With Manchester, U.K. homelessness on the rise young men are increasingly selling their bodies as a way to survive. The number of men working in this dangerous trade, both gay and straight, has rocketed in the last decade. As homelessness mounts and austerity bites, a growing number of young men are selling sex online. The city’s male sex workers often use websites like Craigslist to advertise to clients.
But, often, behind the image presented online, are personal struggles. Homelessness is still the biggest problem facing male sex workers across Manchester. And so called ‘survival sex’ is becoming increasingly common among the hundreds of young men selling their bodies. Many are homeless or unemployed, dozens have recently been released from prison – for them selling sex is a way of surviving.
Spice, the dangerous synthetic drug which has blighted Manchester city center, is one of the most commonly used drugs among ‘chaotic’ young men who sell sex to survive. For those who choose to do sex work, party drugs and those used during chemsex – such as crystal meth and GBH – are popular.
These men spend their lives hidden from view. Charity workers say they can look unremarkable, making it difficult to identify those who are vulnerable.
For those young men, the services provided by charity The Men’s Room represent a lifeline. Volunteers here try to expand their horizons by using amenities the men might otherwise walk past.
Visiting an art gallery or a trip to the theatre is a little luxury that many of us would take for granted. But the experience is completely new to many of these men. Charity boss Fergal McCulloch says this is the best way to reach out to service users and give them a taste of normality. He says how clients recently worked with a playwright and saw their work performed on stage at the Royal Exchange Theatre.
And just last month, they took part in a project creating art work which was exhibited at Manchester Art Gallery. McCulloch said:
None of them had ever gone into an art gallery in their lives. They were treated as experts and artists themselves. It gave them that sense of empowerment saying ‘we have every right to be here’. If you get the chance to do something uplifting you’re doing something different from your day to day struggles. It allows the men to have a space and just think differently. It makes them think there is a whole other life here and gives them something to aspire to. The feedback was amazing. We gave them postcards of the artwork so they can show it to people and say ‘I made that’.
Male sex work has become more widespread in recent years. Some in the trade have told charity workers they started doing sex work from as young as 14. Many of them have spent time in care. Almost all male sex workers in Manchester are British.
Contrary to their female counterparts, they don’t answer to a pimp or work in saunas or brothels. Instead, they advertise online. In 2016 researchers found 353 men selling sex online in Manchester through two specific websites. If you include men offering sex on classified sites like Craigslist and Backpage as well as social media sites, that figure rockets to almost 2,000.
It can’t be overemphasized how much of an impact the internet is having. There is a magnitude more doing it online compared to on the streets but quite a lot of those are not our traditional clients.
“The number of people prepared to do online work has really changed. I thought we would have seen a much bigger increase in survival sex. But we’re actually seeing a bigger increase of men who are bisexual or gay doing online work. Ten years ago the idea of sex work would never have crossed their minds. It’s all part of how culture has changed and young men’s attitudes to sex.
“Clients are not on the street anymore either – they are online too. There’s still a street scene but there’s been a huge explosion of online work and there’s a real blurring of the boundaries.
As such, volunteers at the Men’s Room have adapted their working practices so men can reach out to them through social media and instant messaging apps like Whatsapp.
Of course, sex with strangers can be a dangerous business and many of the clients who use the Men’s Room have suffered sexual abuse. Fergal recently worked with a young man who had been drugged and gang raped – but refused to report the incident to police.
“Most of those who experience sexual assault fail to report it,” he says. “For a lot of the guys we work with sexual violence is something that happens. Very rarely will they report an assault.”
Though its a disturbing issue, he says sexual assault is nowhere near as common a problem as it is among women working in the trade.
In fact homelessness is by far the biggest issue Fergal and his team of volunteers deal with on a daily basis.
“The hidden homeless are young men living chaotic lifestyles. They are not the guys you see on the streets.”
The grey areas of male sex work seem to make it a far more complex issue than the work carried out by their female counterparts. But charity workers have found that two common patterns have emerged.
There are the openly gay young men living ‘chaotic lives’, perhaps with a drug or alcohol dependency who are happy to work in the trade.
Many of those engaging in survival sex identify as a straight and find it degrading, Fergal says.
But male sex work is such a complex issue that the team at the Men’s Room find that no two cases are the same.
As such they develop a ‘bespoke’ service for each client to help them with advocacy support and signpost them to charities that can help with issues like housing and employment.
Their needs are different, they don’t all have the same level of need. There’s that group of men who come from a place of chaos and survival and not from that place of choice. They may have issues with mental and physical health and they are homeless. It’s a twin track. We have the advisors who help with advice, guidance and signposting. We’re the bridge between them and other services. Then we also want to encourage men to get involved in our arts projects.
Thanks to a National Lottery grant the Men’s Room currently has enough funding to support its work for another three years. But the cash boost will only pay for 40 per cent of the work carried out each day and Fergal says donations are desperately needed.
“It gives us stability for the next three years, but we still need to fund the other 60 per cent,” he says. “I think the work we do is really valuable.”
© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford