I got into sex work because it felt like all my friends were doing it. I made one of these friends when I was 18, during a month visiting Las Vegas, the city where I grew up. (Vegas is a whole catalyst in itself for whoredom, but that’s a story for another time.) We met through a hookup app but mostly spent those few weeks driving around, lying around, and indulging a mutual curiosity about how much either of us could matter to the other. Some call this bottom-bonding.
He and his roommate were both thin, shaved all over, on the cusp of adulthood, and estranged from their families somewhere in Southern California. They each made a living by entangling themselves with rich, older men, whether that meant being their “boyfriends” or picking them up from a bar for the night. Occasionally, they did this dressed as women. All of this fascinated me, though it made him uneasy to say it out loud.
“It’s easy. You go to the club, you look for them, and you flirt with them,” he modestly laid out. This explained nothing; it only described a well-practiced skill: identifying generous men who liked boys, attracting them, admiring them, accepting their gifts, servicing them with your own. Or maybe I had the order all wrong. Men who liked boys annoyed me, not just because they were older or wealthy but because I wasn’t, and they incessantly wanted to talk about it, despite trying to transcend these differences by being gay and horny. Perhaps this made me unqualified for sex work, or at least escorting.
But I knew I was supposed to learn to navigate all of this anyway, that while faithful to all the promises of respectability I’d missed something important, something all the gay boys I grew up with had to come to know.
Queer people who come out in their twenties, in their thirties, or later don’t seem to fully relate to the experience of becoming gay and becoming an adult at the same time. It has been said that gayness arrests and delays adolescence (spoiler alert: straight men are also childlike), that our repression and shame weaves into us a velvet rage. But such a sentiment forgets those of us who moved fast and understates the sheer drama of entering adulthood already equipped with a gay identity, urgently seeking its validation through independence, love, and, most of all, sex.
Gay adults and our allies seem to fantasize endlessly about gay teens, especially in faraway places, as the assumed benefactors of even the dullest media representation. Do LGBT teens need a plucky rom-com? When exactly did they ask for one? The gay teen imaginary, anchored partly in memory and partly in social-science research, appears to us as suicidal, bullied, lonely, even sexually curious—but never outright horny. Horny doesn’t quite cover it, though—as youth we crave not simply gay sex but an adult gay sex life. Our own peers can’t possibly satisfy this wanderlust for an underworld independent of schools, families, and shitty retail jobs. Necessarily, we turn to gay adults for passage, and plenty of them happen to be horny too. And along the way, we try to learn how to be wanted, how to give what we can: intimacy, service, youth. We learn how to be gay, but we mostly learn how to be a twink. Some but not all of this intimacy produces exploitation, and not always in the assumed direction. Many of us also just want to date and sleep with older men and daddy types, but wanting isn’t the complicated part. Need is.
Rarely are the abject impulses of gay teen sexuality confronted as honestly and imaginatively as in Patrick Nathan’s 2018 debut novel, Some Hell. The narrative follows 13-year-old Colin through the simultaneous aftermath of his father’s death and emergence of his own gay sexuality. Like any moody teen, he wanders. He wanders into his late father’s basement, through a Minneapolis strip mall, across Los Angeles, and along these journeys he encounters sympathetic adult gay men with murky intentions. He fears them and pursues them at once. He fantasizes about his own capture and molestation, gets off just thinking about it, and when it actually happens he molds violation into epiphany. Amid many perverse desires and curiosities, he finally begins to see a future as one of them, but only upon the shattering fulfillment of the others. Nathan faithfully captures the erotics of teen angst: Colin doesn’t want to die; he just wants to be undone. In the process, Some Hell reveals a dirty secret about gay boyhood: that we eagerly seek out pleasure alongside danger, that when a man gives it to us we feel shame and remorse unevenly, and that we are still blameless for all of it.
