Gigolos through the ages

New book chronicles the history of male prostitution in America.

Yeah, it's a coffee-table book about male prostitutes. While that alone might get a hearty guffaw, dismissing this book with a world-weary snort would mean missing out on some very compelling (if often frustrating) reading on a subject that few know anything about.

If you're like most straight folks (and a lot of gay folks), your knowledge of American hustler culture probably stops somewhere around your last viewing of Midnight Cowboy. But no matter what image your brain conjures when you think "male hooker," you're probably wrong.

It would have been easy for Mack Friedman to write a superficial, pandering book that sensationalized a subculture, but Strapped for Cash's author doesn't travel the easy path. Instead, he uses extensive research (hundreds of endnotes close the book), oral histories, and intense historical journalism to tell the history of male prostitution in America from 1600 to the present. The shock in the book comes not from prurient glimpses at kinks but from the ultimate historical lesson: Far from being a marginal (or pitiful) subculture, hustlers were with us long before the Founding Fathers and have reached a lot further into "straight" culture than many realize.

Friedman's exhaustive research gives him the authority to write a serious book but also leads to some of his study's biggest flaws. Billed as an "independent scholar," Friedman sometimes gets so bogged down in the language of academia and the minutiae of documentation that the heart of the book — its real-life tales — sometimes gets lost in the dense prose. Curiously, while the research is disciplined, Friedman occasionally breaks tone with editorializing rants and looping organization so jarring that they seem to come from another writer. But when he's in the groove (and he's there through most of the book), the book sings in a way that few such well-researched histories manage.

From tales of turn-of-the-century sailors who turned tricks to supplement their meager stipends to accounts of hustling as a means of escape for rural boys, Strapped for Cash triumphs in its humanization of an unspoken and poorly understood subject. Whenever possible, Friedman steps back and lets the boys and men speak for themselves through their writings and, even more compellingly, the oral histories he gathered during his research. The result is a book so far removed from today's behind-the-scenes, tell-all literature that it seems to come from another time. Instead of exploitation, we get insight that, however flawed in its execution, sets the record straight.

Sean Carton writes for City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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