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Getting hustled about hustling

Winnipeg Sun reporter goes off on a homophobic tangent

Young homeless Manitoban men are putting out for cash in record-breaking numbers, if reports in the Winnipeg Sun are to be believed. Former sports writer Paul Turenne appears to have been put on the male “sexual exploitation” beat. But given this sloppy, sensational reporting, maybe he should have stuck to hockey scores and wrestling matches.

In More Men in Sex Trade: Winnipeg Study,” Turenne writes on Nov 10 about a study produced by the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba (AFM). The study discussed issues facing homeless Winnipeggers from ages 14 to 25.

There was a brief mention in the study of sex work, indicating that 10.8 percent of 166 of males surveyed, compared to 6.3 percent of females, reported at least one instance of selling sex. To Turenne, this unexpected disparity — more teen hustlers than hookers! — bore further investigation, and he brought in an “expert” who declared that the overarching problem was “pedophilia.”

Despite Turenne’s intention to “shine a light” on “the male side of that shadowy world” — there is no story here.  The report, a follow-up on an earlier AFM study from two-and-a-half years ago, does show that more guys than girls they interviewed had ever turned a trick. But it also reveals that young men were more aggressive than young women in almost all areas where it came to acquiring money to survive on — from theft to fraud to selling drugs.

Turenne quotes Kelly Holmes, executive director of Resource Assistance for Youth (RaY), an agency that participated in the study. Holmes goes off the rails talking about the dangers of the sex trade and its inherently desperate and exploitative nature: “Pedophilia is alive and well. The predators know who to use and they know who doesn’t have a voice. The kids are everywhere you can imagine and the predators are everywhere you can imagine.”

Given the fact all respondents were over the age of consent at the time the survey was done, many of them in their twenties, the pedophile panic seems dubious — not to mention the predictable pathologizing of sex-work clients. Turenne makes much of the fact that many male sex workers with male clients would not otherwise engage in sex with men.

This is only remarkable in a homophobic culture where non-queer males are still given license to be repulsed by same-sex activities. How many people do things for work that they would not otherwise normally choose to do? If you believe that men who seek sex with men are a constant threat to street youth, of course you’d be alarmed to hear the reporter’s lurid, paranoid warning that “unsolicited propositions can come anywhere, anytime.”

I’m not trying to say that there are never any issues with sex work, especially when young people are involved. To say that sex work is always a free choice or the best choice for anyone would simply not be true. But instead of all this talk about the so-called shadowy world of exploited males,” a more useful exposé by the Sun could have looked some of the factors that influence young people’s choices around sex work. Most important, it would have talked not only to social workers, but to actual male sex workers themselves.

If Turenne had read the whole report, he might have made mention of some of the root factors that relate to sex work among street youth — for instance, lack of educational opportunities puts these young people at a disadvantage in the job market. The vast majority of survey respondents were First Nations and undoubtedly experience racism, not to mention the tragic and lingering after-effects of colonialism.

If you were a young guy struggling to get a roof over your head, which would make more sense to you — flipping burgers at McDonalds, or letting someone give you a blowjob? If Turenne had actually talked to anyone who’d engaged in sex work to get by, he might have learned that despite the shame and stigma that society dumps on sex workers, at least some of these guys probably enjoyed what they were doing.

Many young people involved in sex work — especially those who’ve come from troubled backgrounds — have said they found that experience empowering. Turenne’s story would have benefited from these voices. Where are they? All he had to do was pick up the phone and call Sex Professionals of Canada — I’m pretty sure they could have helped put him in touch with young men with sex-work experience.

Sex with men for money as an act of affirmation? That’s only hard to believe if you’re convinced that sex work is degrading. The AFM itself has moved away from that perspective. Where the 2005 study had a whole section called “Exploitation by the Sex Trade,” the new report only briefly mentions sex work at all, and now uses the value-neutral term “involvement” rather than the ideologically motivated expression “exploitation.” The report does suggest that sex work can sometimes involve harm, and sometimes that is true. But occasional sex-work-related harm is presented as a small part of a much larger context.

What’s the real story uncovered by the addiction foundation’s report? Untreated mental illness. They state that “almost all respondents had signs and symptoms of at least one major mental health disorder. Many had signs of two or more.” The young people they spoke to were struggling with a range of challenges, from chronic depression to schizophrenia to battles with suicide. Many of them came from families with long and complex histories of physical and sexual abuse.

Does this necessarily reflect on all youth involved in sex work, or even all sex workers more generally? I don’t think so. Despite the angle of Turenne’s story for the Sun, the AFM was not focussed on sex work. But even though this study only spoke to a small sample of people, I believe it reflects a wider material reality among many (though not all) homeless people.

Our society’s failure to address mental-health challenges in empowering and sustainable ways, combined with growing economic disparity and an ever-shrinking social safety net, places more and more people at risk of becoming — or  remaining — homeless.

That makes me angry. That’s what I want to see headlines about. It may not be as “sexy” as an invented epidemic of disempowered men forced into queer sex by hordes of paedophiles following them around town, zooming in menacing circles through the streets of Winnipeg. But it’s an ongoing outrage.

Sex work is only one of the strategies engaged in by young people for survival — and in some ways it might actually be the least dangerous for them. Ironically, at least in some cases, since untreated mental illness can lead to a predisposition toward violent and antisocial behaviour, these interactions could actually be more dangerous for sex-work clients — the so-called “predators” — than for youths themselves.

So let’s not look so aghast about the fact some guys on the street have occasionally chosen to be “gay for pay” if they aren’t queer themselves. Instead, let’s talk about why First Nations families and youths experience so much pain, and the redoubled efforts that we as a society owe them in their search for healing. When people do choose sex work, let’s talk about how to make it as safe as possible for them and their clients. If they ever want to leave that work, let’s help them succeed.