Clement Graffe (clement) wrote in rusgay,
Clement Graffe

Flesh: The Historical Construction of Male Sex Work by Dr. Anthony Price

Flesh: The Historical Construction of Male Sex Work

I would first like to thank the organisers for inviting
me to present an overview, spanning 3000 years of
the historical constructions of sex and sex work. I
hope that one of the most important aspects of this
presentation is the extent to which many
contemporary themes have resonance in the past as
well as the present.

I want to start with an image that looks quite modern
– a promotional still for Andy Warhol’s movie ‘Flesh’.
This movie was made in New York in 1968 and used a
documentary style to explore and chronicle the life of
a sex worker, played by Joe Dallasandro. In the
opening sequences of the movie the action
immediately challenges conventional sexual
categories as the story unfolds.
The story, such as it is, revolves around Joe hustling
to pay for his wife’s girlfriend’s abortion. We see Joe;
working the streets, in one scene acting as teacher
to two young guys who are learning sex work as a
way of funding their way through law school. We also
observe him naked, languid, lovingly playing with his
baby child; being sucked off by an ex girlfriend while
a couple of drag queens sit and discuss a magazine
about movie stars; and he pulls numerous other male
punters. Because of the documentary style, much of
the time Joe (and many of his encounters) seem
listless – he is waiting for tricks or engaged in largely
one way conversations with men, such as the elderly
artist who has employed him to pose for life drawing.
We see the artist repeatedly putting Joe in new
poses, his hands guiding his body for each new
display. Obviously, the artist desires his body, and
the camera constantly explores and reveals his body
as a spectacle, inviting us too, his potential punters,
to enjoy and fantasise about him. His naked body is
both the object of desire but also is the means of
earning money. However, his clothed body also
signifies that he belongs to an identifiable subculture
where sexual actions may or may not be
consistent with sexual identity.
Joe and other hustlers are recognisable, not just
within a small sexual minority - by the posture,
language and dress as being potentially available for
sex – but to a wider population who were increasingly
aware of the fluidity of sexual categories but also the
notion of men who are professional prostitutes. It is
subversive to social constructions of masculinities
and also sexual practices. However, it is not
surprising if the movie carried the stamp of
authenticity – ‘reality’ - that Dallasandro brought to
his role, because he had been, and remained a
hustler even as he enjoyed cult status within Andy
Warhol’s ‘factory’. Joe featured in a song ‘Walk on
the Wild Side’ by Lou Reed that celebrated sexual
difference, including commercial sex, in New York at
that time. (Transformer, 1972):
‘Little Joe never once gave it away,
everybody had to pay and pay,
a hustle here and a hustle there
New York City is the place where they say
‘hey Babe, take a walk on the wild side;
hey Joe, take a walk on the wild side.’
So, why is this image important and what has it to do
with an analysis of the historical construction of
male sex work?
First, this picture (and the movie), represents an
historical moment, a pre AIDS golden age in the
sexual liberation and identity politics movements of
the 1960’s. It celebrates the development of a widely
recognisable image of the male prostitute,
predominantly (but not exclusively) gay. It is an
image that still has resonance today within gay
culture and in countless Internet or newspaper ads
for sex workers. Such a public and powerful image of
the hustler is only possible through the emergence of
the modern notions of sexualities and sexual identity
that have been formed since the 18th century. In
other words Joe conforms to some current ideas of
what a sex worker should look like, and how he
should look at us. Just as Manet’s painting of the
prostitute Olympia outraged the mid-19th century
Parisians by daring to gaze back into the eyes of her
respectable, hypocritical middle class punters, so
Joe similarly returns our gaze. We recognise his
appearance, his ‘look’, for what it signifies in terms
of his role in commercial sex; but also in how he
looks at us, his potential clients. In ‘Flesh’, Joe is an
icon of his time and place, he embodied and signified
a coherent type of professional, sex(ualised) worker
who can move between numerous sexual activities
and behaviours without it necessarily defining or
subverting his own sexual identity.
Second, it raises questions about what has changed
over time in what we mean by sex work or
prostitution. Have men always been selling sex?
