Male sex work in comics and graphic novels: representations from an emerging genre

Dale Corvino

In both fine and popular art forms, there is a shift away from prevailing narratives centering on voices of privilege (by wealth, status, class, race, and/or gender) and toward a broader representation of and by marginalized people. Writers and artists from backgrounds long underrepresented in literature are gaining increasing acceptance and readership. They bring to the fore new voices, bring complexity to story lines and nuance to characters often reduced to stereotype. Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Adichie is known tor her lyrical novels as well as her lecture “The Danger of the Single Story,” in which she asserts, “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” While stereotypes of many types of marginalized people persist, the problem is particularly acute with prevailing representations of male sex workers.

Michael Morgan, a prolific researcher of media effects, draws this conclusion from decades of research: “I think the moral argument is self-evident. Stories matter. Stories affect how we live our lives, how we see other people, how we think about ourselves.” From the research on the effects of under- and misrepresentation, one may conclude that robust representation is merely a corrective to past deficiencies, but writer Gabrielle Bellot articulates an affirmative case for the project of queer representation: “Our literature has offered a vision to the world of the possibilities that may exist within each person, of our ability to resist and persist, of our ability to make and remake ourselves, even in the face of unspeakable pain.” The shift toward broader representation expands our culture, and the inclusion of sex workers’ narratives that present a more complicated picture than prevailing stereotypes is a part of this expansion. In the concise language of Twitter hashtags, representation matters.

Male sex workers may well face additional challenges when claiming space for their representation. The problem of disclosure is often primary to sex workers, compounding the risks that queer authors may face. In countries with oppressive laws against queer representation, merely speaking out or promoting certain content can subject individuals to prosecution or violence. In the United States, which has made progress toward attaining legislative as well as representational equality, many states still allow employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity; there are cases of schoolteachers being fired for expressing their identity, as well as cases of teachers being doxxed and subsequently fired for prior sex work.

The past two generations of writers have expanded the scope of male sex worker representation not only by countering stereotypes but also by representing the under-, mis-, and unrepresented in popular genres such as science fiction, young adult novels, and comics. The absence of particular characters and narratives in a given genre compounds the problem ot persistent stereotypes. The existence of a body of sci-fi works without queer characters or story lines, for example, tacitly implies a queerless future; the picture is incomplete. In the works appraised in this chapter, writers and artists have engaged the popular comic genre to counter persistent stereotypes with immediate, explicit, and detailed characterizations and narratives.

Graphic novels and comic books: superhero hustlers

A comic book or graphic novel typically advances narratives with a combination of image and text: expositional blocks, dialogue bubbles, framed sequences of drawings, and insets. While a comic book is typically serialized, a graphic novel is a stand-alone volume. One of the strengths of the medium is the graphic depiction of bodies in motion, a strength that lends itself to the sexually graphic scenes of much adult content. Comic books are perhaps best known for the supernatural abilities of their superheroes, anthropomorphic content for both children and adults, and humor, whereas political and social commentary are typically the purview of serial comic strips and single-panel comics appearing in newspapers and magazines.

While comics in the West date back to the early nineteenth century and the advent of mass printing ot newspapers and periodicals, the emergence of queer content in comics is far more recent. Comic artist Justin Hall surveyed the emergent queer comic subgenre, tracing its origin to the early 1950s and Tom of Finland’s illustrations for Physique Pictorial and other titles. During the queer liberation movement of the 1970s, underground queer comic content flourished in San Francisco and other centers of queer life. Founded there in 1980 was the long-running anthology Gay Comix, which brought the emergent underground queer content to a wider audience. In the 1990s, mainstream comic publisher DC Marvel sought to capitalize on the popularity of underground content with the establishment ot Vertigo Comics, an imprint for adult-themed graphic novels. Since Hall’s 2013 survey of the landscape of queer comics, the subgenre has burgeoned, and some creators (for example, Alison Bechdel, creator of Dykes to Watch Out For and Fun Flome; Germany’s Ralf Konig) have gained wide mainstream audiences.

Representation of male sex workers in comics and graphic novels has come about far more recently than it has in literature; it is part ot the burgeoning scope of the queer subgenre. For male sex workers, comics can be an accessible medium for telling stories based on true experiences without endangering individuals by disclosing their identities. The medium also allows for tighter creative control by the author or artist than is possible with highly collaborative and expensive endeavors such as film or television. The creative production of most of the comics considered in this chapter was in the hands ot one or two individuals, many with professed experience in sex work. This aspect ot artistic control may well insulate the creative process from commercial pressures, which tend to reinforce stereotypes.

