Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity

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

As scholars in multiple disciplines have called for a greater understanding of the intersection between psychological functioning and sex work (e.g., Burnes, PetersLong, & Schept, 2012; Weitzer, 2010), social science research investigating numerous aspects of sex work continues to slowly increase (Buttram, Surratt, & Kurtz, 2014). Embedded in this need, the distinct construct of male sex work has been historically less of a public health concern than female sex work because of issues of sexism (e.g., men may receive less public scrutiny for more open and diverse sexual expression) and homophobia, although the need for public health conceptualizations and interventions for this population are an increasing need globally (Taormino, Shimizu, Penley, & Miller-Young, 2013). Male sex workers (MSWs) are a population that have been historically misrepresented; have been decontextualized from issues of race, socioeconomic status (SES), sexual orientation, and age; and have experienced multiple forms of insidious and cultural trauma. As understandings related to sex work begin to shift because of technological, economic, and political evolutions, the need to understand transactional sexual acts between men, in the context of intersecting cultural identities, is pressing. In a rare, comprehensive analysis, Minichiello and Scott (2014) began to address the dearth in literatures of psychology, public health, international relations, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) studies with their text. By offering a variety of different cultural and systemic nuances to studying sexuality more broadly and sex work more specifically, the authors provide a needed document for the important dialogues in research involving sex workers.

In 17 distinct chapters (not including the introduction or conclusion), the editors synthesize authors’ expertise in male sex work from multiple perspectives and from a transnational lens. One of the highlights of this text is the expert manner in which Minichiello and Scott (2014) synthesize perspectives on sex work and MSWs that help to provide alternative frameworks to ones that are pervasive throughout various domains of social science literature. The various authors in this text provide concrete historical context for sex work throughout various domains of world history; provide economic analyses and descriptive statistics about individuals who engage in various aspects of sex work; and address mental health, physical wellness, and public policy needs for individuals in the sex industry. The authors also provide a distinct section that investigates sex work in various parts of the globe, providing the reader with specific cultural nuances of how sex work is negotiated within specific cultural reference points. Although specific mental health needs are addressed, psychologists outside of the mental health field may also find this text valuable in understanding social trends, consumer behavior, and an alternative perspective in experimental social science research (e.g., identifying and operationalizing a construct for research, research design, sampling). The various authors help the reader to understand the importance and careful consideration of engaging with the phenomenon of MSWs and understanding their unique experiences.

In one particular section of the book (the subsection titled Social Issues and Cultures of Male Sex Work), various authors discuss the interactional processes of individuals who engage in various types of sex work and those who are clients of, and consumers of, sex workers. Addressing the importance of sex work in context, the authors in this section introduce readers to ideological perspectives that shape sex work culture and subsequently challenge readers to understand their own biases and preconceived notions about sex work. Authors then break down policy, mental health needs, and physical wellness needs of MSWs, using a superb economic analysis (by Trevor Logan) to understand marketing strategies (online vs. mobile phone vs. print ad) and male sex work markets, organized by race, locality, SES, gender, ethnicity, and/or sexual orientation, and how these are shaped by oppressive notions of hegemonic masculinity. These chapters skillfully provide insight into issues of sex work within the LGBTQ community (e.g., “gay for pay”) and public health (e.g., barebacking during sex work) while highlighting how research related to areas of sex work is definitely needed.

This text is a strong addition to the nascent body of literature that documents empirical research with sex workers. I noted the predominance of cisgender masculinity discussed in this text, and wondered if there was an absence of theory related to transgender male sex work (given the nascent amount of literature in the field, the need to build theory about sex work related to various male sexes and genders may be needed). Furthermore, the authors’ commentary presented in this text highlighted the dearth of research related to individuals who are not sex workers but are involved with sex workers: those who consume/purchase sex work, those who have used sex work in the past but may have stopped for various reasons, and those individuals (e.g., parents, friends, partners, children) who are connected to sex workers as nonconsumers. As the many authors of this edited volume mention, studies that build new theory and analyze existing theory about these constructs are critically needed.

Throughout my reading of this text, I noted many different settings in which this text could be used and not used. Specifically, this text would also be a good fit for doctoral level courses in community psychology. Academic courses and scholarship focusing on intersections between psychology and sexuality, global perspectives on sex work and sex trafficking, and social movements could use this text as a reading assignment. Further, this edited volume would be an effective teaching tool in many different types of academic courses to aid in a multifaceted understanding of research methods (e.g., psychology of gender courses, courses that address the psychology of men and masculinity). For clinicians, this text would be a good tool to inform practice. Although I would not recommend full text to clients who were either sex workers or family and friends who want to understand more about the context of sex work, there may be chapters I would copy and share with clients as an intervention to normalize, depathologize, and decriminalize behavior.

Reviewed by Theodore Burnes