Well, yes of course they have, but the meanings
attached to the encounter have changed over time
and place. The notion of sex itself has changed
profoundly and in some ways a movie like Flesh can
only make sense in the context of these wider
historical construction of sex itself. The factors that
have shaped these ‘modern’, indeed post modern
notions of sex and sexual identities, communities or
cultures are complex and need more exploration than
I can give here today. However, I want to examine
some of the underlying threads in the often hidden
stories of sex and prostitution, the continuity and
discontinuity of ideas, practices and social
regulation of male sex work throughout history.
Inevitably, the history of prostitution is the history of
sex so in the interests of brevity, our story will be
rather selective. I will be focusing on English and
other European constructions of sex, but also will try
to draw on wider cultural traditions.
In his report on commercial sex encounters between
men, Minichiello (Journal of Sex Research May, 2000)
suggests that a growing body of literature emerged
in the last decade which provides a profile of the
male sex worker (MSW) and attempts to explain the
factors associated with paid safe-sex encounters
between men. Nevertheless, given the huge
explosion in academic literature in the last 30 years
around gender, sexualities, deviance, sub-cultures,
pornography and prostitution, it is surprising that
male sex work remains virtually invisible outside
regulation discourses of morality, risk and health. In
preparing this presentation, my trawl of histories of
sexuality, and gay history in particular had
remarkably few academic references to the many
generations of men who have been engaged in one
way or another with selling sex. On the other hand,
an Internet search on ‘Male Prostitution’ yielded
over 290000 sites! This omission in the history books
is curious but not surprising, not least because of the
association between two powerful forms of deviant,
subversive practices – that is homosexuality and
prostitution, are colliding with that explosive cocktail
of private pleasures and public moralities.
First, and central to these assumptions is the
interwoven history of homosexuality and male
prostitution, as if they were the same thing i.e. that a
man selling sex would automatically be homosexual.
This needs to be challenged on two counts. One, that
homosexual behaviour or practice does not
necessarily equate with identity or even sexual
preferences. Second, that many prostitutes can and
do use sex as purely commercial transaction –
whether as many gay men claim that is simply a
‘defence’ against realising or accepting their ‘true’
sexuality is another matter!
A more helpful way of telling the story of western sex
is by reference to Michel Foucault. Foucault’s
criticised the conventional history of sexuality that
suggested Western society used to enjoy a golden
age of sexual freedom that became increasingly
repressed since the early 18th century. As Foucault
(1978) argued, there was a problem - but it was not
repression. The problem was the way in which
Western culture increasingly categorised people as
unnatural and perverted, healthy or sick. Ever since
doctors first started addressing sexuality, Foucault
argued, they have created a veritable zoo of
perversions, then tried to root out the causes. He
claimed that the categories of sexuality that doctors
had created were just arbitrary inventions of modern
medicine. Sexual pleasures can be taken in many
ways, he wrote, but categorizing sexual desires is
pointless…when doctors label people perverts, they
create the very thing they claim to want to treat.
Foucault asserted that homosexuality is not nature
or nurture, but is socially constructed. When doctors
created the profusion of perversions, they
unwittingly produced the models that gave rise to
gay, lesbian, and other sexualities. In his opinion,
these identities are themselves a form of oppression
and he argued that when a person accepts the label
homosexual or heterosexual, possibilities of
pleasure are foreclosed and sexual freedom is
surrendered. As part of his analyses of the history of
sex, Foucault went on to consider ancient cultures
especially Greece, that been thought to give great
freedom to the individual (man) to pursue his sexual
There is evidence of widespread homosexual activity,
including cult prostitution of men in Middle Eastern
and other antique culture (Greenberg 1988). However,
the frequent imagery of the naked, athletic, male
body and its celebration of warrior heroes and their
loving friendships, has often located ancient Greek
culture as a golden age of male (homoerotic) love.
