History – Rent Boys – UK 1885-1957 – Part 2


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Problems and Possibilities

Historians have long sensed that same-sex prostitution and queer identity were intertwined. In 1979, when the history of sexuality was still in its infancy, historian Jeffery Weeks wrote a short article that tentatively explored the relationship between “male prostitution” and the emergence of a homosexual identity in modern Britain.8 Admittedly, it is a work without many answers. He ruminates on how historians could theorize male prostitution and homosexuality. He hypothesizes on what specific social circumstances brought about the two. He questions if “homosexuals” and “male prostitutes” ever identified themselves by their sexuality at all. Throughout the entire argument, Weeks seems sure of only one thing: homosexuality and male prostitution are inseparable. They form a “close, indeed symbiotic, relationship.”9 The questions lie, not in the existence, but in the nature of the relationship. For Weeks, the entanglement of homosexuality and male prostitution is self-evident—a sexual axiom. It is clear that he assumes a forthcoming queer history of modern Britain in which the male prostitute will be an essential component.

However, the intervening thirty years of queer study did not follow his expectations. Few other works on same-sex prostitution have appeared, despite Weeks’s early recognition of its importance. That is not to say that historians ignore incidents of same-sex prostitution; indeed, almost all of the well-studied events of Britain’s queer history since 1800 involve the exchange of wealth for sexual access. But historians rarely examine these events as instances of economic exchange. Most often, they focus on the more identifiable (proto)homosexual—such as Oscar Wilde—leaving the “straight,” gay-for-pay characters on the proverbial sideline. Out of all this literature, only a handful of published works employ same-sex prostitution as a central point of analysis, two of which merit mentioning. The first, Matt Houlbrook’s “Soldier Heroes and Rent Boys,” examines the dual identity of the British soldier as a bastion of masculinity and as susceptible to the monetary/sexual advances of other men.

Houlbrook demonstrates how London’s Guardsmen came to represent two dissonant fantasies of nationalized masculinity and queer desire. He writes, “These fantasies were unstable and contradictory, existing in a constant tension through which one persistently threatened to disrupt the other.” According to Houlbrook, an established masculinity allowed the Guardsman to maneuver in the underworld of queer spaces relatively freely, taking advantage of his symbolic erotic allure. But by taking advantage of his widely perceived masculinity he simultaneously demonstrated its instability and that the symbol of British masculinity, for the right price, could “be had.”

The other article, “Who’s Afraid of John Saul?,” develops the idea that the “professional sodomite” appeared intermittently in discourses of desire in Victorian Britain—his appearance resulting in a great deal of anxiety.12 Morris Kaplan explains that John Saul, as a witness during the Cleveland Street Scandal and as the protagonist of a pornographic novel, embodied both the revulsion and titillating eroticism of queer sexuality and of same-sex prostitution in particular. Unlike the Guardsmen of Houlbrook’s article, John Saul was met with public ridicule and eventually dismissed from the stand as a discredited witness in the libel trial of newspaper editor Ernest Parke, who accused Lord Euston of patronizing an all-male brothel on Cleveland Street. Saul openly admitted to being a “professional sodomite,” scandalizing the courtroom with detailed descriptions of his sexual encounters with Lord Euston. Although the courts listened to his testimony, Justice Hawkins struck Saul’s statement, and Parke spent a year in prison for unjustifiable libel. Yet, despite the public disgust and rejection, within months Saul’s life became the basis of an explicit—and successful—pornographic novel in which he was portrayed as a queer equivalent of Don Juan.

The paucity of same-sex prostitution in British historiography is intriguing, especially when one considers the vast amount of work already published on the history of British sexuality. Even the study of homosexuality is relatively rich, with numerous monographs covering the topic throughout the entire span of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perhaps the lapse of studies on same-sex prostitution is simply a matter of scholarly focus, where writers had other questions in mind. But same-sex prostitution is also a terribly difficult concept on which to write, and it requires that a substantial theoretical framework be in place.

