Why It’s So Hard to Understand Male Sex Workers

A lack of basic research hinders efforts to help young men in the sex industry.

A male prostitute soliciting a male driver. (Photo: Facebook)

Feb 21, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Hugh Ryan's work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast.

Israel Oka was 22 years old when he started doing sex work—a mixture of professional domination, erotic massage, and escorting. He’d been “working a minimum-wage job at a movie theater” at the height of the Great Recession. Eventually, a dominatrix friend inspired him to consider sex work as a way to make ends meet. “It started off as supplementary income,” about $100 a week, Oka said. Sometimes, this gave him the financial resources to pursue other interests, such as political activism. Other times, it was survival sex work, helping him get by when he was homeless.

Muscular, tattooed, and now in his late 20s, Oka is a highly sought-after professional male escort, with clients across the country. Over the last eight years, his work has spanned almost every part of this shadowed industry, from the sex-positive, celebratory Hookie Awards (best tattoos, 2010) to the stigmatized, low-paying transactions that play out over Craigslist. Oka is unsure how common his experiences are. As a person of mixed Japanese and American heritage, he isn’t the idealized white “rent boy” that often appears in movies nor the tragic black exploited teen provoking salacious headlines. But he suspects that many men who stay in the industry have a similar range of experiences. “With male sex work,” he said over the phone from Denver, one of his stomping grounds, “it all goes hand in hand.”

That may be the case—emphasis on may. There have been no rigorous studies of male sex workers in the U.S. Without data that gets into the granular differences between those working in different parts of the industry, crafting initiatives that are responsive to the needs of these men and boys is nearly impossible. At a minimum, our ignorance around male sex workers vis-à-vis human trafficking means we’re basically abandoning victims. Oka still faces issues that get swept under the rug when we ignore adult male sex workers. For example, how would he report an assault by a client to the cops?

“There is a history not only of lack of research but of active suppression” of what studies there have been, said Sienna Baskin, codirector of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, who is on a Fulbright scholarship studying the decriminalization of prostitution in New Zealand. She points to one pernicious episode: Republican congressman Patrick Toomey’s 2003 attempt to rescind sexual health research grants, which had been given out by the National Institute of Health. Although his efforts failed, they subsequently prompted a wave of self-censorship by scientists, according to a 2008 study from Rutgers University.

Funding for research on sex work is often tied to preventing HIV/AIDS or human trafficking. “Much of this has ignored LGBT youth and men,” Baskin said, because they don’t fit the traditional picture of trafficking victims. Though Baskin believes that’s changing, she doesn’t think this will help us get a good picture of the real lives of sex workers, because these studies see everything through the lens of trafficking, defining all people working in the industry as already exploited.

In 2006, Ric Curtis, chair of the anthropology department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, launched a research project intended to focus on prostituted girls in New York City. Over the next two years, Curtis and his team conducted nearly 250 interviews, using an organic process by which youths involved in sex work recruited peers. Among the investigation's surprising findings: Almost half of the underage sex workers interviewed were boys. “We found so many boys,” Curtis said, “that our sponsors told us to ‘cut them off’ in favor of recruiting girls.”

This goes back to the funding problems Baskin mentioned and our preconceived notions about what sex work is. “Everyone wanted us to find pimped girls,” Curtis said, because we are “fixated on the idea that teen prostitution is predominantly girls enslaved by evil pimps.” But he found that 75 percent of the girls, 90 percent of the boys, and 100 percent of the transgender youths he interviewed were working without a “market facilitator,” or a pimp.

Our ignorance around these issues has real-world repercussions, especially for those involved in the more exploitative sides of the industry. But those are often the hardest men to reach, as Oka himself demonstrates: As a high-end rent boy, he has a Web profile and wins awards. But how would a researcher find him when he was arranging meetings off Craigslist via a prepaid phone?

Rhodes Perry, director of the New York City Administration for Children Services' Office of LGBTQ Policy and Practice, deals with these problems firsthand. “The lack of evidence makes it extremely difficult to inform program innovation proposals,” he said, which hinders new and potentially more effective strategies for providing services to youths in need.

Perry and Baskin hope a study coming out in late February will shed light on some of these questions. The report, led by Meredith Dank, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, looked at LGBTQ youths “engaging in survival sex… allowing them to tell their stories in their own words,” according to the newsletter of Streetwise & Safe, an LGBT youth organization that partnered with Dank on the research.

In a blog post last year, Dank teased some of the preliminary results, saying, “Our research points to serious service gaps when it comes to support for LGBTQ youth. At the top of the list is a need for increased emergency and long-term housing options so that youth have immediate and available places to go.”

With any luck, this is the start of a shift in the way we look at sex work. “I think people are starting to realize the male sex industry exists,” Oka said. With the help of new research, perhaps we will soon go beyond recognizing the existence of these men to understanding their lives.