Journal of the History of Sexuality

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

The discursive shift from talk about the “deviance” of the sex worker to the “work” of the sex worker has made essays like those contained in Male Sex Work and Society critical for our understanding of the field of male sex work and male sexuality more broadly. The editors have taken a holistic approach to the subject with this truly multidisciplinary collection. Though previous work on male sex workers (MSWs) has largely focused on the health of street-based, Western men, this collection goes beyond simple categories to begin answering questions about the variety of experiences and relationships in the lives of MSWs. How do these men see themselves? How do MSWs navigate the complex web of legal strictures and health care options in different countries, all with varying degrees of criminalization? What factors mediate the exchange value of certain physical characteristics and services? These questions and many others are deftly explored in the four sections of the book, which I shall discuss in turn. “Male Sex Work in Sociohistoric Context” introduces readers to the history of male sex work through essays on ancient regulations across Asian and European cultures to postmodern film depictions of the MSW. The authors posit that power and hierarchy are generally part of transactional sex, yet the essays in this section show the greater depth of relationships (romance, intimacy, love) that has been possible at certain historical moments because of shifting regulations and cultural perceptions of the MSW. Though the historiography of male-male sexuality is vast, this section is accessible and gives readers a sense of the malleability of the category “male sex worker.” “Marketing of Male Sex Work” is composed of two essays that survey the marketing of sex work by individual escorts and agencies as well as the process of assigning value to certain characteristics. The Internet has eclipsed magazines as the primary space where men sell sex and has changed the ways men access MSWs. Allen Tyler charts this shift and documents the changing ways MSWs advertise and clients access their services. Trevon D. Logan’s well-researched essay provides demographic information on male sex workers in the United States and explores the statistical relationship between the physical attributes of sex workers and the prices they command. The section “Social Issues and Cultures in Male Sex Work” provides a holistic view of male sex work as a profession and the humanity of MSWs as people. These men live, work, and play in various cultures. Consequently, the different ways MSWs interact with their clients and with regulatory and public health bodies necessitate different responses from those arenas as well as academics. The authors in this section force us to reconsider our assumptions about MSWs as degenerate vectors of disease and urge a re- examination of the myriad reasons for engaging in sex work. In doing so, they go a long way toward addressing the scholarly gap between work on female sex workers (FSWs) and MSWs.

Through essays on South and Eastern Africa, China, post-Soviet Russia, Latin America, and Ireland and on migrant sex workers in Germany, the authors in the section “Male Sex Work in Its Global Context” provide valuable insight into the lives of MSWs in societies with differing attitudes toward same-sex sexuality. The homophobic attitudes present in countries such as post-Soviet Russia and Africa often create vulnerabilities not experienced by MSWs in Europe or America. Men described in the essays in this section reported threats to personal safety, poor cohesion within the MSW community, and lack of access to appropriate health and social services. Further, discourse in these countries is largely dominated by paradigms that are immersed in the logics of pathology, public health, and moralism, which makes studying these populations difficult.

One of the clearest themes to emerge from reading this book is the Internet’s impact on male sex work. “Male sex work is now part of the global economy, and that strict demarcation between public and private space—which had previously structured the sex work environment—has been eroded” (ix). The use of the Internet has exacerbated the divide between street-level MSWs and those who sell sex online or through “escort” agencies. It has also created international markets for certain kinds of men because men with sufficient buying power are no longer limited by geographic proximity in their search for MSWs. The Internet also made the research for much of this book possible, which is part of the reason for its analytical shift from street-based sex workers in Western urban settings. The conclusion of the volume addressed the concerns I had about gaps in the scholarship and offered a series of suggested paths. Issues surrounding questions of race, ageing, and ageism are the most urgent avenues for future scholarship because of their impact on both public health policy and personal behavioral choice. This is all the more important when one considers the ballooning older population in many Western countries. Further, issues relating to sex work and race are all the more important as technologies cause our world to contract through increased interactions across real and socially constructed boundaries.

Despite the book’s nearly five hundred pages, the reader should not be put off by its size. Within its pages, anyone who is interested in any aspect of male sex work will find something of immense value. The book is organized in such a way that it can be read from cover to cover or dipped into for individual questions. The majority of the essays in this book are very reader friendly, and the authors and editors have taken great pains to explain theoretical underpinnings and previous research findings so that novice or nonacademic readers are not left wondering. Editorial comment at the start of every essay helps the reader to connect the essay with broader themes in the book and in scholarship generally. I would highly recommend this book for academics and nonacademics alike.

Reviewed by Jerry Watkins