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I have written this as a discussion piece. It was prompted by a conversation that I had with an activist who told me that should I (a gay man) speak publicly about sex work; that I should only speak about my personal experiences ie as a gay man selling sex. Interesting though my experiences are; I was annoyed at the limitations I was asked to impose upon myself. I sell sex afterall often to the very same men as my female colleagues with whom I share very similar experiences, yet I could not talk in general terms about our work, only my own.
The process of attracting clients, the sexual acts performed, are; after all very similar. For me it matters not who is speaking but rather what is being said. And if it is a man or woman speaking; should be of little relevance.
I am tired of the media presenting sex work in a way that I don’t recognise and I am suspicious of some (not all) activists who pander to the media and worse our enemies, by playing to stereotypes, segregating sex workers into groups and dividing us into silly little tribes.
Sex workers come in all shapes and sizes and have so much to offer to society. We should be proud of that. But if we don’t challenge presumptions and prejudices who will do it on our behalf?
Prostitution is a woman’s issue. Only women are prostituted and the few “boys” in sex work are just feminised boys, who also (of course) are victims of male aggression? This is rhetoric that we are all familiar with from anti sex work lobbyists. We also know that it is an opinion shared by a media who are uncomfortable with the idea of women willingly selling sex or of same gender sex; whither in exchange for money or not. We know that the sex worker debate is trapped within incredibly conservative stereotypes about human sexuality. But are sex worker activists any different?
In the sex worker debate there exists a quiet consensus among activists to acquiesce to this popular notion that only the voices of women can truly represent sex workers because, they argue; the media and the public assume that sex work is a woman’s issue.
Men who sell sex have of course been studied and written about; but in truth they are a mostly viewed as a sub group, a separate group and particularly worrying; studies of men selling sex have, perhaps unintentionally, pandered to populist assumptions that it is only young men who sell sex. The notion of the “rent boy” dominates which plays to anti sex work lobbyists claims of feminised men.
These presumptions, or are they prejudices, are also shared by some out reach projects. I don’t remember during my twelve years in the sex business as a man selling sex ever being approached by any out reach project offering advice, help, or even free condoms.
Out reach projects by their very nature, tend to concentrate on areas of sex work where social problems exist and these areas are often the most visible sex for sale markets. Young men, under the age of twenty five, perhaps; are more likely to have social and personal problems; but are they the majority. Is the fact that they are more visible reason enough for them to be presumed to represent normality within the male sex for sale business?
There is an historical, cultural heritage that celebrates the idealisation of beautiful boys and of those beautiful young men being desired by older men. This cultural heritage or memory; perhaps explains why young men selling sex is oddly understandable if not acceptable in a society uncomfortable with the idea of men, or rather older men, selling sex as opposed to buying sex.
The idealisation of beautiful boys playing Ganymede to older men is nothing new. The classical world is full of references to” pedastry” and similar systems existed and still do exist in various cultures around the world. (“This article illustrates the use of images of male sex workers and explores the cultures represented in that art” ).
The truth is however; that although Men, regardless of age, are probably a minority within sex work, although no one really knows how many sex workers there are, regardless of gender, their voices should be equal to that of women in the general debate for rights. Does being a minority make men’s voices less than that of women? Sex work is a human issue not a gender issue; no matter what anti sex work lobbyists pretend.
The fact is that men and women sell and buy sex and the selling and purchase of sex is not relevant to gender or age. In sex work activism however; it is the voices of older women who are more dominant. These women quite rightly talk with authority about all aspects of our industry. Where however are the voices of men who sell sex, talking not just about specific aspects of their sex work; but about our industry as a whole?
I find it frustrating that some within activism are more comfortable accommodating populist presumptions and prejudices than with challenging those prejudices and educating society about our industry. I think that it is time that activists celebrated and reflected the diverse nature of the sex industry by welcoming the voices of men and women equally. And not just the voices of men and women who sell sex but of others within our industry, the managers, the drivers and everyone who makes money from the sex for sale industry.
If society is to change and sex workers are to contribute toward a more sexually liberal, progressive and less judgemental society; then we have to challenge the prejudices that not only silence sex workers but divides sex workers. That surely is what activism is really about, challenging prejudices, not accepting them. Teaching people that sex work is a business that contributes toward society. It is an industry that supports many different people, of all ages, from many different back grounds and with varied life experiences. Activism is not just about forming little cliques or pleasing the media but about educating the public about our industry and about being proud of the contribution that our industry makes to society.