These secrets are only available to us from the voice of the boy himself, a voice only intelligible in fiction and memoir. Even its staging in film can irritate public sensibilities, as in Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 adaptation of the novel Call Me By Your Name. Among a sprawl of takes to which even I succumbed, the film sparked low-grade controversy for luxuriating in a romance between a 24-year-old man and a 17-year-old boy (played by a 30-year-old Armie Hammer and a perennially pubescent Timothée Chalamet, respectively). This criticism did not seem to get very far; the film achieved acclaim and resonance among many gay viewers for dredging up shame-ridden teen longings and dressing them up as idyllic, safe, and gentle. Though annoyingly sanitized of any on-screen sex, the story offered its audience the opportunity to recall our early erotic experiences in different terms than the more common, totalizing narratives of closeted self-denial or violent victimhood. This alternative narrative may be no more or less accurate than the others, but still managed to affirm a shared adolescent experience of maturing through our sexual desires, not prior to them.
In the realm of the present and the real, the reprehensible desires of the adult toward young men overwhelm any such narrative about the reverse. Child sexual abuse ought to be taken very seriously, and perhaps combating it is worth denying postpubescent sexual agency. Or we could recognize that agency, however fledgling and clumsy, and its exploitation at the same time. Take it from world’s most obvious adult bed wetter, Milo Yiannopoulos, who lost a book deal not for his open contempt toward trans women and undocumented immigrants but for joking about child abuse. There’s never a good time to mine the nuances of pedophilia, a term which colloquially includes teenage boys, and which has supplanted “sodomy” in invoking dystopian visions of sexual amorality. Periodically, queer writers and activists will shine light on the queer criminalization facilitated by sex-offender registries, and the fraught assumptions about consent and trauma that undergird them, but these conversations never make it out of the critical margins. Like the guy who gave me my first wine cooler, the topic leaves a terrible taste in the mouth. After all, queer people still struggle globally to combat the homophobic conspiracy theory that the gay-rights movement is a veneer for systematic child rape, or that gay men are any more likely than straight men to assault children. There is an entirely reasonable imperative to respond to any instance of gay teen sexual abuse by distancing it from gay culture and our sexual subjectivities entirely. However, these are the only nonfictional glimpses we have into complex and confusing relationships that breach the precipice of 18, in which the language of abjection and abuse is the only language available to adolescents to speak of their experiences with any social validity.
But gay sexual desire never had much validity to begin with, especially when we are isolated from each other by the constrictive institutions imposed on young people. We are scarce, and when we find each other, whether across Starbucks counters or strangers’ swimming pools, we cultivate relations of care as much through sex as through service. We offer what we can. As gay boys, the roles of boyfriend, mentor, and john are not so easily distinguishable, inequities that can sustain us as much as they endanger us. These pederastic intimacies may structure abuse, but perhaps they are not always structured by it.
I have two distinct memories of a man with more power than me forcing my head against his crotch.
1. I found my friend on a sofa between sections of the bookstore and told her we should leave. Before that, I had washed my hands in a panic and rushed out of the bathroom. Before that, I had kneeled in front of a boy who was 19. I was 14. That’s when the door to the bathroom had burst open, giving us three seconds to fly from the wall beside the paper-towel dispenser to the sinks. Before that, I had cautiously sucked him off. It was my second time ever feeling somebody else’s cock in my mouth. He pulled my head into his crotch faster and more forcefully than I expected or wanted or liked. I was angry about this, felt that he should have been more delicate with me, and that as the less experienced party I should have been the one to set the pace and he to follow. Before that, we had made out hungrily against the paper-towel dispenser. Before that, I had been terribly eager to master that which made me different, and he had been stocking bookshelves, terribly bored.
2. I had a cold and no bookings lined up. My new agent had arranged a casting interview with a well-known gay porn studio in New York. I’d done one other casting interview before, which involved meeting a producer in person, answering questions about my sexual preferences, and taking a few photos, including a few nudes. This one was structured similarly but took place in a small bedroom within a large apartment that tripled as performer lodging, film studio, and office.
After answering mostly standard questions, the producer (and head of the company) instructed me to get hard for a few photos and left the room to let me concentrate. He came back too soon, and upon seeing my soft dick, pulled me sharply by the back of my neck into his jeans. In the moment, this seemed like a test of skills entirely relevant to the job rather than an abuse of power. So, I complied, kissing and fellating him until we were both nude and he pressed against my ass like a doorbell. I insisted I didn’t feel well or prepared and couldn’t. He asked a few times but laid off, and I pretended to be happy with the interview. Splayed out and sniffly, I made pillow talk about astrology (on which I can always depend), coolly got dressed, and left. After that, I felt hopeful and disgusted. I did eventually get booked with the studio. The pay was abysmal.
In its March 2019 issue, the Atlantic published a chilling report on allegations of sexual abuse by successful director Bryan Singer. Singer has long held notoriety within the gay community as a seedy twink hunter, but the article’s most disturbing details alleged sexual abuse not just by Singer but within a network of wealthy, older men across the Pacific coast. These men threw house parties to meet and “pass around” teenage boys, not only as reluctant sexual partners but as boyfriends or boy toys with whom they sustained intimacy while dangling Hollywood career opportunities. As the report notes, Singer and his associates’ predation varied from immediate assaults to more prolonged grooming and dubious relationships. In the background of his abuses, a familiar underworld flickers into view, the volatile contours of an ecosystem of quasi-transactional, cross-generational gay sex.
Couched in the grand journalistic narrative of the Weinstein effect, the report addresses not the unknown but the taken-for-granted sexual demands of men with power. These men make whores of their subordinates through quid pro quo harassment, a narrative of systematic violence that, while true, leaves little room for us actual whores, and forecloses the possibility of sexual transaction without extortion. But Singer is not just a gay Weinstein or a garbage john, although either would suffice. He’s a familiar character playing familiar games with familiar boys. Oz might not be anything like Kansas, but it still has all the same people in it.
You see, another director named Bryan liked boys, too. Bryan Kocis, director of mid-2000s gay porn studio Cobra Video, ushered in the true age of the twink, with secretly 17-year-old Brent Corrigan as its centerpiece. Like Singer (allegedly), Kocis preferred the boyish look, and his casting and cruising often overlapped, occasionally recruiting boys who turned out to be underage. He eventually discovered, fucked, and trademarked Brent Corrigan (aka Sean Lockhart), whom he catapulted into exceptional gay porn stardom. When Kocis was murdered by owners of a rival studio in 2007, Rolling Stone picked up the story and elevated it from juicy gay gossip to a landscape of gay men’s obsessions and ambitions, spanning Corrigan’s rise to gay porn fame and Kocis’s death by twink. Think A Star Is Born meets I, Tonya. In 2016, director Justin Kelly adapted the murder case from a true-crime book into an IFC film featuring James Franco and Christian Slater, with a screenplay more heavy-handed than an actual porno. In both representations, though, sex work and exchange quite casually mediate the intimacies and rivalries that culminate in Kocis’s brutal murder. Sugar abounds in the marginal gay life to which Kocis and Corrigan, as well as Singer and his own boys, belonged.
However sordid, the exposed sex lives of both men reveal landmarks of a broader phenomenon of gay male intimacy across stark differences of age, power, and money. This intimacy does not transcend these differences; it depends on them. Intimacy is a gay boy’s best and only capital, his proffering of service (domestic, emotional, sexual) in exchange for guidance or gifts or simply the feeling of being grown. These are implicit, casual transactions over time, lacking clear terms or guarantees. I suppose this is not so unlike many marriages or graduate programs.
It’s tempting to call this abuse and leave it at that, and this helps a lot of us stitch wounds that we associate with these early experiences of sex and identity. However, these early experiences can also be precious to us, even as we recognize them as predatory. They might deliver us from even darker futures, or no future at all. This ambivalence doesn’t absolve the men we’ve met of cultivating dependency. If we wish to locate fault, if doing so makes us feel any better, then it is not in the asking for it, but in the acquiescing.
It’s tempting to call this sex work, as well. But sex work, for all its utility in reframing a breadth of for-hire sluts as coaligned laborers entitled to rights and protections, offers little to explain the intangible draw of these men and their promises. For one thing, twinks are not a class. For another, there is a fundamental, immeasurable transaction at stake, of service for emancipation, for securing independence from the family and its household. Calling it sex work misses the point—this is not about going to work; it’s about running from home.