Like a character out of Beverly Hills, 90210, 19-year-old "Emmanuel" leads a charmed Los Angeles existence. His days, colored with shopping sprees and personal training sessions, are rivaled only by his nights, which are spent in the city's finest eateries and entertainment venues. With a generous expense account and a 2007 BMW convertible at his disposal, the Peruvian revels in his status as a "kept boy."
Emmanuel (all names in this story have been changed) escaped a life of crushing poverty by posting on the popular networking Web site Craigslist.org. "I was poor and bored with my life," he recalls. "There are no men to date where I'm from, so I posted my picture on the American site."
Emmanuel, now an illegal alien in the United States, exploited his youth and good looks as a ticket away from the hopelessness of his old life. It sounds extreme, but the practice isn't unique to him. Brief searches on the Internet's most popular networking sites turn up a slew of international teens looking for older benefactors. Before the Internet age, desperate kids had to scour Santa Monica Boulevard or Castro Street in search of "sugar daddies," but with MySpace, Friendster, and Craigslist, the quest for "sponsors" is instantaneous, global, and available to anyone who can plunk down a dollar at an Internet cafe.
How does the sex trade flourish on a mainstream site like Craigslist? A company representative declined comment to The Advocate, instead referring to the Web site's official rules and legal disclaimers, including a users' agreement not to post or e-mail unlawful messages.
Emmanuel's ad solicited for a "generou$ benefactor" and was punctuated with suggestive photos of the then 17-year-old. Within hours his in-box was full: "I had dudes all over the USA, from San Francisco to New York City, wanting to bring me to America for a vacation."
One such e-mail came from 38-year-old Southern California Realtor "Ken." "Something about Ken seemed different and sweet," explains Emmanuel. "Not dirty...but friendly. His jokes made me laugh, so I wrote him back."
The two corresponded via e-mail and phone for nearly three months before Emmanuel agreed to an all-expenses-paid meeting in Buenos Aires. "It was very good," he recalls. "I came back with him to America, and I've been here ever since."
Emmanuel's current luxurious lifestyle is a far cry from his poverty-stricken South American upbringing. "I remember waking up at 4 a.m. and skipping school to work odd jobs with my father," he says. "But no matter how much we went without, there never seemed to be enough," he says. "After years of barely making ends meet, I was ready to do whatever it took for a better life."
Emmanuel's improved standard of living is not without complications. "For starters," Ken explains, "Emmanuel can't get a driver's license or health insurance. He can't get a job. He cannot even go back [to Peru] to visit his sisters, because he may not be able to get back into the U.S."
But Emmanuel and others in his position are aware of the sacrifices they must endure. A Filipino boy hunting for a wealthy partner in a gay chat room writes, "A life with a rich lover in America is better than any life I can make for myself alone here."
Not all e-mail-order romances are idyllic; players on both sides take risks. "It was probably the worst mistake of my adult life," says "Bill," a 47-year-old information technology specialist. His decision to bring his 20-year-old Internet boyfriend, "Marco," into the United States illegally ended up costing him thousands of dollars and countless sleepless nights. "At first, things were amazing, but Marco wasn't who I thought he was," Bill says. "The more I gave him, the more he took from me. I ended up feeling more like his father than his boyfriend. And sending Marco home [without involving the authorities] was costly, both emotionally and monetarily."
But Emmanuel and Ken's relationship, now just shy of the one-year mark, is working so far. "For all intents and purposes, we're just like everyone else," Ken explains. "We're partners. We're equals. We're consenting adults in a committed relationship."
But without any legal or financial protections for Emmanuel, each day is tainted with a bit of uncertainty. "I do my best to make Ken happy and see that he doesn't want to send me back to Peru," Emmanuel says. "I love L.A., and I'll do whatever he wants to stay here with him."