Demand for male escorts from an exclusively female clientele is on the rise, with a quarter of Australia's 516 male sex workers now catering to women and couples, a survey of websites in 61 countries has found.
But Australia is well behind the United Kingdom, where more than 50 per cent of the 5,487 male escorts cater to women and couples, according to the survey, conducted by researchers from QUT's Crime and Justice Research Centre and The Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.
Uganda and Argentina are the only other countries that have more male escorts seeking females and couples than solely male clients.
And while the vast majority — 80 per cent — of the estimated
42 million sex workers worldwide
are female, it is no longer difficult to find male escorts that cater to women.
While more than 57 per cent of identified websites catered to male customers only, 11 per cent were specifically for female clients and a similar number of sites were for couples, most of the opposite sex.
It is usually assumed that men are the primary market for male escorts, and while it is true that most escorts target male clients the survey suggests a significant emerging market for women who pay for sexual services from men.
As expected, the survey found twice as many male escorts had male clients only (72,106) as against the 32,948 escorts for women or couples.
A similar survey undertaken in 2012 indicated that numbers of male internet escorts had almost doubled
in Australia over the last five years.
The overall number of persons working in the sex industry is influenced by economic conditions and legislation and its enforcement.
Interestingly, exclusively female services are also increasing in popularity among time-poor and lonely professional women, due to greater economic and social freedom of women and changing attitudes towards the male body and masculinity.
However, with women fighting for greater equality, including access to income, job status and sexual pleasure, there is evidence of growth in this part of the market.
Dating sites reaching an untapped clientele
It had been suggested that the advent of new online dating technologies and rendezvous sites, sex work would become largely redundant. One argument had it that demand would flatten out, especially in places where sex work was highly stigmatized or illegal.
A contrasting claim was that new technologies were raising awareness of male sex work and provided greater access to new markets in diverse geographic zones, including rural and regional areas.
The internet has helped distribute information and awareness of sex services to a wider audience than previously reached via printed media, such as newspapers or adult magazines.
The internet also affords a degree of privacy and anonymity for potential clients, female and male. There is no need to "cruise" streets or parks renowned for being male sex worker spaces, running the risk of arrest, violence or being observed by passers-by.
Since the advent of the mobile phone and worldwide web, escorting has become the dominant mode of sex work for men, with well over 90 per cent of the market for male sex services being based online. These figures not only challenge the idea that demand for sex work is exclusively male and supply female, but also the imagery of sex work as being mostly based on the streets.
At best, street work only ever accounted for 10 per cent of the overall sex industry, whether it be for men or women.
In Australasia, sex work has been primarily considered a phenomenon associated with a few inner-city suburbs. Very few male sex workers in Sydney still work notorious locations, such as the Wall in Sydney's Darlinghurst and a smaller number still work brothels.
A number of factors have impacted on numbers of street workers, not just technological innovations, including increased penalties in some states for activities associated with street work and the gentrification of inner-city suburbs.
The 'boyfriend experience' a drawcard
The survey and other research indicates that in Australia and elsewhere, clients are a highly diverse group and hold a variety of reasons for choosing commercial sex encounters, some of which may not relate to cost or even sexual satisfaction.
A large number of escorts catering to men and women emphasise the provision of non-tactile services such as "companionship" or a "boyfriend experience", suggesting that sex is only part of the service experience and intimacy is important. Many online adverts mention romance and counselling, while personal coaching, massage therapy, travel, companionship are also referred to. Role play and fantasy are also frequently cited activities for male and female clients.
Maxime Dourochier, a male sex worker who has catered to a female clientele since 2011 and is based in Montreal, Canada says: "Many of our clients come to see us saying (in my case, sometimes even in tears) as they explain that they love their partner and they want to stay with them, but that they are missing something that needs to be addressed. That they can't continue living as they do. It's either seeing us, having an affair, or breaking up.
"They might need more tenderness, understanding, somebody to talk to, some sex, more sex, certain sexual acts, or simply diversity, novelty, something new.
"Whatever they need, there are only two solutions: getting it or leaving their partner. So, we rarely break up relationships. We are, most of the time, the glue that keeps them together."
He continues: "Some people fear their first experience, or would like it to be perfect. They might not want to be judged negatively, their skill found lacking.
"They might feel the need to take charge and not leave it to chance. They might want to get it over with and move on, free to select whoever they wish as a partner without pressure."
Sex industry change outpaces legal reforms
Despite the changes to the sex industry, legal reform has stagnated in most of the world. Sex work is legal in about 50 per cent of international jurisdictions.
Historic concerns around sex work, grounded in the moral view that the commercialization of sex is degrading and damaging, persist, as does the notion of sex work as inherent victimization for those who sell sex.
There has also been a punitive shift in last two decades in many countries, particularly where human trafficking has been conflated with sex work.
Currently, a mix of complex legislation operates under the frameworks of decriminalisation (NSW), licensing (Victoria, QLD, NT), the criminalisation of activities associated with sex work (SA, WA), and registration (ACT).
Criminalisation has been inked to labour abuses, corruption and exploitation. There is debate about whether criminalisation can reduce the incidence of sex work. Critics argue labour abuses and other exploitations are concealed in any industry forced underground by criminalisation.
It also provides opportunities for police and exploitation of sex workers by pimps or brothel managers.
Criminalisation is often supported by those who see sex work as a public health menace or associate it with criminality. But sex workers may be endangered by public attitudes in the form of homophobic or misogynistic behaviour.
Critics of criminalisation claim that while penalties seek to protect women from exploitation, in practice they are mostly applied to sex workers and not sex work clients.
Legalisation, which involves regulation of sex work by the state through licensing, is also not without problems.
Licensing is considered to exclude undesirable elements from industry involvement, but large proportions of the industry remain unlicensed and, thus, criminalised. In some countries this has resulted in increased police surveillance, forced health evaluations, higher taxes and financial penalties for sex workers.
In licensed Australian brothels, workers are not subject to normal work entitlements and they are also subject to compulsory health examinations and controls not typical of other industries.
Decriminalization has only been adopted in two jurisdictions worldwide, these being New South wales and New Zealand. It is a policy advocated by Amnesty International as a pragmatic approach to human rights and public health.
Under this approach there are no special laws for sex workers, but they are subject to the same regulations as other people and businesses, including being subject to the protections of the criminal law.
Sex work must be decriminalised
Research indicates that decriminalisation delivers better public health outcomes, improved working conditions, safety and well-being, while not increasing the volume of the sex industry.
There are, however, claims that decriminalisation increases the overall volume of sex work activity and leads to more trafficking and child prostitution. There is no evidence that this has been the case in NSW, where sex work was decriminalised in 1995.
It is better to frame concepts of trafficking and forced prostitution as forms of exploitation. Exploitation is experienced by varied occupational groups, but is not exclusive to sex work.
As research in Australia has shown, the experiences of sex workers and clients are diverse and any generalisation or simplistic policy calling for abolition requires caution.
Creating an open and transparent sex work industry is very likely to reduce and perhaps eliminate stigma, making it a safer environment for sex workers and clients to operate within.
John Scott is a professor in the School of Justice, part of the Queensland University of Technology's Law Faculty. The full results of his survey, conducted with adjunct professor Victor Minichiello, will be published as a book chapter in Male Sex Work and Society (Volume II), to be released in 2018.