I have this neurosis that draws me to things I’m uncomfortable with.  So let me begin by saying that this isn’t a very comfortable topic for me, as will no doubt be apparent in the article.  But I decided it was an important issue to talk about.

As I mentioned in my main post on Prague, there is an impression that young men, even straight ones, are just freer with their sexuality in the Czech Republic for some reason.  When my friends back home found out that I was going to be going to Prague, they immediately mentioned porn.  Sex tourism has been common since the East opened up at the beginning of the ‘90s.  And the porn industry has probably been around just as long.

But no, friends, sorry – I didn’t see anyone I recognized.  Though a couple rentboys messaged me on one of the gay websites with references to their porn.

As I mentioned, I have this neurosis that draws me to things I’m uncomfortable with.  So it seemed like a good idea at the time to seek it out just to see what it was all about.  There are two bars in Prague of which I am aware that are known as places to find rentboys.  I went to both.

No, I did not purchase services.  And I’m not just saying that because this is the Internet and the Internet never dies.  I really didn’t.  I just wanted to observe.  Like “Gorillas in the Mist”, if the gorillas were trying to sell you their bodies.

I talked to one of the boys at each.  Both times I initially feigned ignorance hoping it would keep them from expecting anything from me. (“Lawdy Lawdy, am I in a house of ill repute?  Why, I feel the vapors comin’ on.” Not a direct quote but close enough.)  My tactic didn’t really work.  I asked them each a couple of questions and hoped they would then move on to the next guy, but they didn’t.  They stuck around and I didn’t really know how to shake them, so they ended up staying for a long time.  So then I started feeling guilty because they were wasting their time with me when they could be making money with someone else.  By the time I finally got blunt enough to say “It’s not going to happen” they asked for a tip for their time and – I don’t know – companionship I guess.  So basically I paid money for a conversation with a twink.

Parenthetically, I’m not into twinks.  Also, I’ve had many conversations with twinks that did not end with a tip.  So it was in no way a novelty.

Keep in mind I did this twice at two different bars.  So even though I knew it was coming the second time, it still took me too long to bluntly say nothing was going to happen for me to avoid paying for conversation again.  Because neurosis.

They told me a little bit about how it worked.  Each guy had a set rate.  At one of the bars, you were expected to pay the bar to take him in the backroom.  At the other one I think it was assumed you would take him home.  I don’t know why he volunteered this information, but one of the guys said he had to drop his rate as he got older.  He was about 23.

My kneejerk reaction to all of this is that it’s a bad thing.  Westerners fetishize Easterners because they are the ‘exotic Others.’  They then use the difference in economic circumstances to take advantage of desperate young men.  That is what my socialization says, as well as some of my academic understanding.

I recognize, however, that this is not the only perspective, and I’m not even sure it’s what I actually believe.  I’ve spoken to plenty of gay men who don’t think it’s a big deal at all.  I have spoken a number of sex workers, including porn performers and escorts.  One escort said that he just considered it a service and actually really enjoyed his work.  He felt a connection at some level to his clientele.  And there was definitely an outcry in the gay community when rentboy.com was recently shut down – by Homeland Security of all people.  Margaret Cho, one of patron saints of the gays, recently ‘came out’ as having been a sex worker when she was younger and emphasized that it was nothing to be ashamed about.

I read an academic journal article recently about rentboys in Prague.  That’s right, an academic article.  (Ethnographic participant observation if you’re nasty.)  It described long-term relationships that sometimes formed between the rentboys and their, umm, benefactors.  There seemed to be some sort of genuine connection.  The author describes how depressed the young men would become when their older gentleman caller moved on to the next, younger boy.  The author also reported finding that rentboys often paid for sex with other rentboys (!) which seems highly unlikely if they felt that the whole thing was degrading and dirty.

Even within feminism there is a debate about porn and prostitution.  Some feel that it is women being degraded.  Others believe it is women taking control of their own bodies in order to take financial control of their lives.  Both arguments have merit.

I think that if we’re really honest with ourselves, both arguments are probably true for some people.  It’s probably true that some are being taken advantage of and will regret it for the rest of their lives.   Others are probably completely comfortable with it.  It’s just hard to know what the ratio of each is.

It also seems likely that the ratio changes depending on the context.  The prostitute I spoke to in the US is a smart, capable guy in a country with a relatively good job market.  He could do other things but chooses to do what he does.  The boys in Prague have fewer opportunities and seem more likely to be coming from a place of desperation.

Either way I don’t think it’s my place to tell someone else what they should be comfortable doing with their bodies and what they shouldn’t be comfortable doing.  I’ll just choose to not pay for sex.  And I’ll try to avoid paying for conversation.