Hawk Kinkaid is the founder and president of HOOK, the association for male sex workers; he’s also the chief operating officer of Rentboy.com. I met him at a panel discussion a few months ago and was impressed with his personality and intelligence, and since the views of male sex workers are not often represented on this blog I asked him to contribute this guest column.
There. I wrote it. It’s what I feel like I’ve always wanted to say when people (frequently) ask me how men and women in the sex industry are different, or why there don’t appear to be many men at conferences or marches. This is what they are getting at: what place do men have in the movement, if any at all? I don’t think it should come as a shock that the movement to decriminalize the American sex industry has rarely involved cisgender men, never actively sought out their participation, and most definitely never needed us to make the incredible strides and achievements made thus far. The many regional and national programs which seek to represent and provide space for people in the sex industry haven’t needed men to drive significant shifts in raising awareness and developing programs for some of our culture’s most unjust abuses against sex workers (ranging from misogyny, homophobia and transphobia to immigration abuse, coercion, HIV and drug addiction).
Yet at the same time, there is so much left to do. The same movement that has achieved so much still struggles against potent social stigmas and the shifting sands of public opinion; it has failed to build coalitions that support sexworker-sensitive legislation; and it is currently losing the battle against a polluted “anti-trafficking” sex-negative abolitionist wave. Perhaps the question of “need” itself needs to be reframed. What, in fact, do we need? All of the programs I know have disparate and unique agendas representing their specific constituencies; the lack of a unified agenda appears to be the natural result of a complex network of organizations and networks, mostly at the grassroots level, all working toward independent goals serving their own communities. This makes sense when you consider the entire legacy: Our culture still revels in the archaic world where cisgender feminine sexual agency and persona must be policed, interrogated and incarcerated, and many of today’s programs started in response to local initiatives related to these injustices. These programs range from the important community work of Maggie’s in Toronto, to the St. James Infirmary’s health care services in San Francisco, to NYC’s Sex Workers Project legal support, to HIPS’ DC needle exchange, and each is tied at some level into grant money, foundations and more.
In this tangled network of conferences and fundraisers, the one thing that fractures a conversation faster than an inappropriately placed pronoun is the perception of privilege. This doesn’t only affect cisgender white men like myself; it is similarly shared by cisgender white women with economic success, or women who work in one particular segment of the industry over another, and so on. But what happens if the movement is solely focused on messages that exclude sex workers with financial success and social capital (intentionally or otherwise)? Recently, I was at an event at which a speaker began with a long preamble acknowledging all the elements of privilege we already recognized; I’m sure many in the audience welcomed the overture’s humble tones and quasi-martyrdom, but I tried to imagine the men I work with – the ones dancing in speedos on bars on the weekend, the ones shooting porn for amateur foot fetish sites, the ones working webcams between study sessions, the ones who are traipsing from city to city – feeling like they need to apologize for lives they don’t perceive as at all privileged before they can even speak. This isn’t to absolve them of their inability to recognize the privileges their status as cisgender white men does, in fact, carry, but what movement has an official guide on how to allow for this?
Using the LGBT movement as a limited parallel, we can see that recent strides in gay marriage most frequently benefit people who are already in privileged enough positions to normalize. LGBT people of color, low-income or immigrant LGBT people and trans people struggle for attention in a movement whose focus is now dominated by those seeking respectability through monogamous heteronormativity…and sex work isn’t even a consideration. When the photos of LGBT success surface the most privileged are always in the front row, buying tickets to the biggest of the celebrations and being asked to pose for the local newspapers, while the less privileged continue to struggle at the bottom. Yet at the same time, the swift rise to civil rights got much of its momentum from privilege; whether from mainstream pop culture like Will and Grace, or via the murder of a young white man on a Wyoming fence, shifts in the public conversation occurred whenever a certain audience in America perceived something as close to home. Getting the public to feel invested in the struggles of a minority group invariably fuels significant change. I’m not advocating that Americans lean on their prejudices in order to justify change; I’d like to think this isn’t the only way forward for a movement, but I’d be ignoring past behavior if I failed to suggest we can learn from example. And this time, can we please do it better and smarter, and avoid repeating the exacerbation of privilege? Can we forge a divergent path that is more inclusive, more diverse, and more accepting of transgressiveness than the LGBT community has delivered? Funding from foundations and government agencies often comes with sex-negative strings; if we enlarge our tent to include successful industry professionals we could potentially avoid the limitations inherent in organizational funding. In the LGBT rights movement, for example, several porn company professionals bankrolled marriage movement campaigns; is there a place for them in advancing sex worker rights? What about the high-earning porn performers or escorts I know taking in six-figure incomes? Businesses historically uninterested in sex workers’ civil rights are starting to change their tune as they themselves come under fire; isn’t that an opportunity to broaden our tent?
I don’t know what place men have within the sex worker rights movement, even though I have been a collaborator and contributor to it for nearly two decades. We may not be needed in the movement as it is today, but once there is a unified approach that acknowledges that those who work in the industry represent an inorganic cluster of privileges and injustices, it will be possible to develop a plan that all individuals working in the sex industry view as valuable, attainable and comprehensible. We are, after all, in this together.