A recurring theme in men’s health is the tendency for male wellness and safety to be overlooked, neglected, or ignored.
Such is the case when it comes to male sex workers.
“People assume that guys who are involved in sex work aren’t vulnerable to the power imbalances that women who are involved in sex work are vulnerable to, and I don’t think that’s the case,” Health Initiative for Men (HIM) executive director Greg Oudman says by phone.
Although much attention has been given to female sex workers—and understandably so—programs for male sex workers in Canada remain scarce.
Two male sex workers involved in a 2007 study (Under the Radar: The Sexual Exploitation of Young Men by Susan McIntyre) recognized the lack of resources and services for these men.
Consequently, they launched Hustle: Men on the Move in 2007 as an outreach and support program for male and transgender survival and street-based sex workers at PEERS Vancouver Resource Society. After PEERS closed in 2012, HIM adopted the program.
Oudman explains that Hustle has since become an educational and advocacy program on a structural level while its partner program, Transitions, launched three years ago, has taken on the role of one-on-one support and helping participants who want to consider employment options and goals outside of sex work.
The programs are available to any self-identified male sex worker, including straight or “gay for pay” workers, survival sex workers, and indoor independent sex workers, ranging from go-go dancers to high-end escorts.
Oudman says that over the past five years, they’ve witnessed a major shift of male sex workers from specific geographic areas to an online presence. Historically, in Vancouver, the main outdoor male-sex-worker stroll was “Boystown” in what is now Yaletown, before gentrification and 2010 Olympics preparations displaced it. Accordingly, netreach has since replaced outreach, as Oudman says HIM is trying to find effective ways to engage males online, which includes maintaining a presence on dating apps.
However, another displacement is occurring online: Oudman says tools such as Craigslist and social media—which all sex workers once used to find clientele, are no longer available to them.
“It’s forcing it [sex work] more underground and creating less safety because the traditional ways of advertising for sex workers are disappearing because of heightened vigilance and increased law enforcement,” he says. “Our big fear is it’s hard for people to access health services when they’re being driven underground.”
A major component of the programs is to tackle stigma against sex workers. “Given that our community is a marginalized community and experiences a significant amount of stigma, I’m surprised at the level of stigma,” Oudman says.
In fact, a 2015 UBC study found that the biggest fear of male sex workers was not violence from clients but from both within and outside of gay communities.
As a sex-worker advocacy organization, HIM developed a sex worker antistigma training program for healthcare providers and various groups, including nightlife promoters, which Oudman says is “wildly successful”.
“The intent behind it was to increase the competency of health-care providers in their level of understanding of male sex work and thus reducing the stigma attached to male sex work,” he explains, providing hope for the future.