Pin It
Mees Peijnenburg, Payboy (2020)
Mees Peijnenburg, Payboy (2020)Photography Mees Peijnenburg

Tender portraits of Amsterdam’s male sex workers and their personal stories

Mees Peijnenburg’s Payboy explores an intimate side of his home city Amsterdam’s Red Light District, shining a light on the men and sex work that comes in all different shapes and forms

Growing up in Amsterdam, the Red Light District may have been an everyday part of Mees Peijnenburg’s childhood landscape, but it’s always been a site of very ambiguous feelings for the filmmaker and photographer. “As a young boy, this world was obviously very exciting, attractive, intriguing, and arousing,” he tells Dazed. “But it has also always been a very strange world to me too, a dark place.” 

Most discourse about sex workers tends to focus on the women who work in the industry, while their male colleagues tend to be less visible or represented. But, during the making of his first feature film, Paradise Drifters, Peijnenburg was researching the city’s homeless, orphaned youths when he found himself talking to male sex workers about their experiences. Recognising how special and significant these conversations were, he decided to dedicate a whole body of work to portray their stories. “I wanted to incorporate these conversations into Paradise Drifters, but I felt it was too big of a subject to simply touch upon in the story. So I started this photography series instead,” he tells Dazed. 

Payboy is a collection of portraits of the male sex workers Peijnenburg spent time with, taken with their collaboration in spaces they would usually meet clients. “I’ve been having the most beautiful encounters where people let me into their hearts, lives and homes; hours of conversation in their bedrooms or extensive bicycle rides cruising areas in the outskirts of the city,” Peijnenburg reflects. 

Take a look at the gallery above to see Peijnenburg’s Payboy portraits. Below, we talk with Mees Peijnenburg about creating Payboy, the underground world of male sex work, and what it’s like to grow up in and amongst the Red Light District.

For those of us who’ve never been to Amsterdam, please could you tell us about the culture of the Red Light District there? What is it like growing up in a city where sex work is such a visible part of everyday life? 

Mees Peijnenburg: The culture and representation of the Red Light District has changed a lot this last decade. The government has created more regulations and a new set of rules. For instance, they have tried to monitor sex trafficking and avoid exploitation of vulnerable individuals. Many brothels have been ‘cleaned’ and stripped. There have been efforts to make the area safer, and more ‘cultural’.

The culture of the Red Light District has always been very ambiguous to me. It continues to be a manifestation of some sides of society perhaps not so visible in other arenas. It’s a place where those contrasts are thrown in your face. On one side it is special and beautiful – a symbol of the progressive state of mind from years ago. And, although it’s debatable, at its core the Red Light District was/is the token of the Netherlands’ belief in freedom of the individual, free will. But, on the other side, it is a very dark place where numerous sex workers come from specific circumstances and live under difficult conditions. It is not always the safe environment it aimed to be, and the working relationships of this industry continue to be dodgy at best.

As an Amsterdam native, I’ve been surrounded by this industry my whole life. As a young boy, this world was obviously very exciting, attractive, intriguing, and arousing. But it has also always been a very strange world to me too, a dark place. Tourists taking their families with young kids by as a ‘must-see’ to this tourist attraction with half-nude sex workers on display. The Disneyland-vibe of the area has always been very surreal. But growing up, I became more aware of how this circus is a totally out of balance representation of what the Red Light District truly is. This is shown very clear how it’s mainly famous for its female sex workers. You hardly see a male sex worker standing behind a window. Which is clearly not in tune with how this world actually is.

”None of the men in the pictures work behind the windows that the Red Light District is known for, they all work for themselves. They are their own bosses. They find their clients on the internet and have no regulations or safety net from the government” – Mees Peijnenburg

You were researching a film about Amsterdam’s dispossessed youth when you first became more aware of the city’s male sex workers. What was it about their stories that caught your attention?

Mees Peijnenburg: The street view from my childhood in Amsterdam and the image of the industry was always in connection to female sex workers. But during the research for my first feature film, Paradise Drifters, I visited numerous youth shelters and homeless institutions. During these visits, I would stay for days and have extensive conversations with many different boys and girls. I was talking about their families, friends, upbringing, and financial structures. From time to time some of the guys talked to me about how they were active in different forms of sex work, sometimes for pleasure, sometimes purely as a financial benefit. For some guys, it was a personal sexual discovery, a way of expressing themselves differently to who they were towards the world around them. Other guys told stories about how they had been forced, how they had been sexually exploited. Some were very clear about it being purely about the financial gains. Everyone had their own personal experience.

