Matthew Taylor was never your typical hustler. He entered the trade at age 31, and unlike most, it wasn’t out of desperation. He worked as both a transvestite and a man, but working the former was far more lucrative. Besides, the transvestite population is so tight-knit in Vancouver that this was where he felt welcome. It turns out he was looking for respect in all the wrong places. His values and sense of purpose disintegrated. Drugs and sex and love mingled together, and the violence he experienced and saw around him was just as heinous as anything we’d hear about on the nightly news.Most people don’t often think about this kind of story. The life of a hustler isn’t exactly household conversation. Sex work in our society is viewed primarily as a female issue, and this is what Taylor has been fighting since he exited the trade two years ago. He wants everybody to know that male sex work is its own serious issue.”Society just has to be brought to the awareness that it does exist, that there are men involved in the sex trade,” he says, speaking in the downtown Vancouver thrift shop where he works part-time.
Taylor has been relentless in raising awareness of sex workers in Vancouver. He cofounded the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Men, and he helped assemble the Community Initiative for Health and Safety Toolkit, a derivation of the two-year Living in Community Project. (Living in Community is a collaborative project to examine the health and safety impacts of sex work on all community members and neighbourhoods citywide. It is made up of groups from communities, business associations, the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health, the Vancouver police, and others.) He’s working on Hustle, the first outreach initiative of its kind in this city, set up in collaboration with Prostitutes Empowerment Education and Resource Society (PEERS) Vancouver specifically to help male sex workers. The project is still in its infancy but he’s hoping to be out on the streets by mid October, building relationships with the workers to foster the trust and respect that Taylor says is absent from that community.He insists this is not about activism.”I’m not down there to exploit them, and I’m not down there to ruffle any feathers,” he says. “This project is to find out where they’re at, why they are where they are, and what they need, if anything.”
The challenge with this initiative, he says, is that there’s so much groundwork that needs to be done. There are virtually no services provided for male sex workers in this city, and nothing like Hustle has been done before. All sex-worker support organizations that exist are geared toward women. There are other services out there, like PEERS, that have exiting programs that include men and the transgender population, but some of those who have been through these programs feel that their needs are secondary. According to researcher Sue McIntyre, one young man interviewed for her seminal 2005 study, Under the Radar: The Sexual Exploitation of Young Men , said he felt that whatever the men were provided in these programs–time, condoms, even coffee–were merely leftovers.
“They’re not seen as a primary focus,” McIntyre says of such programs on the phone from her Calgary office.
McIntyre’s involvement with the sexual-exploitation trade began in 1992 when she interviewed 50 people–41 women and 9 men–for a case study of young sex workers in Calgary. One of her questions was: “Have you ever birthed a child?” She says that’s when she realized she was still viewing the subject through a female lens.
“It wasn’t until after that study was completed did we realize we knew nothing about the men,” she says.
BOYS R US is one of the very few organizations in Canada catering specifically to men. Founded in Vancouver in 1997, it provides food, support, and occasional life-skills workshops for male and transgender sex workers, but only three nights a week. Beyond this, there are virtually no male-specific programs in this country.
“Programs and services really need to be developed by the experiential male,” Taylor says, adding that only men who’ve been involved in that line of work can articulate the needs and concerns of the people working. It’s not enough for an outsider with a PhD in sociology to tell them to get out. As most former sex workers will testify, exiting is not easy.
“This is their reality in the moment,” says Don Presland, a friend of Taylor’s and cofounder of both the BCCEM and Hustle. “They’re driven by survival. To go and challenge that and say, ‘We’re going to take you out of this,’ if that’s all they’ve ever known they’re certainly not going to follow you.”
Speaking in a downtown Vancouver coffee shop, Presland says he was kicked out of his home at 14 for being gay. He pulled his first date in a bathroom stall soon after. He knew of no other viable options. He had no place to sleep. He found himself in a world that provided a steady income and steady meals. It wasn’t ideal, but it beat the alternative.
“I looked at what I was doing as honest,” he says. “I didn’t know at the time that it was hurting me.”
Presland’s case is typical. Forty percent of the young men interviewed for Under the Radar reported being thrown out of their homes, and 63 percent of the male sex workers turned their first date under the age of 18. Seventy-eight percent of these men reported sexual violence at some point in their life, and 50 percent had been in government care.
McIntyre’s study was released with Alberta data in 2005 and B.C. statistics in 2006 through her research company, Hindsight Group LTD., making it the first study of its kind in Canada. It went a long way to filling information gaps about an issue people have been uncomfortable to address in the past, especially if heterosexuals are involved.
“It’s kind of hard for some people to wrap around their head that a straight male is going to participate in those kinds of acts,” Presland says. “In reality, when you’re driven by survival and you’re hungry or you’re drug-addicted, you’re going to do whatever you need to do, whether that be rob a bank or go out and prostitute yourself. Everybody’s got their avenue they go down.”
Under the Radar also found that men experience the same levels of exploitation and abuse as women. Because we don’t publicly acknowledge prostitution as a male issue, though, their stories are rarely, if ever, heard. The report asks that the exploitation and violence of both men and women be publicly acknowledged.
“There’s a popular myth or misconception that men have greater perceivable strength, so issues of violence, of health and safety, don’t necessarily apply to that population, which is simply not true,” Taylor says.
“Hopefully, one of the goals of Hustle will be to build trust and respect with this population and assess the nature and the level of violence that does, indeed, exist.”
It’s been tough for Taylor. He’s experienced the violence firsthand. But now that he’s out of it, he’s taking up an experiential mentor role for whoever needs it. And all he wants at this point is to help build a community for men on the street.