Foucault argued that ancient cultures such as those
in India or Greece, that engaged the individual in the
development of the erotic arts, a central requirement
for men was the refinement of pleasure (askësis:) ,
In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure itself,
understood as a practice and accumulated as
experience, pleasure is not considered in relation to
an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden,
nor by reference to a criterion of unity, but first and
foremost in relation to itself: it is experienced as
pleasure, evaluated in its intensity, its specific quality,
its duration, its reverberations in the body and the
soul. Moreover this knowledge must be deflected back
into the sexual practice itself, in order to shape it as
though from within and amplify its effects.(Foucault,
In other words, the individual man sought to refine
his physical desires and pleasures, that in doing so
did not make him ‘one type’ or the other, one
pleasure does not preclude another. Incidentally,
Foucault suggested that S/M clubs and the
development of the gay scene was an illustration of
how these older cultural values were being
rediscovered in modern life.
An often over-romanticised mythology has been
constructed around the origins of same sex relations,
including prostitution. However, in summarising the
construction of homosexuality and prostitution in
Greece, Purkiss (http://www.nathanielwandering.
net/Greece.htm) challenges conventional ideas
about the ‘golden age’ and argues that sexuality was
restrictive, not hedonistic. He suggests that the
regime was aligned differently from ours in that there
was inequality in all relationships. Whereas the focal
point of modern sex is pleasure, the focal point of
Greek sex was assertion of social status along with
pleasure and where some types of sexual relations
are ruled out. For example, the rape of boys is almost
never represented except in mythology of the gods.
Here the myth of Ganymede has been extremely
important historically. Ganymede was a beautiful
youth who attracted the God Zeus, who abducted
him and brought him to Olympus to be a cupbearer/
lover. Images of Ganymede have emphasised
his boyish charms, his seductiveness and
compliance reinforcing pederastic relationship as
the norm. Another interpretation is that Ganymede
was a prostitute and his name was often used to
represent effeminate gays and male prostitutes up to
the 19th century. The institutionalisation of pederasty
including prostitution is evident on many vase
paintings, and through philosophical writings such
as Socrates and in comic literature and drama such
as Aristophanes. Sometimes it is quite ambiguous in
terms of whether the gift being offered is reward or
inducement for sex, or a love token – or both. In this
example a bearded man approaches a seated youth,
who reaches out to accept the bag the man appears
to offer him. Does this bag contain money, and is the
youth therefore a pornos (male prostitute) sitting in
his stall? Or is it a more innocent gift, such as
knucklebones/dice? The youth’s gaze is directed
toward the bag, not the man. The sponge and reticule
on the wall may be meant to suggest a gymnastic
setting. The inscription reads, “The boy is beautiful.”
Most importantly, partners were defined as active or
passive, not male or female and thereby sexual
action did not define sexual identity, as now.
Homosocial life became the context for Greek
“homosexuality” which was primarily reinforced
through segregated spaces such as the men’s and
women’s quarters of the home, and the gymnasium
for men. “Homosexuality” was a broad institution
where most Athenians were probably less worried
about the effects of homosexuality on boys than the
status of partners that a boy chose! Fundamentally,
though the boundary lines were that the sex (or love)
object should be younger, be compliant sexually but
not initiate sex acts, particularly requiring the older
man to be penetrated. An effeminate man who did
was to be despised or even punished. In Greece, a
man as opposed to a slave or youth, holding public
office, and who was found to have prostituted
himself, could be executed.
Some of these norms were continued within Roman
society, that was generally more hostile to both same
sex emotional relationships and male prostitution
than the Greeks. Nevertheless, Polybius, the Greek
historian who visited Rome in the second century
BC, wrote that most young men had male lovers. And
Greenberg (1988) notes “Many of the leading figures
in Roman literary life in the late Republic - Catullus,
Tibullus, Virgil, and Horace - wrote homophile
poetry”. In addition, “eremenoi (male prostitutes)
were a conspicuous feature of Roman life and
flourished throughout Italy.” The emperor Trajan was
known for his love of boys; his successor, Hadrian,
erected sculptures of his male lover Antinous who,
when he died at the age of 19, Hadrian elevated to a
God. Commodus “kept a boy, naked except for
jewellery, and often slept with him”. Tatian, a
Christian who lived in Rome in the second century,
wrote that the Romans “consider pederasty to be
particularly privileged and try to round up herds of
boys like herds of grazing mares”. In the following
centuries in many other cultures, homosexuality and
its association with prostitution was accommodated
and tolerated. When the Jesuit Matteo Ricci visited
Peking in 1583 and again in 1609-10, he found male
prostitution to be altogether lawful and practiced
openly. To his dismay no one thought there was
anything wrong with it. Several hundred years later,
European travellers still reported that no one was
ashamed of homosexuality. Similarly, John Fryer,
who travelled to Persia in the late seventeenth
century, found that ‘The Persians, when they let go
their modesty, covet boys as much as women.’
