On Oct. 26, Richard Holcomb, a former drug addicted sex-worker in Providence and advocate for male prostitutes, held a meeting at RIC as part of the Institute for Addiction Recovery Seminar, hosted by the psychology department.
Holcomb works at Miriam Hospital as a prevention counselor and research assistant, and formerly worked at AIDS Care Ocean State.
He began his presentation with the death of Roy Weber, 22, who was shot in the head and found by Johnson & Wales University security on Christmas morning of 2003. Holcomb said Weber was a male prostitute, and that people have alleged that the investigation into his death was less-than-exhaustive. The case still remains unsolved.
While the need for a support system for this population of people was obvious to Holcomb and others like him, there also existed no data on said population.
Holcomb received a mini-grant to conduct a survey of 50 male sex workers. Individuals were given a $20 gift card to a 7-Eleven in exchange for their working time to answer the survey questions.
Project Weber, established in honor of Roy Weber, had been granted a schedule of a few months to find 50 male prostitutes and to interview them. They finished in three weeks. Of the people interviewed, 6 percent had tested HIV positive, and 22 percent had Hepatitis C. Despite having STDs, many continue to have unprotected oral and anal sex.
Fifty-eight percent were homeless and 68 percent had been homeless during the past month. Project Weber also found that 15 percent of male sex-workers in Providence were bisexual, 23 percent were gay, and 62 percent identified themselves as straight. Most of these men would perform a sex act for money and then purchase drugs to get high. Sixty-eight percent said they wanted to stop.
Holcomb and others have used this information to start outreach programs that provide needle exchanges, free condoms and HIV testing and information concerning where individuals can receive further assistance.
Being a former prostitute has helped build some trust between Holcomb and the community he’s trying to reach. He says they feel “as though they can be more open with someone who has experienced the same thing. Many male prostitutes end up in jail, but those kinds of institutions often don’t help male prostitutes who may need trauma counseling for sexual abuse and rape. The men who look for help in situations like those are belittled and harassed.”
These outreach programs target locations like the two Providence bathhouses, and certain adult bookstores where a staircase will lead to several video booths that say “one person only” but often have two or more people entering at a time.
Providence, with its adult bookstores, fully nude clubs, and bathhouses offers anonymity, which according to Holcomb, “encourages the type of lifestyle these men are living.”
Currently, Holcomb is looking for funding to open a drop-in center for men to receive help that doesn’t just cater to gay men, but the broader category of male sex-workers in order make clients more comfortable. There aren’t many shelters for men, either in Rhode Island or nationally.
Holcomb said that “part of the problem may be that many people in the position to help them would rather take advantage of services offered by male sex-workers than alleviate the issue.”