Agency-Based Male Sex Work: A Descriptive Focus on Physical, Personal, and Social Space

By Smith, Michael D.; Grov, Christian et al. | The Journal of Men's Studies, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Agency-Based Male Sex Work: A Descriptive Focus on Physical, Personal, and Social Space


Smith, Michael D., Grov, Christian, Seal, David W., The Journal of Men's Studies


Academic study of prostitution (herein, sex work) has emerged in the last century. Early research focused on female sex work, whereas study of male sex work did not emerge until the last half-century (Bimbi, 2007). Although the term "sex work" comprises a variety of professions (e.g., adult film actor, erotic dancer, street-based sex workers), it will be utilized in this article to describe those who engaged in sexual behavior for pay. This article further focuses on men who engage in agency-based sex work with other men (i.e., male sex workers, MSWs).

Sex workers are frequently confronted with stigma, degradation, verbal,

psychological, and physical abuse due to moral, political, and religious proscriptions against this profession (Bimbi; Koken, Bimbi, Parsons, & Halkitis, 2004; Vanwesenbeeck, 2001). A substantial body of academic research also has stigmatized commercial sex work (see Bimbi; Koken et al.; Parsons, Koken, & Bimbi, 2004). Researchers have labeled MSWs as "'deviant" (Lukenbill, 1986), "pathological" (Sagarin & Jolly, 1997), and "vectors" for disease transmission into heterosexual communities (Gattairi & Spizzichino, 1992; Morse, Simon, Osofsky, Balson. & Gaumer, 1991). More recent research has highlighted MSWs' HIV sexual risk behaviors (DeMatteo et al., 1999), drug use (Weber et al., 2001; Williams, Timpson, Klovdal, Bowen, Ross, & Keel, 2003), and their increased likelihood of HIV transmission (Roy et al., 2003; Weber et al.).

Stigma and Identity Management

Goffman (1963) made seminal contributions to the discourse of stigma and identity management. One type of stigma Goffman identified was "blemishes of character," which refers to an individual's perceived moral deficits (Goffman; Koken et al.). Goffman further proposed that stigmatized individuals often struggle to maintain a positive identity in spite of the negative assumptions society makes about them. Sanders (2005) termed this struggle "emotional labor," or managing the emotional impact of sex work. Sanders reported that female sex workers strategically "manufactured identities" to manage the emotional aspects of their personal versus professional lives. By acting particular roles in different settings, sex workers were able to distinguish their personal lives from their professional lives. This is similar to Goffman's (1959) concept of front stage and back stage behaviors, whereby individuals interact and exist in different environmental contexts and within these contexts adopt different roles (see also Koken et al.).

Similarly, interviews with Internet-based MSWs suggest that men also create separations between sexual behavior in their professional versus personal lives. Researchers have reported that MSWs avoid specific sexual behaviors with clients that they do with non-clients, including avoidance of deep-kissing, anal receptive sex, and sex without condoms with clients (Bimbi & Parsons, 2005; Parsons, Koken, & Bimbi; Smith & Seal, 2007). Although research indicates MSWs strategically maintain divisions between their professional and personal lives, little research has explored in-depth the specific ways that MSWs create, divide, and manage different sexual and non-sexual aspects of their lives (see Browne & Minichiello, 1995; and Koken et al. for exceptions).

More generally, prior research with MSWs has been largely restricted to street-based samples (Bimbi; Vanwesenbeeck). Research among MSWs working in other settings, such as Internet- or agency-based escorts, is limited. However, existing work suggests that these men may behave differently from those working predominantly on the street, especially in relation to HIV risk (Estep, Waldorf, & Marotta, 1992; Minichiello, Marino, Browne, Jamieson, Reuter, & Robinson, 2000: Simon, Morse, Osofsky, Balson, & Gaumer, 1992). We speculate that agency-based MSWs similarly experience and strategically manage sex work-related stigma, but may do so differently than street-based MSWs due to discrepancies in the psychosocial environments in which they work. …

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