IF Grindr has been letting you down, you might have thought about paying for sex. You might have even been paid for it yourself.

In the LGBTI community, sex work is surprisingly common. About one in five queer men in particular have done sex work.

Cam Cox is CEO of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) in NSW. The organisation is run by sex workers for sex workers, and has special programs to support queer, male and trans workers.

“The gay rights and sex worker rights movements emerged at around the same time in the late 70s,” says Cam.

“Trans women sex workers of colour were the instigators of the Stonewall riots in New York. Here in Sydney, not only were many LGBTI people who marched on Kings Cross in 1978 sex workers, many non-queer sex workers joined in those protests to support their gay brothers and sisters.”

The lines between straight and queer can be blurred in sex work. Cam points out that gay workers might sometimes go “straight for pay” when they’re offered work by someone of the opposite sex. Clients may also be straight men who want to explore their sexuality by paying for gay sex.

Some workers who are heterosexual and see opposite-sex clients identify as queer because of their sex work.

“I would consider them queer,” says Cam. “They have a queer identity that’s bound up in their sex work, because they consider sex work in itself to be a queer act.”

Cam started his career as a street-based worker in Sydney, prior to sex work being decriminalised in NSW.

“I was a wall boy when I left school. It wasn’t much fun back then, under criminalisation,” he says.

“The internet has affected street work. It’s gone from someone on every corner to basically no one, and that’s because people have moved off the streets and onto the internet.

“I have to admit I miss the streets, the streets were a wonderful place to work. You can see the client in front of you and make a decision whether you want to see them or not.”

Almost all male escorts in Australia now work privately. Few places have a market for gay brothels, though Sydney has a couple.

“One of the problems we see for male sex workers is isolation,” says Cam. “We all work from our homes via the internet, and if you’re relying solely on sex work as your income, you might go and see a client, go out to the gym or to get food, and not much else.

“Cabin fever can start to set in. And because it’s a competitive industry, people don’t tend to form friendships easily with other sex workers, or even get to meet another sex worker unless you get involved in a double booking.”

Because of the stigma around sex work, many keep their job a secret. “Often not even their boyfriend knows,” says Cam. “And if they have a bad day or whatever, they’ve got no one to talk to.

“We have a service called SWOP Connect, run by sex workers, where you can ring up and speak to one of us, and offload about how crap your day’s been to someone who’s had plenty of crap days in their career.”

Cam believes there’s still a huge amount of stigma and discrimination against sex workers, but it’s hard to say whether gay workers encounter more problems with it.

“Female workers are stigmatised because they’re female, there’s a lot of misogyny out there, and then they’re sex workers as well,” he says.

“We have our gay identity, and then we’re also stigmatised because we’re sex workers. The public, especially the straight public, often assumes we’re the ‘passive’ partners and therefore feminine. Most people assume we’re HIV positive, so you get that intersecting stigma as well.”

Cam says some of the discrimination comes from within the queer community.

“On one hand, if you’re a porn star or whatever, people look up to you, but they’re also looking to tear you down. They’ll never take you home to meet their mum, you’re not considered boyfriend material, as a sex worker. They might want to date you so you can be a notch on the bedpost. There’s a lot of what we call whorephobia out there.”

Joel Falcon is the male project worker at the South Australian Sex Industry Network, and also a sex worker himself. South Australia is the only place in Australia where sex work is completely illegal.

He says because the industry is illegal, it’s not restricted by regulations like in most other states.

“Some workers think in a way it’s better than working in say Victoria, where you have to register with the government,” says Joel.

However, workers run the risk of being caught by the police.

“Brothels and street-based sex workers are generally the people most targeted,” says Joel.

Male workers, being mostly private escorts, are harder to monitor, so they tend to get left alone unless the police receive direct complaints from neighbours.

“Of course it can change at any time, but currently it’s almost unheard of for private workers to be targeted,” Joel explains.

“If there were a gay brothel it’s hard to know if it would be targeted as well. Certainly the rhetoric about sex work is nearly always centred around women, so the cops perhaps wouldn’t even think of men as sex workers.”

Joel says last year’s shutdown of the Rentboy website was the first action of its kind to directly target male sex workers and their advertising.

“They probably thought they were untouchable for that very reason, the way things are policed according to gender,” he says.

Joel agrees that there’s “huge amounts of whorephobia” in the gay community.

“If you go into any gay bar and out yourself as a sex worker, the first response would probably be: you’re a slut,” he says.

“The lack of support for the sex worker community and the sex worker rights movement is a real shame.”

Joel hasn’t heard of many gay escorts having trouble with homophobic straight clients.

“My overwhelming experience is dudes who come to see me are really appreciative, and homophobia is kind of the last thing on their list,” he says. “More often than not they see it as a safe space for them to explore.

“I’ve heard from other workers about times where the client has even used it as like a counselling session, in relation to coming out or being a straight guy who has sex with men.”

As well as gay male escorts, of course there are also queer women sex workers.

Ellie, 31, is a trans escort based in Sydney who sees clients of all genders. She’s been in sex work since she was 15, starting in street-based work before working for an agency. She’s now a private escort and travels regularly to see clients around the country.

Ellie says the best part of sex work is meeting different people and having new experiences. When asked if she’s ever had a favourite client, she’s quick to answer.

“A famous guy, I won’t mention his name,” she says.

“I’d get flown up to him and picked up. We went to the Whitsundays one year, another time it was Barbados. I didn’t get to see much of it though, I was just driven to the location and back again. It was a private mansion, very extravagant. But it was all hush-hush, you couldn’t go out with them, and no one was allowed to know anything.”

Ellie says the money is a big draw of sex work. She bought her first home with the pay from her high-profile client. But it’s not just the money that keeps the job appealing to her.

“I get a lot of gratification from it,” says Ellie. “I don’t think I could have a relationship now. I don’t want one. For me, sex work is like my relationship.

“I’m very genuine in my work and I have a lot of fun. You never know who you’re gonna meet, where you’re gonna go, what you’re gonna do. It’s exciting.”

Ellie acknowledges that she doesn’t always love everything about her work.

“You may not like your client,” she says. “They may be aggressive or violent. They may be argumentative or not want to wear a condom. They may try to rob you.”

Ellie says she doesn’t often have problems with clients though. “I can be quite persuasive,” she adds cheekily.

As far as her gender goes, she doesn’t often encounter transphobic clients.

“Except if they don’t know, like if I pick them up at the casino,” she says.

“I’ll ask them, you do know what I am, and they go yeah yeah yeah. Then later they’re shocked that I have a dick, and they say they didn’t know I meant that. But then they usually say… okay, we’ll do it anyway.”

Sarah*, a queer cis woman, hired a female escort for her 21st birthday. At the time she was in an open relationship with a man, and had also been with women before.

She had recently started doing sex work herself, and looked into other escorts’ advertising to help establish her own business, when she decided to treat herself to some time with a working lady as a birthday indulgence.

“She said she had a few other female clients she saw regularly,” says Sarah. “They were all bisexual women in straight relationships, and most had their appointments bankrolled by their male partners.”

Sarah remembers the session very positively.

“It was pretty great,” she says. “We started with a massage then moved to the bed.”

How did it compare to other experiences she’d had with women?

“It was different in that it was so ‘me focused’. I was there for me, and she was there to provide me with a good time.

“I think it’s a super worthwhile thing for a woman to do for herself,” says Sarah. “Like a sexy spa day.”

*Not her real name

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