A groundbreaking work representing male sex work in comic-book form is 1996’s graphic novel Seven Miles a Second, developed by the artist and writer David Wojnarowicz with artist James Romberger and colorist Marguerite Van Cook, and first published by Vertigo Comics. The publication of Seven Miles a Second helped establish Vertigo as an adult, alternative-leaning imprint; the source material was decidedly outside the bounds of the industry’s self-enforced standards, the Comic Code, and therefore unsuitable for a mainstream imprint. The story told is of teenage Wojnarowicz s destitution and despair in the face of his surroundings. It is told in first-person, confessional mode. In the first half, the narrator recounts, in the past tense, his start as a teenage hustler. From the outset, desire and longing are entwined with violence and degradation; his first customer goads him into watching through a peephole as a female sex worker services her customer, while the narrator himself is serviced by his customer. In a graphically powerful frame, the female sex worker turns around to reveal extensive slash marks on her torso, which the narrator describes as “fresh wounds” (Figure 11.1). The teen is thus introduced to sex work alongside voyeurism and menacing violence.

Panel depicting the narrator's gruesome introduction to sex work, in Seven Miles a Second, David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Von Cook, 1996

Figure 11.1 Panel depicting the narrator's gruesome introduction to sex work, in Seven Miles a Second, David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Von Cook, 1996.

In the second part of the book, the narrator switches to present tense to document the effect of prolonged, AIDS-related illness on his body and spirit and the impact of the epidemic on his circle ot friends. He sinks into an apocalyptic rage against the cruelties of the universe, in particular, the government’s indifference to gay men’s suffering. The work exploits the potential of comic art to convey a story in frames while amplifying the emotional impact, in this case, of monstrous cruelty and suffering. For the illustrations, the artist Romberger summoned his experience in illustrating the horrors ot oppressive urban poverty in his work for World War 3, a comics series that provided social and political commentary on the issues affecting New York’s East Village during the Reagan era.

Wojnarowicz stoked controversy in the art world of his day by making overtly political statements denouncing the U.S. government’s homophobia and lack of action in response to the AIDS epidemic. In the graphic novel treatment of Seven Miles a Second, Wojnarowicz and Romberger subverted the comic form by using its pulpy effects to convey Wojnarowicz’s suffering. Comic books in the superhero genre typically depict a central character who, through some accident of fate, is heroically transformed and bestowed with special powers. Wojnarowicz achieves his special power during his teenage hustler years through the repeated degradations of his body and spirit. His suffering gives him the vision to see the world tor what it is.

Wojnarowicz worked on Seven Miles a Second and other collaborative projects until he died of AIDS in 1992; the final section of the graphic novel was completed by his collaborators Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook. Wojnarowicz’s demand that his suffering serve his art echoes a major theme in the work of French writer and hustler Jean Genet. In Journal du voleur (The Thief’s Journal), Genet outlines his aesthetic mission: “If 1 cannot have the most brilliant destiny,

I want the most wretched, not tor the purpose ot a sterile solitude, but in order to achieve something new with such rare matter.” As a representation of male sex workers, Wojnarowicz chronicles the abjection of his teenage self facing the disaffection and poverty that led him into sex work, and the transformation of his suffering into art.

The Japanese term manga broadly corresponds to the comics genre. While the history of manga dates back to twelfth-century scrolls that combine drawings and text, as with Western comics, there are categories of manga tor many sorts ot readers: children, teens, and adults. There is a huge body of erotica, much of which explores kinks, fetishes, and the taboo. A subgenre ot manga erotica called yaoi, or boy’s love (BL), is centered on male same-sex pairings and commonly features story lines about fetishes or taboo subjects. The yaoi genre is largely targeted toward women readers who are aroused by homoerotica.

The prolific yaoi creator Kano Miyamoto has explored male sex work in one of her series. Say Please, which is available in an English-language translation, features a male sex worker protagonist. While the text is translated into English, the graphic frames are printed as they are read in the original Japanese, from right to left. The character Ryoichi is a young sex worker operating out ot a arisen, or male brothel. He is hired by Sakura, a closeted high school teacher, for the night, but the two wind up spending a week together after Ryoichi negotiates a rate with Sakura without involving the brothel (a practice described as “stiffing the house”). The two characters enter into an emotionally fraught and passionate entanglement that threatens the teacher’s job and the male sex worker’s sexual autonomy. In the yaoi context, the sex work aspect ot the narrative serves as a device to throw a boyish young man together with a young professional, and it contributes to the forbidden aspect of their pairing.

The graphic style of Say Please, printed in black and white, includes sparely linear frames, closely observed details of intimacy, and an atmospheric use of shading to convey mood (Figure 11.2). Many of the pages include angular and overlapping frames, splicing together setting, action, and detail. The frames depicting sexual interactions between Sakura and Ryoichi

Panel depicting the offsite negotiation ("stiffing the house") between Ryoichi and Sakura, from Say Please, Kano Miyamoto, 2008

Figure 11.2 Panel depicting the offsite negotiation ("stiffing the house") between Ryoichi and Sakura, from Say Please, Kano Miyamoto, 2008.

explore the shifting power dynamics in their initially transactional pairing, as the emotional arc bends from cruelty and obsession toward dominance and revulsion. As is common in yaoi, rape is depicted in &iy Please as a kink fantasy; after being forcibly penetrated by a sexually frenzied Sakura, Ryoichi agrees to return “tomorrow,” that is, tor another encounter. Also as is common in yaoi, the younger male, Ryoichi, is androgynous, permitting representations of sex acts to flutter between homosexual and heterosexual interpretations.

Presenting a contrast to the brooding, emotionally fraught style of the Japanese yaoi Say Please is the full-color, pornographic comic series Satisfaction Guaranteed, drawn and written by Canadian homoerotic artist Patrick Fillion. In this series, an evil pimp, Laburnum, controls the lives of a stable of male escorts through the machinations of his corporation, the SG Corp. The protagonist, Elias Shelby, is a young accountant unwittingly sold into servitude by his financially strained uncle. Each of the other escorts depicted has woeful backstory. They are different types, though all are idealized. Elias is rescued from his anguish over his downfall by Dane, another escort. These studs-in-distress are all locked into airtight contracts and have no choice but to service SG Corp.’s wealthy sadistic clients in repeated acts of sexual debasement. By the end of the series, Elias plots to take the SG Corp. away from Laburnum and enslave him in revenge for his years of cruelty, and Dane has fallen in love with the bearish client who has secretly provided Elias with the financing for his hostile takeover.

The plot allows for repeat depictions of extreme sexual encounters, each involving a measure of coercion. Stylized depictions of common fetishes (bondage, restraint, BDSM) serve the series’ central motif: wealth as the ultimate dominating force over the individual. The drawing style of the series is vivid, glossy, and explicit, and the escorts are drawn as hypermasculine ideals, showing influences of the work of Tom of Finland. Even supernatural characters (elves, devils, clowns) are idealized; all are impossibly well-endowed, muscular sexual athletes. As a depiction of sex workers’ lives, the comic grapples with real-life themes of financial motivation, personal agency, and relationship dynamics, albeit in a highly exaggerated, fictionalized context.

Another full-color homoerotic comic series, Payday, was written and drawn by Sunny Victor, the pseudonym of a creator who has his own disclosure challenges because he resides in a country with oppressive laws and social prohibitions against homosexual depictions. Payday brings readers the story ot Adrian, a self-actualized, upscale escort. In the course ot the narrative, Adrian creates a myth around himself as the most exclusive and upscale escort—before he even meets one client. The hype proves to be irresistible for wealthy men who feel they deserve only the best.

In the first issue, Adrian is both narrator and protagonist. He recounts his origin story to a new client, a well-known author who wishes to write about Adrians experiences. There are layers of representation, as Adrian is telling the story of telling his story, so that it can be told, in fictionalized form, to a wider audience. This frame-within-a-frame narrative device provides voyeuristic readers with an idealized story ot an male sex worker who has access to wealth and luxury.

The style of the artwork in Payday is crisp, with sharp line drawings and realistic shading and color. The frames are episodic, of mostly static scenes, with breaks denoting action or dramatic emphasis; there are occasional insets tor sexually graphic detail. Action is conveyed in sequential frames and from multiple points of view. Adrians body is drawn as perfectly sculpted and with large genitals, though not to the exaggerated degree ot the figures in Satisfaction Guaranteed. The story’s jet-set global destinations are drafted with precision. In contrast to the other works’ harrowing stories of economically stranded teen boys who have little agency in their sex work, Adrian is economically advantaged, college educated, and calculating; his first client otters to buy him a house after Adrian turns him down repeatedly. Despite Adrian’s performance of mild sexual submission for his enthralled wealthy clients, Payday depicts an idealized fantasy of a sex worker who has ultimate agency—the power to create his own reality from his imagination.

Room for Lone, a graphic novel, is a passion project of the British artist known as ILYA, who has created work for such major comics publishers as Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse, as well as manga tor the Japanese market. Set in London, Room for Love opens on the separate lives of Cougar, a homeless Irish street hustler, and Pamela, a lonely, middle-aged romance novelist who has run out ot romantic stories. The panels depicting Pamela’s cozy yet sterile milieu are done in cool blue tones, while Cougar’s lite on the streets is represented in warm sepia shades. After Pamela’s unwitting actions lead to Cougar’s eviction from his sleeping place under a bridge, she invites him to live with her. Their unlikely romance is depicted in blended gray-colored panels. The spare drawing style and color coding drive the narrative’s examinations of identity and intimacy.

Pamela’s illusion of romance crashes when her gay male friend recognizes Cougar as a fellow queer, and Cougar reveals to Pamela that he is “not just a boy, a boy you can enjoy, a rent boy!” While Cougar sparks Pamela’s creativity anew, Pamela offers Cougar an escape from his identification as someone tor whom love is “professional, transactional.” In Room for Love’s depiction of male sex workers, the realm of the hardened street hustler and the cozy comforts of a middle-class writer collide. From Cougar’s perspective, their story is largely transactional—the titular room is provided to him in exchange for intimacy—whereas Pamela sees their pairing as her making room tor love in her life, which is as drained ot love as it is of romance story lines. Pamela meditates presumptuously on their relationship and how it has retueled her creative output.

Although the contours of the story bring nuance to the representation of male sex workers— Cougar identifies as gay, yet finds he is able to perform intimately with a woman (under the right inducements), while Pamela’s unawareness ot Cougar’s sex work history blurs the boundaries between the transactional and the personal—at its core, Room for Love is the story of a young migrant street worker with limited options who, once Pamela learns of his sex work, reveals his history of sexual abuse. While perpetuating a stereotype ot male sex workers as damaged, as incapable of and undeserving of love, the story illustrates how two parties in a relationship—whether transactional, personal, or somewhere in between—can operate under divergent understandings of the terms of that relationship.

The Lengths, another independently produced graphic novel rendered in black and white, was written and drawn by Howard Hardiman, a British graphic artist. Originally self-published in installments, the complete story was published in 2013 by Soaring Penguin, a UK-based publisher of graphic novels. This graphic novel centers on Eddie, an art-school dropout who is drawn to escorting by his encounters with Nelson, a successful, muscle-bound escort who takes on the role ot Eddie’s mentor. Hardiman, who has acknowledged his own experience with sex work during college, carried out extensive research to create The Lengths, interviewing male sex workers in London about their beginnings, work practices, highlights, and low points.

In nonsequential, alternating sequences, The Lengths examines Eddies double life. He and his circle of friends and lovers index his relationship struggles and the circumstances that led him to drop out ot school. Eddie is depicted as a well-meaning, somewhat adrift young man who bounces from one relationship to another. In his interactions with Nelson, the reader is introduced to “Ford,” Eddies escort persona, as Nelson brings him in on calls with his clients, helps him to set expectations, and advises him on how to market himself. In advising Eddie to get a second phone, Nelson seeks to impart the importance of keeping one’s sex work and personal life in separate silos, but Eddie struggles with the strict separation. His newest romantic partner, Dave, finds out that he is escorting, and Dave accepts his partners career. They use “weird hours”as a catch-all euphemism in discussing Eddies sex work.

Much of the story in The Lengths is told in flashbacks, and there is no exposition other than the inclusion of the characters’ profiles on “Trackr” (a dating app loosely based on Grindr) and occasional glimpses ot text messages on a phone screen (Figure 11.3). In the online era, technology is a pervasive frame; the isolating nature of contemporary sex work, once relegated to the streets and now virtual, is a major theme. Absent a narrator, most of the scenes are drawn from the point of view ot Eddie’s interlocutors, with occasional switches to Eddie s view ot the scene. This choice positions the reader somewhere in the frame as Eddie navigates his split existence. It has the effect of keeping the reader close to Eddie in his struggle to maintain his dual life and his search for intimacy and purpose. In the absence of expository blocks, all of the text is dialogue. Eschewing speech bubbles, most of the dialogue floats in the blank space of the frame, imparting a weightlessness to the exchanges.

A prevalent motif of the comic form is anthropomorphism, commonly the use of animal characters with human drives and motives. One highly regarded example of anthropomorphized characters deployed in the service ot telling adult stories is Matts, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. In his treatment of his father’s experience in Poland during the Holocaust, Spiegelman depicted Nazis as cats, Jews as mice, and the complicit Poles as rabbits. Another well-known example is R. Crumb’s underground sensation Fritz the Cat, a comic strip featuring a horny, neurotic feline who lives in a city populated by other animals. In The Lengths, all the characters are drawn as dogs of varying breeds. Eddie resembles a bull terrier, Nelson is a mastiff with cropped ears, and Dan, Eddie’s newest partner, is a shaggy-faced schnauzer. Though the characters have canine heads, they have mostly human bodies. Hardiman has stated that he based his characters on sex workers he’s known, and that rendering the characters as dogs not only made for easier graphic identification but also dispelled potential problems of disclosure.

American comic-book author and tattoo artist Dave Davenport has tackled the topic ot male sex work, notably in his homoerotic series Flard to Swallow, a compilation cocreated with Justin Hall and published by queer comics publisher Northwest Press. Of his interest in male sex workers, Davenport has stated, “I’ve known sex workers at all points ot my life . . . and I may

Panel depicting "Trackr" profiles of the main characters in The Lengths, Howard Hardiman, 2013

Figure 11.3 Panel depicting "Trackr" profiles of the main characters in The Lengths, Howard Hardiman, 2013.

have had to hustle to make the rent. . . . It’s a part of life, it always has been, and always will be. It needs to be a part of comics as well.”

The Hard to Swallow series’ pages are printed in black and white, with full-color covers. Set in Fogtown, a fictionalized locale that blends features of San Francisco and Santa Cruz, the series features a trio of characters with interwoven story lines. Doug is a compact young tough who works as a stripper at a gay club. He has a special bond with two supernatural characters: Grant, a preppie gay man who transforms into a sexually ravenous werewolf (Feral), and Mitch (the Ghost Skater), a skateboarding former lover of Doug’s, who after his death was transformed into a horny ghost. With each story line, the characters’ unashamed, raucous sexuality is an instrument of resolution. After rescuing Doug from danger, the supernatural characters engage in a three-way with him.

