As the clock strikes seven every evening, they get down to business. Plain-clothed men, who look just like any other bystander on the road, await their clients. Picked up by women who drive luxury cars, or catering to men looking for cheap sex, they live a clandestine life satisfying the needs of both sexes. Meet Hyderabad’s male sex workers.

Shady, deserted areas, empty spaces behind buses, parks, metro rail construction sites and the railway station are the usual hubs of sex trade in the city. From gigolos to massage experts, masseurs or escorts, these men sport diverse looks apart from contrasting economic and educational backgrounds.  

Most male masseurs on the street are trafficked from rural areas of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan and other states of India to work in the metros. They are mostly illiterate or semi-literate. A deeper probe into the lives they have left behind more often than not reveals tragic tales of neglect, discrimination and abuse.

There is also a second group known as male escorts, who offer direct sex (not massage services) and, in most cases, belong to the city they operate in. They are usually literate and cater to high-profile clients.

According to Krishna Naidu of Suraksha Society, a Hyderabad-based organisation that works with people of alternative sexuality, there are nearly 50,000 sex workers in the state of Andhra Pradesh alone. However, the number of male sex workers among these is not known.

Naidu says that many boys and young men who join this work live stigmatized lives, with little or no educational opportunities, earning very little by offering massage services and selling their bodies.

Archana Rao, a development communication specialist who has worked extensively with sex workers from across India, says some of these boys have been abused as children. “The psychological impact on these kids or men is huge” she explains.

Traditions and male prostitution

According to a United Nations report, certain Indian traditions and customs also have a role to play in the perpetuation of male sex trade. The report “Traditionalising male prostitution in India” says that boys in the age group of 15 to 25 with a feminine demeanour migrate to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh from various states to perform what is called the ‘Launda naach.’  

Launda dancers define and spice up entertainment during marriages in the Hindi heartland, especially in Bihar and UP, where weddings are elaborate affairs with a rustic dose of merry-making, drinking, music and dance. Launda dancers are predominantly effeminate men, dressed in women’s attire.

The Laundas (young boys) are hired by poor families as they cannot afford “more expensive” women dancers. The dancers mainly belong to lower middle-class and poor families of West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra while some hail from Nepal and Bangladesh. They come to Bihar and UP during the peak marriage season between April and June in summer and from December to February during winter.

These dancers are very vulnerable to physical and sexual assault. They are often bitten or stubbed by those who come to watch them - men with carnal instincts. “A group of 10 to 15 men could physically carry a dancer to a field and gang-rape him. And, this is a very common trend. Resistance only leads to greater torture and sometimes even death,” the report reveals.

Commodification of masculinity

While there is huge demand for young men in male sex trade, and many are forced into it by circumstance, interestingly, there is also a population of male escorts (paid highly by female clients) who voluntarily take a plunge in sex trade.

With the commodification of men surging in recent times through advertisements in newspapers, social media and movies, there has been a concomitant, silent surge in male sex trade.

According to a survey by the Sambhavana Society that works with male sex workers in India, many masseurs and escorts opt for sex work as it promises easy money or “pocket money” which helps them gain financial stability, support their families, or pay for education. Some boys who are forced into sex trade via trafficking or child labour also end up living this life for the money, the survey explains.

Female clients from affluent families are the ones who usually seek such mobile masseurs or escorts. “Their demands dictate the way the escort must dress up or pander to their sexual fantasies. Apart from pleasure, these men are also showered with gifts and large sums of money,” says Archana, adding that massage centres, sauna hubs, spas have become notorious for sex trade. Pubs are also common places where women come looking for masseurs.

According to Munna (name changed), a bisexual who operates in Hyderabad, women interested in men contact him after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper or the online space. “We exchange phone numbers and get called. Depending on the client’s demands, we check the escort’s availability and fix a price and place,” he says, adding that the payment could go up to as high as Rs 1 lakh.

