Why can’t you see the men we serve?

invisible-manAfter 5 years on the job here, I’d say that the biggest challenge I face in telling people about who Emmaus is and what we do is that the men we serve are invisible.

When I share the work of Emmaus Ministries, nine times out of ten I get the same response: shock. People are usually surprised by the existence of the phenomenon that is Emmaus’s raison d’etre.

“Wait a second,” many of them will say. “Male prostitution? Like, men to men? That happens in Chicago?”

People are even more surprised when we tell them that it doesn’t just happen in Chicago, that it happens A LOT. That it’s all over the city, and that Chicago is definitely an example of the rule, not the exception. Male survival prostitution afflicts every city of any kind of decent size everywhere in the world.

When people hear that, their response is usually something like:

Mr. Anderson learns about Emmaus

Mr. Anderson learns about Emmaus

There are many reasons why people are shocked to learn not only that our guys exist, but that they do what they do to survive.

First off, the men we serve tend to be poor and homeless. That alone makes them less-than-visible to most people. Plus, as I often joke, men who are out hustling aren’t generally wearing high heels and fish net stockings (or other stereotypical clothing people think of when they think of “prostitution”). So it’s pretty hard for most folks to identify men who are prostituting anyway, even if they do know that these men exist.

But perhaps the biggest barrier I’ve found to realizing that male prostitution exists is that we are not culturally conditioned to view men as victims. The terms men and survival prostitution unconsciously reside in mutually exclusive categories for us. Men just don’t do that kind of thing, most of us tend to think. I know. That’s how I thought, too.

When I first heard about Emmaus I was a student at Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs. A couple of my friends there volunteered with Emmaus, and after I heard what the ministry did it was clear to me that my friends had lost their minds. My conversations with them usually went something like this:

Me: “Wait, wait. Hold on. Male prostitutes?”

Friends: “Yeah.”

Me: “We’re not talking like gigolos or something like that?”

Friends: “Nope.”

Me: “Well … I mean … there’s only like three of them, right? I mean, there can’t be that many. Why do we need a whole organization devoted to them?”

It just didn’t make sense. Even after my friends patiently explained that, actually, male survival prostitution was an exploding phenomenon and that it was everywhere in the world, it still didn’t compute. Men just don’t do that.

It wasn’t until an urban semester internship brought me into the same building where Emmaus is located and I got to know a few of the men Emmaus serves (and heard some of their stories) that it started to make sense. My assumptions about reality, assumptions shaped by my cultural conditioning, were just wrong. As the saying goes, there are none so blind as those who will not see.

I saw another example of that cultural blindness today in an article on the American Psychological Association’s website about a new study on victims of sexual coercion.

The article headline reads, Coerced sex not uncommon for young men, teenage boys, study finds. “Sexual victimization continues to be a pervasive problem in the United States,” the study’s lead author says in the article, “but the victimization of men is rarely explored.” The study found that almost half of the respondents reported being coerced into some kind of sexual activity by the time they were 25.

Now, if this was a study about women, my guess is that the author wouldn’t say that the victimization of women is rarely explored. I could see the study being a featured item on news programs around the country. I have no doubt that the plights of the study’s subjects would be viewed as another sign of a national crisis. And rightly so. It’s immoral and unacceptable for any society to allow a huge portion of its citizens to feel unsafe and coerced like this. The study’s subjects were men, however. My guess is that most reactions to it will probably be closer to bemusement than outrage. Think less, “Oh my God! This is terrible! We have to do something about this!” and more like, “Huh. Wow. Wasn’t expecting that.”

Do I think this because I believe most people don’t care? Not at all. This is more of the blindness we all share. We can’t see what’s in front of us. It’s just one more manifestation of our limited human nature. Our challenge is to recognize that we have these limits and step outside the boundaries of our own perspectives. As I have found time and again, stepping outside of what “I know” to be true about people is when transformation, love, and connectedness show up. That is when God can work in us, on us, and through us to heal the wounds of a broken world.

And, through the miracle of God’s transforming love, he opens our eyes to see men who are invisible.

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Our Mission

To provide Christ-centered support to men seeking to escape survival prostitution and embrace a life of health and wholeness.


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Emmaus Ministries
4201 N Troy St
Chicago IL 60618

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PO Box 431
Wheaton IL 60187-0431


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