- Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900–1945
When I was about thirteen, a cousin decided it was time to teach me about the world of dating. I distinctly remember she warned me not to order the most expensive item on the menu during a date because the boy might then expect (and maybe even pressure) me to "put out." Where did this concept of tit for tat come from? In Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900–1945, Elizabeth Alice Clement demonstrates how changing courtship patterns in the early twentieth century served to marginalize prostitution, resulting in the monetization of sexual behavior and its instantiation in dating.
Clement's stated aim is to expand on Kathy Peiss's now classic and pioneering Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Peiss describes how young, working-class women ("charity girls") traded sexual favors for "treats," such as clothing, stockings, theater tickets, and dinners. For young women, despite low wages and responsibilities to their family's economy, "treating" permitted them to participate in New York City's emerging leisure culture. However, Peiss contends, treating served as "a source of autonomy and pleasure as well as a cause for [women's] continuing oppression."1 [End Page 387]
Clement wants to nuance our understanding of the treating exchange. In Love for Sale she argues that, in the decade and a half before World War I, treating opened up a new middle ground between chastity and prostitution. Because it fit squarely "in the context of working-class sexual norms and understandings of morality," treating allowed "young women to avoid the label of prostitution but still engage in sexual exchange for material gain" (46–47). Clement's most important contribution is her discussion of treating, prostitution, courtship, and dating as part of a continuum of sexual behaviors and practices; she claims that treating not only transformed courtship but also "disturbed the place that prostitution held in American urban culture," which held unexpected consequences for young women (3). The changing conditions of prostitution affected the context in which sexual behavior in dating and courtship occurred.
Treating, according to Clement, was "an ingenious compromise in a world where most women earned little but increasingly attempted to seize economic and social freedom" (48). However, in the early twentieth century, this social freedom could only be achieved through men. Though Clement acknowledges that for men, treating "emphasized [their] masculinity" and confirmed women's passivity (48), she also claims that "women clearly had the upper hand in the treating exchange" (73). This seems to be an optimistic interpretation of treating at best and a contradiction at worst. Clement regards treating as a liberating shift in working-class sexual mores, one that had positive benefits for young women. Yet the practice should also be understood as a Faustian bargain. Treating cannot be separated from the gendered labor market in which its participants worked, and the practice was one of a very few choices for women seeking to obtain luxuries or simply make ends meet. Although treating may have been more attractive than prostitution for young women, it was still not an exchange among equals—or an equal exchange.
Moreover, women were not always entirely in control of treating, and the consequences could be as dire as physical or sexual assault. Clement nods in this direction, stating that "men might threaten, bluster, or simply refuse to participate," but, she continues, "there is little evidence they did anything more" (73). However, my research in the same sources has uncovered evidence that men did do more than merely threaten or bluster. For example, a Committee of Fourteen investigator reported on a conversation he had with a bartender named Henry. Henry confided to the investigator that he took a married woman "to Inwood where he forcibly had sexual intercourse with her." Henry also remarked on how "simple it was to 'get to' women...