From Pathology to Choice: Regulatory Discourses and the Historic Conflation of Homosexuality and Male Sex Work

Article excerpt

While scholarship indicates that male sex work is likely as historically entrenched as female sex work (West & DeVilliers, 1993), sex work has generally been conceived in the sociological imagination in relation to heterosexual norms, with women as the providers of the sex acts and males as the consumers or organizers of the sexual exchange. Reviewing existing literature, this paper explores the myriad discourses that have served to regulate male sex work, categorizing modes of regulation through a discursive lens. Although male sex workers were historically exempt from the formalities of the criminal justice system and regulatory techniques such as mandatory medical examinations and licensing, the prohibition of homosexuality constituted a symbolic act that discursively constructed and reinforced notions that male sex workers were sexually deviant, pathological and contributed to the spread of HIV.


Evoking images of females as providers of sexual fantasy and/or sex acts and of males as the consumers or organizers of the commercial exchange Bimbi, 2007; Van der Poel, 1992), sex work has generally been conceived in relation to heterosexual norms, with social inquiry largely limited to the study of women as sex workers Dennis, 2008; West & DeVilliers, 1993; Wilcox & Christmann, 2008). While empirical studies on male sex work only emerged within the last half century (Bimbi), it is erroneous to assume that the existence of men employing their sexuality in commercial exchange is a recent phenomenon, or that its need for regulation was never posited within the literature Smart, 1978; West & DeVilliers). Scholarship indicates that male sex work is likely as historically entrenched as female sex work West & DeVilliers), evidenced by accounts of men providing sexual services in ancient Greece and Rome, where, in some cases, it was licensed and taxed Bimbi; Ringdal, 2004; West & DeVilliers).

Although analogous to its female counterpart, the provision of sexual services by men was not always regarded as a significant social problem Scott, 2003). Coeval the emergence of the category "adolescent" (Scott), societal conceptualizations of normative male sexuality and sexual identity developed as the exchange of sexual services by men to other men became synonymous with the problematic of homosexuality Kaye, 2003; Scott; Weeks, 2007, 1981). The historical transformation of regulatory narratives structuring male sex work involves a complex nexus between sexual, psycho-social, medical, and most recently, labour discourses. As a means to bridge available research, this paper commences with a general outline of scholarship on male sex work, followed by an overview of concomitant regulatory discourses- sexual, psychological, medical, and labour- conceptually integrating them within broader narratives of social regulation.


The data presented in this article are derived from a synthesis and analysis of scholarly literature on male sex work. Following the world-systems theory geographical classification utilized by Dennis (2008), this paper focuses specifically on literature stemming from the "core" region Western Europe, North America excluding Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand). A search was performed using Sociological Abstracts on Scholars Portal (ProQuest), a large social science database for articles in peer reviewed journals, with any of several keywords, including male sex work, male prostitution, sex work, prostitution. Given political, economic, and socio-cultural differences, articles detailing the global male sex work industry in geographic locations outside of the cited geographical purview were excluded.

Within this paper, I use the term discourse to refer to the different ways that "social entities and relations [are] construct[ed] or constitute[d]" (Fairclough, 1992, p. …


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