Prostitution, Hustling, and Sex Work

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Prostitution has often been referred to as the "world's oldest profession." However, until very recently, the assumption has been that prostitutes are women and their customers men. Although many past commercial sex exchanges have fit this model, paid sexual encounters have also involved same-sex sexual acts, either for customers' viewing pleasure or participation. Furthermore, LGBT people and sex workers of both sexes historically have been lumped into similar categories as "sexual deviants," occupying similar or overlapping ideological and geographical spaces. Thus these communities and their histories have become linked in significant ways, both as outcast groups perceived by society to be in need of detection, regulation, and, occasionally, eradication, and as allies and mutual inhabitants of the sexual under-world.


Most historical evidence of male prostitution in the United States comes from court records and vice investigations. In the latter half of the 1600s, for example, Windsor, Connecticut, resident Peter Buoll made a complaint about Nicholas Sension: "He told me if I would let him have one bloo [blow] at my breech he would give me a charge of powder" (Godbeer, p. 45). In 1878, Montana Territory found a man named Mahaffey guilty of a "crime against nature" with a fourteen-year-old boy identified only as "B." whom he later identified as a "boy prostitute."

As large urban areas grew and sexual subcultures coalesced toward the end of the nineteenth century in America, male/male prostitution attained greater visibility. Concomitant to the rise of gay sexual communities was an increase in public concern with controlling the behavior of sexual deviants, including commercial sex contacts. New York City possessed perhaps the best-known gay subculture and a burgeoning population of male prostitutes. When New York City moral reformer Charles H. Parkhurst accompanied detective Charles W. Gardener to a brothel called the "Golden Rule Pleasure Club" in 1892, he was appalled to find that the young "women" residents were actually men wearing dresses and make-up and speaking in falsetto so as to appear like women. At another male brothel known as Paresis Hall in the Bowery district, dozens of male prostitutes plied their trade. Often labeled "fairies," these men solicited other men for sexual acts and received a commission for selling drinks to customers. Similar services could be found in other cities in the late nineteenth century. In Chicago, an African American girl who turned out to be a male prostitute approached German sexologist and gay advocate Magnus Hirschfeld in 1893. Male prostitutes also reportedly worked in a Turkish bath in San Francisco's Barbary Coast in the 1890s.

During the twentieth century, male prostitution became inextricably intertwined in the fabric of commercial sex in urban areas around the United States. British sex researcher Havelock Ellis reported in 1915 that male prostitutes in New York and Philadelphia wore red neckties as a symbol of their profession. Although not as visible as in larger cities, male prostitutes have also existed in smaller municipalities as well. In recent times, male prostitutes have become ubiquitous. Men sell sex to men either openly as men or dressed as women in every community in the United States. Still other men make a living as drag performers or strip-tease artists, selling sexual fantasies and occasionally sexual acts on the side. Although the rise of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s brought with it a public health focus on all prostitutes who might transmit the disease, male sex workers, who are especially vulnerable to the virus, have come under especially intense scrutiny. Similar attention was paid to sex workers during both world wars, when men selling sex to men were scrutinized by the military, vice reformers, and other public officials. As with HIV/AIDS, the attention was due, in part, to rising concern about the spread of venereal disease from sex workers, male or female, but military and government officials were especially worried about the effects these diseases might have on soldiers' fighting capability.


Historical evidence of women purchasing from or selling sex to other women is harder to find. Yet solid and anecdotal examples exist in sexological literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in other sources. For the most part, the sources portray same-sex sex acts either as a noncommercial activity, something female prostitutes engage in with other prostitutes or their girlfriends for pleasure outside of work, or as one of a repertoire of sex services that male customers might purchase. Far fewer are examples of women selling or buying sex from women. In fact, eminent sexologist Alfred Kinsey noted in 1948 that the rarest type of prostitution involved women selling homosexual sex to other women.

In the early twentieth century, American researchers frequently cited the work of French sexologist Alexander Parent-Duchâtelet, who estimated that nearly 25 percent of Parisian prostitutes engaged in homoerotic acts or had homoerotic tendencies. Furthermore, they often endorsed his explanation for same-sex behavior among prostitutes: disgust for male customers, which ostensibly drove them to have sex with women. With the advent of psychoanalytical explanations for behavior, American and European sexologists blended earlier explanations with new theories explaining how prostitutes' alleged lesbian tendencies in fact inspired their choice of profession. During this time, some argued that "latent homosexuality" drove women to sell sex to men and that many prostitutes (if not a majority) were lesbians. American sexologist James G. Kiernan, for example, noted, "tribadism is exceedingly common among harlots everywhere" (Kiernan, p.186). More likely, others argued, female prostitutes' inclination toward homosexuality was not congenital but rather directed at other prostitutes and stemmed from the legendary solidarity that leads to intense and intimate friendships among prostitutes.

Perhaps because of social perceptions that their role as head of household or entrepreneur was masculine, madams historically have been deemed to be either lesbian or engaged in sexual relationships with their "girls." Mixed-race New Orleans madam Emma Johnson, known as "The Parisian Queen of America," was reportedly a lesbian. Johnson's house became famous for its early-twentieth-century sex circuses, where women and men had sex with other women and men in any combination imaginable.