These conversations were very special. It was a different perspective that I was immediately intrigued by. Many of the guys really wanted to be heard and to share their stories. Some guys were extremely open and proud about it, others would burst into tears as it was the first time they had spoken about this to anyone. Most of the time there was a level of reservation in the way they shared their story but, at the same time, it seemed like it was important for them to tell it. So there was such a duality about this topic which has so much stigma around it. I wanted to incorporate these conversations into Paradise Drifters, but I felt it was too big of a subject to simply touch upon in the story. So I started this photography series instead.

As a subculture within a subculture, how do the male sex workers you met participate in Amsterdam’s sex industry? Are their work environments as well-regulated as their female colleagues? 

Mees Peijnenburg: Sex work comes in so many different shapes and forms. None of the men in the pictures work behind the windows that the Red Light District is known for, they all work for themselves. They are their own bosses. They find their clients on the internet and have no regulations or safety net from the government. But there are places in Amsterdam where they can get medical help, talk to people, or get legal support if needed.

Every person has their own skillset or speciality. Some of the men only do massages, erotic massages. Some purely give online performances. Some only meet clients in hotels. Some meet everywhere and always.

The portraits feel really intimate. Could you tell us a bit about how you created them? Did you spend a lot of time with the men you photographed?

Mees Peijnenburg: For me, it was very important that everybody who participated with the project felt comfortable. Trust is key for me, and I wanted to make sure that no one felt exploited or wrongly portrayed afterwards. With all the men I had conversations about the project before meeting. I had several ‘rules’ for the series. For instance, the participants decided where we would meet, but it had to be a place where they would be with clients. It could be anywhere – indoor, outdoor, quiet places, crowded places, parking lots, backyards, parks, cars, you name it, anywhere. Another ‘rule’ was to portray them bare-chested. I didn’t want to do a nude series, but the feel of skin gives a physical, visceral feel to the pictures. And the last rule, the most important one to me, was that the participants decided themselves which pictures we were going to use. After the shoot, I would make a selection, share it, and they themselves decided which picture they felt comfortable with. It was very important to me that everybody agreed, felt good. It was a very collaborative process. It is a very delicate subject matter, I didn’t want to undervalue that.

Did you start out with any specific intentions about what you wanted to communicate with Payboy? And did those ideas evolve or change as you worked on this series?

Mees Peijnenburg: The main intention was to never ever place the people I portray in a negative context. Thanks to all the wonderful men I met that didn’t change. I’ve been having the most beautiful encounters where people let me into their hearts, lives and homes; hours of conversation in their bedrooms or extensive bicycle rides cruising areas in the outskirts of the city.

With this series, I wanted to show a diverse and inclusive picture of many different men who have this work. But above all, I wanted to give a face to a profession that is underrepresented and stigmatised by many people with harsh judgment. It maintains wrong that the sex work industry has a gendered image. To some extent, I guess it’s a conscious portrayal. What I find most problematic is how this portrayal is so embedded in people’s minds. With Payboy, I wanted to shine a light on an underexposed side of the sex industry for which Amsterdam is so famous.

Could you share with us any of the stories, moments or individuals that really stayed with you when you were making Payboy? 

Mees Peijnenburg: I find it difficult to choose. To be honest, the whole process has been very special to me. I feel a close connection to all the men that are portrayed, all in their different way. Everyone has their own view on their work ethics and their profession. Working on this series showed me all the beautiful differences we have, once again.

Was there anything you learnt about the world of Amsterdam’s male sex workers that surprised you or confounded your expectations during this process?

Mees Peijnenburg: Consent is key in all forms of sex work. Even though it doesn’t always show in the pictures, the power and fierceness that radiate from all the men while I was talking with them made me cycle home with a great feeling of strength. I felt empowered. I wish that everybody who stigmatises the sex work industry would have been with me during the past months.

What would you like people to take away with them from seeing these portraits?

Mees Peijnenburg: I hope people take away a tender feeling and adjust any preconceived judgements they might have about gender, stigma and image of sex workers.