Jonathan Coleman University of Kentucky,
ABSTRACT OF DISSERTATION RENT: SAME-SEX PROSTITUTION IN MODERN BRITAIN, 1885-1957 Rent: Same-Sex Prostitution in Modern Britain, 1885-1957 chronicles the concept of “rent boys” and the men who purchased their services. This dissertation demonstrates how queer identity in Britain, until contemporary times, was largely regulated by class, in which middle-and-upper-class queer men often perceived of working-class bodies as fetishized consumer goods. The “rent boy” was an upper-class queer fantasy, and workingclass men sometimes used this fantasy for their own agenda while others intentionally dismantled the “rent boy” trope, refusing to submit to upper-class expectations. This work also explains how the “rent boy” fantasy was eventually relegated to the periphery of queer life during the mid-century movement for decriminalization. The movement was controlled by queer elites who ostracized economic-based and public forms of sex and emphasized the bourgeois sexual mores of their heterosexual counterparts. Sex between adult men in private was decriminalized, but working-class men selling sex suffered harsher laws and more strictly enforced penalties under this new, ostensibly “progressive” legislation.
The Problems and Possibilities of Same-Sex Prostitution
In 2006, the now-defunct News of the World published a shocking article, accusing a Liberal-Democrat MP of soliciting “rent boys.” Mark Oaten, an aspiring party leader, admitted to his affair with a twenty-three-year-old sex worker and promptly stepped down as the home affairs spokesman of his party.1 The usual media circus ensued. Oaten was denounced as the hypocritical family man and a disgrace, while every aspect of his sexual life was combed over—including accusations of “three-in-a-bed” sex and coprophilia. Oaten resigned his seat, jumped a back fence to escape the press, and headed to Wales—the media reporting his every move. The Times christened him the “byword for scandal.”2 Oaten, without protest, embraced the moniker. He wrote an indepth account of the scandal’s wake for The Independent. 3 In a rather cheeky move, he reviewed the play, Life After Scandal, for The Guardian.4 And in 2009 he published a tell-all book. Mark Oaten, repeatedly, told his side of the story, wherein he mused on the fluidity of sexual orientation, his general fears of dying, and his “DNA-encoded” obsession with youth.
His partner, the sex worker, however, remained virtually silent. His only words were quoted in The News of the World, and they described Oaten: “a very troubled man living a very dangerous double life.”5 The young man may have wanted to remain silent in order to keep himself out of the scandal, but that would have been difficult to achieve if the press were interested in talking to him. The anonymous twenty-three-year-old was certainly talked about, but it seems he was never spoken to. If he was unwilling to tell his story, then apparently any sex worker could fill in the details. The Independent, for example, found an Irish escort, dubbed Erin Smith, to act as a representative. The first thing Smith asserted was his annoyance with the term “rent boy,” which he and his friends considered a “derogatory term” meant to describe “a ‘crack whore’ who charges £10 for a blow job.” Regardless, The Independent referred to Smith as a rent boy, and even titled the article “A Rent Boy’s Story.”6 Oaten, in his glut of media output, provided a lengthy description of his partner as “polite, friendly, businesslike and in total control.” He gave “no sense that [Oaten] was exploiting him.” Indeed, Oaten was the envious one, envious of the man’s good looks and youthfulness. But Oaten had “no real concept of the risk,” giving his phone number and going to the man’s flat in his “work clothes.” He therefore could not feel angry with the young man “for selling his story,” although it is unclear, and in hindsight doubtful, that the News of the World uncovered the scandal through the escort himself.
As Oaten wrote, “This was entirely my fault,” and, seemingly it was entirely Oaten’s story to tell.7 Oaten, as a prominent politician, occupied the center of the scandal, while the concept of prostitution—and those sex workers who practiced it— swirled in an abstract haze around him. Oaten’s sexuality was dissected, explored, and commented upon; his future political prospects were questioned and lamented. The twenty-three-year-old appeared only as a second-hand portrayal of a pretty young thing, willing, for the right price, to destroy a man’s life. The fall of a third-party MP in the midst of a rent boy scandal may sound thoroughly modern, but the exposure of this particular affair in 2006, with its heady mix of power and sexual excess, is part of a much longer trend. Same-sex prostitution often provided men with a discreet avenue to queer sex that, if revealed, exacerbated whatever social opprobrium was held toward the sex acts alone. More importantly, same-sex prostitution was dependent upon tropes, that of the “rent boy” in particular—a stock character whose personal identity was consumed by his profession. Although a trope, the rent boy was a particularly malleable one, riddled with contrasts. Like Oaten’s partner, he was enviable and dangerous, “totally in control” yet “exploited.” The rent boy was talked about, but rarely ever allowed to speak. It is this phenomenon of same-sex prostitution and the figure of the “rent boy” that is explored throughout this work.
