A misty rain dampens the sidewalk in front of the Naples Cafe on New York Avenue NW near 13th Street. Three hustlers standing on the street before the steaming rush-hour traffic draw the heated gazes of male motorists cruising through the tenderloin district.

There is Greg, a blond stud of 19, flanked by Cowboy, an angular 21-year-old, and David, a lithe 22-year-old with deep-set, warm brown eyes. They are on the street for only a few minutes on this weekend evening when David catches the eye of a middle-aged man in a black sedan -- a "chicken hawk," as they say in the gay love trade, who is out looking for youth and sex. The young male prostitutes, such as David, are the "chickens" these men crave.

David slides into the seddan and rides off in the night for a quick sex act that will bring him at least $40. Fifteen minutes later, he is back on the strip, back at work on the streets of a city that he says is becoming known "in a lot of gay circles as the boy-whore capital."

Local law enforcement officials agree that Washington, which has a large gay community, is quickly catching up with New York, Los Angeles and Houston in the male sex-for-sale trade. The drama outside the Cafe Naples is replayed scores of times daily on downtown city streets and up along Dumbarton Street in the shadows of trendy Georgetown bars. This underworld of male prostitution was existing largely out of public view until last week, when the alleged involvement of one of this area's more prominent politicians -- Republican Congressman Robert E. Bauman of Maryland's Eastern Shore -- pushed it onto the front pages and nightly TV news reports.

The male prostitution subculture has been thriving here for a long time, according to Walter Rau, a detective in the District police department who has been patrolling the gay porno strips for seven years. Although there are no definitive statistics on the number of male prostitutes here and the amount of business they do, police estimate the ranks of "chickens" to be in the hundreds and the trade to be a multimillion dollar one. And as it flourishes, Rau says, the "chickens" get younger.

Last year he found a 12-year-old boy working the streets. Altogether, since 1978, the local police have arrested 93 boys under age 18 for prostitution.

"A lot of these kids are runaways who wind up in this city and play tricks with the 'chicken hawks' as a matter of survival," says Rau. When these boys first arrive on the city streets, he notes, they are not all gay, they are simply looking for money and some sense of security and turn to prostitution as the easiest way to obtain them.

"But the problem is, if they're not apprehended quickly enough they get absorbed in it," notes Rau. "Eventually they get into drugs. A lot of chicken hawks supply cocaine or reefer [marijuana]. They take bam [a prescription diet pill] for energy to stay up all night. Lately, they've also been shooting a lot of heroin."

If caught, the "chicken hawks" could face federal felony charges prohibiting the sexual exploitation of children. But in practice, that seldom happens. The charges are usually reduced to a misdemeanor for solicitation. According to police, this makes their efforts to control the gay sex-for-sale trade more difficult.

Standing on the sidewalks surrounding the bus stations or across town on the back streets of Georgetown, the young men can earn $200 a night, getting $40 to $60 a trick from the "chicken hawks." Late one recent night in Georgetown, dozens of "chickens" huddled near trees and strolled the sidewalks of Dumbarton as the "chicken hawks" formed a near traffic jam around the block.

As with heterosexual prostitution, street-walking is only one of many ways of plying the gay sex-for-sale trade. Dates are also arranged in bars such as the Naples Cafe or the Chesapeake House, where nude go-go boys line up on the bar to gyrate to a disco beat under crimson lights.

[It was the Chesapeake House, according to federal sources, that Bauman frequented in the months before he was brought into court on a sex solicitation charge.In a special arrangement with the prosecutors, Bauman pleaded innocent to that charge and was assigned to a rehabilitation program for first offenders.]

There also are a few selected public telephone booths -- known as "trick phones" -- that men use discreetly to set dates with boys they have spotted on the street. Some wealthy men, preferring even more discretion, have been known to send their butlers down to one of the gay strips to recruit boys of their liking. And, again much like heterosexual prostitution, dial-a-date agencies are plentiful in the gay sex-for-sale world. Police estimate there are at least 30 such agencies in the Washington area, with men paying anywhere from $45 and hour to $500 a night for house calls.

