The limits of labelling : incidental sex work among gay, bisexual, and queer young men on social media

Morris, Max (2021) The limits of labelling : incidental sex work among gay, bisexual, and queer young men on social media. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, ISSN (print) 1868-9884 (Epub Ahead of Print)


Introduction: The term incidental sex work refers to forms of casual, occasional, unsolicited commercial sex, arranged between gay, bisexual, and queer men on social media platforms such as Grindr. This paper explores the limits of labelling sexual identities, and how definitions of “sex” and “work” have become increasingly unstable in the digital age. Methods: This study used mixed methods, with the primary mode of data collection being qualitative interviews with young gay, bisexual, and queer men conducted between May 2015 and April 2016. The interviews incorporated a nine-point sexuality scale and photo-elicitation procedures to prompt further discussions. Through the participant recruitment process, the study also generated an informal survey of 1,473 Grindr users aged 18 to 28, finding that 14.6% had been paid for sex, most of whom (8.2%) had done so “incidentally.” Results: The 50 interview participants discussed being paid for sex 358 times. This paper focuses on their narratives of labelling, identity politics, sexual normativity, and social stigma. All participants distanced themselves from labels such as “prostitute,” “rent boy,” or “sex worker” given that their behaviors were not seen as “regular” or “professional” enough, alongside seeking to avoid association with stigmatizing stereotypes of sex work. These results are compared with the participants’ experiences of coming out as gay, bisexual, and queer. Discussion: These narratives are interpreted using queer theory to understand those whose behaviors and identities do not conform to normative (legal, medical, social) discourses of sex work. The implications of this hidden population for campaigners, policymakers, and healthcare practitioners are discussed, contributing to ongoing debates around harm reduction and social policy.

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