From BBC NEWS Most people think of male prostitution as dangerous, degrading and exploitative work. But there are some who are attempting to reinvent it as a profession free of stigma by using all the tools of modern business, writes Mobeen Azhar.
“The aim is to be the best escort in the world.” Josh Brandon’s conviction is punctuated by a strong Welsh valleys accent. The twentysomething moved to London four years ago with dreams of modelling and celebrity. But soon after his arrival he began working as an escort. Now he has a price list which includes hourly rates and a discount for block booking. He issues loyalty cards so customers who pay for nine “appointments” get their tenth free. “I have a very professional booking system and I offer complete discretion,” he says. “My business model serves my clients and it serves me.” Brandon’s home and “work space” is in the centre of London’s Soho, on the doorstep of the West End. It’s the kind of area that most Londoners can’t afford to live in. But for Brandon, his monthly rental costs are an investment.
“Everyone knows this area,” he says. “There is a constant stream of tourists. London is probably the most visited city in the world so there are always new clients.
“I get Americans and a lot of Arabs. I’ve met clients visiting London and now they fly me out to their home countries for my services. I just got back from Munich. I was seeing an arms dealer. The most I’ve ever made is £30,000 in a month. When I work that hard, the money can be great.”
Brandon isn’t alone in his enthusiasm. Russell Reeks runs the classified section at the gay listings magazine QX. He says London is now an international magnet for male sex workers.
“These days we have every nationality in the world represented in our back pages,” he says. “Some days, men come into the office with suitcases in tow, straight from the airport. Some of them can’t even speak English but they want to get their advert sorted out before anything else, even before they’ve found a place to stay.”
One of those with an advert is Tommy, from Brazil. He’s still learning how to speak English but that hasn’t stopped him from making money.
“Working in a bar was just no good – too much work and not enough money,” he says. “I had a friend that was already here from Brazil. He was escorting and told me I should try.
“After I placed the advert my phone wouldn’t stop ringing. I’ve seen two clients already today and I have two more tonight. I charge £140 for an hour so you can work it out. If I work all weekend I don’t have to work in the week at all.
“My first day was hard because one client asked me to have sex without a condom, but I just had to say no. I take my safety seriously.”
Many sex workers take their sexual health very seriously, says Michael Underwood, a nurse at a sexual health clinic.
“We run a drop-in clinic especially for sex workers,” he says. “We often find that they’re using condoms as part of their work. In London generally, we have seen an increase in HIV infection but that’s something that isn’t generally happening among escorts. If they take their work seriously, they’re not going play around with their health.”
The vision of prostitution as an industry riddled with disease, addiction and victimhood is something that the likes of Brandon want to overturn, but it’s an image that still rings true for many escorts.
Nico is now 40 and has been selling sex since he was 16. He moved from his childhood home near Normandy, France, to Paris and then to London with aspirations to work in retail.
For a time he worked in Knightsbridge selling designer menswear in a glossy department store. But his attempt at a normal career was short-lived.
“I started selling sex because I was such a nervous teenager. I couldn’t cope with normal life. I had no support from my family. It was my only option. I started doing drugs to escape what I was doing to my body. At 16, most of my clients were old men so the drugs helped me to switch off. Even now, I use crack and crystal meth.
“When I don’t have enough money to feed my habit, I escort. The main difference between Paris and London is the drugs. In London you can get anything. There is always someone to pay for sex and there is always a drug dealer willing to take your money. Maybe one day I’ll get clean and stop but I just can’t do that right now.”
Nico’s story – familial rejection and drug addiction – might be one many would assume to be the norm, but Brandon is evangelical about clean living.
“Drugs are completely unprofessional,” he says. “They don’t fit in with my brand and what I’m aiming for.”
And familial rejection is not a given, either.
“When I won Male Sex Worker of the Year, I texted my dad,” says Brandon. “He said: ‘I’m proud of you son.'”
Brandon’s father, who still lives in the Welsh valleys and works on the railways, is quietly accepting of his son’s work. “I know what he does and I don’t shout about it from the rooftops. I wouldn’t discuss it with my friends. I tell him to be careful but what else can you do? As long as he keeps safe, good luck to him.”
There has been a slow societal shift in the acceptability of sex work, says Del Campbell from the Terence Higgins Trust.
“There is a lot less stigma for men who sell sex,” he says. “Often, the women are still seen as victims but for some gay men, escorting is now a normal job. You could mention that you’re an escort at a dinner party and in some circles, no one would bat an eyelid.”
But there is still stigma. “It’s all about the individual,” says Campbell. “I meet some escorts who talk about needing to escape the shame of having sex for money. They feel a deep sense of guilt about lying to their families. A lot of the foreigners tell their families that they are working in a restaurant or a shop. They can’t cope with the constant dishonesty.
“You have to tell those men that escorting probably isn’t for them. But you do get people who genuinely view escorting as a job like any other. Some enjoy their work. We should support them. Stigma is never helpful.”