Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945

Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945

Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945

Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945

Synopsis

The intense urbanization and industrialization of America's largest city from the turn of the twentieth century to World War II was accompanied by profound shifts in sexual morality, sexual practices, and gender roles. Comparing prostitution and courtship with a new working-class practice of heterosexual barter called "treating," Elizabeth Clement examines changes in sexual morality and sexual and economic practices.

Women "treated" when they exchanged sexual favors for dinner and an evening's entertainment or, more tangibly, for stockings, shoes, and other material goods. These "charity girls" created for themselves a moral space between prostitution and courtship that preserved both sexual barter and respectability. Although treating, as a clearly articulated language and identity, began to disappear after the 1920s and 1930s, Clement argues that it still had significant, lasting effects on modern sexual norms. She demonstrates how treating shaped courtship and dating practices, the prevalence and meaning of premarital sex, and America's developing commercial sex industry. Even further, her study illuminates the ways in which sexuality and morality interact and contribute to our understanding of the broader social categories of race, gender, and class.

Excerpt

Charles Briggs worked as an undercover investigator for New York’s preeminent private vice society, the Committee of Fourteen, and filed a written report in the spring of 1913 that described the women frequenting a popular working-class club. Classifying them into four distinct “moral” categories, he identified the largest group as “store employees, telephone girls, stenographers, etc.” These women’s “morals are loose and there is no question that they are on terms of sexual intimacy with their male companions,” he commented with distaste. Another group consisted of what he called ‘“near whores’ or ‘whores in the making.’” He also found “kept women” and “professional prostitutes,” though he admitted that ‘“the latter do not ply their trade in this rear room.” However, they presented a serious danger to the other girls, because ‘“from their example and conversation, the ‘near whores’… gain further impetus in their downward spiral.” Although other observers at the time might have lumped all of these together as “immoral” women, a term the white middle class equated with prostitution, Briggs carefully acknowledged a new spectrum of women’s sexual activities and identities. The emergence of these categories, which contemporary historians might be more likely to refer to as “courting couples,” “charity girls” (also known as ‘“treating girls”), “mistresses,” and “professional prostitutes,” marks the profound shift in sexual norms that was occurring in New York and other American cities in the late nineteenth century. As workingclass youth moved away from supervised courtships and into commercial amusements, premarital intercourse rates rose dramatically. At the same time, a new kind of sexual actor stepped onto the stage, the charity girl. Charity girls engaged in ‘“treating,” exchanging sexual activities (sometimes including sexual intercourse) for entertainment expenses like theater tickets, dance hall admissions, and late-night dinners at the automat. ‘“Kept” women formed more long-term relationships of sexual exchange, while professional prostitutes demanded cash for their services. As Briggs’s report makes clear, all of these women overlapped in new and frightening ways in the exciting world of New York’s commercial amusements. This book ex-

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