Doug’s work as a stripper roots the comic’s supernatural action in the gritty reality of sweaty sets, groping customers, and jockstraps stuffed with bills. The conceit that a gay male stripper is linked to the supernatural is an affirming depiction of a male sex worker, as it connects gay sexual agency and autonomy to the heroic. For this series Davenport employs a loose style of thick-lined cartoons with heavy shading. The pages are densely drawn, with runaway and overlapping frames. Sex is graphically depicted as rowdy and very much enjoyed, while danger takes the form of homophobic street punks. The overall effect of the energetic drawing style reinforces the sex and sex-work positivity of the series.

Davenport also collaborated with New York—based male sex worker Bryan Knight on the creation of Velvet Collar, which is planned as a series, although to date only the first issue has been published. Like many ot the works discussed in this chapter, Velvet Collar was published independently; its full-color production was financed through crowdsourcing. In expository blocks, Velvet Collar provides background on the personal lives of five different male sex workers. The story was written by Knight; each main character is based on an actual male sex worker (escort, porn performer, dancer) who consented to participate in the project or is a composite based on two participating male sex workers. Where necessary, names have been changed to avoid disclosure, while individuals’ likenesses are fairly closely rendered by Davenport from photos and videos.

Davenports hand in drawing Velvet Collar is tighter than in Hard to Swallow, perhaps because there are more characters and interwoven stories to depict. The characters are faithfully rendered and colored, and the New York City settings are drafted with precision. The story is told sequentially, in the third-person present tense; the reader shifts from one main character’s individual story to the next via a chain of phone calls made to gather the group to attend an event at the offices of Rentman, depicted as the world’s largest online escort listing service. This narrative device centers on technology, reflecting the new reality of online sex work. As in Hard to Swallow, the sex—both personal and transactional—is depicted as explicit, raucous fun.

Part of the mission of Velvet Collar is to depict male sex workers as fully realized protagonists with complex emotional lives. The series follows the lives of five different workers who represent a diverse range of ethnicities, body types, and ages. The character Abel Rey is based on a Latino male sex worker active in New York. In his frames, he is seen arguing with a love interest who has “discovered” that he’s a sex worker, despite his previous disclosure of this “on (their) second date.” The sequence, charged with both emotion and sexual heat, resolves with Abel saying, “Other people pay cash, all you have do is pay attention.” The sequence highlights the challenges male sex workers may face in navigating intimate, nontransactional relationships.

The character Billy is shown in the midst of a call with a submissive client who worships his hairy body and large belly. Billy is a “bear” type; his depiction runs counter to pervasive stereotypes of male sex workers as paragons of physical perfection, or as ephebic ideals (epltebe is the Greek term for a beautiful male youth on the cusp of manhood). The character named Rica Shay is a composite, partly inspired by a Los Angeles—based gay hip-hop performer and dancer. Frames depict him saying good-bye to a loving partner while pursuing his career as a performer, which is in turn financed by his sex work. In his interactions with a regular customer, it is made clear that the customer is well aware of Rica Shay’s musical ambition and fully supports it. The character is depicted as successfully navigating a relationship, his creative aspirations, and his sex-work client’s expectations.

The fourth male sex worker character, Storm, is based on the true experience of a “down- low” escort who requested that Knight withhold his name and likeness. He is African American, married with a wife and child; in the opening sequence, the separate silos of his life as male sex worker and as a father and husband come crashing down when his young daughter announces, “Dad, I know you’re a prostitute,” as he is getting ready to take her to school. Storm had been able to conceal his sex work from his family until he agreed to be photographed. This story grapples with deeper questions of disclosure in the lives of male sex workers. While his daughter is understanding, his wife raises potential serious consequences: “If child services finds out, they’ll take her away from you.”

The last of the quintet of male sex worker characters is Scott, a.k.a. Daddy. Daddy is actively working, both as a trapeze instructor and a sex worker, at the age of 62. This character is also a composite, drawing from the experience ot an acquaintance of Knight’s with 40 years of sex work experience, a “veteran” whose longevity defies the expectations and stereotypes of male sex workers. These five male sex workers convene at the launch party for an ad campaign in which they are featured at the offices of Rentman, on the occasion of the company’s twentieth anniversary. The party is interrupted by a raid, depicting in thinly veiled fictional form the true events surrounding the federal prosecution in 2015. Federal agents in black crash the party and overrun the office with force (Figure 11.4). The five central characters, who are just coming around the corner, are astonished to see Rentman s handcuffed employees being perp-walked toward a police cruiser.

Of his motive for writing Velvet Collar, Knight has said,

Right now gays are in the mainstream, we have marriage, and part of that strategy has been desexualizing everything we are[,| so this particular comic pushes us back into that realm where sex and identity are intertwined. . . . [T]he narratives of acceptance have been, “We’re just like you!” but the truth is, we’re not. . . . [A] lot of naked truths get exposed.