The study of same-sex prostitution poses several problems for the historian. First, sources are difficult to find and difficult to interpret. As the UK’s National Archives warns in its research guide, “gay and lesbian history is still a time consuming and difficult task, presenting considerable problems for anyone working in the field.” Traditional sources, like police records, news reports, and personal correspondence, were often created in moments of exposure and scandal, when participants were under duress. Even personal memoirs, photographs, and letters of individuals who avoided detection were created in a time when same-sex acts, for money or not, were illegal. Perhaps the greatest disadvantage is that very little material from men who could be considered samesex prostitutes has survived. Sources that do quote the actual words of same-sex prostitutes were usually drafted under compulsion, resulting from interrogation by investigators or prosecuting attorneys.

The inequality of sources is more clearly demonstrated by female same-sex prostitution. Although I had hoped to find some instances when I began my research, the material simply was not there. That is not to say that sex between females, engendered by some form of economic exchange, did not occur. But it apparently occurred in spaces less public than those acts between men, leaving nothing with which historians could work. That being the case, this current work deals solely with sex between men.

Secondly, while sources must be collected and considered carefully, how one interprets those sources is particularly problematic. One hurdle is terminology. Those who were selling sex, consuming sex, and those observing and commenting, are difficult to mark with a set taxonomy. To clarify distinctions, I have primarily used the phrase “same-sex prostitution” to describe the phenomenon of sex performed between men for financial compensation. To describe the literal men who performed same-sex acts for compensation, I have used the term “same-sex prostitute.” The use of “same-sex” removes the identity politics attached to “homosexual” and focuses on these sexual transactions as being between people of the same bodily sex and not between people of a socially-constructed sexual orientation. As John Howard argues in Men Like That, by refraining from “homosexual” we avoid making assumptions about the conceptualization and organization of sexuality (a point I am trying to complicate) during a period in which a homosexual identity would not have existed in the same way it does today.

While I find the phrase same-sex prostitution preferable, I do not find it perfect. Like “homosexual,” “prostitution” may not accurately reflect the dynamics of the relationships that appear in this work. Prostitution conjures up images of fleeting, anonymous encounters and simple monetary exchange. While those types of encounters certainly occurred and are discussed, many of the relationships in this dissertation were much more complicated. Some lasted for years; some were dependent on less-explicit forms of wealth, such as prestige, education, and better employment. “Prostitute” is also a problematic term as it was a descriptor only sporadically applied to men. Like “homosexual,” “prostitute” ascribes an identity that many of these men would have rejected or avoided entirely.

The other recurring designation in this text is “rent boy.” When I use the term “rent boy,” I am describing the fantasized figure of the man who sells sex. While “same sex prostitute” is used to denote the literal men participating in the acts, the rent boy denotes the desires, dreams, and perceptions inscribed upon the bodies of “same-sex prostitutes.” Throughout this dissertation, I have been careful to use both terms judiciously to distinguish between the man who did sell sex and the type of man who was believed to sell sex.

I chose the term “rent boy” for several reasons. First, it has some history of usage throughout the time period covered in this work. In the Oscar Wilde case in the 1890s, bystanders referred to the men with whom Wilde had paid sex as “renters.”14 However, it is unclear if the term decidedly meant someone who was paid for sex. A “renter” could also describe a blackmailer, and this duality regularly appeared in conversations around same-sex prostitution. By the interwar period, the term rent boy appears frequently, but it is not ubiquitous. The terms used to describe “normal” men who had queer sex for some form of remuneration were varied. “Trade,” with its clear class connotations was commonly used and was sometimes combined with the adjective “rough” to denote a man known for beating and/or robbing his partners. Trade by the 1930s, however, could simply mean sex of any kind. The phrase “dilly boy” appears, referencing Piccadilly Circus, a public space where men would often solicit. But a dilly boy may sometimes be a “quean,” an effeminate queer man who was solicited by “normal” men for sex. Queer men also employed “Jolly Jack Tar,” a well-known term for a sailor, and its use by queer men to name men-selling-sex emphasizes the role sailors and soldiers played in same-sex prostitution.