Another visitor to Persia in the same century,
reported that he had found “numerous houses of
male prostitution, but none offering females;” and
“some of the greatest Persian love poetry is written
to boys”...
Surprisingly, England, in the late 17th and 18th
century seems to have provided homosexual men,
and a few women, with opportunities to develop and
express their sexuality in a number of new ways. This
was largely through the growth of cities like London
and the lead given by the hedonistic Court life
following the Restoration of the King, Charles II.
Prostitution by both women and men appears to
have been widespread and increasingly visible. One
example of the shift towards what we would now see
as a recognisable homosexual subculture was shown
recently in a British TV programme called Queer as
18th Century Folk. It was described how men could be
very easily picked up for sex in London, especially in
or around public watering holes (or latrines) and that
there was emerging a new type of space, called
markets or the Molly House (see Weeks 1989:203)
where men could meet. A woman called Mother Clap
ran the most famous Molly House, whose bar
provided a space where men could take pleasure in a
back room, and where the first recognisable drag
queens could gather. Whilst it was not strictly
speaking a brothel, there is no doubt that prostitution
was common although there seem to have been very
few ‘professional’ prostitutes or men who lived a
thoroughly gay lifestyle.
Over the following hundred years a more
recognisable modern subculture was fast
developing. The early 19th century was marked by a
scandal about a male brothel in Vere Street London.
Norton (1999) cites Holloway who has provided a
most vivid description of the brothel:
from Holloway’s Phoenix of Sodom (1814)
The fatal house in question was furnished in a style
most appropriate for the purposes it was intended.
Four beds were provided in one room - another was
fitted up for the ladies’ dressing-room, with a
toilette, and every appendage of rouge, &c. &c. A
third room was called the Chapel, where marriages
took place, sometimes between a “female
grenadier”, six feet high and a “petit maitre” not
more than half the altitude of his beloved wife! There
marriages were solemnized with all the mockery of
“bridesmaids” and “bridesmen”; the nuptials were
frequently consummated by two, three or four
couples, in the same room, and in the sight of each
other. The upper part of the house was appropriated to
youths who were constantly in waiting for casual
customers; who practised all the allurements that are
found in a brothel, by the more natural description of
prostitutes. Men of rank, and respectable situations in
life, might be seen wallowing either in or on beds with
wretches of the lowest description.
It seems the greater part of these quickly assumed
feigned names, though not very appropriate to their
calling in life: for instance, Kitty Cambric is a Coal
Merchant; Miss Selina a Runner at a Police Office;
Blackeyed Leonora, a Drummer; Pretty Harriet, a
Butcher; Lady Godiva, a Waiter; the Duchess of
Gloucester, a gentleman’s servant; Duchess of
Devonshire, a Blacksmith; and Miss Sweet Lips, a
Country Grocer. It is a generally received opinion,
and a very natural one, that the prevalency of this
passion has for its object effeminate delicate beings
only: but this seems to be, by Cook’s account, a
mistaken notion; and the reverse is so palpable in
many instances, that Fanny Murray, Lucy Cooper, and
Kitty Fisher, are now personified by an athletic
bargeman, an Herculean Coal-heaver, and a deaf
Tyre-Smith: the latter of these monsters has two
sons, both very handsome young men, whom he
boasts are full as depraved as himself. These are
merely part of the common stock belonging to the
house; but the visitors were more numerous and, if
possible, more infamous, because more exalted in
life: and “these ladies”, like the ladies of the petticoat
order, have their favourite men; one of whom was
White a drummer of the guards, who, some short time
since, was executed for sodomy with one Hebden, an
One of the interesting, and recurrent elements in
reports of prostitution, is how many of the men
belonged to the lower social classes – the
respectable working class. However, whilst working
classes were reasonably tolerant of same sex
activities and prostitution, they were much less
forgiving of effeminacy or ‘camp’. Wealthy men could
indulge more in a gay ‘lifestyle’ where exaggerated
manners and costume of the time allowed for more
challenge to some social boundaries. Royal and
aristocratic history in England is quite rich in stories
of passionate relationships with male ‘favourites.
