COVID & male sex work: legitimize and destigmatize

This is an English translation of the original version.

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has made evident health and economic inequality among different groups of individuals around the world1. Male sex workers, among others, were put in a very delicate situation. The lockdowns and other public health guidelines made it hard for them to practice their work freely, but since sex work is not recognized as legitimate labour, those for who sex work is their only income could not access the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) nor the Employment Insurance benefit.  Additionally, male sex workers were exposed to greater risk of getting Covid-19 because their work often involves close physical contact.

Male sex workers do not all look the same, nor do they have the same needs. Some make a good income from this work, some work part-time to supplement their income, whereas others live in precarious conditions, meaning the pandemic did not affect all sex workers equally2,3. However, for the reasons mentioned above, they do face specific challenges related to the nature of their work.

Though male sex work has existed alongside women’s work historically4, its existence has long been denied by our society and erased from mainstream media and political debates. This erasure leads to ignorance about the realities and needs of men working in commercial sex industries and contributes to their marginalization.

Male sex workers face a double stigma: for selling sex and for offering a service perceived as gay5. This is on top of other intersecting forms of oppression including racism, xenophobia, transphobia all of which adds considerable challenges. Migrant sex workers are particularly vulnerable as they also face the risk of deportation1.

The criminalization of sex work in Canada also contributes to the stigmatization of these individuals. For all these reasons, many male sex workers would rather keep their work a secret, and some have difficulties finding a proper support system2

In the context of a pandemic, the need for support might have been more important among more vulnerable sex workers.  Yet, during these isolating and uncertain times, some of them were left without emotional support while facing considerable economic strain.

Although male sex workers are criminalized and stigmatize, they are, above all, creative, resourceful, and resilient. Sex worker communities and organizations responded quickly to the pandemic challenges. They supported their peers by developing resources such as guides for safer work during Covid-19 (see below) and by putting in place emergency and mutual aid funds3.

The COVID-19 pandemic sheds light on the already existing need to decriminalize and destigmatize sex work. Recognizing sex work as legitimate work would offer better working conditions which include protection and support in the events of a global crisis. From a social justice point of view, more vulnerable members of the society should be included in the Covid-19 response6

Male sex workers are deserving of safety, respect, and dignity, and in the context of a pandemic they should have access to the same financial and social supports as everyone else. Neglecting their needs, does not erase the profession, nor does it make a safer society. In the words of Gerald Hannon, Canadian professor and male sex worker:

The thing is we will always be here, and we will always be here because you will always need us. You need us because you need sex, at times, when it is not possible or convenient to get it from anybody else. So you can choose. You can choose to damage us with laws [and] you can choose to damage yourselves in the process, because hypocrisy always brutalizes. You can choose to damage your institutions, you can choose to damage the communities in which we live, or you can choose to accept. You can choose to work together with us for… some kind… of future… The choice is really up to you.

Resources for Sex work and COVID-19

  • COVID-19: Guidance for sex workers
    BC Centre for Disease Control | BC Ministry of Health.
    Guidance on safer sex work during COVID-19, with additional recommended resources for sex workers in British Columbia.

Maxim Gaudette

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[1] Lam, E. (2020). Pandemic sex workers’ resilience: COVID-19 crisis met with rapid responses by sex worker communities. International Social Work, 63(6), 777‑781. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020872820962202

[2] Though this article discusses issues related to male sex workers during the pandemic, we acknowledge that they could relate to female sex work in many ways.

[3] Callander, D., Meunier, É., DeVeau, R., Grov, C., Donovan, B., Minichiello, V., Kim, J., & Duncan, D. (2021). Investigating the effects of COVID-19 on global male sex work populations : A longitudinal study of digital data. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 97(2), 93‑98. https://doi.org/10.1136/sextrans-2020-054550

[4] Gaudette, M. (2018). La parole aux travailleurs du sexe : Comprendre leurs perceptions des risques entourant le métier et les stratégies mises en place pour les gérer [Thesis, Université d’Ottawa / University of Ottawa]. http://dx.doi.org/10.20381/ruor-22457

[5] Walby, K. (2012). Touching encounters: Sex, work, & male-for-male internet escorting. University of Chicago Press.

[6] Friedman, M. (2014). Male Sex Work from Ancient Times to the Near Present. Dans V. Minichiello, & J. Scott, Male sex work and society (p. 2-33) New York, NY: Harrington Park Press.

[7] Comte, J. (2010). Stigmatisation du travail du sexe et identité des travailleurs et travailleuses du sexe. Déviance et Société, 34(3), 425‑446. https://doi.org/10.3917/ds.343.0425

[8] Gaudette, M. (2019). Les enjeux de la recherche sur le travail du sexe des hommes. Dans G. Girard, I. Perreault, & N. Sallée, Sexualité, savoirs et pouvoir (p. 191‑202). Presses de l’Université de Montréal.

[9] Platt, L., Elmes, J., Stevenson, L., Holt, V., Rolles, S., & Stuart, R. (2020). Sex workers must not be forgotten in the COVID-19 response. The Lancet, 396(10243), 9‑11. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31033-3

[10] Hannon (1996) cited in Allman, D. (1999). M is for Mutual, A is for Acts : Male Sex Work and AIDS in Canada. Virago Press., p. 81.