Though I had an array of choices, I ultimately chose a singular term out of necessity. To make the work coherent, I needed a phrase to describe the phenomenon of the fantasized man who sold sex. “Rent boy” does that especially well. Its dissonance with reality—the men were rarely ever “boys” and rarely ever “renters”—speaks to the malleability, the fantasy, of the figure. The lack of a singular, universal term used by queer men to describe these men they assumed existed highlights the inherent fluidity of the erotic fantasy itself. The figure I am calling the “rent boy” was a socially constructed identity created in a specific time and milieu. As a socially constructed identity, the rent boy shares a history with the “prostitute.” According to historian Judith Walkowitz, the prostitute developed into a rigid, classifiable social type as the nineteenth century progressed.16 The woman who exchanged sex for money became “incorporated” with her sex acts, acquiring “an exclusive and distinct sexual identity.” The emergence of a prostitute “species” resulted from “the increased official concern over prostitution as a dangerous form of sexual activity, a form whose boundaries had to be controlled and defined.”18 These fears were most explicit in the Contagious Diseases (CD) Acts of the 1860s, which attempted to regulate venereal disease with intrusive, state-sanctioned exams and the incarceration of infected female prostitutes. With the resulting repeal movement, the CD Acts amply revealed the classed and gendered assumptions Victorians held toward prostitution.

Along with increased regulation, stunning exposés, such as W.T. Stead’s The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, ascribed to the prostitute a common narrative characterized by working-class deprivation and victimization by upper-class consumers. This repeated narrative, coupled with increased regulation, resulted in substantial changes to the sex trade. Prostitution could no longer be an occasional source of supplemental income available to many working-class women. Casual prostitution became less attractive as its consequences became more severe with the now permanent label of “prostitute.” As the identity of prostitute rigidified, working-class communities were less likely to accept women who participated in the sex trade, even if they did so only periodically. Prostitution was transformed into a full-time occupation and a full-time identity, with prostitutes becoming a distinct, ostracized group in Victorian society. It was within this moment of substantial change that the rent boy himself appeared.

While the social construction of prostitution is crucial to the understanding of same-sex prostitution and the “rent boy,” acknowledging it is not enough to fully understand the complexities of this particularly queer phenomenon. More was at work than simply the story of prostitution with the female character replaced by a man. London’s same-sex prostitutes uniquely complicated sexual understandings because they occupied two stigmatized identities—prostitute and queer—but yet they were, in many respects, neither. Much of the sexual value attributed to same-sex prostitutes originated from the belief that they were removed from both prostitutes and queers, creating an ambiguous identity—the rent boy—that allowed for fantasy, exploitation, and malleability. In simple terms, it was the lack of a distinct sexual identity that allowed rent boys to have sex with men for money yet remain distant from queers and prostitutes.

In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick explores the dichotomous nature of the heterosexual/homosexual divide, arguing that it developed over time and under specific social circumstances. This dichotomy, in which sexual orientation is based on the bodily sex of one’s partner, is not the only possible sexual orientation. But it is this orientation that comes to dominate the others and becomes reified in our current understanding of sexuality. The “rent boy,” I argue, represented a contestation to this then burgeoning dichotomy of sexual orientation based upon the bodily sex of one’s partner.

Same-sex prostitution aptly reveals that a more complicated sexual paradigm was at play. Matt Houlbrook offers a description of this “other” sexual orientation in his book Queer London, stating that there is a “massive distance” between what constituted sexual normality and queerness in early twentieth-century London and what constitutes the samec onditions today. Houlbrook argues that modern queerness “articulates a difference predicated solely on men’s exclusive sexual and emotional attraction to other men.” This specific “form of selfhood and cultural practice,” created within a bourgeois understanding of sexuality and masculinity, would eventually come to dominate all other forms of sexual understanding. These middle-class assertions emphasized privacy, monogamy, and gender normativity in the creation of the “respectable” homosexual.21 It was this bourgeois idea of the homosexual that would become codified in the Wolfenden Report of 1957.