Indeed Buckingham palace itself is once thought to
have been the site of a male brothel. One 18th
century aristocrat, Lord Harvey, was a notorious rake
who regularly seduced his servants as well as using
prostitutes, but made the social error of falling in
love with a man and making it quite public. This was
not acceptable to the aristocracy who, although
tolerating great debauchery (as long as it was within
the socially defined rules) and did not particularly
object to same sex activity, drew the line at an
emotional relationship of love between men.
By the 19th century, the creation of types of sex
became increasingly categorised. In his analysis of
the development of homosexuality in Russia, Healey
explores an important aspect of sex work that
reflects continuity with many other cultures. He
describes how Medved’ev and his companions
habitually used subordinate males for sex when lust
was unleashed by vodka. An account of an evening of
theatre, dining and drinking ‘to excess’ ended with
Medved’ev’s reflections on how to satisfy one’s
arousal on the journey homeward:
For some time now my lust leads me to pick a
younger cab-driver, who I make fun of along the way;
with a little nonsense you can enjoy mutual
masturbation. You can almost always succeed with a
50-kopek coin, or 30 kopeks, but there are also those
who agree to it for pleasure. That’s five times this

Cab-drivers who supplemented their income (or
simply took pleasure) in this fashion are not unusual
characters in Russian legal and psychiatric literature
of the era (Healey cites Tarnovskii 1885: 69-71).
Coachmen, waiters, household staff and simple
soldiers or officers’ servants were not alone among
male servants who were willing to service male
employers sexually. It is not always possible to gauge
whether subordinates were motivated solely by
incentives of money and advancement, but rather the
easy willingness of Russia’s urban serving classes
to tolerate ‘gentlemen’s mischief’ as they were said
to call it. (Healey cites Tarnovskii 1885: 70)
These examples from Russia suggest continuity with
an earlier acceptance of same sex relations but also
emphasises the social difference at the heart sex
work as well as emotional relations between
homosexual men. In Britain one of the most famous
regiments of soldiers, the guards, were celebrated in
a popular song ‘Soldiers of the Queen’ but it was well
known in the gay subculture that guards frequently
served a great many queens: as did sailors,
policemen, stable boys and other low paid working
class men! As Weeks (1991:195ff) points out a sexual
relationship across class lines allowed middle class
or aristocratic men to have spontaneous, more
natural sex than with one of their own class. Indeed,
this has remained a characteristic of many
homoerotic fantasies – the ever ready and responsive
masculine ‘real’ man. The guards and other men
willing to sell sex do not appear to have been overly
worried about prostitution. Shortage of money and
widespread undertaking of sex work by soldiers gave
‘permission’ for men to make extra money without
becoming stigmatised within his own peer group.
From the punters point of view, these working class
men were the rough trade, that had more than a
attractive whiff of raw danger that as Oscar Wilde
said was like ‘feeding with panthers’.
Ackerley, (Weeks, 1989:203) a gay man writing of his
early sexual experiences, yearned for
‘the Ideal friend…..should have been an animal man.
the perfect human male body always at one’s service
through the devotion of a faithful and uncritical
The notion of the prostitute as ‘rough trade,
heterosexual (but who was making an exception) fit
manual worker remains of course at the heart of the
gay imagination. However, from the sex workers
perspective like the guards, the social class taboos
do not create a problem around prostitution per se,
but rather how it is done, the performativity of the
straight-man-as-prostitute or gay for pay. In other
words the sex worker:
 must make it apparent that the sex is only a
commercial transaction,
 it must be limited in terms of activities i.e. the
punter will not bugger the boy although the boy
might bugger the punter for more cash.
 there must be emotional neutrality in order to
retain the performance of the encounter.
