Australian & New Zealand Journal of Public Health

Book review: Male Sex Work and Society, edited by Victor Minichiello and John Scott

Male Sex Work and Society, an edited collection of interdisciplinary scholarship, provides a comprehensive overview of current research into men’s engagement with the sex industry. Developed out of recognition that there is a substantial lack of male sex work (MSW) focused research (p VII), editors Victor Minichiello and John Scott seek to demonstrate that there are a complex range of social, global and environmental factors that need to be considered when understanding MSW.

Victor and John have masterfully tied together a set of works addressing these factors to formulate an overreaching narrative where MSW is theorised as a social phenomenon rather than a social problem. The strength in this piece lays in its ability to challenge the prevailing discourses that male sex workers are violent, at risk, and are sexually degenerate, instead offering new and thought-provoking insights into MSW and the surrounding sex industry. In doing so, it has effectively taken MSW from its position as a sideline to the study of gender, health and sexuality and placed it at the forefront. The first five chapters provide an account of MSW from a socio-historical and economic context, outlining the prevalence and representation of men’s engagement with sex work in ancient cultures to contemporary times. Trevon Logan’s chapter delivers a fascinating economic analysis of how MSW is sold, exploring the monetary value of services offered in-conjunction with the value placed on bodily characteristics such as ethnicity and physique.

Chapters 6-11 look critically at the social and health issues associated with MSW through an exploration of men’s lived experiences. Mary Laing and Justin Gaffney’s empirical study of why men engage in sex work presents a startling revelation that many men actively choose to engage with sex work as a rational and economic choice as opposed the result of coercion (p 279). These findings highlight that there is a need for a policy reformation regarding the regulation of the sex industry, and urge us to reconsider MSW as the result of oppression (p 281). Public health researchers and practitioners working with the MSW community would be primarily interested in these chapters as they deal directly with public health policy and the associated health risks of MSW. However, for this volume to be useful in a health context, it’s important to read this piece in its entirety to gain an informed and comprehensive account of MSW.

The last six chapters offer an account of MSW within a global context. Niccolai’s work on MSW in Russia offers a gripping narrative concerning the severe social vulnerability male sex workers experience within a highly homophobic climate. The graphics, tables, and figures provide additional contextualisation for the arguments being made, and the overall layout design is quite pleasing to the eye.

In presenting an array of diverse narratives, this piece opens up a rich dialogue about the heavily marginalised aspects of MSW, and engages with a range of research approaches to provide a holistic account. The editors should also be commended in their efforts to ensure that the complexities of sex work concerning subjectivities of oppression and empowerment were readily addressed throughout this piece. What this volume does particularly well is illustrate the varying multifaceted relationships between men’s sexual practices and gender identities, and their resulting health and well-being outcomes.

There is, nevertheless, a troubling omission. The premise of the book highlights that generally, it is men who seek the services of male sex workers despite indicating that there is scope to explore women’s engagement as clients (p XIV). With an increase in the visibility of men participating in forms of sex work that cater specifically to women, something that is only sparsely touched on in chapters 6 and 15, I felt that this was a widely untapped area that this volume could have benefited from. The absence of such scholarship speaks more broadly to a prevailing discourse that women are not interested in soliciting sex despite quoting research that suggests otherwise (p 165); a chapter or two that explored this emerging phenomenon would have been useful in continuing to unravel this assumption. However, I appreciate that women-as-clients of male sex workers is a relatively sparse area of research, and the editors indicate that further investigation is necessary.

Male Sex Work and Society is a timely addition to the study of male sex workers and a strong contribution to the field of sexuality, health and gender. I would recommend this volume to academics researching in the areas of gender and sexuality, professionals looking to implement new policies concerning public health and the regulation of sex work, and community outreach workers wanting to explore new programs and initiatives that address the needs of male sex workers.
doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12559

Reviewed by Dr Andrea Waling, Australian Research Centre Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University, and School of Social Sciences, Monash University, Victoria.