The history of same-sex prostitution and the rent boy in modern Britain is a tumultuous one, yet extraordinarily revealing. In relating this tale, I am making two overarching arguments. First, the social construction of prostitution informed how queer men and British society at large understood queer sex. While men engaged in queer sex in various contexts, from fumbling boarding-school romps to life-long affairs, those acts exposed by the British press were conceptualized, almost always, as assumed instances of prostitution that followed an established narrative of exploitation and ruin. Recognizing the correlation between prostitution and queer sex in the public imagination explains legislation like the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 with its infamous Clause 11 that criminalized all sexual acts between men. It is the same association of queer sex and prostitution, with its connotations of anonymous, public, fleeting encounters, that was attacked by elite queer men in the 1950s, in an attempt to decriminalize same-sex acts. By disassociating the monogamous, private, love-based “homosexual” from the “perverts” having paid sex in dark streets, the Wolfenden Report of 1957 codified a distinction in which “homosexuals” were tolerated and “perverts” were further castigated.
Second, I argue that the rent boy represented a sexualized fantasy inscribed on the bodies of the men who practiced same-sex prostitution. The rent boy never existed, except in fantasy and imagination. In those fantasies he represented a narrow, specific type wherein unassailably masculine, working-class men, with broad and brawny bodies and unabashed sexual appetites, had sex with, maybe even loved (but not too fervently), queer men. They were independent, yet grateful and dutiful to their upper-class partners. But this figure, as is always the case with fantasy, was an impossible paradox. Literal examples of same-sex prostitution, recorded in court records and personal memoirs, quickly dismantled the imagined “rent boys.” Many men who sold sex enjoyed and sought after the encounters themselves and preferred male partners over female ones. Their masculinity was often assailable, performing passive, not just active, sex acts with regular frequency. Many of them lacked broad and brawny bodies, and were more like boys than strapping young men. Sometimes, as one queer man recorded, their feet smelled. Yet, despite the inability of the rent boy to be realized, the fantasy still displayed the desires of upper-class men, and the rent boy was not a fantasy created by sexuality alone. The rent boy was constructed by a unique juxtaposition of multiple signifiers such as class, nationhood, gender, economic exchange, and the established narrative of heterosexual prostitution—all of which informed the eroticism that surrounded him. These analytics transformed male bodies into rent boys as much as any sexual act did. Concepts like social class, gender, and nationality became embodied in the same-sex prostitute, creating a fluid, more complex form of queer identity and sexuality than that expressed by simple hetero/homo, masculine/feminine, or even class-based dichotomies. These arguments are fleshed-out in the following four chapters that survey same-sex prostitution between the years 1885 and 1957. 1885 witnessed the passing of the well-studied Criminal Law Amendment Act, which, while ostensibly about child prostitution, resulted in the criminalization of all sexual contact between men. Similarly, 1957 produced another government intermediation in British sexuality with the issuing of the Wolfenden Report. This departmental committee report eventually led to the decriminalization of most homosexual acts but also prompted a severe censuring of prostitution.
Chapters Two and Three demonstrate how the larger British public approached exposed queer acts as prostitution scandals, transferring the assumed dynamics of heterosexual prostitution to explain and understand the workings of sex between men. As explained in Chapter Three, these conversations carried immense weight, in which same-sex prostitution could be used as a reflection on the strengths and weaknesses, not only of individuals, but of whole nations. The dissertation takes a slight thematic turn in Chapter Four, away from public discourse to the more private and contained fantasy of the rent boy as crafted in the minds of queer men. Focusing on the inter-war period, what constituted the complexities of the rent boy fantasy are laid out, exposing the extraordinarily classed assumptions on which the rent boy fantasy was based. And, much to the frustration of many queer men, these assumptions proved false and were in some cases actively thwarted by the working-class men they encountered. Chapter 5 explains the way these class assumptions played against same-sex prostitutes in the mid-century fight for decriminalization. Returning to public discourse, the construction of the Wolfenden Report in 1957 represented the crystallization of the “homosexual” as a rigid sexual identity into which the same-sex prostitute did not fit. Instead, the rent boy and his literal counterpart, the same-sex prostitute, were ostracized to the periphery of sexual expression, deemed perverse and unfit for the respectability desired by “true” homosexuals.
The chapters, individually, give an episodic look into the concept of same-sex prostitution, mostly in London, during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. But as a whole, the dissertation charts the centrality of prostitution to the perceptions of queer sex in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—held by both the larger public and by many queer men themselves—and its eventual decline in the mid-twentieth century. Same-sex prostitution and its attendant rent boy fantasy reflected many larger social trends, influenced by attitudes on such themes as nationality, respectability, and, of course, sex. It particularly reflected changing attitudes of social class. Prostitution, both queer and heterosexual, was perceived as inherently inter-classed interactions, although they certainly did not always involve people of different classes. Yet how queer sex was supposed to work, in both desire and literal sex, was based on class difference, a meeting of the two engendered, as were most inter-classed meetings, by the act of economic exchange. But assumptions and perceptions change, and so did the centrality of same-sex prostitution in defining queerness. Congenital homosexuality came to dominate queer identity, bringing with it the nascent possibilities of decriminalization and social tolerance. Elite queers intentionally shed economic-based forms of sex from the “true homosexual” in order to obtain decriminalization and respectability. Sexual identities in turn became dichotomous and static, while the same-sex prostitute became, and in many ways remains, a perverse anomaly occupying the urban shadows.
To be continued