Queer Cures: Commercial Sex Therapies in 19th-Century New York

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 8:30 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1A (Colorado Convention Center)
April Haynes, University of Wisconsin–Madison
This paper recovers a queer moment in the history of sexuality: the creation of a masculine urban market in sex therapies between 1845 and 1860. Historians have produced rich, important studies of the brothel culture of antebellum New York. Brothels staffed primarily by women who sold the illusion of romance, as well as sex, to middle-class white men thrived on the discretion of patrons, neighbors, and city authorities. New York’s 1845 Police Reform Act stripped away those tacit protections. The newly established police forced the closure of many urban brothels, changing the context and gender dynamics of sex work. At the same time, a new set of entrepreneurs—male sex therapists—carved out a protected niche within the urban sexual marketplace by promising to heal “secret diseases” and restore “the vigor and tone of the genital organs” with perfect discretion. Ensconced in private “Medical Houses” (often their own homes) they cleansed, shampooed, massaged, injected, magnetized, and galvanized the genitals of an overwhelmingly male clientele. These unlicensed practitioners never denied the sexual aspects of their trade: they were long-term participants in underground sexual economies who manipulated emerging medical discourses on masturbation and seminal loss for profit. The Medical House served the same spatial purposes of the brothel: it kept sex workers safe by reducing their visibility and it enticed consumers with scenery that supported the requisite fiction. Whereas the old demimonde had cast sex workers as lovers and mistresses, midcentury sexual healers traded instead on clients’ fear that they had destroyed their health through masturbation combined with their queer desires for new forms of manual stimulation. The proposed paper looks beyond the acts-versus-identities framework to find a queer economy after the golden age of the straight brothel and before the emergence of professional sexology.
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