Cover illustration depicting the raid on the offices of Rentman. From Velvet Collar, Bryan Knight and Dave Davenport, 2017

Figure 11.4 Cover illustration depicting the raid on the offices of Rentman. From Velvet Collar, Bryan Knight and Dave Davenport, 2017.

Beyond this mission, and that of expanding the representation ot male sex workers to include men ot different ages, races, ethnicities, and body types, there’s a clear effort to document the new focus on criminalizing and prosecuting sex workers’ online spaces. The illustration on the cover of Velvet Collar depicts the founder of Rentman bound up in yellow crime-scene tape. While the depiction is stylistic and graphically dynamic, it accurately conveys the circumstance of Jeffrey Hurant, the real-life founder ot Rentboy, who, after being arrested and charged with promoting prostitution and conspiracy to commit money laundering, was convicted and sentenced to six months in federal prison. In a Department of Justice press release, the acting U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case described the business as an “Internet brothel.”

Before it was shuttered, Rentboy was the single largest global advertising platform for male sex workers; its splash page around the time of the raid promised access to “over 10,500 men in 2,100+ cities worldwide.” Prior to the 2015 arrests, it had operated without any significant scrutiny from federal authorities. The Rentboy raid was part of a coordinated law enforcement effort to shut down sex workers’ online presence (Backpage, a major platform for female sex workers, was later also seized by federal authorities). In the aftermath of the seizures ot Rentboy and Backpage, sex workers have attested to facing more dangerous situations and having less agency over their lives since the loss of those established, verifiable platforms.

Law enforcement officials commonly justify this new targeting ot online content as necessary in order to prevent the sex trafficking of minors, a view that conflates adult, consensual sex work with coerced victims ot child trafficking. This conflation is evident in a 2014 Issue Paper from the United Nations on the topic, in which the authors assert that “consent is always irrelevant to determining whether the crime ot human trafficking has occurred.” Velvet Collar chronicles a new era for sex work in which once-stable online platforms have left all sex workers scrambling for platforms free from scrutiny.


In a short span of time—just over two decades—representations of male sex work in this accessible, popular medium have done much to counter stereotypes. Authors and artists who are male sex workers have found varied solutions to problems of disclosure while grappling with major themes of identity and agency. This body of work offers detailed and often nuanced takes on how male sex workers negotiate complicated dualities of exploitation and freedom, longing and intimacy. The comics and graphic novels examine the perils and pleasures of a working life at the margins of personal autonomy and legality, and they have indexed a period of transition in male sex work from the mean streets to the open frontiers of the Internet, and on to the present reality of criminalized online spaces.

Bibliography and reference lists

Bellot, G. (2016, November 18). Queer writers in the age of Trump. The Atlantic. Retrieved from www. l/queer-writers-in-the-age-of-trump/507854/ Boboltz, S., & Yam, K. (2017, February 24). Why on-screen representation actually matters [article quoting Michael Morgan]. Huffington Post. Retrieved from screen-representation-matters_us_58aeae96e4b01406012fe49d Carr, C. (2014). Fire in the belly: The life and times of David Wojnarowicz. New York: Bloomsbury Press. Corvino, D. (2017, November 1). Velvet collar. The Rentboy raid inspired comic book. Tits & Sass.

Retrieved from

Garcia, Ramon. (2003). Interview with John Rechy. The Free Library. Retrieved from www.thefreelibrary. com/Interview+with+John+Rechy.-aO104681248.

Genet, J. (1965). The thief's journal. London: Blond.

Hall, J. (2013). No straight lines: Four decades of queer comics. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books.

Istrati, P., & Sawyer-Lau^anno, C. (2010). Kyra Kyralina. Greenfield, MA: Talisman House.

Kordic, A., Pereira, L., & Martinique, E. (2016, September 24). A short history ofjapanese manga. Wide- walls Editorial. Retrieved from

Ngozi, C. (2009). The danger of the single story. TEDGlobal. Retrieved from chimaman

Rechy, J., et al. (1973). An interview with John Rechy. Chicago Review, 25(1). Retrieved from www.jstor. org/ stable/25294804

Rudick, N. (2013, May 8). “This brighter path”: An interview with James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook. Comics Journal. Retrieved from guerite-van-cook/

Senate Committee on the Judiciary. (1955). Comic boohs and juvenile delinquency, interim report. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Sneddon, L. (2013, October 13). Comics interview: Howard Hardiman on “The Lengths.” New Statesman America. Retrieved from hardiman-lengths

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2014). The role of “consent” in the trafficking of persons protocol [issue paper]. Retrieved from Issue_Paper_Consent.pdf

U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Attorneys Office, Eastern District of New York. (2015, August 25). Largest online male escort service raided, [press release]. Retrieved from largest-online-male-escort-service-raided.

A Chronology of Male Sex Workers in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Comics and Graphic Novels

Entries are listed in order of their discussion in the chapter. Asterisks indicate author(s) with

stated experience in sex work.