These three elements require a particular set of
scripts, and the performativity of the roles signifies
the power relations that define commercial sex.
Historically, as Weeks points out, prostitution
flourished among guardsmen and other working
class boys precisely because the ideology operating
for them and the punter, acted to sustain the men’s
existing self-images as heterosexual trade, real men
who did it for money. Even 100 years later, sale sex
workers appear to generate anxiety and discomfort
among the social elite.
Any analysis of the history and practice of men in
prostitution must focus on power. In male sex work
this might be less obvious than with female
prostitution because of the structures and systems of
social control. However, power is a key to this story.
Clearly, in relation to female sex workers, men have
been the chief architects of the erotic, have controlled
and policed the work, celebrated and condemned it.
Men have been the punters – and pimps, but in either
role have been the one to exert power.
Williams (Bryn Mawr Review 1998, 10/16) suggested
that both Greek and Roman sexual ideologies shared
a marked tendency to represent sexual practices in
terms of the oppositions between active and passive,
dominant and subordinate, penetrating and
penetrated. This was, (and remains) a critical
element in the conduct of sexual action between men
especially in cultures where notions of masculinity
are based in the explicit maintenance of power. As I
have already suggested, the history of same sex
prostitution has generally been represented as
intergenerational, older man seduces boy or youth,
because the youth may in some way ‘substitute’ for
women both in physical and emotional terms, but
also because of the inequality in power relations that
are retained.
Purkiss (
Greece.htm) has summarised the conditions that
maintained notions of masculinity in classical
Greece. Proof of masculinity sometimes comes with
sex when a man sexually dominates a boy or a
woman he establishes his manhood. Men must have
relationships where they dominate their partner
sexually. Men actually define their own maleness by
distancing themselves from acts and behavior
associated with femininity. In Greek culture, that
meant avoiding being dominated by other men. When
he is a boy, it is socially acceptable for him to be
dominated by another man. But if a young man is
known to be dominated by another man, he is called
a derisive term: Kinaidos.
In late 19th and 20th century society, many of these
gendered notions prevailed and thereby a social
problem related to this emerging new male
(homosexual) species was how to behave in public.
The notion that a homosexual lifestyle necessarily
involved elements of cross-gender dressing, of
effeminacy, persisted well into the 20th century
(Weeks 1989:110). Camp behaviour and language was
important for homosexual culture in that it provided a
means of signalling to other potential gays but also
became the way in which gay culture was conveyed
publicly in film and other media. It was in some ways
the emergence of the hyper masculinised gay
iconography of the 1970’s onwards that was far more
challenging socially as it both appropriated and
subverted the attributes of the heterosexual male.
Foucault argued that genuine forms of sexual
freedom of the body involved ‘unforeseen’, casual
sexual relationships in public places. Clearly one
such relationship is in same sex prostitution. When
talking of contemporary gay culture Foucault
remarked that what most bothers those who are not
gay, about gayness, is the gay lifestyle, not sex acts
themselves’ (1989:228). In other words gay culture
and identity is a threat to the dominant order.
Historically, as I have already indicated the notion of
‘being gay’ as a social identity did not really develop
until the late 19th century. However, since ancient
times, some homosexual acts, such as anal or even
oral sex could have been severely punished. In
England, since 1533 the death penalty at least
nominally could be applied to men found guilty of
sodomy until 1861, as an ‘act against nature. In reality
it was hard to police and few executions were carried
out. The act of sodomy or buggery did not itself mean
the person was a particular sexual ‘type’ but by the
late 19th century this changed so that ‘sodomy ceased
to be a temporary aberration of bestiality, but the
homosexual belonged to a ‘species’. In fact a species
that was morally ‘flawed’, treacherous and
untrustworthy as they could be so easily seduce and
be seduced.
