Prostitution and health...

It may be the final taboo. Ireland continues to turn its back on the existence of male prostitution, a potent combination of homosexuality, vice, abuse and shame. It is estimated that as many as 600 young men, some under the age of consent, are working at least part-time as prostitutes, rent boys, or 'escorts' in Ireland today. The abuse is theirs, the vice they share with their clients, more often than not married men. The shame belongs to the clients alone.

The implications of male prostitution are well known to health workers who deal with young men who are caught in the trap of selling sex. Typically, young men who have had a minimal level of education and who often grew up in care are providing sex for cash to older men, who are often well educated, well off and married. The common presumption that men who pay for sex with men are overtly homosexual was exploded in 1993, when the short film 'Boys for Rent' by Liam McGrath was first broadcast.

Secretive sexuality

The young men interviewed in McGrath's film, and in books like 'Rent' by Evanna Kearins, revealed that the majority of their clientele are married, successful older men, outwardly heterosexual and conservative. Unable to express their desires in their 'normal' life, they exist on a kind of emotional autopilot. When the faking becomes too much, they succumb to their desires and seek out a male prostitute on whom they impose their dominant, though secretive, sexuality.

The Phoenix Park is a known location for men to encounter male prostitutes.

In the eyes of the law, it is an offence under the 1993 Sexual Offences Act to loiter with intent to solicit someone for sex. This law has led to two different developments. It has made young men who work on the streets, in the parks and public toilets much harder for health services to assist, as they hide from the gardai, who can arrest them merely for standing around. The law has also led more educated or affluent young men to work from their own apartments and flats as private 'masseurs'.

This makes for a two-tiered system of male prostitution in Ireland. On the one hand, there are young men from impoverished and deprived backgrounds soliciting in public spaces for meagre amounts of money, which they may often use to purchase drugs. On the other hand, there are the middle-class escorts who offer their services in small ads and work from home, taking in hundreds of pounds in an afternoon.

Depression & low self-esteem

For those young men caught up in the world of 'renting', whether they ply their trade in the Phoenix Park or from anonymous apartments, the life of prostitution can be devastating to their physical and mental health. Depression and low self-esteem are commonplace. There is an intimate relationship between drug abuse and male prostitution. Some young men who become addicted turn to prostitution to finance their problem, while some male prostitutes eventually turn to drugs to numb their emotional pain.

A report published in May 2001 by the East Coast Area Health Board revealed that many young men working as prostitutes do not consider themselves to be homosexual or even bisexual. This confirmed anecdotal evidence provided by Evanna Kearins, who asked 11 male prostitutes about their sexuality and found that four defined themselves as straight. Clearly there is no one single type of male prostitute, but the number of young men who, like the clients they service, perform homosexual acts but would never identify themselves as gay is intriguing.

One affluent male prostitute, featured in Kearins's book, revealed that over 75% of the men he saw were married and kept their visits to him secret from their wives. "A lot of married guys, all they want to be able to do is touch and feel another guy", he explained. "They are generally confused about their sexuality. This generation is changing and it is becoming easier to be gay, but in the last generation everybody got married. I have a lot of regulars whose sex life with their wives has failed to satisfy them and I know there are a lot of frustrated women out there".

Health risks

The health implications clearly extend further than the prostitute and client, if the client is returning home to have sexual relations with an unknowing wife. There is the real possibility of these men spreading sexually transmitted diseases, or contracting Hepatitis or HIV which they may not then declare to their home partners because to do so would be to reveal that they have been attending male prostitutes.

The real health problems, however, are those of the young men who sell sex. They face issues of homelessness, alcohol dependence and drug abuse, not to mention a greatly increased risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections. Beyond these are the mental health ramifications. Many young men who are selling sex are living as much of a lie as some of their clients and the stigma and taboo that surrounds male prostitution can trap them in silence, stress and anxiety, so that they do not access the health services available to them.

"Male prostitution is a high risk activity", says Mick Quinlan, the Director of the Gay Men's Health Project. As a member of Irish Network Male Prostitution (IMNP), he is one of the few experts on the subject in the country and wrote the first in-depth study of the phenomenon two years ago.

"Combined with other activities and factors that affect the young men involved, such as homelessness and drug use, the health risks to those involved rise substantially. The stigma attached to male prostitution has contributed to a reluctance on the part of males in prostitution to identify themselves".

Secrecy

The latest reports from the IMNP and the East Coast Area Health Board highlight the difficulties in tackling the health needs of men engaged in prostitution. Underage males, fearful of encountering the social services and being sent into care, are the most vulnerable group, but also the hardest to encounter and help. The IMNP recommend using the experience of older men who have left prostitution to intermediate between working prostitutes and the health and other services.

A co-ordinated approach from all the agencies involved is required if the needs of young men working in prostitution are to be met. Of course, if other men, often with families at home, were not seeking to pay for sex with such vulnerable young males, there would be no need for such a service at all.


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