A few times a week, when he isn’t taking care of his little sister or attending college classes, James happily makes house calls around Los Angeles—giving sexual massages to wealthy older men for some extra pocket change.
Once in a while, if the mood strikes and the offer is enticing enough—usually $1,000 or more—James will have sex with his clients. “One night can pay my rent for the month,” the 18-year-old told Fusion.
James, who requested we change his name to protect his privacy, isn't a prostitute—at least, he doesn’t consider himself one. “It’s more like I am able to make someone happy and stress free, and they're willing to pay me,” he said.
Over the past few years, researchers who study the sex economy say they've seen a rise in gay men who sell sex on the side like it’s no big deal—and for these men, it’s not. The trend, according to researchers, can be traced to the explosion of social networking sites combined with a less-than-stable job market, along with increasingly permissive cultural views toward casual sex.
“Previously, men had to go to an outdoor venue, work for an agency, or advertise in the back pages of magazines and phone books to sell sex, now they can do it right from their phone,” said Kevin Walby, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Winnipeg and author of Touching Encounters: Sex, Work, and Male-for-Male Internet Escorting.
James says he finds his clients through a variety of outlets. Social dating apps like Tinder and Grindr are full of men with dollar signs in their profile, and escort sites like Rentboy.com, BackPage.com, and Cowboys4angels.com also facilitate connecting people.
Craigslist, where James finds many of his clients, is another popular exchange for part-time sex work, said Christian Grov, an associate professor of public health at Brooklyn College who has studied male sex work extensively. In a survey, Grov found that the men advertising on the site don't identify as escorts. "This is not a community of sex workers," he told Fusion. Who is posting? "Someone who just needs to pay the rent."
Someone like James—who took up his side job when finances got tight. “I want to make films and be a director,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up on that dream, and now I don’t have to.” He's grown to value the work he’s doing for his clients: "I now see it as a beautiful thing.”
While casual sex workers' primary motivation is earning extra cash, many also see the work as having larger value. They see it as a form of care work, akin to being a therapist or masseuse.
"The way that these guys approach what they do is not strictly commercial. They do feel like they’re helping people," Walby told Fusion. "Whether it's psychological or physical, they talk about their work like occupational therapy or nursing."
Several men we spoke with said much of the work involves touching, hugging, and baths. Most of the clients don't have time for a relationship, don’t have a lot of options in the love department for physical reasons (weight, age, disability), or simply haven't come out yet—making open intimacy difficult for them.
With this in mind, Walby said society’s perception of sex work as shameful is dated. "It’s bizarre that we don’t include anything sexual in approaches to care or therapy,” he said—“that we divorce sexual touching from the notion of healing and caring."
Numerous studies have indeed shown the health benefits of intimacy and cuddling. For men who are unable to get it in their “real lives” and not bothered by the transactional nature of the encounter, paying a couple hundred dollars for sex or intimate behavior can help fill a painful void.
Rentboy.com is dedicated to connecting male escorts with clients, though the company told Fusion that it doesn't sell sex explicitly. "Escorting is selling your time by the hour. What you do in that hour is between you and client," said Hawk Kinkaid, Rentboy's COO and a former escort himself. "It can be anything from a dinner to a massage to a conversation.”
Still, if you visit Rentboy's website, you'll notice that sex sells. Naked men of all shapes and sizes are featured with graphic screen names—and yes, you can search by penis size. The site charges men about $60 per month to promote themselves, but the fee can quickly pay off with one or two clients. Rates start at $250 dollars per hour, but Walby said he's heard of escorts being paid up to $700 dollars per hour.
Rentboy’s Kinkaid said less than a quarter of the men on the site are escorting full time. The other three-quarters are between jobs, in college or graduate school, or simply want extra cash.
Take Michael, an undergrad in Louisiana. He's been having sex for money for over two years, finding clients through Rentboy, social dating apps, and word of mouth. He's says he's been flown around the world—to Thailand, London, and other far-off locales—and seen clients that range from old men who want to be whipped to still-closeted homophobes.
Michael, who also requested that we not use his real name to protect his privacy, said he escorts to pay for school. "I am a biology student, I am a certified nurse's aid," he told Fusion, "but I have loans to pay off." He said he’s held a variety of jobs—sometimes three at a time—working in hospice care and nursing homes. But none have paid as well as escorting.
Michael said sex work wasn’t part of his original plan—it just happened. His student loans came due, and he wasn’t making enough to pay them off. He had a friend who paid for law school by escorting, so he decided to give it a try himself. "I never imagined I would be doing this,” he said. “I didn't grow up thinking I would do this, but at the end of the day, you do what you gotta do."
He knows there is a stigma that comes with the work, but ultimately, he sticks with it because it pays and he finds it fulfilling. "To say you don't develop a relationship with your clients would be a lie,” he said. “At some point, you don't even look at them like clients anymore."
Of course, just like full-time sex work, casual sex work can be dangerous. "You always have to be careful," Michael told Fusion. "You're always thinking, okay, is this guy gonna kill me or drug me?"
Men’s sex work does, of course, come with risks, but it tends to be safer than women’s sex work. “The risk profile for women and transgender workers is more complicated,” said Walby. For example, it’s pretty standard that female escorts will visit clients with bodyguards—active female prostitutes are 18 times more likely to be murdered than the general population.
Walby, who has also researched female sex workers, said that while many women feel empowered by their work, they also tend to be more afraid of potential repercussions. "In my research the women were definitely more worried about violence and more worried about stigmatization—if word got out, they seemed to feel it would be more damaging for their lives than the men did."
Related: Why cuddling is good for your health
But what about that stigma? Obviously, having sex for money part-time puts these men at risk for being discovered in their "real lives." Kinkaid said he's heard reports of men getting fired from jobs when their employers found out they were or are on Rentboy (either through word of mouth or, yes, by discovering them on the site themselves).
And what about their personal romantic lives? Neither James nor Michael is currently dating anyone, but sex researchers Walby and Grov said they've seen a range of scenarios: Some part-time sex workers hide the work from their partners, while others disclose it. And some relationships survive the sex work, while others don't. It's a mixed bag.
These casual sex workers aren't shouting about their work from the rooftops, but the men we spoke with said they aren’t burdened by feelings of worry, guilt, or shame. True, they aren't telling their mothers (too personal) or bosses (for fear of discrimination or other repercussions), but they're open about the work with close friends.
"I have to pay for my education, this is how I can do that,” said Michael. So many people get into this to pay for school, to pay for medical work, or dental work—you have no idea." And the clients? "It's so funny how people judge, considering my clients are city officials, lawyers, your friends, your co-workers—heck, your priest.”
James, too, said he understands that some people might judge him, but he feels proud of his work. “I know I am a good person,” he said. “I like making people feel good. So now I just ride with it, and doing this allows me to take care of my mom and my sister."
He added: “You’re either doing it for free or you’re getting paid for it. I get paid for it.”
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.