For the most part, women in the United States had neither social access to nor the financial means to purchase the services of prostitutes, even if they had the desire to do so. And, indeed, romantic friendships, at least until the early twentieth century, provided acceptable, private access to passionate emotional and physical relationships with other women. Prostitutes' writings and sexological studies of the twentieth century, however, reveal the possibility that female "johns" may have purchased sex from female prostitutes. In a study of "homo-sexual" men and women incarcerated on New York's Blackwell's Island in the 1920s, a gay male informant reported that his friend, a twenty-six-year-old addicted female prostitute, averaged two hundred dollars per week in a New York brothel and that there were well over two hundred such homosexual female (and one hundred male) prostitutes in New York City at the time. These numbers are likely overstated, but indicate that some same-sex trade could be had for women with means.

In the postwar period in the United States, increasing efforts to control all forms of deviant sexuality were tied to ideas of national security and the nuclear, heterosexual, patriarchal family. During this time, both lesbians and prostitutes exemplified uncontained female sexuality and became linked in the popular imagination. Although sexual attitudes regarding all forms of so-called deviancy had become increasingly liberal by the late 1960s, in the 1970s and 1980s, many feminists returned the focus to the eradication of prostitution and pornography, which they directly linked to male sexual exploitation and objectification of women. Ironically, antiprostitution feminists (many of whom identified as lesbians) worked hard to disconnect prostitutes and lesbians as a way to gain social legitimacy for the latter. In so doing, these feminists have alienated a large number of lesbians who work (and are still employed) as sex workers. At the same time, pro-sex feminists, along with prostitutes' rights groups such as COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), have fought in favor of women's rights to participate in sex work without stigma. These women argue that sex work is a legitimate occupation that needs to be extracted from debates about morality, and that prostitutes deserve legal status as workers with the concomitant benefits that accompany that status, such as health care, a living wage, and attention to safety concerns while on the job. In addition, pro-sex feminists argue that any attempted control of female sexuality works at cross-purposes to all women's freedom of expression—whether lesbian, bisexual, or straight. Despite these "sex wars," connections between prostitutes and lesbians have remained strong both in fictionalized representations and on the street, and many prostitutes, strippers, and phone sex workers today claim a lesbian identity.

Shared Space and Harassment

In many cities, LGBT people and sex workers have shared and continued to share the same physical, often public, spaces. For example, following the vice crusades of the early twentieth century that closed some of the more notorious red-light districts, and later sweeps that targeted sex workers working in taverns and nightclubs, female prostitutes formed clandestine networks that provided some safety. Meanwhile, lesbians became more visible, often in these same public spaces. San Francisco's North Beach district, for instance, became the locus for these two groups of deviant women, and soon lesbians were using many of the same techniques as prostitutes to pick up sexual partners and avoid arrest. Indeed, both prostitutes and lesbians frequented the first lesbian-owned bar in San Francisco. Similarly, New York City's 42nd Street, which in the early decades of the twentieth century had possessed a reputation for female prostitution, also became known in the 1930s as one of the city's primary cruising sites for both male and transvestite prostitutes.

During the last half of the twentieth century, prostitutes and lesbians, hustlers and gay men often found themselves harassed and arrested together. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, police often arrested those lesbians who were increasingly becoming visible in such public spaces as bars under antiprostitution statutes (often vagrancy or solicitation charges). While such arrests confused the two groups, police were in effect using antiprostitution laws to control the behavior of both groups of women and to regulate the spaces they frequented. Much the same held true for men cruising for sex partners in public restrooms, tearooms, and parks. Whether they were hustling or simply looking for a quick encounter with a willing partner, gay men and hustlers risked arrest for indecent exposure, crimes against nature, vagrancy, and sodomy.

Complex Sexual Identities

Same-sex prostitution has not always been directly related to an individual's stated sexual identity or preference. For example, men who considered themselves sexually "normal" in the late nineteenth century and many of the male soldiers and sailors who purchased sex from men in the first half of the twentieth century, especially those from the working class, considered themselves to be very much "heterosexual," as long as they were the penetrator or receiver of oral sex. Indeed, until the late twentieth century male consumers of sex with men have often identified as "straight," although they have considered the men with whom they had sex to be "homosexual." Today, research shows that a majority of male prostitutes are likely to identify as "heterosexual" or "bisexual" (and have either or both male or female lovers, who are often sex workers themselves), while many of their customers identify as gay. An exception to this is the large number of self-identified straight men who patronize she-male prostitutes. Somewhat the opposite holds true among female sex workers, many of who identify as lesbian (and have long-term relationships with women) despite selling sex far more frequently to men than to women.

Sex for pay has manifested in infinite combinations among people who claim any number of sexual identities (gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, transgender)—or think little of them. Rarely do sex workers stop to wonder if the sex acts they perform make them homosexual, heterosexual, or somewhere in between. Rather, these men and women choose their profession as a means to an end and do not see it as a defining aspect of their personal identity, unless that identity is sex worker. In brothels and baths, in bars and nightclubs, and on the street, anything goes, as long as it is paid for.


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Heather Lee Miller

see alsocrime and criminalization; cross-class sex and relationships; employment and occupations; prostitution, hustling, and sex work law and policy; public sex; same-sex institutions; sodomy, buggery, crimes against nature, disorderly conduct, and lewd and lascivious behavior; tourism.