lazarus 4: tom or john?
Ko Samui, Thailand, last Christmas. ďI not good for you,Ē begins the dark, solemn boy from the ticket agency. ďI not what you want.Ē Hello, I thought, this is where you find out youíre a John like all the others.
Leong explained, with much Iím-Not-Worthy, that he had till tomorrow to find the rent for his room. The tiny room Iíd gone back to the night before, in an alley jammed up against the tourist stripís noisiest club, so that sleep was impossible till 4am. The room with a bucket shower he shared in shifts with a mate. The room where, after the first orgasmic kiss - Thai boys donít snog in public so when you finally do, it is the most sensual experience imaginable - the sex Iíd shared with him was as much a matter of looking as touching, I at his black-eyed Malay beauty and he - well, what made it so intoxicating was the way he consumed my difference, my pale, chunky Celtic foreigness, so that I felt like a beautiful alien too.
And, oh yes, the room with the little sand-tray altar full of foreign money under the Buddha and the flower garlands: Oh avatar of compassion, find me a rich farang please.
So I shouldnít have felt dumb when he started wanting payment. But I did.
In London the lines feel clear. A hustler is a hustler, and charges by the hour. In Thailand - well, there are plenty of upfront money-boys cruising the hotel lobbies in Bangkok, but even if youíve picked up the most apparently middle-class student type, the transaction has a habit of slowly becoming more and more financial.
I bought most of the hard luck story, in fact. Iíd already spotted the curious loneliness young Thais seemed to carry around with them, economic migrants all. I knew his home town - Surat Thani, think Thailandís Plymouth, a scruffy port town out on a limb, full of tourists passing through but not spending. Heíd only got as far as the nearest island, though, at 19, he had plenty of time to make it to big bad Bangkok.
Enough, youíre thinking. All youíre telling us is that you went with a third world prostitute, and was sad enough to think he wanted you for your body?
Well, he showed every sign of being interested in my white-man dick, let me tell you.
But no, the real point about all this, the bit I didnít understand even at the time, is why I didnít pay him. Why didnít I give him his 1,000 baht instead of tucking a few notes into his shirt pocket and telling him to go and find a rich man? He was asking for £17. Iíd just spent that on a pair of boots that would have cost me £100 in London. What made me refuse?
Thereís a similar anecdote in the memoirs of the late American porn star Scott OíHara. He goes to Bangkok and can he find a man who doesnít demand cash for sex? No sir, not for love nor money. Itís comic, because OíHaraís ego is so deliciously dented by the experience: he, winner of the San Francisco Mr Big Dick Contest, a man whose entire sense of self-worth depends on being wanted for his packet, canít cope when he comes to a country where the men are more interested in his pay packet.
Like a lot of Western gay men, my self worth is bound up not only in the principle that I Donít Pay but, on the contrary, that I Get Paid - if not in money, then at least in admiration. Look at the narcissism of gay culture. Look at the pumped bodies, the label queens, the aspiration. We do not chase. We are chased. Flexing our perfect pecs on the dancefloor, we are prostitutes all, whether paid with money or the hunger of othersí stares.
I learned it early on. At one point, quite late on, in my early 30s, I ventured timidly into outright hustling. I didnít stop because it was hurting my boyfriend, though that was a consideration. No, it was mainly because it was having a strange effect on my sexuality. I started getting turned on only if I was paid. The £50 on the mantlepiece was what got me hard. Anyone can lie about love. But hard cash - there it is in your hand, the proof. You are Wanted.
To find myself buying sex, though, was a humiliation. Far from being Wanted, I was wanted for Just One Thing.
Some of my mates happily went around splashing out on a few hoursí fun with a bar boy. After all, is it sadder paying for sex or craving to be paid? Which is more aphrodisiac in your imagination - having the power to buy people who donít desire you, or the power to switch on othersí desire? The answer determines whether you are, at heart, punter or hooker. John or Tom.
After all, women have always complained that men want them for Just One Thing too, except itís cunt, not cash. Sex, as opposed to love, has always been a commodity. A woman can still sing without any sense of wrongness about wanting an Old Fashioned Millionaire. The disgrace of being a prostitute has never been that the arrangement is financial. It's that it's temporary.
All that the levelling of the sex roles has done is to ground our sense of self worth in the queasy, shifting sands of the ego instead of the bedrock of power on one side, beauty on the other. Fine if you have both youth and income. But what happens to us old Toms when we canít get paid any more in the currency of phwooars? Can I be a happy John, readily parting with a trifle for the enjoyment of a nightís beauty?