"I didn't set out to hustle, but this guy offered me such a massive amount of money, well, it was like a year-and-a-half's pocket money," explained actor Rupert Everett in a frank recent interview in American entertainment magazine US. He says that as a struggling actor he "sort of fell into" prostitution after being approached outside a London Tube station. His confession that he had worked as a "rent boy" pulled in a welcome dollop of publicity for his latest film, My Best Friend's Wedding. But the most surprising thing about his revelation was the extraordinary notion that a man could "sort of fall into" exchanging sex for money.
The stereotypical "rent boy" is a desperate teenager, with no other resources; streetwise, probably homeless, probably with a drug problem. It is very far from the sophisticated, educated, well-to-do image of the likes of Mr Everett - and yet, other well-brought-up young men have followed the same path.
Take Steve, for example. I met him straight out of work, dressed in the smart grey suit and blue tie that befit a senior manager. Blond, 31, with round John Lennon glasses, he is unobtrusively good-looking and the picture of respectability. Like Everett, he "sort of fell into" selling sex. "I was a student in Birmingham 11 years ago, and I was at a nightclub called Pagoda Park. I'd gone with two friends and they'd both gone off with girls. I was heading off alone and this man said, `Why don't you come back with me?' I'm not gay, but I said `You're joking. You'll have to pay me,' just as a joke, and he said okay.
"I was quite drunk otherwise I wouldn't have done it, but I was quite fit, and I thought if he tried anything I could easily take him out. So, I went back to his flat and he gave me pounds 50 to give him a blow-job. It only took a few minutes. I was a student, living on kebabs, and if you can stomach those you can stomach pretty much anything. I'd done some messing about at school and it wasn't much different."
He left, intending not to go back; but, short of cash a few weeks later, rang the man again. "Off I trotted for another pounds 50, and another - pounds 50 meant two weeks rent to me. I wouldn't have had full sex. Aids was just getting really big then and I wouldn't risk my life for pounds 50."
Steve says he was "not exactly ashamed" but he kept his sexual sidelines under wraps. "Years later, I did tell a few people, I thought they'd think it was quite a laugh, but in fact they were `Ugh, how could you' so now I keep quiet about it. I wouldn't be surprised if other people were doing the same thing. Not everyone would go with sleazy, desperate teenagers; I think any nice, clean-looking, middle-class boy could do it."
Steve paid off his pounds 200 overdraft and saved for a trip to India; when he came back, the man had moved. "I was quite glad to have the decision to stop made for me. I think I'd had enough." He now shares a flat with his long-term girlfriend. He is quite clear that the episode was simply a cash transaction, nothing more; he laughs at the memory.
John is 33 and a lawyer - "so successful it's frightening". He found himself selling sex ten years ago. His motivation was rather different; not the money, but the experience. "I'd graduated, travelled in Asia, then worked in the city. It sounds trite, but I found it very hard to see how people could live in a world with so much suffering on one hand and so much rugby-playing arrogance on the other. In the end, I decided it was preferable to be homeless. For six months, my project was to see what I could get away with, see what extremes of human behaviour I could indulge in to make myself feel something."
He had friends in the gay world and knew his way around the clubs. "I would go to a club, usually on some kind of drug, and I would make eye contact and manoeuvre someone into snogging me. Then I would make it clear that I would only go with them for money, or food, or a place to sleep. People I approached seemed to find that perfectly normal. Most of them were sad, young middle-management; I almost always ended going back to some Habitat-furnished flat in Finsbury Park. I might have charged pounds 20 for a blow-job, or done it for a fried breakfast in other circumstances. There was no penetration; it was mostly oral sex. It was too easy; there was never any hint of danger."
John isn't extraordinarily good-looking. "It's not your looks, it's their need. It was a revelation to me that once you put aside any gratification of your own tastes, it's easy. You can be quite ruthless. It was curiously exhilarating, even ego-boosting." Like Steve, he doesn't advertise his past, though he looks back on it as a cathartic experience. "By the end of six months, I realised the experiment wasn't getting me anywhere. I went back to study, and it took me a long time to calm down. Now I'm married, completely respectable, a white heterosexual male. I stay silent not from shame, but because I couldn't tell anyone anything of value about those days; the only thing of interest to me about it was the moral question. I found out that I could survive by using my wits, and the world became a less frightening place because of that." Others raise barely an eyebrow. John's wife, he says, "didn't take it seriously". (She was present when he was interviewed, and observed that he has a "cute ass".) And in certain middle-class, professional milieu, finding out one's friends have sold sex hardly causes a ripple. "One of my friends did it a lot in his twenties to finance his coke and E habit. He says he doesn't have a problem with having been a rent boy, but society does," says Lisa, 31, a journalist.
Steves and Johns, however, are a far cry from the typical face of male prostitution, says Gerard Calvert, director of the Streetwise Youth project, which offers support to male prostitutes. It seems the stereotype is not so far from the truth. "We are dealing with young men with limited options, who are selling sex for survival," says Calvert. "They are mostly from unstable backgrounds, have possibly been in the care system or been neglected by their families. A privileged background isn't reflective of the young men we work with, though it wouldn't surprise me that it's happening."
There is certainly an enormous gulf between those who do it because they want to and those who do it because they have to. Everett classes himself in the "have-to" bracket. He says that "like a lot of upper-class people", he had no money. Steve, however, says, "It was easier than bar work, and better money, simple as that. It's not as if I committed a crime, and I could have stopped any time." And John adds, "I was a dilettante, seeing how far I could go. I was playing, really. I always knew that with one call to my dad I could have stopped it all."
Steve and John are not real names.
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