Homosexuality, when linked to prostitution was
constructed as more than sexual acts but also
represent(ed) a moral threat and potential weakness
of character. Homosexual behaviour and identity was
linked to the threat to the State such as equating
homosexuality with communism (USA 1940’s/50’s)
and the Cambridge spy scandals in the UK in the
1950’s and 60’s (Burgess, Maclean, Blunt & Philby).
Similarly, the diaries of the Irish patriot and
nationalist Sir Roger Casement were full of
references to his encounters with many young men.
Written in Africa and South America, away from the
restrictions of British society, Sir Roger could freely
indulge his attractions for young men of colour, who
he usually paid for sex. In a separate cash ledger, the
thrifty Casement noted how much money he spent
for each youth’s services. Excerpts from these were
circulated at the time of trial to discourage appeals
for clemency so abhorrent was homosexuality in the
British Empire that such degeneracy could be
naturally linked with treason.
This emerged at a time of great medical, moral and
legal concern with defining and controlling this new
species when notions of homosexuality moved from
sinful acts to sick persons. The Labouchere
Amendment in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of
1885 had created a new misdemeanour of ‘gross
indecency’ that could result in punishment of 2 years
hard labour. It was this act that Oscar Wilde
contravened. His trial made the concept of ‘the
homosexual’ familiar to a public who had not heard
of the term but also made them aware of a gay
lifestyle that existed in which all social classes
participated and within which prostitution was
common. Earlier, in 1871 the public had been to some
extent alerted to the fact that there existed albeit in
undeveloped form, a lifestyle where transvestism
had become a way of life. Boulton and Park were two
transvestites who were arrested and charged
primarily because they were cross-dressing
deliberately to attract unsuspecting straight men for
paid sex.
Homosexual prostitution that had always been
constructed as moral issue that required regulation
and policing, became much more vigorously
surveilled, particularly after the 1898 Vagrancy Act,
which tightened up the law relating to ‘importuning
for immoral purposes’. To some extent knowledge
about male sex work was informally regulated by
taboo - the stigmatising consequences of being
discovered led to a lucrative industry in blackmail or
the fear of blackmail. While in some places male sex
workers were relatively untroubled by policing, there
are many subtle and less than subtle means whereby
male same sex relations including prostitution has
been and remains extensively controlled. It is clear
that one way this is being addressed is through the
transformation of prostitution from a moral and
criminalised issue to one that has been legalised
but, as in the Dutch model, controlled through
bureaucratic and financial forms of governmentality.
Paradoxically, resistance to the real attempts to
suppress gay culture and prostitution in most parts
of Europe seems to have acted to transform ways in
which subcultures managed to thrive. Instead of a
sexual identity based on a sinful but unavoidable
male lust to be satisfied with either woman or man,
the world included men who identified themselves as
exclusively attracted to their own sex. The historical
contrasts and continuities may be illustrated using
Healey’s description of the emergent Russian gay
culture. Clearly, this narrative is located at a
particular time in Imperial Russia, but also has much
wider modern resonance. He describes how men like
Prince Iusupov, indulged themselves with both men
and women, and still others, perhaps from poverty,
confined the homosexual element of their lives to a
subculture of the streets (for example, the tramps
and soldiers Pavel picked up, or the men he cruised
in public toilets). Yet a new group of ‘our people’ also
appeared in Pavel’s account, and they had ways of
recognizing each other on the boulevard (argot,
gesture and dress were among the signs they used,
to judge from criminological comments about male
prostitutes). Moreover, they congregated in
notorious public locations to socialise and have sex.
New commercialised spaces for the subculture (balls
organized by ‘their own kind,’ a beer-hall with music
and dancing) reflected the growing intrusion of the
market even into highly specialised leisure activities.
In other words the opportunities of homosexual
encounters were becoming commercialised and
transformed into a codified ‘gay’ enterprise.
Inevitably, despite these changes, as in Medved’ev’s
time, same-sex relations continued to reflect social
hierarchies, and the cash-for-sex exchange remained
a prominent part of everyday life for both the affluent
and the indigent.
