The men of the world’s oldest profession

Review of Male Sex Work and Society

Edited by Victor Minichiello and John Scott

Harrington Park Press. 512 pages, $50.

The Gay and Lesbian Review, Jan.-Feb., 2015

ANY BOOK about male prostitution is bound to call to mind the classic 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, in which Joe Buck, a dishwasher-cum-gigolo from Texas played by Jon Voight, moves to New York to offer his services to women. But he finds it hard to set up shop and resorts to male clients instead, who turn out to be either dishonest or unable to pay. So Buck often ends up losing twice by not getting paid for sex that he didn’t enjoy.

But the reality that emerges from Male Sex Work and Society is quite different from this popular image. Those engaged in male prostitution are more than likely to be gay themselves, and their clients are mostly gay men. Editors Victor Minichiello and John Scott, both public health researchers at Australian universities, reject notions of pathology and victimhood associated with prostitution and homosexuality. They write that in many of the societies they studied, male sex workers “were increasingly telling researchers that they had chosen their work and enjoyed what they did.”

Mostly written in an academic tone, the seventeen essays in this collection examine the ancient and recent history of male prostitution, aspects of public policy and mental health, characteristics of sex workers and their customers, representations in American popular culture, and other topics. The final section has essays from around the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Russia. With all the talk of cultural relativism, one is struck by the ubiquity of prostitution and homosexuality across time and space.

An excellent essay on China focuses in on 32-year-old Liu, for whom prostitution is a ticket out of poverty. As a “money boy,” he tells Travis Kong, a sociologist at Hong Kong University, that he earns “quite a lot of money” and was able to escape the small village where he was raised. But money boys are only the latest incarnation of millennia of male prostitutes in China, a country that was once relaxed about both homosexuality and prostitution. Men were expected to marry and raise children but could maintain male lovers on the side, or use the well-developed system of male prostitution. Tolerance began to erode under the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), when Confucian family ethics were reinforced, and especially after Communism took over in the late 1940s. Now the pendulum has begun to swing back. Homosexuality is still frowned upon but was decriminalized in 1997 and taken off the list of mental illnesses in 2001.

The theme of migration comes up in many of the country reports, albeit with variations. In Germany, writes Heide Casteneda, up to ninety percent of sex workers are immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe, mostly Bulgaria and Romania, which joined the European Union in 2007. In Berlin, young men can make enough money to support their families back home and improve their lives, but their low rates tend to drive German competitors away. Or take the case of Ireland, where, according to Paul J. Maggin and Graham Ellison, few of the sex workers are Irish. The majority immigrated from Spain and Italy, where youth unemployment has skyrocketed of late, and also from Brazil.

The vignettes about the sex workers profiled have a consistency about them. Whatever language they speak, practitioners appear pragmatic, calculating, and guileless in their answers. They are unapologetic about their decisions and don’t justify them with reference to identity politics.

The book is at its most interesting when it provides statistics, such as an essay on escort prices by Trevon Logan, an economist at Ohio State University. Using a statistical method called hedonic regression on 1,476 data entries from a national U.S. escort website, Logan found that “tops” command a premium while exclusive “bottoms” suffer a penalty, but tops who will also bottom command extra for the service. On average, race and ethnicity do not influence the going rate, though the price differential between tops and bottoms is especially pronounced for African-American hustlers. Other physical characteristics—eye color, hair color, body hair, and height—likewise seem to have little influence on pricing. The penalty for age is about a one percent decrease per year. Athletic and muscular builds command a premium, while both flabbiness and thinness exact a penalty.

The book is full of intriguing information that might add up to something, but the editors leave it to the reader to integrate the various findings. Thus, for example, several studies suggest that the majority of escorts are gay or bisexual, such as a British study in which 72 percent of respondents identified as gay. But a study of 145 sex workers in Argentina found that only 42 percent identified as gay, with another 28 percent saying they were bisexual. What the two studies have in common is that only around thirty percent of the sex workers identify as straight. This finding was fairly consistent in a number of studies, tempting us to conclude that only a minority of male prostitutes in modern urban societies are heterosexual.

Many sex workers tell researchers that they don’t think of prostitution as a career. They do it for monetary payoff, but also for gay companionship and fun. They are not motivated by a sense of accomplishment, contribution to others, or professionalism. The editors’ notion that sex work is just another type of job is true only up to a point. As Kong writes about money boys: “most of them tended not to treat sex work as work and did not identify themselves as sex workers.” Thus the editors’ insistence on calling it “sex work,” however well-intentioned, might be missing the point: most male prostitutes don’t identify themselves as such in the way that a bricklayer thinks of himself as a bricklayer. Clearly this is not because they don’t acknowledge what they do, but rather indicates that their work is not a source of pride for them.