Culture, Health & Sexuality

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

The popular cliché of the sex worker brings to mind a certain set of images – poor, perhaps traficked but most definitely exploited, likely a person of colour and, almost certainly, a woman. All of these clichés are problematic for a range of reasons that are now familiar to all but the most hardened sex work exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs). In brief, they function to deny sex worker agency and autonomy, reduce the diversity of sex work experience to media-generated stereotypes and, most pertinently to this review, ignore the inconvenient fact that many sex workers are not cisgender women. Although the majority of people selling sexual services are ciswomen, several studies report higher proportions of gay and bisexual cismen involved in sex work as both clients and workers. Studies that look at trans* people’s sex work experiences often report even higher numbers.

It is the problematic framing by SWERFs of sex work as always an issue of patriarchal violence that Minichiello and Scott set out to address in what is an important, if partial, corrective to much academic sex work research. For Minichiello and Scott, a focus on male sex work ‘provides vital insights into the construction and social organisation of gender and sexuality, especially masculinities and the commodifcation of the male body … [and] can also lead to a better understanding of female sex work and of the culture of men who have sex with men’ (p. xvi).

It is impossible for any volume to cover the full spectrum of issues affecting male sex workers but this book attempts to do so through four structured sections: (1) on male sex work in a sociohistorical context; (2) on how male sex work is marketed; (3) on social issues and cultures of male sex work; before (4) concluding with several case studies from different regions of the world. Several contributions are adapted from previously published work. However, the majority are newly written and all contribute to the overall focus of the book. These are accompanied by short summaries, which seek to contextualise the individual contributions in the context of the wider book.

The contextual chapters in the opening section cover a scattershot history of global male sex work from writer and sex worker Mack Friedman, a summary of male sex work in modern times by Kerwin Kaye, and a survey of some representations of male sex work on film by Russell Sheafer. Friedman freely admits to not being an historian (p. 4), and while his chapter is well written, it suffers from some of the absence of rigour one might expect for those not historically trained. His chapter ranges from the predictable ancient Rome and Greece to a quick detour through mediaeval Japan and preindustrial Europe, and then skates on through a couple of hundred years of American and European history to end up in the contemporary context of the USA. Friedman relies heavily on one or two secondary sources for each of his historical ‘snapshots’. These are mostly excellent pieces of scholarship in their own right, but are partial. His historical overview also separates the pre-modern (in Greece, Rome and Japan) from the modern (USA, fin de siècle Europe) on geographical grounds, with the North Atlantic defining modernity. There remains a need for a truly comprehensive transnational history of sex work (and male sex work in particular) – unfortunately this is not it.

Kaye’s short chapter also sticks firmly in the North Atlantic, tracing a short path from nineteenth-century cross-dressing male sex workers to gay liberation era representations in works by Samuel Steward (also known as Phil Andros). Sheafer’s chapter is similarly narrow, focusing on the relative absence of male sex workers in histories of prostitution and the linking of the ‘problem’ of male sex work to the ‘problem’ of homosexuality (p. 53) through exploring US cinematic representations of male sex workers up to the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s. This is well-trodden ground in cinema studies. Where Sheafer’s chapter becomes interesting is in his brief discussion of a number of non-US films at the end of the chapter. These remain sidelines to the US focus, however.

In sum, the opening section separates the context (understood as necessarily US/European in orientation) from the cultural specificities of the case studies at the tail end of the book. This is a somewhat disappointing framing strategy that reinforces an epistemological centering of the North Atlantic at the expense of different histories, genealogies and cultural contexts.