According to police sources, some of the lucrative gay out-call services are controlled by organized crime. "We know organized crime has a piece of it," said one police source. "And we also know these kids work a circuit like the female prostitutes do." But for the most part, this source said, top local and federal authorities have closed their eyes to the problem.

David, for one, has little use for the out-call services, which he says are operated by "lechers." But as a gay prostitute gets older, David concedes, these services seem more attractive. On the streets, the older "chickens" face tough competition from the young boys, but they can still make calls until they are at least 35, earning some $40,000 a year.

Born and reared in a middle-class home in Arlington and the son of a retired Army officer, David says he has been a prostitute since he was 13. He is an uneducated young man, but by his own account still quite appealing to the "chicken hawks." He claims among his lovers many of the high and mightly in this city -- people who say they are lobbyists, doctors, attorneys and congressional aides. He says his dates are mostly older men, smooth-talking, three-piece-suit types who usually are married and very wealthy. For his talents, David says, he has been lavished with expense-paid trips and gifts, including a customized van for his 21st birthday.

"Mostly you get the same rap [from chicken hawks]," says David. "They say: 'I'm bisexual and my wife wouldn't understand,' or 'Hi, what's your [astrological] sign?' and 'I have some cocaine. Do you want to do some drugs?' There's a doctor who is pretty notorious down here. For [a sex act] you can get 22 downers, a B-12 shot and cab fare home. And if you like" -- he pauses here for effect -- "a hormone shot."

Between them, David, Greg and Cowboy have more than two decades of hustling experience.But the hardship of the life is beginning to show. "I've had one nervous breakdown," says Cowboy. "I've got to settle down."

"I've been thinking of getting out of hustling," adds Greg, who was reared in a strict Catholic family in an upperclass Baltimore neighborhood. "But you get lazy. You know you can get [work] out on the street. Yesterday I stood out there from early evening to about 11 p.m. Then finally I met someone. I spent the night with him. He picked me up in a big red Cadillac. He worked for an electronic company."

Of the three hustlers outside the Naples Cafe, only Cowboy, a self-confident South Carolinian who has emerged as the undisputed lord of the strip, has saved some money and appears to have some semblance of control over his life. His mellow voice is spiced by a soft southern twang as he talks about his early years in foster homes and picking cotton with his family to make a living. When asked how he got into hustling, Cowboy hesitates, then quietly talks about a doctor who molested him during a medical examination when he was 11. Says Cowboy: "It kind of freaked me out the first time."

Even now, as he appears so adjusted to this life, Cowboy rages against the exploitation of young huslers. "The young boys, they don't know what they're doing," he says angrily."If I find them out here, I tell them to get out of here. I just don't believe in I've had kids come by here 16 years old. They have their girlfriends with them. I'll give them $30 or $40 and tell them to get the hell out of town!"

At 2:30 in the morning, the stream of late model Mercedes, El Dorados and other luxury cars has slowed down to an occasional passing car along the New York Avenue-13th Street corridor. A new pearl-grey, chauffer-driven Lincoln Continental limousine pulls up along the curb. A sandy-haired man respendent in a black velvet jacket and grey slacks emerges. He chats with a tall, gangly youth and walks off with him. Fifteen minutes later, they are headed for Virginia, their faces masked behind the darkened windows of the car. People familiar with the car say the strip has just been revisited by one of Richmond's notorious porno movie kings.

An hour later, the rain has stopped, and so has the activity along the male tenderloin strip. The action has moved across town, to the area around the 3100 block of Dumbarton Avenue in Georgetown. Known in gay circles simply as "The Block," it is now lit up by the headlights of bumper-to-bumper traffic, cruising "chicken hawks" looking for "chickens." Here on Dumbarton, most of the "chickens" are more interested in finding a "sugar-daddy" than in getting paid for their favors.

In the shadows of the dusky street, a 20-year-old man leans casually against a lamp pole. Men clad in Levi jean-sets stand together holding whispered conversations or stroll the darkened streets alone. They are all waiting to be picked up by men pouring out of the Georgetown bars. When given a silent signal, a man will approach a comrade in a car. If the vibes are right, they will go home together.