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  • “Wouldn’t a Boy Do?” Placing Early-Twentieth-Century Male Youth Sex Work into Histories of Sexuality
  • Don Romesburg (bio)

From the 1880s through the 1910s urban U.S. reformers and police only infrequently sought out male youth sex work, but they still found it. They happened upon it while attempting to intervene into immigrant families, prevent juvenile delinquency, temper child labor, or suppress female prostitution. From the 1910s through the 1930s in Chicago social investigators, psychologists, and sociologists found male youth sex work when they examined the “individual delinquent,” the social world of hobos, the lives of boys in street trades or gangs, and the deviancies of homosexuals, whom they largely conceived of as adult men. The “discoveries” of male youth sex work that occurred while such experts looked for something else provoked a mixture of alarm and indifference.1 As a result, authorities, while compelled to make sometimes extensive comments on male youth sex work in field, court, or clinic notes, made scant, vague reference to it in their published reports. Consequently, reform and policing activities regarding male youth sex work were much more inconsistent than were actions regarding female prostitution, commercialized amusements, and more anticipated forms of boy delinquency such as theft and truancy. It was as if experts could only understand male youth sex work out of the corners of their eyes, on the margins of the supposedly more pressing issues they conceived of as their main concerns. [End Page 367]

Many histories of prostitution tend to replicate early-twentieth-century experts in relation to male youth sex work, describing it, when at all, in passing. In the historiography of prostitution and in much of the contemporary critical feminist, sociological, and cultural studies scholarship on prostitution and sex work, male youth sex often gets acknowledged as a form of sex work that, because it falls outside the conventional definition of prostitution, is beyond the scope of a given theory or history. In Timothy Gilfoyle’s City of Eros, for example, male and transgendered youth sex work is mentioned only when it crosses paths with female prostitution. Elizabeth Clement’s recent Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900–1945 articulates the nuanced contours of a range of sexual economies across diverse ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic peoples. Yet it has little to say about youth and same-sex sexualities or male sex work. This has the effect of making same-sex commercialized sexualities (and same-sex sexualities in general) appear incidental to her important argument about how sexual bartering became normalized through the evolution of sex entertainment and modern young heterosexual dating and how this facilitated the marginalization and racialization of cash-exchange female prostitution.2

In the last fifteen years a handful of notable historians have challenged this somewhat glancing approach to male youth sex work. Their scholarship generally follows George Chauncey’s lead; they are principally interested in the growing policing of male-male sexualities and the relationship of male youth and sex work to the rising prominence in both expert discourse and American culture of a homosexual/heterosexual binary by the end of the 1930s. These approaches have produced key insights. Steven Maynard’s work on urban Ontario, for example, challenges Chauncey’s claim that working-class sexual identities in the early twentieth century had little relationship to expert discourses on sexology and psychology, noting that this divide was bridged by working-class boys’ and men’s interactions with the courts, awareness of potential surveillance by police and reformers, and consumption of popular media. Male youth sex workers faced criminalization for engaging in sexual commerce, same-sex sexuality, and youth “delinquency.” As such, they may have been particularly vulnerable to official “local centers of power-knowledge,” which approached such prostitution less as a danger of “recruiting” boys into homosexuality than as a gateway activity to broader “immorality” and [End Page 368] criminality. Peter Boag’s work on the Pacific Northwest similarly shows how poor and working-class boys, when caught selling sex by urban authorities, experienced middle-class attacks as psychologically disordered, sexually perverse, and criminal. Yet while “on the road” these boys participated in more informally commoditized, subculturally encouraged...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 367-392
Launched on MUSE
2009-08-08
Open Access
No
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