The second section focuses on the particular mechanics of sex work practice. Allan Tyler explores the shifting modes of advertising of what he terms ‘M$M’ (or men who sell sex to men) from print to online media. Through interviews with a range of workers, he captures a sense of the diverse economics of the industry. While the historical discussions were useful, the chapter did read as a little dated, rooted as it is within static websites rather than the more common location-based social networking apps that workers we know use with increasing frequency. Trevon D. Logan’s contribution focuses on a quantitative analysis of specific attributes of workers – body type, race, sex role – concluding, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there are significant racialised and other hierarchies at play. Somewhat surprisingly, trans* men are not mentioned here, or elsewhere in the book, which for us was a disappointing oversight given the increasing role trans* men play in sex worker communities and activism.

The third section deals with social and cultural issues around male sex work, including the diversity of clients; questions of regulation and legal suppression of male sex work, which have often been ignored in frameworks that focus on women; public health initiatives; gay male subcultures; support services for male sex workers; and mental health of male sex workers, including the effects of sex work stigma. As with the remainder of the volume, these all draw from research on Anglophone male sex work communities, yet draw conclusions that are implied to be universally applicable.

The final section begins to address these concerns, through case studies focused on Southern and Eastern Africa; China; post-Soviet Russia; Latin America; migrant communities in Germany; and Ireland and Northern Ireland. These were, for us, some of the richest contributions to the volume, grounded as they were in specific geographical and cultural contexts and in the stories of workers themselves. Due to space issues, we can only highlight two here. Boyce and Isaacs’ chapter on Southern and Eastern Africa is built on in-depth interviews with male sex workers in five countries in the region. As a result, the chapter draws out the richness of these men’s ‘day-to-day practices, perceptions and experiences’ (p. 310). Travis Kong documents his interactions with ‘money boys’ in China, whose stories reveal them as ‘average young men who have realised that their bodies are a means of gaining economic rewards and have made a conscious and rational choice to enter this occupation’ (p. 335). This dual focus on everyday experiences of workers and on the way they themselves think about their work and lives stood out as unique in the volume as a whole.

Minichiello and Scott argue that their volume helps the reader to ‘move beyond the pathologising discourses that have produced an understanding of MSWs [male sex workers] and their clients as deficient and deviant’ (p. xxvi). This is an admirable aim and one we welcome. However, as current and former male sex workers who have also been involved in sex work activism, we keenly felt the absence of voices from our communities in much of the volume. Male sex workers have been involved with their fellow sex workers of different genders in organising to improve conditions and to reduce stigma associated with sex work. The volume would have been strengthened with more peer contributions, including a recognition of the involvement of men in sex work organising.

There were also some troubling racial politics at work. While the case studies in the latter section of the book were rich, the framing worked to reduce these to outfows of EuroAmerican knowledge production. In some case, authors or editors also deployed some problematic stereotypes. For example, Minichiello and Scott argue for a direct relationship between (un)safe sex practices in US African-American communities and apparent community attitudes that see homosexuality as ‘a sinful, unnatural weakness’ (p. 464). We question whether this is an accurate, or helpful, contribution to understanding male sex work in diverse communities.

The volume also seems rooted in a particular model of safer-sex education. While the advent of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and its take-up in sex worker and other communities in certain parts of the world has not been without controversy both within and outside sex worker communities, it does raise important questions around sexual health practices. This is not to argue against the authors’ emphasis on condom usage – we think condoms are important in and outside of sex work – but PrEP necessitates a consideration of how ideas of ‘safety’ and sexual health are changing and the impact this may have on workers.

Overall, however, this book is a landmark contribution to the study of male sex work and workers. We welcome it therefore, despite some reservations. It is our hope that future sex work researchers will build on the impressive range of materials included here with more grounded research that engages and builds upon the experiences of sex workers and their expertise.
1. Trans* is a term which aims at recognising the diversity of gender identities beyond cisgender categories of man/woman. It aims at being inclusive of identities that include the prefix ‘trans’ such as transgender or trans person, as well as others, such as genderqueer and non-binary. While we recognise that no term is ever perfect, our use of trans* in this case is meant to indicate a recognition of and respect for the diversity of gender expression and identity categories in sex work communities.

Reviewed by Mark Pendleton and Luca Stevenson