Kyra Kyralina, Panait Istrati, 1924. The earliest representation of a male sex worker in modern literature. A vagabond recounts his youth as the kept boy ot a young and sensual Turkish bey during the waning days of the Ottoman Empire.

The Hustler, John Henry MacKay, 1926. Set in Weimar-era Berlin, this novel chronicles a young man’s attraction to a homeless teenage hustler.

  • * Notre Dame des jlenrs (Our Lady of the Flowers), Jean Genet, 1943. Written in prison, Genet’s debut novel chronicles his experience in the Parisian homosexual underworld of hustlers, pimps, and drag queens. Its erotically charged, free-flowing prose sets forth Genets transvaluation of betrayal as devotion and the eroticism ot the abject.
  • *Journal du voleur (The Thief’s Journal), Jean Genet, 1949. Genet’s third novel, also autobiographical, recounts a series of romantic entanglements and his career as a hustler and a thief throughout 1930s Europe.

Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr., 1957. A collection of interrelated tales of working-class life in 1950s Sunset Park, Brooklyn, capturing a milieu ot sexual violence, street gangs, drugs, and sex work. Features the character ot Georgette, a female-presenting male sex worker.

*City of Night, John Rechy, 1963. Rechy s breakthrough autobiographical novel, drawn from his career as a hustler in New York and Hollywood, examines the longings of his “scores” and the systemic oppression ot the gay underworld.

Midnight Cowboy, James Leo Herlihy, 1965. A meditation on loneliness, the novel presents the story of Joe Buck, a Texan stud with a sexual past rooted in trauma, who travels to New York to make it as a hustler. There he bonds with a disabled con man named Ratso, only to lose him to pneumonia on a bus ride to Florida.

  • *$tud, Phil Andros (Samuel Steward), 1966. A collection of erotic tales about Phil Andros, the titular stud tor hire. In his travels to major American cities, he explores various kinks and fetishes, and larger topics, such as race. A chronicler of gay lite in the 1960s, Andros unabashedly embraces his outlaw sexuality.
  • * Numbers, John Rechy, 1967. Johnny Rio is an aging hustler who returns to Los Angeles,

his old proving ground, after years away, and goes on a mission to rack up numbers in a ten-day period.

  • *My Brother, My Self, Phil Andros (Samuel Steward), 1970. Andros’s search for his long-lost twin brother, Dennis Andrews, leads him on a series of erotic adventures.
  • *Shuttecock, Phil Andros (Samuel Steward), 1972. In Berkeley, California, Andros rescues a hippie from a bad drug trip and subsequently sends him off to the police academy, in order to fulfill his own fantasy ot being dominated at the hands ot a cop.

Enchanted Boy, Richie McMullen, 1989. An autobiographical novel about a boy growing up in postwar Liverpool who, after experiencing physical and sexual abuse, finds an escape and some agency as a “boy prostitute.”

Enchanted Youth, Richie McMullen, 1990. The follow-up to Enchanted Boy, depicting the protagonist’s teen years as a hustler and his transition to adulthood.

  • *Neons, Denis Belloc, 1991. The stark tale of Denis, whose childhood in rural France in the 1950s was marred by penury and abuse. Finding solace in anonymous sexual encounters in public toilets, he eventually makes his way to Paris and lives a hardened life of sex work and petty crime.
  • * Hello, Darling, Are You Working? Rupert Everett, 1992. A gay farce presenting the fate ot

ruined soap-opera star and former hustler Rhys Waveral.

Los novios bt'tlgaros (The Bulgarian Boyfriends), Eduardo Mendicutti, 1993. A novel presenting the entanglement of a bourgeois gay Spaniard with Kyril, a sex worker, and his tribe ot fellow Bulgarian exiles.

Martin and John, Dale Peck, 1994. The story of John, a New York hustler, who falls in love with Martin, a man dying of AIDS, is interwoven with the story with another pair ot men with the same names.

Rent Boy, Gary Indiana, 1994. This epistolary novella tracks Danny, a college student and hustler, as he falls in with a black-market organ theft ring.

User, Bruce Benderson, 1994. Set in 1980s New York City, the novel centers on Apollo, a heroin-addicted hustler, as he races through his diminishing options after slashing the bouncer at a Times Square porn theater, disrupting the netherworld he inhabits.

Boy Culture, Matthew Rettenmund, 1996. A rickety love triangle between X, a hustler, and his two roommates, a sexually confused virgin he pursues and the precocious teenage party boy who pursues him.

After Nirvana, Lee Williams, 1997. Set in the Pacific Northwest in thel990s, the novel is narrated by Davey, a street hustler, as he moves between his tricks, his girlfriend, and his boyfriend.

Sarah: A Novel, JT LeRoy, 2000. Narrated by an unnamed boy whose mother, Sarah, is a “lot lizard,” or truck-stop prostitute, in West Virginia. Longing for her love, he seeks to outdo her as Cherry Vanilla, his own lot lizard persona.

The Sluts, Dennis Cooper, 2005. Set largely on the pages of an online forum for escorts and their johns, this epistolary novel tracks one escort, Brad, as his review devolves into lurid metafiction.

