CONTENT WARNING: This article contains details that some may find distressing.
When we think of the stereotypical “sex worker”, we are more than likely to think of the eastern European woman who has been trafficked into a western European country and is working in a brothel – ran by a miasma of gangsters scattered around eastern Europe (and practically any post-Soviet society during their periods of economic collapse) – or we think of the street ‘hooker’, standing on the streets in short skirts out in the cold, waiting for the client. The fact is, however, that there are an estimated 100,000 sex workers in the UK and about 20% of those are male.
Society often overlooks those male sex workers. How did he get into that line of work? Why? And how does this individual engage with front-line services? These are some questions asked by a research piece put together by the Clore Social Leadership programme, The Men’s Room and the Oak Foundation. The central question asked in this piece of research is this: “What do male sex workers in crisis experience when they engage with front-line services?”
I sat down with Liam – a former sex worker – to gain deeper insight into these questions. Liam comes from a major town in Greater Manchester, is a fully qualified chef whose speciality was in wedding cakes and has worked all over the country. At one point, he was married and has had children with two different women. He is also a grandfather. Crucially, it has taken many years for Liam to access front-line services.
On the surface, there is nothing unusual about Liam, but what follows him is an incredibly dark past. Much of what I was told is too extreme to include in the article and I have been debating internally as to whether to include certain information. For the sake of the well-being of the readers, I have decided to tone it down where most necessary. Between the ages of 8 and 12, Liam was abused physically, emotionally and sexually by his brother, who was ten years older than him. At the age of 12, Liam was sent to a psychiatrist due to self-harming as a result of this abuse, which was perpetrated also by friends of his brothers. This contributed to a normalization of violence throughout Liam’s life. School was no sanctuary for him: he was beaten by the Brothers and Sisters at the Catholic School he went to as a boy for trying to tell them what had been happening to him. By 14, he began taking drugs and, understandably, puts this down to his difficult upbringing. He makes a point of saying that his father was decent, but believes that his mother knew.
Drugs became a new release – rather than self-harming, Liam started to take amphetamines. Later on in life, he would become addicted to harder drugs. When I asked him how he coped and dealt with the demons of his childhood he told me that initially, before turning to sex work, it was the chef work that kept him busy. While he was confused about his sexuality and still dealing with his past through amphetamine usage, he moved to the Lake District for work and married his first wife. He started to sleep around with men and women and, and was often offered money for these “services”. At this point, he declined.
His continuing confusion about his sexuality and sleeping around led to using harder drugs. Liam describes how when looking after his son, he was “clock-watching” in order to score and feed his drug habits. As his drug usage escalated and became more chaotic, Liam ended up taking his son to “crack dens”, putting him in danger. As he told me this, I could feel a strong sense of painful regret in his tone and manner. Eventually his wife divorced him.
Blackpool was Liam’s next destination after hearing that there was a “big gay scene”, as he put it. After meeting people “on the beat”, he started sex work himself, just every now and then to earn money to live. After the stint in Blackpool, Liam went back to Manchester where he met somebody who worked the beat and “introduced him to a few decent punters”. Liam says he felt that he wasn’t hurting anybody through sex work. He said that he could’ve been committing crimes that could cause harm to others in order to feed his drug habits, including physical harm.
Sadly for Liam and many other sex workers, there is a constant risk of harm to themselves. “Many occasions”, Liam told me, “when I was on the beat, I’d be threatened. I’d be beaten up, people wouldn’t pay me but, because of how I was treated as a kid, it felt normal”. Liam struggled to show affection, even when married or later with his baby boy. “It’s affected my whole life, my sexuality.”
I wanted to know the extent to which Liam considered this be “work”, in the sense of conventional employment. Around the year 2000, whilst still married, Liam was engaging in sex work only on a casual basis. When I asked how and when it became a main source of income for him, he described how he was chucked out of rehab approximately ten years later, at which point he became homeless and met other people that were engaging in sex work. He repeated to me that he wasn’t hurting or harassing people, such as by begging, theft or similar antisocial activities. Treatment of sex workers could be terrible and, at this time, Liam wasn’t aware of any support available to male sex workers.
During these years of turmoil and anguish, the only support that Liam received was during his stint at rehab, where he met a counsellor that he trusted. He opened up and told them the stories of his chilhood but, as previously mentioned, he was “kicked out”. While some punters were okay, it was, Liam says, a violent occupation for the most part, with regular beatings, threats with and attacks with weapons. In spite of the violence, it was a good source of income and fed his habits. Some punters, he said, would pay fairly and treat him nicely, but most would beat him up, threaten him hurt him and rape him. Assault and violence were already a normal part of Liam’s life. As a child, when sexual favours demanded by his brother were not performed, he would be punished severely. The most common punishment was Liam having darts thrown at him.
A common theme is that men – traditionally – did not talk about rape, either to the police or to their friends and family. Liam said that this was the case for him also. On the beat, he had a partner and they watched out for each other. However, it was not always possible to keep one another safe. Four years ago, Liam was subjected to a brutal attack – the particulars of this assault are far too graphic to go into in this article, but the basic gist was that Liam was assaulted by four men on a stag-do, all wearing wedding bands, and at knife point. He was brutally raped and violently assaulted in a way that is too extreme to published here. The attackers laughed throughout the ordeal – it wasn’t about sex, it was about humiliation and degradation – it was, in a word, torture. He was hospitalized as a result and was asked by the police to press charges but he saw no point in this as he could not recognize the perpetrators. Despite this traumatic experience – which is one of the most extreme acts of violence I have personally ever heard of – Liam told me there was still an addictive element to sex work. Even after the brutal agony he went through, not only in this experience but many others, the temptation to engage in sex work was – and still is – there. Some of it, he said, he actually enjoyed. Liam told me about other people he knows who have been taken advantage on the streets and who have taken own their lives as a result of abuse. Liam is a survivor.
