Inside the world of male sex workers
The well-dressed father of two earns good money. He speaks English and works for an international NGO that combats HIV/AIDS. He used to be a sex worker, a man who has sex with other men, and then became a government informer, reporting back to the police on other sex workers who were then arrested. He resorted to drink and drugs because of his shame and isolation. And now he wants to talk about it.
The root cause of all his problems, says Ko Kyaw Zayyar Swe, 38, is poverty. He was forced out of school at 15 because his soldier father could not afford the tuition fees. He worked as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, but the owner cut his already low wages after giving him a dumpling for lunch instead of money. He quit.
Because he never made it to 10th standard, he could not find a good job, and money was always short. When he married at the age of 17, making ends meet became almost impossible.
“I was working in a shop in Bogyoke Market. One day, two foreigners I’d seen before in the market bought me jeans and shirts. Nobody had ever given me anything before,” he said.
The men invited him for drinks, then brought him back to their hotel room and asked for sex.
“I was shocked. But I needed money urgently for my family so I agreed to do it,” he said.
More contacts were made, and more money came in. He became a regular sex worker, offering services for gay men. Since foreigners paid much better than local men, Ko Kyaw Zayyar Swe decided to learn English.
He came to know many other male sex-workers like himself, working around Bogyoke and Theingyi Zay markets and Sule Pagoda Road, and even further afield.
In 2003 he was arrested under a law banning “inappropriate” sex, along with a friend and two foreigners, and spent two-and-a-half years in Insein Prison. The law is also used against transgender people.
This was the first time his parents and his wife became aware of his secret life.
When he was released, the Ministry of Home Affairs asked him to turn informer against the male prostitutes of Yangon. As his friends went to prison, he got paid. “I received K10,000 a day for some years. That was a lot of money. I didn’t want to destroy other people’s lives because I knew what it was like to be in that position. In the end, I stopped informing and went back to being a sex worker myself,” he said.
All the other sex workers did what they did because they were poor, he said, and saw no other way out. “We didn’t dream of this profession. But with no education and no work but odd jobs, how can you support a family? We didn’t want to be rich. We just wanted enough to get by for a family life.”
Conditions for sex workers changed with the advance of the internet. Now they don’t have to hang around on the street, but make contact online through dedicated websites. At one time, you could see up to 50 sex workers around the markets at night, chatting to customers. There is a thriving market for male sex-workers among gay men, with more male than female customers.
Though the money is the best they have ever made, male sex-workers feel disgusted, lonely and depressed. They feel nobody stands up for their rights, and everybody looks down on them.
“This way of life makes us angry. We can’t share our feelings with family or friends. It’s a big problem for society too,” said Ko Kyaw Zayyar Swe.
Many drink to forget, he said, and then go on to take drugs.
One day, a man from Bangladesh involved in promoting health awareness for male sex-workers asked him to take a part-time job at his NGO, which was gathering information about prostitution and developing training programs for public health professionals.
Ko Kyaw Zayyar Swe said sex workers needed both physical and mental support, as well as job opportunities, to be provided by the government, NGOs and INGOs.
“I never even knew how to use a condom with customers. Luckily, I didn’t get HIV. Knowledge is very important and we need that,” he said, adding that courses in leadership skills, empowerment and capacity building would also help to raise self-confidence.
Dr Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar Human Rights Group, said male sex workers were hard to reach because they isolated themselves. Too much isolation, he warned, could turn them into drug addicts, or even susceptible to becoming terrorists.
“They are ashamed of what they do. They only do it for the money. Even within the group, there are problems of competition for customers,” he said.
They are not even particularly high-profile. Most of the small counselling groups set up by NGOs in Myanmar for HIV and health awareness cater to female and transgender prostitutes because most of them suffer exploitation, discrimination and even torture. Male sex-workers are seen as being in the profession mainly for the money.
“Even their customers can find them difficult to deal with because of their lack of self-esteem and feelings of indignity. There has to be a way of allowing them to change their profession,” said Dr Aung Myo Min.
A doctor who provides health support for people living with HIV and AIDS said male sex-workers are particularly difficult to contact. “Both sex-workers and customers have to be aware of sexual health issues. Now there are many drop-in centres, including day-care centres for HIV-positive patients, where they can express their feelings and receive support,” said the doctor.
According to 2013 figures from the UN agency UNAIDS, there are an estimated 70,000 sex workers in Myanmar. About 8 percent of them are living with HIV.