Elizabeth Alice Clement, Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostitution in New York City, 1900-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
While most definitely a book for the academic community, Clement’s exposition of the fine lines between courting, prostitution, and dating culture that emerges in the first half of the twentieth century is a subject that could definitely appeal to a much wider audience. With superb organization and narrative structure, Clement provides a convincing argument for the rise and fall of prostitution and the transformation of sexual norms in the United States, using New York City as a case study. For Clement, World Wars I and II were instrumental to shaping our modern conceptions and experiences of the dating world.
Building on the work of Kathy Peiss and other historians, Clement expands her exploration of NYC’s sex scene to delve deeper into the economic and social implications of prostitution and “treating,” a practice that emerged in the 1890s as a means for young, working class women to involve themselves in the expanding consumer and entertainment market. Clement argues that because working class women were paid less than working class men their age, and most of their earnings contributed to their families’ incomes, these “treating” or “charity” girls formulated acknowledged understandings with young men that the men would take young women out to dance halls, the theater, dinner, or other newly-emerging activities; pay for the night’s amusements; and the young women would repay with a wide variety of sexual acts ranging from kissing to actual intercourse. What distinguished these women from prostitutes, in both their own minds and that of the public, was that charity girls did not accept cash. Thus, through this distinction, they maintained a sense of social respectability while still having economic access to an explosion of “cheap amusements” (borrowed from the title of Kathy Peiss’s book) that emerged in this period.
Clement demonstrates that the U.S. Military Department’s attempts to curtail prostitution in both World Wars, as well as the exploding, legal industry in sex entertainment, led to a significant decrease in prostitution and rise in treating. During the span of WWI alone, 30,000 prostitutes were arrested and sentenced for longer jail times (up to years) in order for them to be treated for STDs such as syphilis and gonorrhea, the main culprits in damaging the productivity of American troops. Treating became more popular as an expression of patriotism in which young women boosted the morale of young soldiers being sent off to both wars. This expansion of treating among the working class, particularly after WWI, became subsumed into the language of “dating,” a new term that described couples going out in public with someone who was only a potential candidate for marriage. Treating also transitioned into the world of dating, as more young men and women began engaging in sexual activity prior not only to marriage, but engagement as well; Clement claims, based on surveys from the time, that by the start of WWII, 50% of American women were having premarital sex. Clement writes that through their observations of treating culture in dance halls, middle class men began to adopt the practice, and the concept of dating expanded into middle class relationships as well. In this period, Clement further argues, sexual power dynamics shifted in favor of young men; though the terminology of treating had faded, the expectations for women to repay their dates with sexual favors was still perpetuated for newer generations of young people.
For me, the narrative described above was the most enlightening and relevant for understanding dating culture and sexual norms today. However, she makes so many other fascinating points about the transformation of prostitution, as well as interplay of race and ethnicity. She describes the rise of pimping coinciding with organized crime, and the revival of brothels in connection with WWI and prohibition. As independent prostitutes were being jailed more and more frequently after WWI, they felt the need to seek protection from the police and legal repercussions. Another fascinating aspect of Clement’s study is her analysis that children of immigrants and African Americans were were likely to engage in treating or prostitution simply because their economic opportunities were much more limited that those of poor whites in the city. Increasingly concerned with “American” norms for courting outside of the home, many immigrants were concerned with their children marrying across ethnic and religious lines.
While there is so much more I would like to say about this book, I will simply just have to recommend it as a fascinating read with so much significance for our lives today, particularly as Americans navigate the dating world of assumptions and confusion. Why are men expected to pay at least for the first date or few? Clement provides important historical context for that question.