By Dr. Paul Maginn, University of Western Australia, and Graham Ellison, Queen’s University Belfast
Both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are taking steps towards new regulations for the sex work industry, principally aimed at better protecting victims of coercion and trafficking. However, in both jurisdictions, these efforts have been met with the usual responses; interest groups, campaigners and lawmakers are at loggerheads over the new laws’ potential to help or harm sex workers.
We are of the view that the proposed legislation in both parts of Ireland will do more harm than good. And in all the furore, some crucial areas are being overlooked – such as the fate of male sex workers.
When the topic of prostitution is raised within so-called polite company, two stereotypes generally spring to mind: the drug-dependent street walker under the control of her low-life criminal pimp, and the high-end escort with Hollywood good looks. In other words, prostitution – or (as we prefer) sex work – tends to be seen as a woman’s game, and a game of extremes. The reality of the situation is that the majority of sex workers lie somewhere between these two extremes.
Meanwhile, raise the topic of male sex work and your polite company might recall American Gigolo (1980), about a handsome heterosexual male escort, or Midnight Cowboy (1969), where a straight street hustler has to resort to “gay for pay” sex work to survive. Or they might just snigger at the idea, remembering the comedic Duece Bigolo: Male Gigolo (1999).
Put simply, we tend not to take the issue of male sex work seriously. Even when we do, there is still a perception that male sex workers, unlike their female counterparts, are working by choice, with a lower risk of encountering client abuse, and without being controlled by a pimp – simply because they are men.
It is certainly true that far fewer men than women are engaged in sex work; men account for an estimated 5-10% of sex workers in liberal democracies. Whereas the vast majority of female sex workers identify as being heterosexual, the majority of male escorts identify as either bisexual or gay, while others identify as transsexuals or transvestites. And while these men probably have highly specialised needs and risks, attempts to change the law’s approach – even progressive ones – too often overlook male sex workers and their very particular situation.
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