3 min

Male sex workers’ support program stronger than ever

HUSTLE rebounds from government funding cuts

"Transitioning to HIM has been, in the long run, one of the best things possible for us as a program," says HUSTLE founder Matthew Taylor. Credit: Robin Perelle photo

When Matthew Taylor founded HUSTLE: Men on the Move in Vancouver in 2007, it was one of the few outreach organizations in Canada to work specifically with men in the sex industry, providing peer support, safer-sex materials, nutrition, harm reduction and needle exchanges to street-level sex workers and street-involved youth.

Since then, not much has changed. There are still only a handful of male-specific support services that exist across the country. So in the winter of 2010, when government funding issues threatened to close HUSTLE’s parent agency, PEERS Vancouver, Taylor began looking to other options.

“I had program preservation kick in, and I wanted to find a way that HUSTLE could survive through this transition and thrive,” he says.

Taylor immediately thought of the Health Initiative for Men (HIM).

“It just kind of seemed like a natural fit when we were looking to find a new home,” says Taylor, who is now the HUSTLE program manager at HIM. “HUSTLE had already had a relationship in terms of a partnership where we were sharing resources; we were doing referrals back and forth already for at least a couple of years.”

The HUSTLE program eventually made the jump to HIM in late 2011, only a few months before its former parent agency closed its doors. Coinciding with the move was the loss of some private funding for their employment skills program for men looking to leave the sex industry.

For the first six months after the move, HUSTLE decided to focus on its core programs: outreach and support services, including its online outreach component. Now the program is looking to expand.

“Now that we’ve been here long enough to be able to develop under HIM’s roof and integrate, we’re bringing back some of the [peer-support] groups,” Taylor says. “So we really haven’t lost anything. We just wanted to keep doing what we were doing and doing it well.”

Taylor says HUSTLE has always gone where it’s been needed, usually to the streets. Now, it’s looking online. “We’ve really experienced, over the last few years, a decrease in street presence in sex-work activity and a real increase in online activity,” he notes.

HUSTLE’s Netreach program provides support, resources and referrals on different dating and hookup sites but still sees the importance of personal connections. “We want to build a relationship and start it where they’re online but then move to a face-to-face,” he says.

Researcher Sue McIntyre is thrilled that HUSTLE has survived the closing of PEERS Vancouver. She thinks that male sex workers have different needs and experiences than women do if they choose to exit the industry and that social service providers require special training.

“You can’t assume that it’s going to be the same for young women and young men in the trade. There’s some very distinct differences, and we need to make sure that we’re aware of that,” she says.

Over the last decade, McIntyre has conducted a series of original studies delving into the world of male sex workers in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. According to her 2006 report Under the Radar: The Sexual Exploitation of Young Men – British Columbia Edition, men tend to enter the industry at younger ages and leave later than their female counterparts.

McIntyre says that while many organizations that help female sex workers also claim to help males, her research shows that many males felt they were afterthoughts.

“There were very little services,” she notes. “Whatever was left over time-wise, whatever was left over food-wise or service-wise, that’s kind of what they felt they were getting.”

She also believes that some of the reluctance to address male sex work can be attributed to homophobia.

“It’s not a population that people are really comfortable with,” she says.

“Ninety-nine percent of the customers are male. Lots of times people want to presume that all young men attached to this are gay or bisexual,” she says. “People find it difficult that there are young men that are gay-for-pay, that they have to survive doing this however they can.”

After all of the uncertainty around funding and moving, Taylor is happy with the way things have worked out for HUSTLE.

“Transitioning to HIM has been, in the long run, one of the best things possible for us as a program because we’re able to diversify and also reach more men who have sex with men who might not necessarily identify as being involved in the sex industry,” he says.

“We’re reaching more people and letting them know about our services and supports in a way that we weren’t able to before.”