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Life

Would You Mind Disrobing, James?

And other requests made of young gay men who work as “houseboys”

Email icon  sgg251@nyu.edu

Alex Smith was scrolling through the personal ads on Craigslist when one for a cleaner caught his eye. It mentioned an address near Times Square, and offered $80 for three hours of work per week.

Smith, 31, who had moved to New York from Memphis to model, had recently lost his department store job. The money was enticing.

“An older gentleman answered the door,” Smith recalled. “He was attractive, with salt and pepper hair, originally from Boston.” He seemed to want to know much more about Smith than might be expected for a cleaning job.

“While he was quizzing me, he was playing some video of a French rugby team,” Smith says. “It was fairly erotic. Finally, he looked me straight in the eye, and asked, ‘May I ask you to clean nude?’”

This is how Smith became part of a growing gay community phenomenon: the houseboy scene. This colonial term, once used to describe a young manservant, has taken on an entirely new meaning.

“A houseboy is a young man, usually gay, looking to live with an older couple or confirmed bachelor,” explains the website www.houseboy.com, which matches houseboys with employers.

“In most cases the houseboy acts as a boy Friday: running errands, keeping the house clean, cooking meals and even cleaning the pool. Often, but not always, the houseboy will have a sexual relationship with one or both people living in the home.”

For a busy, successful gay man, having a houseboy can be a symbol of power and prestige.
Houseboy.com founder Michael Allen, 42, used to run an escort agency in New York.

“Many of the guys that worked for me weren’t interested in short term things,” he said. “They were really looking for a way to live with a wealthy older man and be financially secure. I decided there was a niche in the market.”

The site features graphic sexual content, and a disclaimer before it opens. “If you are unfamiliar with houseboys or offended by homoerotic content, now is your chance to leave,” the message warns.

The relationship between a houseboy and his employer is simultaneously physicalized and romanticized. Allen is understandably quick to list the advantages. “My current houseboy has been with me for four years,” he said. “He’s finishing up his college degree. We spend all holidays and vacations together, and I spend time with his family and he with mine. It’s not a typical relationship, but it works for both of us.”

With more than 200,000 users over in four years, the website’s popularity has generated competitors, and the term pops up frequently. A popular bed and breakfast in Montreal is named “Le Houseboy,” complete with outdoor spa, full breakfast and the “Houseboy Room,” the largest bedroom in the building.

Development company Metro-Luxe fought the housing slump by offering a new Los Angeles loft house – along with the services of 28-year-old houseboy Jake Ryan.

Metro-Luxe President Clint Arthur said the aim was to provide successful gay clients with a special amenity. “We tried to come up with something which our buyers would really enjoy,” Arthur says. “The answer just popped into my head: a gorgeous young man.”

While the Metro-Luxe houseboy’s role was purely professional, the dynamics of the employer-houseboy relationship are often much more complex.

College student and former houseboy Larry Johnson, 21, worked for free.

“I can’t explain my motivation behind it,” said Johnson, a student at St. John’s College in Queens, New York. “It’s mainly a domination/submission kind of thing. I enjoy cleaning, and more so, being told where to clean, and how. My time as a houseboy was very liberating.”

These relationships can also raise uncomfortable questions about sex and power, money and control. Allen believes both parties should view it as a favorable deal.

“It worked out great for me,” he said. “I had a companion and someone to share my life with. A wonderful friendship occurs, and even love can develop over time.”

A houseboy-employer relationship may even offer more stability than most.

“In the 11 years we’ve been operating nationally, and after tens of thousands of calls, I am not aware of a single call we have ever received from a houseboy,” said Brad Becker, the executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Help Center.

As for Alex Smith, he became frustrated with his employer and left his houseboy job after only a few weeks. “He complained about everything, his washing machine was economy, and it just didn’t pay enough,” Smith said. “He was definitely a new money type.”

Would-be employers advertise for houseboys on a website run by the former owner of an escort agency.
Photo courtesy of Sophie Gilbert