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.
Regulating sex work in Ireland
As with many other liberal democracies, sex work per se is not illegal in Northern Ireland (NI) or the Republic of Ireland (RoI). However, activities related to sex work, such as solicitation, pimping and keeping a brothel, are all illegal.
In the past year or so there have been steps in both the north and the south to introduce the so-called Swedish model of penalising buyers and pimps, not sex workers. In both jurisdictions, the political and advocacy rhetoric has been clouded by a human trafficking narrative and a focus on protecting women. Of course, the idea that some women involved in sex work may have “chosen” to work in this profession tends to be greeted with contempt from feminist campaigners against prostitution and both mainstream and fundamentalist religious groups.
Male sex work(er) issues were discussed, albeit fleetingly, in the public hearings as part of the review of prostitution legislation in the RoI. However, the same cannot be said of the political and media debates in Northern Ireland.
A major reason for this is that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who are sponsoring the bill to introduce legislation on trafficking and prostitution, apparently cannot acknowledge that men would engage in such a practice. This belief is grounded in the strict Christian views of the party and its supporters.
But the problem extends beyond the DUP. When it comes to male sex work(ers), policy makers, the police and advocacy groups alike seem ignorant and/or disinterested – and none are apparently able to provide any data on them. Given the relative paucity of evidence on male sex workers, what do we actually know?
Like the female sector, we can think of male sex work as structured along vertical and horizontal axes: vertical in terms of the capital a sex worker can deploy (whether they can attract high paying clients), and horizontal in terms of where sexual commerce is transacted (for example, the internet or the street).
At the upper end of the scale are “professional” escorts who are highly mobile and tend not to be from Ireland. Anonymised data from one of Ireland’s largest online escort websites, Escort-Ireland, revealed that the male escort sector was comparatively small, accounting for 187, or 3.5%, of the total number of escort advertisements – female, male, transsexual and transvestite – posted on the website.
Just over half of all male sex workers who use Escort-Ireland identified as coming from three countries: Brazil, Spain and Italy. These escorts work in both urban and rural settings across Ireland, commanding relatively higher prices and tailoring their services to a range of client tastes based on looks, body image, cleanliness and whether they can provide a “boyfriend experience”.
Based on research we have recently completed, it would appear escorts from Ireland also use the internet, but they tend to advertise their services more sporadically and anonymously on free websites such as Craigslist or Squirt. Little detail is provided in their posts, and it is rare for photographic images to be displayed. Many males who engage in this type of sex work appear to do so opportunistically, using the money they earn for one-off discretionary purchases such as mobile phone credits or clothes.
Finally, there is a small street-based male sex worker sector in the larger cities such as Belfast and Dublin. This sector tends to be populated almost exclusively by young men who have drug dependency issues, who have experienced bouts of homelessness, and who have been in institutional care. In the RoI, many are also economic migrants. These young men are disproportionately likely to be subject to violence and abuse from clients, attract undue police attention, and engage in risky sexual practices.
A more rational approach
It is clear that the sexual commerce scene in Ireland, as elsewhere, is dominated by female providers. Nevertheless, Irish policy makers need to realise that sex work is a profession occupied not only by women, but also by men, transsexuals and transvestites. These latter groups endure discrimination and abuse from a variety of sources, and may have specific occupational and health risks and needs that require tailored support.
In particular, the persistence of a small street-based scene populated almost exclusively by vulnerable young men demands urgent attention from policy makers. Any such support, be it policy development or programme assistance, must be peer-based; sex workers simply have the best knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.
Similarly, the assumption that all sex workers should be helped to exit the sex industry neglects the employment and income security that sex work can provide, as well as the sense of community and social capital amongst sex workers.
Before the RoI and NI governments roll out new laws and regulations for sex work, they must pay due attention not to rhetoric, but to reality.