Dead Rentboys tell no tales

Phillip Michael Peck
Phillip Michael Peck, 1990

Phillip Michael Peck was a gay boy and my best friend in high school. We met over Whoopie Goldberg in the back of the science room. We hadn’t ever spoken before and he had his usual gaggle of girls around him when one girl said Whoopie was ugly. Phil indignantly exhorted, “Whoopie Goldberg is beautiful!” and the girls scoffed for the half-moment it took me to lift my head and confirm, “Whoopie Goldberg is beautiful.” His eyes met mine and we fell in love.

Phil started prostituting at 14 when older men solicited him in New York City mall bathrooms. From there he went on to do gay pornography and live sex shows. He would send me pictures of him performing drag shows under the name Marissa (my middle name) and tell me how he got free drinks if he performed. I did not get pictures from the two times he drank so much vodka he coughed blood and spent weeks in the hospital.

Phil told me about stealing a bag of cocaine from a john and ended the story with, “Honey, this city better be big enough for the both of us because I can’t see him again.” He ran a small gay escort agency until he got arrested in a hotel overlooking Madison Square Garden.

Phil and his partner of six years, Darren, lived for years as male prostitutes in New York City. They were “rentboys” in the current euphemistic parlance. Once when I visited, Darren kept awkwardly standing around because he had gotten painful shots in the ass to cure the syphilis one of his regular johns had given him.

Phil and Darren both tested HIV positive. Darren got sick and died after a lightning fast three weeks in the hospital. AIDS can be a protracted illness, but the speed at which it took Darren shook me.

Phil kept turning tricks after learning he was HIV positive. No worried lecture from me could change his need for money, and none of my conscience-buckling at the thought of him spreading AIDS could change his reckless behavior so I supported him with the unconditional love of lifelong friends.

Phillip died at the age of 32 because of men’s belief in their right to economically coerced sex on their own abusive, risky, deadly terms.

I used to brag to people with sex positive pride that I had sex worker friends who were living the good life. Doing this boosted my own sexy street cred and I consciously chose not to relay the ugly truths they told me about getting raped and getting various sexually transmitted diseases.

I don’t blame myself for the pains he went through living by prostitution and dying by AIDS, but I can’t help wondering if things might have been different if I didn’t encourage his and Darren’s prostituting all those years.

I think of Phil when I read about how legalizing prostitution is supposed to make prostituted people safer from rape and sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS and syphilis. I think of how Phil worked in the legal porn industry that has had multiple decades to demonstrate how safe legalized prostitution can be, and I think of how very weak the case for legalized prostitution becomes when positioned next to the massive failures of corporate pornographers to protect the pornstitutes in their employment.

I consider the idea that legal prostitution would reduce sexually transmitted diseases not just anti-common sense and anti-science, but also demonstrably not the agenda of the already legalized pimps, called pornographers. Pornographers have fought hard against protecting sex workers from the obvious risks of industrialized sex-product production, but free market libertarians like Graeme Reid, Eric Sasson, and Tara Burns have convinced themselves this predictable result of capitalism will be different once prostitution without cameras is made legal.

I am glad Matthew Ebert is still alive to tell his tale, and I’m glad the anonymous man writing in the Guardian is still alive to tell his tale, but they can’t bring Phil and Darren back to life so that they can tell their tales too.

I last saw Phil in a coffee shop near Madison Square Garden. He had stopped prostituting, beat his addictions to hardcore drugs, and was struggling to overcome alcoholism as he volunteered with the Gay Men’s Health Clinic. He spoke about a former john who hired him to clean his massive Westchester house, but every time the man made a sexual advance Phil refused. “It’s not worth it anymore, not for all the money he has,” he told me that last time I would see him. He told me how proud he was of the anti-prostitution work I do.

I could spend every day of my life speaking for my dead best friend and it would not put back on this Earth what was taken away by johns who put their power-playing pleasure above other people’s lives. I will spend every day of my life fighting against the sexual commodification of human beings that took the life of my best friend.

Samantha Berg is a radical feminist journalist, activist, and event organizer. Her articles have been published in progressive media for over a decade, and in recent years she has organized anti-prostitution political events in the United States and Canada. Samantha’s blog is JohnStompers.com and her website, Genderberg.com, is dedicated to Phil.

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  • wolfgoddess

    Ugh, that Matthew Ebert dude is blatantly trying to recruit people to work for rentboy! The anonymous one is also spouting the usual “sex work is work” crap. I would like to hear more from prostituted males who are abolitionists.

    • Meg

      There is this inaccurate notion that you can’t be both someone who believe sex work is work AND an abolitionist. This is terribly divisive, misleading, and lacks logic. I know many males who’ve been trafficked and understand that their labor (as well as entire self) was trafficked. As a survivor myself, this is not lost on me, nor are my efforts to convey this any attempt to recruit anyone.

      • corvid

        It’s work, in the sense that being raped and enslaved is hard work.

    • david blane

      They would be very interesting voices to hear from. The common wisdom about prostitutes is that if they have internet access then they’re either too privileged or delusional, they need to be locked in basements so that we have to speak up for them. Male prostitutes may be more likely to be taken at their word, as they have default male privilege which grants them a voice.

    • lindsayaroth

      sure, continue to center what you would “like” to hear when others livelihoods are at stake.

      • Sam Berg

        Yep, I’ll continue to center feminism over capitalism, thanks for your blessing on that!

      • corvid

        And you will continue to center the minority of prostituted people who claim to enjoy what they do, including those in the “feminist” third wave and LGBTQ+ community who have chosen to glamorize and fetishize exploitation and turn it into an identity. You discount the voices of the exited and ignore the fact that WOMEN are the people most broadly affected by this form of oppression. LIVES are at stake, now and in the future, lives that are being and will be taken by entitled men, not feminists. Sex should never be “work.” For the majority, prostitution is rape and torture, not work. It is an utterly destructive paradigm not worth supporting if we do in fact have choices (and the vast majority don’t have a viable choice.) Just FYI the Nordic Model is about providing extensive exiting assistance/resources, feminists do NOT advocate for putting livelihoods at stake.

  • Tangelo

    Why is the National Center for Lesbian Rights supporting the senior executives and employees of Rentboy . com who have been charged with promoting prostitution? When did the protection of pimps and procurers become a lesbian rights issue?

    http://www.nclrights.org/press-room/press-release/nclr-statement-on-federal-raid-of-rentboy-com/

    Men who purchase “sex” are abusers. This does not change if those they abuse are men or boys. Those who promote this abuse should go to jail.

  • Susan Smyth

    I am sorry for your loss. As a community nurse I have met and cared for many HIV(+) men whose lives ended as your friends did. There is nothing sex positive about any of this. I watched Jacob die on Vancouver’s downtown east side when he was in his late 40’s. We had known each other in high school in Quebec in the 1970’s. Thank you for this article and all the good work you do Samantha.

    • Sam Berg

      Thank you Susan, though I wish we did not have this heartache in common.

  • As a sex educator with over ten years as a sex worker, I sincerely wish that you would bring this same fervor to fighting for access to HIV testing as well as preventive and antiretroviral medications. STIs don’t care whether or not someone got paid.

    • andeväsen

      STIs “care” if you get paid. STIs are more prevalent among prostituted women and men are more than non-prostituted women and men. This holds whether or not it is legal to pay for sexual access.

    • Sam Berg

      When Phil’s mom told me he died, the reason given was complications with his AIDS medicine. You can fact check that here when I wrote it in 2007. http://genderberg.com/boards/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=2042

      Researchers, social workers, and medical professionals have asked prostituted people, “What do you need?” and none said they needed more testing and prevention for HIV and more HIV meds. Johns worry about catching AIDS, but most prostitutes are too concerned with making it through each day to think about distant potential diseases. If you have collected evidence showing otherwise I would like to see it.

      When I did intakes for a drop-in shelter, the #1 medical request was dental care. Violence, drugs, malnutrition, and neglect wreck teeth, and people can’t eat or even get a job in fast food if they’re missing teeth, but dental care isn’t nearly as sexy a social topic as AIDS so this most basic need often goes unaddressed. I’ve never seen “sex worker rights activists” recognize the feral fact of teeth as a major issue for the people they claim to serve.

      My friend and colleague Lila Lee is executive director of Save a Survivor’s
      Smile (S.A.S.S), a nonprofit meeting the explicitly stated demands of sex industry
      survivors for dental care. https://www.facebook.com/survivorssmile/info?tab=page_info

      • Samantha

        Thanks for saying this, Sam. Also, free HIV testing is available in most cities, even midsize to small cities. Access to testing is not the problem (*outside of rural areas. Rural testing is desperately needed in some places, but is some times covered by AIDS services organizations and outreach). PrEP treatment is available, but it’s just as expensive to people who aren’t positive as those who are. There are drug copay assistance programs from the drug companies, but they only cover about $6500/yr and most HIV drugs are $1500/month +.

        Maybe lobby that Ryan White funding could be applied to PrEP, Alex. As far as I know you have to be positive to receive ADAP assistance. From a gal in the HIV Social Services field.

        Condoms are free at the health department & at any AIDS social services agency, testing facility, etc. It’s just that the johns don’t want to use them.

        (Obviously, I’m from the US. I hope in Canada that drugs are nowhere near what we pay here)

        • Sam Berg

          All good points, thanks for adding them, Samantha. Johns not wanting to use very available condoms is a huge issue.

          I’ve known prostitutes who refused to get tested because they couldn’t afford
          the psychic cost of knowing. Why add “gonna die painfully soon” to their long list of problems when there’s nothing they can do about it?

          Better than taking a test to find out you’re HIV positive is not having to
          worry about catching AIDS from misogynistic men in the first place.

    • Tangelo

      Yes, men who purchase “sex” often spread STIs. Many of these men insist on NOT using a condom during penetration. These men often get their way, especially when using their cash to ‘sexually’ abuse minor children, or adults who have economic, emotional or other vulnerabilities that make them easy to coerce. Other johns say nothing up front, and furtively slip the condom off, or try to break it, during penetration. These johns’ insistence on going ‘bareback’ shows their utter disregard for the health of the women, children, and men that they prostitute.

      Keeping these johns off the street, so that they could not spread STIs to such a vulnerable population, would be a great help.

    • Google is your friend.

  • Cathy Brennan

    I’m sorry about your friend, Sam.

    • Sam Berg

      Thank you, Cathy.

  • aoife assumpta hart

    In tears. Thank you for writing.

    • Sam Berg

      Thank you, aoife.

  • therealcie

    Thank you for your honesty in sharing the painful story of the loss of your friend. Hopefully reading it will make someone see the light. Prostitution is not a victimless, sex between consenting adults arrangement. It has many victims. Many start in the business when they’re still underage, like your friend did.
    I had a friend in high school whom I’ll call “Tay,” who started in prostitution after his parents kicked him out when they found out he’d been smoking pot. We lost touch after high school. I often wonder what became of him. I rather fear he may have suffered a similar fate to Phil.

    • Sam Berg

      Much appreciated, thank you. I’ll hold hope that maybe your friend turned things around in his life.

  • Lindsay Anne

    The decriminalization of sex work is not an endorsement of it, in my experience or opinion – rather one way that people who are selling sex by choice, circumstance or coercion can gain rights and access to resource because they are no longer criminals or seen that way. I respect the experience of those posting here, but I truly wonder how these calls for the criminalization of sex workers or their managers or clients will play out. We have seen in the US that policing is racist and classist. It is not the “bad guys” who get arrested or even convicted. It is the poor and not white, it is those who can’t afford a decent defense. Help me reconcile the failures of our criminal justice system (as it over incarcerates poor people of color AND fails victims like survivors of IPV, rape and human trafficking already – forcing their compliance often via coercion with little protection from retribution). Help me how criminalization will “abolish” coercive sex work? I want to understand.

    • Meghan Murphy

      No one is calling for the criminalization of sex workers! I am totally amazed and appalled at how far and wide this myth is spread, uninterrogated. We’ve seen exactly how the Nordic model, which is what feminists are advocating for, plays out in places like Sweden. It deters buyers and traffickers and has had a huge impact on how the population sees the industry and prostituted women.

      • Lindsay Anne

        Buyers and Traffickers? Look at the data: here in the US women are arrested for working together, a best practice, yet we are seeing 20 year old girls with trafficking charges! The criminal justice system will not save us, it never has. Go work on creating work for people instead of taking it away with your feminist self.

        Also, the failures of the Swedish model are WIDELY interrogated http://www.nswp.org/resource/the-real-impact-the-swedish-model-sex-workers-advocacy-toolkit

        • Meghan Murphy

          And this is why we worked so hard in Canada to decriminalize the women… I’m not sure why you’re accusing feminists of criminalizing women when we are very clear about the fact that prostituted women should not be criminalized.

          • Sally

            Exactly. It is actually patriarchy that is criminalizing the women because these prostituted women are seen as punishable based on the expression of their sexuality, whether coerced or uncoerced. If the prostituted woman is not living up to the expectations of these men, it is punishable no matter what. And boy, men do sure have some varied expectations that are quite contradictory. It’s an interesting double-edged sword. You can be a prostitute and apparently “empower” yourself within that paradigm, but when you try to leave or are caught, you are actually criminalized. In both cases (1) the men dictating women’s sexuality by buying it, and 2) the men dictating women’s sexuality by punishing it), it is patriarchy that is to blame, not radical feminism, which seeks to dismantle the oppressive and economic systems that makes prostitution one of the only viable options for poor women. So to answer your question Lindsay, radical feminism seeks to radically change the entire structure of society, not the individual transactions of johns and prostituted women, which won’t get you very far considering the john will always have the upper hand because he has the money and the privilige, whereas the prostituted woman is simply the object to be bought. No amount of laws regulating it are going to change that considering there is always a loophole to a law for a capitalist in a capitalist society. And if a woman is seen as an object to be bought and sold, how can she be seen as having rights at all by such men? (EDIT: I think much of this also applies to prostituted men as well)

  • Mar Iguana

    Oh, Sam, I’m so sorry for your loss. Stories like Phil’s break my heart.

    • Sam Berg

      Thank you, Mar Iguana.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Why will the criminal justice system always be dominated by men?