Review of Barry Reay's New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America
REVIEW of Barry Reay, New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America. Manchester University Press, 2010
This fascinating but problematic book deals with the relationships of hustlers, usually straight-identified though bisexual in practice, and their paying johns, focusing on the middle decades of the 20th century. As primary sources Reay uses archival material obtained at the Kinsey Institute and other repositories. He fleshes out these finds with nuggets gleaned from Tennessee Williams, Mart Crowley's "The Boys and the Band," and other high-culture products. Of necessity the result is one-sided, since there is relatively little that is available from the hustler's point of view. The books of John Rechy, who worked as a hustler in NYC and elsewhere, are a seeming exception. Yet Rechy is a sophisticated literary artist and intellectual--scarcely a typical male sex worker.
On the plus side, the author has been diligent and his book is very readable. Yet he is too quick to reject the interpretation of C. A. Tripp and others that the johns' quest for relationships with young toughs who were emotionally unresponsive and sometimes abusive reflected internalized homophobia. In all likelihood the abuse served to confirm the johns' belief that they were in fact the inferior creature that the society told them they were. This phenomenon has been studied in a number of contexts under the rubric of abjection.
In fact Reay has a larger goal in mind. He seeks to challenge the accepted historical narrative that "modern homosexuality," in which the two partners have an egalitarian relationship, arose in the late nineteenth century out of a more fluid situation. He implies that the modern homosexual was not simply a late comer to the great fresco of world history: rather, that iconic figure is simply a phantom, the illusory offspring of the ideology of gay liberation. In good postmodern fashion he scoffs at the "hetero/homo sexual binary." Yet his evidence for this skepticism comes mainly from the hustler-john nexus, and thus he commits the error of synecdoche, taking a part for the whole. The double-barreled title "New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America" captures the mistake: the first thing does not equate with the second. To make this conflation is, if one will forgive the expression, a hustle.
Reay's larger claim does not capture the way most of us were in those days. Here a personal reminiscence may be helpful. I first came to New York City in 1956 at the age of 22 to enroll as a graduate student at NYU and to live on a fellowship that paid one-hundred dollars a month. For me there was no question of seeking out hustlers: I couldn't afford it. I saved my pennies and met other gay guys at the bars where I would nurse one beer for the night. By present-day standards most people were poor in those days. Hardly any of the men I met paid for sex. In those days, resort to hustler services was an indulgence that was reserved for the prosperous and well-healed.
One piece of evidence that Reay does not include is a modest series of gay guides self-published (probably by the late Edgar Leoni, author of "Jonathan to Gide" writing as Noel I. Garde) in NYC between 1949 and ca. 1955. These booklets were incongruously entitled the "Gay Girl's Guide," with Swasarnt Nerf (= soixante neuf, or 69) as the principal author. These handy items, about 70 pages each, have extensive lists of bars and movie theaters, parks and beaches where gay men could meet other gays noncommercially. The guides contain separate sections warning about rough trade ("dirt")--how to spot and avoid such individuals, some of whom were psychopaths. Most of us knew to be wary of these reprobates. Of course there was always a small number of people who enjoyed "feasting with panthers," as Oscar Wilde put it.
The guides have been conveniently reissued in 2010 by Hugh Hagius: "Swarsarnt Nerf's Gay Guides for 1949" (available through Amazon). These guides, precursors of today's weighty Spartacus Guides, are the first known examples in the US. There may have been some predecessors in Europe. In various countries, of course, knowledgeable men would type out their own personal lists, making carbon copies for friends. Swarsarnt Nerf probably had access to some of these lists.