ASHA Book Review: Male Sex Work and Society

Male Sex Work and Society

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

Review by By Dr Margaret Redelman OAM, MBBS, MPsychotherapy

This very easy to read very pro-gay and pro sex worker book gives a wide-ranging introduction to ideas and concepts that need further scientific discourse and research in the field of male sex workers. The book mostly presents anecdotal and soft research data and repeatedly reiterates that this area is poorly researched and especially when compared to female sex workers.

There are few hypotheses and conclusions but maybe it’s too early for these and the material presented here can be the launching pad for more scientific work. 

 The book should be of particular interest to health practitioners including doctors, psychologists, nurses, social workers etc working with male sex workers and populations who use the services of male sex workers. Health professionals who work with male sex workers need to be particularly aware of the fluidity that can be present around sexual exchanges, in the boundaries between paid and social sex and in orientation identification.

The chapters on sociohistoric context makes compelling reading. Seeing the past journey and the influences of time and culture is always interesting, and informative of present context.

The book is divided into 3 further headings – marketing of male sex work, social issues and cultures and male sex work in the global context.

The chapters on marketing were interesting but basically a presentation of soft data. How people advertise often doesn’t say much about the seller but more about the client and what is wanted by the client. Advertising reflects the market as much as creating a market. The younger sex workers have grown up in a technology age and are adept at using it.

There could have been more expansion on the understanding of how sex workers fulfil rolls and fantasies and how stereotypes play into the buyer’s fantasies. For example the general perception is that Asian men are not as well-endowed as for example black men, so not many men will pay for an Asian top. Maybe older successful men with disposable cash are dominant all day and want to take the submissive role in sex and therefore want a top to be a male in his sexual prime and well-endowed who will be assertive, knowledgeable and give pleasure.

A persistent difficulty I experienced in reading the book was the contradictions by different authors due to lack of standardised criteria. Male sex workers are not a homogenous group and research must clearly differentiate discussions between poor, uneducated, migrant, dysfunctional background and street workers and white Anglo-Saxon, educated, economically secure, independent and just wanting more. There can be no blanket one position for 'male sex worker'.

The Chapter on subcultures was informative and professionals need to keep abreast of the changes that are occurring. It will be interesting to see how sub-cultures evolve. For example how will gay friendly daddy/parent/couple communities meet and supply sexual needs and services.

In our increasing multicultural global environment is important to have some understanding of specific issues that individuals from difference cultural and economic regions may have and the global political forces that drive migrations and sex worker movements. The last section on male sex work within a global context is very informative although repetitive as similarity across cultures and sex worker backgrounds are reiterated. It would be interesting to compare and contrast with female sex workers from the same cultures and backgrounds both personal and political. It would be beneficial for use in clinical practice if commonly occurring features and consequences were grouped together so that concepts could be broadly applied.

The book’s conclusion states that the aim of the book was to open and clarify a broader perspective on the industry and I think it is successful in this aim. Whether it has put to rest some outdated and negative perceptions of male sex workers and their clients – as morally deficient and deviant individuals is more difficult to ascertain. This depends on whether one believes those descriptors to be true of the whole sex worker and client populations, or just some part, as in the broader population or that there is a higher percentage of troubled individuals in the sex worker population than the general population.

Yes, sexual pleasure involves intensely personal erotic acts and interactions. However, I don’t feel that this book has let me into the lives of male sex workers to understand what sexual pleasure or intimacy they get from their work. Yes, it is a paid job and the forces that lead to an individual choosing this industry need to be understood. The environment that the worker and client then provide between themselves needs to be understood and facilities provided to ameliorate and minimise any negative consequences. Punitive religious and political scripts need to be understood as social constructs and moulded into kinder more modern scripts.

The book presents an overview of the forces - orientation stigmatisation, religious persecution, political milieu, migration, marginalisation etc that shape the lived lives of male sex workers. I have not gained a good grasp of who the sex workers were or their psychological health backgrounds. There are some good ideas for further research. Well worth a read.

Dr Margaret Redelman OAM
President SAS NSW