Nearly One in Five Sex Workers Are Men

A new study offers a look into what their lives are like.

Justin Lehmiller

Justin Lehmiller

igor madjinca/stocksy

Imagine someone who sells sex for a living. If you’re like most people, you probably imagined a woman: Most of us tend to think about sex work as a profession in which women are the sellers and men are the buyers; however, it turns out that there are more men out there selling sex than most people think.

There are currently an estimated 42 million sex workers worldwide, and it’s thought that up to 20 percent of them are male. If these estimates are correct, it means there may be as many as 8 million male sex workers.

So what do we know about these men? A new study of male sex workers conducted by Australian professors Victor Minichiello and John Scott offers some insight. The study focused on men who sell sex over the internet. Through the use of an escorting app and Google searches, the researchers identified approximately 325,000 online profiles of male escorts around the world. After accounting for men who posted the same profile on multiple sites, the pool narrowed to about 100,000 unique male escorts—which, of course, is just a fraction of the total number of male sex workers, given that not all sex work takes place online.

The profiles were predominately located in South and Central America (44 percent) and North America (43 percent). The countries with the most male escorts were, in order: Mexico, the United States, Brazil, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Mexico topped the list in part because sex work is legal there—however, it’s probably also because of Mexico’s close proximity to the US and the favorable exchange rate for American visitors.

By and large, the men on these websites seem to be selling to other men, with about 57 percent of the websites exclusively catering to guys. However, 11 percent of the sites focused on men selling to women, and another 10 percent focused on men selling to couples. So while it’s not surprising to learn that most clients of male escorts are men, it is clear that there are a sizeable number of women out there buying sex, too.

So what’s the going rate for sex with a male escort? As one of the study’s authors, John Scott, noted in a press release about the study, “The average price worldwide seems to be $200 an hour, but it can be thousands of dollars for a weekend, especially among the international male escorts.”

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This is consistent with results of a 2013 study published in the Journal of Sex Research, which found that male sex workers employed at a small agency in the US charged $160 an hour. Incidentally, this 2013 study is one of just a handful academic papers ever to focus on male sex work. It offers some additional insight into the characteristics of these men because the data were obtained through interviews with the workers themselves rather than an analysis of online profiles. Here are some of the key findings:

Of the 38 sex workers interviewed for this study, most were young (90 percent were under the age of 25) and 80 percent of them identified as gay or bisexual. Given the hourly rate they charged, it is perhaps not surprising that money was cited as their primary motivation for becoming an escort; however, it’s worth noting that, because they worked for an agency, they didn’t get to keep the full amount. Indeed, after the agency’s cut, their take dropped to $110 an hour. Many reported getting tips in addition to the base rate, though, which increased their salary by as much as 25 percent.

On average, these men said they saw between two and four clients per week. About half had completed at least some college, and the vast majority (63 percent) said that they had some type of job in addition to sex work. In other words, it seems that when men sell sex for a living, they tend to do so as a means of supplementing their income rather than it being their primary job. This is one of the important ways in which male and female sex workers differ—men are more likely to do it on a part-time basis.

The interviews also revealed that it’s common for men to feel uncomfortable in this line of work, especially in the beginning. For example, many find it difficult to perform when engaged in behaviors that aren’t consistent with their sexual orientation and/or when they find themselves working with clients to whom they are not attracted. In addition, many report feeling as though their work conflicts with their personal beliefs or values, such as feeling like they are doing something “wrong” or “dirty.”

These challenges are sometimes difficult enough that they lead men to exit the profession quickly; however, it seems that most find ways to work through them as they gain experience. Common coping strategies noted by male sex workers include dissociation (which involves cognitively separating yourself from an uncomfortable experience), focusing on the money, and seeking social support and advice from other sex workers.

Although just a couple of studies ever have focused on male sex workers, it’s clear from this research that there are probably a lot more men out there doing this than most would expect and, furthermore, they seem to have a very diverse set of experiences on the job.

Justin Lehmiller is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.

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