Setting the Lawn on Fire, Mack Friedman, 2005. The coming-of-age story of Eye, whose journey of sexual discovery takes him to some far-flung places and states of longing, until he pursues his art while supporting himself as a hustler.

Murder Most Fab, Julian Clary, 2008. A comic novel tracking the rise and fall Johnny Debonair, a television star, rent boy, and serial killer.

* Shuck, Daniel Allen Cox, 2008. A novel based on the experiences ot the author, its episodes center on Javeen, as he navigates his porn and sex work career, his meth addiction, his writing ambitions, and his bond with an obsessed artist.

What Belongs to Yon, Garth Greenwell, 2016. The story of a lone American in Sofia, Bulgaria, whose encounter with a hustler named Mitko in a public toilet initiates a quest for intimacy laced with abjection.


* Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz, 1991. A collection ot memoir essays by the artist,

recounting his violent childhood, his life on the streets ot New York, and his iconoclastic career as an artist.

* Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, David Wojnarowicz, 1992. A collection of four autobiographical short stories about the artists life as a teenage hustler and his public battle against AIDS, with illustrations by Wojnarowicz.

Wonder Bread and Ecstasy: The Life and Death of Joey Stefano, 1996, Charles Isherwood. The tragic tale of Joey Stefano, from his meteoric rise in porn to his death by overdose at age 26.

  • *Diary of a Hustler, Joey (William Maltese) 1997. The story of an 18-year-old operating out of an elite call-boy agency in Las Vegas who finds himself drawn to the agency owner’s assistant.
  • * Assuming the Position, Rick Whitaker, 1999. Armed with a degree in philosophy, Whitaker

confronts his emotional detachment and drug addiction while hustling in New York in the 1980s.

* Suburban Hustler: Stories of a Hi-Tech Callboy, Aaron Lawrence, 1999. A collection ot 24

stories chronicling Lawrence’s experiences as an escort in suburban New Jersey during the early and open frontier of online interactions.

A Thousand and One Night Stands: The Life of Jon Vincent, H. A. Carson, 2001. Drawn from transcripts of interviews with the subject, this biography ot the late bisexual bodybuilder and porn star chronicles his abusive childhood, his stint in professional baseball, his porn career, and his heroin addiction.

*Chicken: Self-Portrait of a Young Man for Rent, David Henry Sterry, 2002. Memoir recounting Sterry’s vulnerability as a teenager newly arrived in Hollywood, suddenly homeless and preyed upon by sexual assailants, and his becoming a sex worker tor women.

Blue Days, Black Nights, Ron Nyswaner, 2004. Nyswaner battles depression despite his success as a screenwriter. When he meets Johann, a leather-clad Hungarian hustler, he is drawn into a prolonged drug binge and romantic obsession.

The Romanian: Story of an Obsession, Bruce Benderson, 2006. Benderson’s “erotic autobiography” chronicles his romantic obsession with Romulus, a street hustler he meets in Budapest. While laying bare the economic realities that drive Romulus, a poor migrant, to sex work, the memoir threads examinations ot Romanian history and culture with intimate personal and familial narratives.

  • *AII I Could Bure, Craig Seymour, 2008. Seymour’s memoir of his life as a graduate student in Washington, DC, where he strips at one of the city’s notorious gay clubs while navigating his studies, his relationship, and his family life.
  • *Hos, Hookers, Call Girls, and Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money, and Sex, edited by David Henry Sterry and R.J. Martin Jr., 2009. A collection of stories from sex workers of all stripes, organized thematically.
  • *Full Service, Scotty Bowers, 2012. Memoir of an ex-marine and gas station attendant who went on to become a sex worker and pimp to the stars of Hollywood.
  • *Joltns, Marks, Tricks, and Chickenhawks: Professionals and Their Clients Writing about Each Other, edited by R.J. Martin Jr. and David Henry Sterry, 2013. A second collection ot sex-worker stories that includes entries by sex workers’ clients.
  • *Money’s on the Dresser, Christopher Daniels, 2013. Memoir ot a Las Vegas—based porn performer and escort.
  • * Prose & Lore: Memoir Stories about Sex Work, Collected Issues 1—5, edited by Audacia Ray, 2015. A compendium ot literary journals from the writing program ot the Red Umbrella Project, a now-defunct organization that advocated for the rights of sex workers.

Graphic Novels and Comics

* Seven Miles a Second, David Wojnarowicz (author), James Romberger, and Marguerite Van

Cook (artists), 1996.

Say Please, Kano Miyamoto (author/artist), 2008.

Satisfaction Guaranteed, Patrick Fillion (author/artist), 2010.

* The Lengths, Howard Hardiman (author/artist), 2013.

Payday, Sunny Victor (author/artist), 2013.

Room for Love, ILYA (author/artist), 2015.

Hard to Swallow, Dave Davenport (author/artist), 2016.

* Velvet Collar, Bryan Knight (author) and Dave Davenport (artist), 2017.


Male sex work in the library collection

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >