Sunil (name changed) was 15 years old when he migrated from Kolkata to Delhi in search of a job. This was in March 2005. After many attempts, he landed a job – as a part-time masseur in a massage parlour. His clients were all women. Besides massage techniques, the parlour owner and other masseurs taught him how to entertain his clients and provide them sexual pleasure. Sunil began his career as a gigolo, and soon picked up skills that made him quite popular and in demand among the parlour’s clientele.

Born in a middle class family, Sunil hadn’t expected to become a gigolo. He says he took up the work because the earnings were far better than what he’d been earning from a job in a small company. He hadn’t studied beyond secondary school and felt that he didn’t have many other prospects. But the motivation to continue as a gigolo changed after some time. He opens up a bit more and says, “I began enjoying my work. I became addicted to having sex with different women, and it felt amazing when I received compliments for my skills along with the money!”

Quote: “Till before the lockdown, I was earning more or less Rs.15,000 a month as a gigolo. This wasn’t too bad,” shares Sunil. He has been working with a security agency as well. But the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have changed everything. Sunil got married three years ago and has a two-year-old son, which has meant greater need for financial security. To add to the difficult situation, his wife and other family members have no idea about his work as a gigolo. All this has left him feeling stressed and uncertain about the future.Sunil used to think that he was among very few men in sex work. Around a year or two later, he came to know of an NGO in Kolkata that worked with male sex workers along with female and transgender sex workers, mainly on their health and welfare concerns. This prompted him to return to Kolkata and secretly continue with his work as a gigolo. The NGO guided him on safer sex practices, maintaining hygiene, and even provided tips on entertaining his clients. Since mid-2008, popular shopping areas in Central and South Kolkata became his cruising grounds to find clients.

“Till before the lockdown, I was earning more or less Rs.15,000 a month as a gigolo. This wasn’t too bad,” shares Sunil. He has been working with a security agency as well. But the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown have changed everything. Sunil got married three years ago and has a two-year-old son, which has meant greater need for financial security. To add to the difficult situation, his wife and other family members have no idea about his work as a gigolo. All this has left him feeling stressed and uncertain about the future.

Sunil’s friends who are in the same profession as him have been urging him to take a chance and go out for work. Some of his clients too have been calling him. But his wife and son won’t let him go for work, even if they’re unaware what his work is about.

He raises some pertinent points: “In such a situation, who would think about providing relief to gigolos? Certainly not government authorities! And I don’t want to go to any organization for mental support because of my professional identity.”

Sunil feels that sex work of any kind is stigmatized by society and law, and male sex work is no exception. He agrees that as a man he has certain social advantages, but the stigma against male sex work is so strong that he has to hide his identity as a gigolo. “Female sex workers and LGBT people face far more discrimination and violence than gigolos. But while the concerns of female sex workers and LGBT people have got some attention through laws and court verdicts, gigolos in India have so far received no attention,” say Sunil.

He knows of more than 500 gigolos in Kolkata and few are open about their profession. Sunil argues that since men are generally believed to enjoy having multiple sexual partners, there’s no sympathy for gigolos. They too are victims of non-payment, blackmail and other forms of violence by their clients. But they don’t expect their complaints to be taken seriously by anyone.

Sunil signs off with a word of advice for fellow gigolos. “Many young men are entering this profession. But they seem to be interested only in making a fast buck. What they need to realize is that this work may well be their only option. So they should practice safer sex, learn to respect their clients and take good care of their needs.”

Inset: ‘Coronavirus Diary’ – queer citizen journalism in action! This monthly Varta webzine column brings you news and analysis on how queer communities, other vulnerable groups, and their allies are responding to the hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdown in India. Content published under ‘Coronavirus Diary’ is contributed by participants in the third pilot of the Varta Community Reporters (VCR) Training and Citizen Journalism Programme (May to September 2020). This edition of the programme also involves strategic dissemination of the published reports for community morale building, experience sharing and advocacy to ensure that affected people gain access to resources for immediate survival and long-term self-sustenance. The VCR Programme aims to build communication, documentation and journalistic skills among youth and other groups marginalized around gender, sexuality or other social markers. In the process, it also attempts to enhance the employability of the participants. The programme consists of training workshops (including online ones), mentoring sessions, and writers workshops on gender, sexuality, human rights, communication, documentation and storytelling. The current pilot is the third under the VCR Programme. It covers Assam, Odisha and West Bengal states, and there are seven VCRs (queer individuals and allies) engaged in the programme. This pilot is supported by CREA, Delhi. The first pilot of the VCR Programme was conducted in Manipur from March to August 2018, and stories generated through the pilot were published under the ‘Manipur Diary’ column. The second pilot, from February to July 2019, covered Assam, Manipur and West Bengal and the stories generated were published under the ‘VCR Diary’ column – Editor.

Visit this page for more details on the Varta Community Reporters Training and Citizen Journalism Programme.

The author of this article, a participant in Varta Trust’s citizen journalism programme (inset above), carried out a situational assessment of the survival and sustenance priorities of West Bengal’s queer communities during and after the coronavirus lockdown. The story narrated in this article is based on a semi-structured interview conducted over phone as part of the situational assessment. The interview was conducted in early May this year, and some of the information was updated in September – Editor.

Read also article On Sex Work – Questions, Answers, More Questions by Pompi Banerjee published in July 2017 issue of Varta – Editor.

Graphic credit: Anupam Hazra (artwork created with pen ink and highlighter marker pens on art paper).