Ad Men: Queer ethnography research with men selling sex to men through advertisements

By Allan Tyler

This spring, a chapter I have written about sex work appears in a book called – rather provocatively – Mad or Bad?:  A Critical Approach to Counselling and Forensic Psychology (Vossler, Havard, Pike, Barker & Raabe, 2017). The book itself aims to deal with some of the topics that have been stigmatised and/or have remained unfamiliar to counsellors, forensic psychologists, and other helping professionals in the past. Importantly, sex and sexuality are addressed critically from a number of standpoints. My contribution aims to examine a diversity of experiences selling sex and challenge assumptions about sex work, including why and how sex work is framed in contexts of mental health and crime.

A bit about me: I didn’t start out as a sex work researcher and came into the field rather naively. Very naively. Until 2007, almost all of my (professional) research was related to body image and commercial applications of how our clothing fits. But none of us are Just Workers, and part of my own story was my migration from farm-country Canada and my concomitant migration into big-city London’s queer scene/s in the early-to-mid 90s. What I had observed and learned about men’s bodies and how gay and bi men used their bodies was another education entirely. After more than a dozen years of reading magazines with columns (and then pages) of ads placed by men labelled ‘Escorts’ and ‘Masseurs’, it was those experiences – or lack thereof – that prompted me to ask the rather loose question, ‘What exactly is going on here?’

My approach into sex work research through queer-scene advertising seems sideways by colleagues whose professional experiences are policing, psychology, or indeed sex work itself. But as the adage goes, ‘What makes you different makes you beautiful,’ and the opportunity I had was a unique approach to a phenomenon which is simultaneously remote  yet familiar – remote from many people’s personal experiences but familiar in repertoires of sexuality, moral education and portrayals of violence in the media. My opportunity has been to approach sex work from perspectives of men who sell sex to men in London and from the perspectives of people who are not engaged with medical, psycho-social, or policing institutions.

My data – if you are a reader who is interested in such things – comes from interviews (semi-structured and sometimes unstructured) with men who sell sex, the advertisements they (often) self-produce and post online or in print, and observations and field notes. This kind of ‘queer ethnography’ has included talking to other workers (sex workers – past and present – and people who provide health or advertising or advocacy services with/to them. What I have is a polytextual dataset with opportunities for triangulation and queer, critical readings of some of the limits of reading texts as representational – never-mind ‘realist’. Key Finding One – sex workers are not some discrete typology of people nor can they be classified into discrete typologies of sex workers.  Key Finding Two – sex work advertisements are by definition designed to work performatively – to create a discourse more than reflect reality.  Key Finding Three – simplistic binary models of sex/work, need/want, and agency/coercion confound any single definition of ‘sex work’.

Whilst I first set out to contact men through the ads I had seen for so many years, people who were able and willing to talk about their own experiences of selling sex to men soon started to emerge from within my wider social sphere. The sex work that had seemed remote was much closer to my own domain than I’d previously been aware. ‘Degrees of separation’ were torn away like pages. And through the stories of the men I found, the men who found me – and those it turned out I’d already known – I saw and heard the overlaps between narratives of men selling sex to men and other, ‘typical’ narratives of ‘typical’ gay-scene men’s ‘typical’ gay-scene weekends. A new question emerged: how was this experience and representation of sex work so different from so-many queer-men’s experiences of anonymised, casual-sex?

The advertisements and the profiles were revealing in their own ways. Searching back through 20 years of ads I found photos of a few friends and pictures of old friends’ new boyfriends. I also found people like ‘Dev’ who had advertised himself as 24 years old for more than 5 years using a photo that never changed, however his body might or might not have. The ads revealed themselves as co-producing ideas about what is real as much as they do about what sex, masculinity, youth, ‘gay’ and ‘escorting’ look like in London’s queer scene/s. Sex work advertisements are by definition designed to work performatively.  The ads are an appellation, a call to potential customers. What they signify is often a mythologised phantasy, a symbolic – rather than literal – depiction of what is possible. With age, for example, when the gap between what is real and what is possible becomes too great, many advertisers stop advertising any number if they don’t stop advertising altogether.

What has emerged from bringing all of my data and findings together is a theoretical model to help people understand the diversity of sex work experiences by understanding the ways different lived experiences relate and interact within a broader narrative of doing sex work. Taking this research forward, I’m looking to test the generalisability of the model. To do that, I need to bring together the expertise of people who have sold sex to advise on the practicality of the model as well as consult others from organisations and the academy about what kinds of data to collect (for example, if we should include standardised ‘instruments’ for a quantitative study) and how to avoid constructing some new form of typology.

We need to keep pushing this research forward. As I stated at the beginning of this piece, there is a growing recognition of the need to provide better information about sex work for professionals who work with people from a broad spectrum of experiences. Sharing stories and texts outside of institutionalised canons is one way to query and queer the inclusion of sex work in forensic psychology, counselling and mental health.

Dr Allan Tyler

London South Bank University