The Boston Phoenix
October 23 - 30, 1997


The lost boys

by Sarah McNaught

"Jim," 17, stands at the corner of Arlington and Providence Streets, across from the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. From across the street, headed toward him, comes a stout, middle-aged man in an expensive navy suit and tan trench coat.

"I can't believe this guy remembers me," Jim mumbles as his eyes widen and his cheeks flush. In a brief moment, he has turned into a scared young boy.

The well-dressed man comes from Cincinnati; he is married, and has two sons. When he was in town last April, he hired Jim for "straight sex." But when they met in a hotel room later that night, the older man forced Jim to wear a makeshift diaper fashioned from a hotel hand towel. The man spanked him mercilessly with a leather belt, leaving lesions that needed 12 stitches, and forced Jim to have unprotected sex.

Now, the man remembers Jim and wants another rendezvous. And because he is desperate, Jim reluctantly agrees. He has no money. He hasn't eaten today. He has nowhere to stay.

Male prostitution is a world apart. Female prostitutes are often the products of broken homes where drugs, violence, or incest prevail. But young men who sell sex on the street often end up there because of their sexual orientation. Many run away or are disowned by their families for being homosexual.

"Gay male prostitutes all have the same story," says Gerry Cheney, an outreach worker for prostitutes. "They're confused about their sexuality, so they turn to a family that is unwilling to accept the lifestyle. Out of shame, or sometimes because they are forced to, they leave home, quit school, and end up on the street, drug-addicted and homeless."

These are the stories that the male prostitutes of Arlington Street and the Combat Zone tell.

Thomas uses his real name, because he says it's his way of getting back at his family for being ashamed of him.

"I was 16 . . . very vulnerable . . . and I told my dad I thought I liked boys better than women," remembers Thomas, now a lean, dark-haired 22-year-old. "So he got me a prostitute and sat in his Audi outside the hotel room, hoping I would emerge `a man.'"

His father took him straight from the hotel to the Greyhound station, bought him a bus ticket to Boston -- some 600 miles from Thomas's home in Virginia Beach -- and told his son never to come home.

"I had disgraced my family," says Thomas with a forced snicker. He had been in town only a day when a guy he met at the Boston Public Library told him about Arlington Street and the "big bucks" that could be made there. "And here I am," he concludes. "I have a little bit of a savings, but I have no home. No family. No dignity."

Every day, more young men like Thomas enter this world. At a sleazy bar in Chinatown one recent fall night, two local college students -- one a freshman and the other a sophomore -- wander wide-eyed around the room. The freshman is questioning his sexual identity. The sophomore claims he's looking to make some extra money to support his gambling hobby.

"We asked where would be the best place to go to make money and pick up guys, and we were told here," says the bewildered freshman. "But I don't think I'll come back here."

Still, he can't work the street. Someone might see him and tell his family. He'd be thrown out, his free ride through college cut off. Then he'd be in the very position he is trying so hard to avoid -- on the street, with all the other young, desperate boys, enduring humiliation and physical torture just to survive one more day.

Male prostitutes start shockingly young. The average age at which young women get involved in street prostitution is 16.9, according to a study conducted by the San Francisco-based Delancey Street Foundation, an organization that does outreach work with female prostitutes. Young men, however, enter into prostitution at 14 or even younger, says Sean Haley, director of adolescent services for JRI Health, in Boston -- the city's only outreach program for male commercial sex workers. Although female prostitutes work well into their late 30s, the consensus among Boston's male streetwalkers is that men begin to leave the industry at an average age of 25.

"Carl" is considered one of the old-timers among the male prostitutes in Boston. He is 26.

"There are men who continue to work past 25 or 26, but with male commercial sex workers, the appearance is key," he explains. "Chicken hawks [clients] look for youth."

Male prostitutes usually do not have pimps. Very few have sugar daddies -- older gay men who keep them clothed and fed in exchange for sex, but don't give them enough to get them off the streets. Unlike female prostitutes, who have pimps controlling whom they have sex with, how long it lasts, and how much money they take in, male prostitutes are completely on their own.

But they have other problems to contend with.

"The majority of our clientele are straight businessmen," says Carl, who asked not to be described because of his "unique features." "Most of them are married. These conservative, collegiate types are into some kinky shit. I know people who have been maimed or who have agreed to sleep with infected men without a condom for more money, just because they needed the cash that bad."

Just like female streetwalkers, male prostitutes often fall victim to drugs and suffer from sexually transmitted diseases. The difference is, there are more outreach programs for women.

"For some reason, the focus as far as rehab and outreach is usually geared toward the women who work the streets," says Margot Hill, spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department. "It's like one big societal denial. No one wants to confront such a delicate issue as gay men selling themselves to straight married businessmen."

JRI Health's Boston Outreach Program (formerly known as Boston Street Youth Outreach) is working hard to combat the problems that society would rather forget. The program was established in 1991 to provide a variety of services to street youth, but with a particular emphasis on commercial sex workers.

Two years ago, JRI opened the Sydney Borum Jr. Health Center on Boylston Street. Affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Boston Children's Hospital, it provides a full range of medical and mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and specialty programs for HIV treatment and transgender health issues. Most important, the program keeps an average of 10 staff workers on the streets, talking to the young men, gaining their trust, and offering them a chance to turn their lives around. Or, for now, at least to seek shelter and medical help.

For those who choose to stay on the street, the picture is not pretty, says James Heron, a former male prostitute who now plays jazz in small venues around Rhode Island.

"Some male prostitutes are so far gone that they have become the vice," explains the 47-year-old musician.

On a Wednesday night shortly after nightfall, plenty of men who meet that description can be found on Essex Street, in the Combat Zone. Male prostitutes dwell in dark corners of bars, awaiting business.

One man, in black latex pants and a black-and-white striped spandex shirt, drops to his knees and services a hefty, sweaty man. Money is exchanged; a small bag of white powder is tucked into the waist of the tight black pants, and the prostitute disappears into the crowd.

The heavy aroma of pot hangs in the air as a young man in cutoff shorts and a tight royal-blue tank top releases the tourniquet from his right arm, rams his tongue into the mouth of his "regular" sitting beside him -- reportedly a State Street financial adviser -- and staggers to the back of the bar, toward the bathroom. As he passes a fellow hustler, he stammers, "Ha, Mama, look at me now!"

Back to Prostitution Theory 101

Sarah McNaught can be reached at smcnaught[a]
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