Here we come back to Flesh, and sex work as
economic transaction. The body of the prostitute is
available for rent – a living screen on which the
fantasies of the punter may be projected, but may
also be feared as the locus of disease, a body that
often possesses the chimera of erotic arousal whilst
locating the punter in a dangerous and stigmatising
encounter. The emergence of commercialisation of
gay spaces, also includes of course the sex industry.
Homosexualities, and prostitution, appear deeply
subversive, transgressive when seen against the
increasingly ‘exclusive’ notions of heterosexuality
developed since the 19th century, the rationalities of
the family as fixed and permanent and where gender
roles are completely enmeshed in rigid sexual
categories. Power, exploitation and inequalities
remain an issue within prostitution. Whilst male sex
workers might seem more autonomous than many
female counterparts, economic drivers, together with
the demonising of migrant populations in Europe and
elsewhere, combine to reinforce social inequalities
and forms of oppression. Traditional forms of
regulation and control remain politically attractive
but are no longer sufficiently robust nor morally
sustainable on the grounds of equal rights. However,
regulation was always going to change not least
because capitalist systems have developed that
celebrate the individual as consumer and sex as
commodity despite a resurgence of the neoconservative
Right and faith-based fundamentalism.
In conclusion, it is fair to claim that the
contemporary gay and sex work scene demonstrates
a triumph of modern capitalism, As a highly
successful example of a McDonaldised economic
system, male sex work is now much more visible,
codified and recognised as a lucrative industry that
uses modern communications (such as the Internet
and mobile phones) very effectively. Yet, the
postmodern story of male sex work is in some ways
just as ‘hidden’ as ever. Whilst 19th and 20th society
was exercised with the containment of prostitution
as a moral issue, capitalist society has reinvented
the control of the sex trade to a globalised economic
system. The new moral order increasingly provided
for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in most
societies during the late 20th century, and with it the
apparent reduction in the intensity of the medico-
legal surveillance and oppression. However, in
legalising (or decriminalising) some sexual
behaviour, the medico-legal gaze was to be
increasingly supplemented with financial restraints
that derive from global concerns about wider
deviances such as economic migration, asylum
seeking and epidemiological threats. In other words,
legalising prostitution sabotages the moral
constraints but replaces it with an economic
governmentality control. Turning erotic paid
encounters into commercial taxable, business
transactions is a much more powerful, cheaper or
potentially rewarding means of policing the
boundaries of ‘deviance’. Inequalities in power are
still all too real, where for instance sex workers may
be coerced into unsafe sex. The history of the present
remains for many sex workers is still defined by
exploitation, fear of repressive moral, religious,
judicial and medico-legal systems. The truth of their
experience remains hidden.

Foucault, M. (1978) The History of Sexuality, Vol 1, London: Penguin
Greenberg, D.F. (1988) The Construction of Homosexuality, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Healey, D. Queer Sites - Moscow 1861-1917: The Appearance of a Homosexual Subculture
Minichiello, V. (2000) Commercial Sex Between Men: A Prospective Diary-Based Study, Journal of Sex Research,
Tannahill, R. (1992) Sex in History, U.S.: Scarborough House Press
Reed, L. (1972) ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, from Transformer, RCA Corporation
Norton, R. "The Vere Street Coterie", Queer Culture. Updated 21 Dec. 1999
Purkiss, N. (2003) ‘Homosexuality in Ancient Greece’
Weeks, J. (1989) Sex, Politics & Society: The Regulation of Sex since 1900 (2nd ed), London: Longman.
Weeks, J (1991) ‘Inverts, Perverts and Mary-Annes: male Prostitution and the Regulation of Homosexuality in England in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’, in Duberman,
Vicincus and Chauncey (eds) Hidden from History, London: Penguin.
Williams, C.A. (1998) Book Review of Judith P. Hallett, Marilyn B. Skinner, Roman Sexualities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997 Bryn Mawr Classical Review Vol 10. 16
(Due to copy rights, it is unfortunately not allowed to publish the different slides)
  • Post a new comment


    Comments allowed for members only

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded