel tough. I didn’t feel like a hotshot. I didn’t feel cool, I didn’t feel like what I was doing was worth it anymore at that point” (Matt, interview with author, May 24, 2016). Here is where the stigma of selling sex and rape intersect: “At that moment, like, I wanted to quit so bad. If I didn’t need the money, that would have made me quit, but I was still hurting; so . . . I was scared. Traumatized. I feel like everyone I was with was using me. Like, you know, I wasn’t there because anybody cared. At that point I was a whore” (Matt, interview with author, May 24, 2016). Though his heterosexuality is not questioned here, Matt’s understanding of what happened to him is framed by cultural ideas of heteromasculinity. He no longer felt in control or powerful; he felt the shame of being emasculated and powerless to do anything about it. He also felt that because he had consented initially, no one would take him seriously if he reported it. The concerns of ridicule are echoed when a man’s rapist is a man; institutionalized homophobia, or in the case of a heterosexual victim, internalized homophobia adds to rape stigma; the loss of control and helplessness can exacerbate the trauma.

Despite some men feeling shame for engaging in sex work (especially with undesirable clients), the idea of using social services or receiving any form of social assistance that would reduce the need to or frequency of sex was seen as more shameful. They framed the people who used them with visceral discourses of filth, degradation, and extreme poverty (Halnon 2013). Those who had previous interactions with these services or refused to use them engaged in defensive othering, asserting that they are better than others in some manner. Claiming social benefits conveyed a devalued identity and admission of failure; it also meant increased precarity. Unfortunately, without visibility, these men also fail to challenge the status quo (Koken, Bimbi, and Parsons 2015).

The Men Left Behind

Regardless of age or sexuality, men require safe, nonjudgmental, and accessible services for substance use and mental illness as well as for other vulnerabilities. Also needed: improved accountability through justice, educational, and social support systems to help those youth who have been sexually abused, lack emotional or financial support from family, or have been kicked out because of their sexuality (Dawthorne 2018). Generalizations and competitive statistics—taking a snapshot of reality that ignores the bigger picture, has created hierarchies that inform our decisions on who is important and who is disposable. For many of my informants, I was often the only person they had ever talked to about their sex work experiences. Social policies and laws that pathologize and exclude with the mindset that (only) women are vulnerable, that the sex industry employs only women, and that the industry is inherently harmful, have reinforced hegemonic masculinity and ignored the ways women are implicated (Dawthorne 2018; Whitlock 2018). The existence of male sex workers disrupts gendered binaries of choice and constraint, illustrating that sex work can be freely chosen but also that men are not always in control of their own lives.

Review Questions

  • Define sex work and identify the factors that should be considered when claims are made about sex work.
  • Why is framing sex work as the exploitation of women by men inaccurate and harmful?
  • In what ways are male sex workers stigmatized? How do ideas of masculinity factor in?
  • What issues does this chapter raise about feminism?

Key Terms

agency: the capacity of a person to act independently and make their own choices.

cisnormativity: the assumption that privileges cisgender as the norm (that is, gender identity that corresponds to a person’s sex at birth).

emotional labor: the process of managing one’s own feelings in order to manage the feelings of others, as described by Hochschild (1983). For example, workers are expected to regulate their emotions during interactions with customers, coworkers, and superiors.

fluid sexuality: romantic and sexual attraction can change over time, situation, and context.

gay for pay: individuals who identify as heterosexual but engage in homosexual behaviors and acts, for money, material goods, or other forms of security (e.g., housing)

hegemonic masculinity: a concept developed by Connell (1995) arguing that there are certain traits, behaviors, and discourses associated with masculinity that are valued and rewarded by dominant social groups and that the performance of hegemonic masculinity helps to legitimize power and inequality.

heteronormativity: inspired by French philosopher Michel Foucault, this term refers to how social institutions and policies reinforce the assumption that heterosexuality is normal and natural, that gender and sex are binary, and reproductive monogamous sex is moral.

John schools: forced rehabilitation program for men arrested for solicitation that teaches the negative consequences of prostitution on communities, families, and women (Nathanson and Young 2001).

nonlabel sexuality: a nonidentity; can include people who are uncertain about their sexuality, are sexually fluid, or are resistant to the norms of identity labels.

Palermo protocols: a group of three international treaties adopted by the United Nations to supplement the 2000 Convention against Transnational Organized Crime Exploitation. One of these protocols described the crime of human trafficking as “the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation” (United Nations 2004, iii).

structural violence: the systematic ways in which social structures harm or disadvantage individuals and thus create and maintain social inequalities.

survival sex work: the practice of people who are extremely disadvantaged trading sex for basic necessities; usually denotes those who would not otherwise choose to work in the sex industry if they could.

Two-Spirit: an English-language term meant to represent a diverse pan-Indigenous umbrella of gender, sex and sexuality variance, and subsequent ceremonial and social roles; often misunderstood as a term solely for individuals who are both male and female.

Resources for Further Exploration

  • Aggleton, Peter, and Richard Parker, eds. 2015. Men Who Sell Sex: Global Perspectives. London: Routledge.
  • Dennis, Jeffery. 2008. “Women Are Victims, Men Make Choices: The Invisibility of Men and Boys in the Global Sex Trade.” Gender Issues 25: 11–25.
  • Minichiello, Victor, and John Scott, eds. 2014. Male Sex Work and Society. New York: Harrington Park.
  • Shoden, Clarisa, and Samantha Majic, eds. 2014. Negotiating Sex Work: Unintended Consequences of Policy and Activism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Walby, Kevin. 2012. Touching Encounters: Sex, Work, and Male-for-Male Internet Escorting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Acknowledgments

This research was partially funded by an Ontario Graduate Scholarship.

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About the Author

Nathan Dawthorne is a queer sociocultural anthropologist and advocate whose research background includes male sex work, sexuality and gender politics, and social determinants of health. He obtained his PhD in anthropology from the University of Western Ontario.  Nathan is a caregiver advisor for research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto (Canada) and former research associate with the Franz Boas Papers Project, an interdisciplinary collaboration reassessing and recontextualizing early American anthropology.

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Gendered Lives by Nathan Dawthorne is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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