Yet the domination of a distinct heterosexual/homosexual dichotomy was not secured until, at least, mid-century and even later for those outside of the middle class. According to Houlbrook, for the working-class male, sex with both men and women was an acceptable, even commendable, outlet so long as the expected gender performance (or its appearance) was maintained. If working-class men remained assertive and dominant with their partners, no matter their partner’s sex, then the “normality” of the working class man was intact.

As Houlbrook points out, working-class homosex encounters could involve friends, but often they were inter-class affairs that were frequently, but not always, dependent on financial exchange. Once again, working-class men could engage in samesex prostitution, even lining their pockets without reproach, as long as they remained within prescribed gender roles. On the other hand, middle-class men (the “true” queers) were automatically feminized by their sexual desires and, to an extent, by their social class. But it was not as simple as Houlbrook claims. Gender roles were difficult to maintain when the specters of dependence and need were made explicit by the exchange of wealth. Same-sex prostitution could allow working-class men to retain a sense of masculinity and “normality” (in fact, I believe this fantasy gave the same-sex prostitute much of his desirability), but patronage insinuated a form of gender disruption that had to be, in some way, corrected.

It is, therefore, more fruitful to think of same-sex prostitution neither as a gendered system nor a sexual orientation, but as a system determined by its inherent inter-classed nature. Historians such as Jose Harris and Gareth Stedman Jones argue that class became a more distinct line as the nineteenth century progressed, and the workings of same-sex prostitution reflected this trend. Class differences, which were strongly gendered and sexualized, sustained while they simultaneously problematized erotic interclass relationships. Gender and class became embodied in the same-sex prostitute, along with his affiliation with nationality, race, money, and labor, creating a much more complicated basis of sexual desire than a simple hetero/homo or masculine/feminine dichotomy. The same-sex prostitute and his consumer were codependent entities who practiced a sexuality eventually subsumed within the heterosexual/homosexual divide.


It is the messiness, the inability to be categorized in a way that seems coherent to contemporary understandings of sexuality, that makes the study of same-sex prostitution and the rent boy fantasy intellectually rich. The study of gay and lesbian history, or even queer history, tends to be genealogical—an attempt to discover traces of contemporary  sexual identities. But as Laura Doan argues, the “retrieval” of a gay, lesbian, or queer past “elides the variations, deviations, and complications of actual lives of individuals who resist that fixity or who were unaccustomed to sexual self-reflexivity.” Doan’s recent work makes an intervention in my own study. Same-sex prostitution, which consisted of literal transactions as well as fantasy, was its own form of personal sexual practice, but one that still resists categorization as a sexual orientation. Subjects, especially “rent boys,” were organized by their social class, gender performance, and even their sexual availability, but these never coalesced as a particularly sexual identity. It is difficult to find evidence of men who sold sex identifying themselves by the practice. However, as I argue in Chapter Four, men of higher social classes did inscribe a sexual identity on men selling sex. This act of nomenclature, in which men selling sex were turned into a trope, reflected larger tendencies in sexual categorization specific to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As middle-and-upper-class queer men became more associated with their sexual acts and desires, forming the identity of “homosexual,” men selling sex were more clearly designated as well, but by others. However, the rent boy identity—of the “normal” man selling queer sex—was an uneasy fit when homosexuality was concerned primarily with bodily sex as its central designator.

Same-sex prostitution and the rent boy found no place in the newly-constructed, narrow boxes of modern sexuality. It is an example of what Laura Doan calls “queer messiness.” This version of same-sex prostitution, and its resident practitioner the “rent boy,” problematizes gay and lesbian history, and even queer history, because it disrupts the “search for similarity or continuity.” A practice that did not make it into modern concepts of sexuality is, therefore, inherently “open to plurality and strangeness,” an example of “discontinuity, alterity, and rupture.” As this dissertation attempts to demonstrate, queerness, and the possibilities of queer theory, extend beyond sex between men or between women. It can extend beyond sexuality, showcasing the importance of struggles with and dissonance toward any form of normality.

To be continued

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