Many of these groups also have online groups or communities on social media. When asked about escort services, one of the members from the Delhi Male Sex Workers Association said: “These pages on Facebook or other social media are just congregational points for clients looking for pleasure. We only exchange contact details online. The real transaction happens offline, after the payment has been made online.”

Pimps offering escort services can sometimes give the client an “NRI choice” too. This means if a female client is looking for an NRI, the pimps try to meet the requirement. Interestingly, a network of pimps stationed at airports, bus stops and railway stations keep tabs on NRIs and approach them, if they are ‘out of stock.’

It would, however, be wrong to assume that all males in flesh trade are generously compensated and are driven by the lure of lucre. A vast number is forced into the business and paid pitiably, not to mention the abuse they endure. Indeed, as Zaara (name changed), a transgender in Old City of Hyderabad says, the “per session” charge could be as low as Rs 10, going up to Rs 400-500. “Unfortunately, our make-up cost alone could exceed what we earn, because we have to dress up the way the client wants,” she quips.

Us vs them

Differentiating female sex trade from male sex trade, Naidu says that the existence of female sex trade is well-known and has always been rampant. However, the demand for male sex workers is gradually rising as sexual attitudes are fast changing. But the lines are sharply drawn.

“Sometimes, female sex workers criticise male sex workers for charging less. But, that’s how the industry is. They always tell the men (sex workers) that they have brought sex trade to a very low level (in terms of earning potential),” he adds.

Many of these mobile sex workers are homosexual or bisexual, forced into the trade by lack of social acceptance of their sexual orientation. Take the case of Zaara. Dressed in a black dress with a red border, her face lit by the sunlight streaming in through the door, she narrates her story of trauma and stigma in a husky voice.

“I loved dressing up like a girl ever since I was a child. I started realizing that I was effeminate and different from others when I was in the eighth standard,” says a shy Zaara, whose name was Mohammed Afzal until her sex-change operation three years ago.

Born in a conservative Muslim family, Zaara was never an “accepted” child. “My parents paid my school fees but always felt ashamed of me and considered me a source of shame. They always told me I’m a Hijrah and was responsible for spoiling other kids at school,” reveals a moist-eyed Zaara, who dropped out of school after the ninth standard due to family pressure and constant bullying by her classmates.

Feeling disillusioned after she dropped out from school, she worked as a vegetable vendor first, and then as a machine operator at a printing press before stepping into sex trade when she was 18 years old. “As a sex worker, I had male clients who wanted anal sex. Most of them came in an inebriated condition, beat me up with a belt, knife or whatever they had in their hand,” she narrates, pointing to the scars on her hand.

The misconception that male sex trade doesn’t exist at all also persists among many. “This misconception actually protects male sex workers sometimes, because when there is a crackdown by police, only the female sex workers get framed while the men get away with it,” says Archana.

Can’t men be victims?

Data from Human Rights Watch (HRW) says there are over 20 million prostitutes (predominantly female) in India. Of these, nearly 35 per cent enter the trade between 12 and 18 years of age. The trafficking industry in India is estimated to generate $4 billion a year and has at its core, investors, unscrupulous recruiters and corrupt public officials as principal participants.

The law governing sex work – the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA) -- considers trafficking, abduction and forced prostitution of any minor or adult (male or female) illegal. It treats rescued girls or women as victims and has provisions for providing them shelters. But given that there is no accurate data on male prostitution in India,  it is tougher to protect male sex workers from violence or abuse, says Naidu.

Apart from male sex work being under wraps, there is also little conditioning towards identifying and serving this population of marginalized boys and young men. They exist almost as in a blind spot. As a result, male sex workers are often doubly victimised - first by the circumstances that force them into the trade, and secondly by the lack of any institutionalised effort to protect or rehabilitate them.

Meanwhile, their lives go on, as in a play. “Most of them work in some other capacity during the day and transform into a completely different person at night as an active participant in male sex trade,” concludes Archana.