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Reviewed by:
  • New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America
  • Kevin White
New York Hustlers: Masculinity and Sex in Modern America. By Barry Reay (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010. xiv plus 279 pp.).

In this path-breaking book, Barry Reay makes significant advances towards our understanding of human sexuality and behavior. Reay takes as his subject the history of the New York hustler or "trade" between the 1940s and 1960s. Although a key part of American popular culture, the history of "trade" is a relatively unresearched area. Inevitably any work on "straight" or "gay" sexuality in twentieth century New York must needs address George Chauncey Jr's classic work Gay New York (1994). Reay must examine Chauncey's thesis or fall in his shadow. Reay, therefore, acknowledges Michel Foucault's celebrated view of a twentieth century distinction between sexual acts and sexual identities. Reay takes Janet Halley's reading of Foucault's oft-cited comment that "the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species" that in fact the "sodomite"—that is, a person who practiced male/male sexual acts—did not disappear but co-existed with the appearance of an identity/personality based on sexual orientation.1 It is on this ground that he criticizes earlier scholars such as Chauncey and John D'Emilio for imposing a "teleological" conceptual framework on their histories as their works conceptualize "the making of a gay world" (14). I do think that Reay is a little too harsh here. He does admit that "diversity" is a key focus in Chauncey's work which is also "historically grounded," yet does [End Page 242] criticize him and others for imposing the word "gay" on early twentieth century material when the term was little used then. I think he underestimates the absolute, sheer excitement that works like D'Emilio's and Jeffrey Weeks (for the UK) stimulated in revealing that there was a useable "gay" history, written by gay historians producing work that was in no way ahistorical; on the contrary, amongst the best history of the time. The early pioneers of this field, including Chauncey, were brave men whose work was vital to enable fresher paradigms to come along. Teleology was a necessary part of the political vibe that made the works possible.

Yet Reay's work really does offer us a new angle on "gay" history: not least because he insists that it is part of a larger history of "heterosexuality." Reay is right to criticize the neglect of this common sense point by some "gay" historians. Reay positions himself amidst historians like Chauncey, John Howard (Men Like That) and Matt Houlbrook (Queer London). He accepts Howard's hypothesis that "throughout the twentieth century, queer sexuality continued to be understood as both acts and identities, behaviors and beings" (14). Thus, historians have in effect now adopted Halley's reading of Foucault following Eve Sedgwick's rejection of a "unitary Homosexuality rather than overlapping contradictions and conflictual definitional forces."

Reay notes efforts by David Halperin, H. G. Cocks and Alan Sinfield, but rejects them, because while they suggest multiplicities of complex sexual identities, in the end they do not suggest that acts remained important to the social construction of sexuality. Drawing on Matt Houlbrook's work on London, Reay argues that "the sexual culture of the New York hustlers and 'trade' mirrors the lack of binary division located in London during the same period—but that the American city demonstrates far more sexual fluidity than its English counterpart" (17). Reay notes that in Chauncey's Gay New York, the early twentieth century sexual culture had already by 1950 moved to a recognizable "gay" modern subculture. Crucially, Reay argues that this "making" was rather more protracted and complex: that there are "rich continuities of taxonomies missed by a tendency to categorize all same-sex sexual activity as 'gay' once the mid-century approached" (17).

Thus, the hustler, until well into the 1960s, in terms of behavior was happily homosexual and heterosexual, capable of enjoying sexually both types of experience (even though he was invariably paid for the former). Most subversively, Reay decimates the hegemonic heterosexual/homosexual binary by suggesting just...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 242-245
Launched on MUSE
2012-09-13
Open Access
No
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