It has been six or seven months since Liam engaged in sex work, although the temptation, he says, is always there. He finds comfort being in the Gay Village (Canal Street) where his current begging spot is, in order to feed his habit. Last year, he referred himself to Survivors, a Manchester based charity which deals with male rape ”
Survivors Manchester is a survivor-led/survivor-run voluntary organisation that aims to create and facilitate a safe space for male survivors of sexual abuse and rape to work through personal and sometimes painful issues. Our work is concentrated on empowering men to make their own positive life choices and begin their own unique journey of healing. Being in contact with other survivors allows one to feel less isolated; feel connected and break the silence and legacy of abuse.
We work with guys however they want us to, the important thing is that they are in control of their journey; with support they can work out what it is they need; and they can help themselves to become the person they really want to be and not what they think others want them to be and so begin a journey of supported discovery and self-healing.
– his only interaction with services outside of speaking with the counsellor whilst in rehab many years ago. Years of crisis, suffering, confusion and pain led Liam to finally open up about what had happened to him throughout his life. He hadn’t even told his ex-wife. Hopefully, he will be supported to start a journey to recovery, and a happy life.
After meeting with Liam, I went to speak with Hayley Speed, at The Men’s Room, a charity in Manchester which works with male sex workers, and which co-commissioned the original Clore/Oak Foundation research which inspired this piece. In the eight years that Hayley has been working for The Men’s Room, she has seen some significant shifts, particularly in societal attitudes to male sex work. “Some people presume sex work is illegal and think that a charity like The Men’s Room would not exist, but people are starting to be more aware of sex work in general and acknowledging it. We see a lot more male sex workers openly identifying as gay now – three years ago, we did some research and about 70% of the sex workers surveyed identified as straight, now I think it’s more like 60% identifying as gay. That’s a huge shift. When I first started The Men’s Room, I used to have social workers saying to me things like ‘He can’t be a sex worker because he has a kid’. We don’t hear that any more, people are much savvier and know it’s just not as simple as that”. I thought of Liam, his ex-wives, children and grandchildren.
I asked Hayley about any shifts she has seen in accessing services. One of the key findings of the Men’s Room’s research with the Clore/Oak Foundation is that: “All [male sex workers] said they had experienced several episodes of crisis (citing family breakdown, rough sleeping, mental ill health, substance misuse, self-harm and attempted “suicide) and all had engaged with front-line services when in crisis”. In contrast, beyond his current support and previous one time with the counsellor at re-hab, Liam had not engaged with any services. “It might take years for people to find the courage to come and see us”, Hayley says, “We’re not working with huge numbers but we are working with people who can’t or won’t access services, or who other services can’t work with, or aren’t willing to. Some people might eventually agree to meet me for some coffee or some chips, but we might never actually get them into the office. Often we are the only point of contact with these people. Eventually I’ll get a random text when they hit rock bottom. We don’t have a magic wand – we have to navigate the system like anyone else, but hopefully we can help to open some closed doors.”
The Men’s Room is seeing increasing numbers of men referred to them for help. “We have always worked primarily on word of mouth and outreach”, Hayley tells me, “but more than ever we are getting referrals to us. People are far more open now and disclosing information about their experiences with sex work to other professionals, who send them here. We tend to work with the who fall between the gaps. They may not be technically homeless, for example, as they might stay with a punter so can’t access homelessness services, they might have mental health needs but not to the extent they’d get mental health support, or they might be excluded from some services because of a record. We don’t turn anyone away. If you miss 10 appointments, we’ll give you 11.”
When it comes to sex work, it is important for us to understand how prevalent it is. It is an industry in itself. It is the sex industry. As we can see from Liam’s experiences, elements of the sex industry are incredibly dangerous. The way in which Liam described sex work to me as employment reminded me of economists talking a few years back about the contribution made by sex work (as well as drugs and other elements of the black economy) to GDP. We have 100,000 individuals who are currently working in the “trade” in the UK, just like Liam was. Thankfully, there are charitable services out there which support those individuals, of all genders, but don’t those workers deserve the same level of statutory employment protection that any other worker would receive? To many, that might sound radical, but I would challenge them to really think about Liam and what others like him have been through – and, in Liam’s case, survived – and to re-consider.
Speaking with Liam was difficult, yet we spoke casually about the issues. Trauma has played a part in my life too, although nowhere near to the extent that Liam suffered. Next time we pass the beggar on the street, we should perhaps try and consider the lives they have led that brought them to that position – just to be able to sit down on the floor, without shame, losing dignity – that should be enough to tell us that the individual has experienced hurt that most of us couldn’t imagine. If we start to take a harder look at this issue, we open a Pandora’s Box of pain, trauma, horror that we – collectively, as citizens – will have to address, together, to start healing the wounds and ensuring that people get the help they need. We should reserve our judgement and put ourselves – psychologically – on the floor, in the rain, or being raped and abused by strangers – something impossible to even fathom for most, for the many are fortunate enough to not have had their dignity destroyed in the way that so many others have.
The Men’s Room offers a lifeline of critical support to current and former male sex workers in Manchester, like Liam. You can find out more about the services they offer and make a donation at mroom.co.uk.
Survivors Manchester is a survivor led voluntary organisation supporting survivors of sexual abuse and rape, including Liam.
By Olie Martin