Male sex workers are often overlooked, ignored, or thought of as the most optional and privileged sorts of workers. Even in a time of crisis.
I have a bundle of google alerts set up to bring information – about male escorts, sex work, sex toys, cockrings – to my (junk, since I don’t use gmail for anything else) inbox, and most days they provide little more than a chuckle or a sigh as I go through and delete them. At the worst of times, it brings all the news and opinion I’m deliberately trying to avoid on social media. But at the best of times, it nets a positive thing or two, like a little good news dolphin caught by accident in a fish net.
Last week, google brought me an article titled “I’m a gay sex worker and COVID-19 has affected my income. My friends say I should look for a ‘safer’ job. What should I do?” and I took a loooonng pause before I clicked it. All of those words are a bit explosive for me personally, particularly in this moment when this could have been my own question, asked in a moment of desperation to anyone who might have something to offer.
The trouble though, with asking anyone outside of the breadth of lived sex work experience, what they think one ought to do, is that you’re going to get answers loaded with moralizing, emotion, and misinformation – no matter how hard someone tries to stay logical (or believes that is what they are doing). Sex work is quite singular in that it comes with understandings that can only truly be achieved through experience, despite every single person in the world somehow believing that what they know from books, stories, movies, and salacious news articles equals (or supersedes) that lived experience.
Everyone has an opinion about sex work, whether they even realize it at first or not.
Mostly I avoid news and advice around these subjects where possible. I don’t really want to hear what civilians have to say about my decade+ in this industry – working with and consulting for leading adult businesses while simultaneously working as a male escort / FSSW for more than ten years – nor do I want to learn which people I admire or enjoy (Seth Meyers/Amy Schumer) have terrible, offensive, and damaging opinions on a world about which they know less than nothing. I don’t want to see my work or my colleagues be dismissed or diminshed as lazy or frivolous or unscrupulous. And I don’t want to have to constantly reaffirm that sex work is work, when that is so unfathomably plain to me.
But something made me click, anyway:
I’m a gay male sex worker and I’m struggling with the pandemic. I was a male escort before things shut down, and my income has been hit really hard. I switched to working online but I’m not very skilled at it yet, and the money is nothing compared to what I used to make. Now that things are opening up a bit, lots of my old regulars are reaching out to ask for appointments—but I’m not sure that’s safe or responsible. I’m really hurting for money, though. My friends keep not-so-subtly hinting that I should look for other jobs, and I am, but to tell the truth, hustling is the only job that’s ever felt even remotely sustainable for me both in terms of income and mental health. What should I do?
I felt a little lump begin to form in my throat, and sighed as I began to read what I already knew would be a gentle but condescending coddling of this person (in whose words I saw my own situation reflected), as though he had never before thought to listen to his friends and just needed one more push from a stranger to find his way out of the life forever.
The first third of the advice giver’s words were pretty standard, albeit informed-sounding disclaimers about not being a doctor, and a thorough validating of the feelings of the advice-seeker. Restated information about COVID and the dangers of intimate contact in this moment. Responsible and considered, if not interesting or exciting.
And then, the advice took an unexpectd turn:
As a result of sex-negativity, we may be prone to see sexual risk through a lens of immorality and shamefulness rather than compassion and harm reduction.
I say this, because I want you to know that the ethical burden for making this choice does not lie solely with you, though our sex-negative, whorephobic society may try to convince you otherwise. It lies with a society that refuses to acknowledge the basic rights of the individual to health care and a safe, meaningful, sustainable occupation.
I didn’t know what to think.
So I find it very interesting that your friends are suggesting that you find other, “safer” work—a common experience for sex workers right now and always—while so few people seem to be launching campaigns to rescue and convert agricultural workers and hairdressers to other professions. Like so many people of the working class, erotic labourers are being forced back to work in unsafe conditions by governments that refuse to extend welfare or unemployment benefits. Yet sex workers are additionally being stigmatized, as they traditionally have been, as immoral carriers of disease.
“Oh god. Oh my god, yes,” I thought.
I desperately searched for any part of the advice I might have phrased differently myself or improved upon in some way. I couldn’t find it. It was… perfect. Right to the very end:
We are spiralling deeper into a global crisis, and each one of us will need to ask some critical questions about who we are and what kind of choices we need to make in order to survive. That you are already thinking so critically about safety responsibility speaks well of you. Remember as well that your survival is an ethical choice. Remember that you deserve to make a living, to be supported by your community and that you deserve to live.
I sat quietly in my chair for a time, with tears in my eyes that seemed to have no interest in releasing themselves. And I thought about all of the times in my career that I had been told that wasn’t what it even was. That what I did was small and couldn’t be considered a job, much less a career.
Even though this wasn’t about me, per se, it was about all of us.
You can’t maybe begin to imagine how far a little bit of legitimacy goes these days for guys like me. And what it means to see peers told that it’s the system that’s wrong; the system that is failing.
And that we deserve respect. Deserve to live.
I was so deeply moved by these words, that I sat down again that evening to let the author Kai Cheng Thom know how important what they had said was. And how much it mattered right now to see it in print.
I strongly encourage you to go and read the full text at DailyXtra. It touches on a lot of subjects, but the focus on legitimizing this man’s work choices as well as the relevant comparisons drawn between male escorts, sex work and types of work deemed more “acceptable,” are profound.
And if you are a sex worker, particularly if you are a male-ID’d sex worker, who is struggling right now: I see you and you matter. Your work matters. And it is real work. We will get through this. male escort