Wearing training shoes and casual clothes, they look like typical teenagers. Some are slightly dishevelled and appear anxious. Others confidently argue with hotel doormen and play-fight in the burger bar. They are there to offer themselves for sex. Their services can be hired for as little as pounds 10.
Rent boys like these are only part of Britain's male prostitute community; many more operate as 'escorts' and 'masseurs'. Both groups, their partners, and clients, are at risk from the Aids virus. The full extent of that risk has never been known, but now a new study suggests it is far higher than previously thought. Nearly one in three male prostitutes may be infected, according to the preliminary results of the first ever survey involving HIV testing of rent boys and escorts in Britain.
The unpublished work also found that more than half of the men and boys who sell sex on the street do not usually use condoms. On the other hand, almost all male prostitutes who work in massage parlours, from home, or escort agencies, have safe sex with clients. But they have about the same level of HIV infection - the report shows they do not practise safe sex with their partners.
Researchers interviewed 129 male prostitutes working in London during the four-year study. The report, by Dr David Tomlinson, consultant in HIV and genito-urinary medicine at St Mary's Hospital in London, has been completed, but analysis of the HIV data is still being carried out.
Early results from the research reveal that about 30 per cent of those tested had the Aids virus. This figure may be exaggerated because the people tested were volunteers from the prostitutes, rather than a random sample. Nevertheless it represents an alarming proportion of the sex workers.
A 1989 study in Edinburgh estimated that about five per cent of male prostitutes had the virus. The new study, however, suggests the greatest risk of contracting or passing HIV is between non-paying partners, who do not often use condoms, rather than between the prostitute and punter.
The prostitutes form two distinct groups. Escorts and masseurs, who usually advertise in gay magazines, telephone booths, and newsagents' windows, see their work more as a job. They do not suffer such a high degree of abuse as rent boys, and often have a stable family and regular partner. More than a third of the escorts questioned were in full-time employment or education, compared to less than five per cent of the street workers.
Advertisements often appear in the 'escorts' and 'masseurs' sections of the gay magazines. Most are based in London, although many offer to travel to any part of the country.
A typical advertisement reads: 'Marco. Very hot, muscle bound, sexy 25-year-old. Football/rugby and all sports, so very fit and always ready for action. Well equipped and well horny. W1. Private apartment. Credit cards.'
Luke, 21, a student at a University in London, charges from pounds 50 to pounds 150 for his services. He said that clients often offer extra money - up to a pounds 1,000 - for anal sex without a condom.
He said he does the work so that he can afford to 'rent a nice flat and go on holiday' and plans to carry on being an escort after he graduates.
Carl, 20, comes from a middle class family, and during 1992 worked in a massage parlour in London, which a friend had told him about. He earned up to a pounds 100 a night as a prostitute. 'It was easy work, you watched television most of the time. Some of the punters were pretty disgusting, I always used a condom although you could get more if you went without,' he said. He still occasionally picks up men in bars and charges pounds 60 'when I get a big electricity bill, or need money quickly'.
On average, the escorts questioned in the new study had 38.5 clients a month, the most active had 120. Only four men had been hired by women in the four weeks. In the same period they had on average 6.5 casual male partners. This compared to rent boys who had an average of 20 clients a month - the highest had 80 - and 4.7 casual partners.
Sado-masochistic or fetishistic practices were common with casual partners and clients, but not with regular partners.
Rent boys frequently come from broken homes and have been in care for long periods of time. They will often have been physically and mentally abused. Working on the street usually means they are desperate, probably homeless. They are usually younger than escorts. In the survey the youngest was 15 - although 13 and 14-year-olds are not uncommon - and their average age was about 20 compared to 25.
Charges vary from about pounds 10 to masturbate a client - frequently married middle aged men - up to about pounds 150 for anal intercourse without a condom, which costs about twice as much as protected sex.
Apart from 'red light' streets, and gay bars, rent boys also operate in most of the major London railway stations. There is a greater risk working on the street because there is usually no time to negotiate a price. Punters have been known to beat or rape a boy once they are alone. Others have refused to pay or simply dumped the prostitute miles from home if he declines requests of dangerous or unsafe sex.
Jim, who works in Streatham, south London, is small for his 19 years. He is quietly spoken and has barely started to shave. He was first sexually abused by a teacher at his school when he was 13. Later an 'uncle' raped him and he was introduced to a group of men in Manchester.
At 17 he escaped to London. 'I couldn't get any work and I was sleeping rough, doing a bit of begging, so I started working on the street. Blokes often offer to pay extra if I don't use a condom - sometimes I agree. I know there's a risk, but when you're cold and hungry all you can think about is 'that's pounds 40 more'. I don't like what I do, but what's the alternative?'
Sex and the British - Sunday Review