Half–Hooking in the 21st Century: Blaming Women for the American Culture of Celebrity

New York magazine remains of the great unsung periodicals of the past twenty years. Less pretentious than The New Yorker, saucier than the New York Times, and snarkier than today’s Village Voice, much of its coverage from politics to culture provides sharp, clear, insightful analysis. So when the April 12, 2010 issue splashed the headline “The Half Hooker Economy” (and how Tiger Woods changed the game), some readers (yours truly) experienced some trepidation. Such reservations emerged not from the article’s sexual content or the reality of the situation, where nightclubs, lounges, and other socially exclusive sites have employed increasingly financially prohibitive practices such as bottle service.

Rather, writer Lisa Taddeo’s title seemed to fall into the usual tropes regarding female and male sexuality. For example, wouldn’t it be more accurate to claim “half johns” truly drive the late night economy? Taddeo’s “half hookers” currently drive the late night economy only in that they provide a “service” both imposed by the clubs and requested by the clientele. Moreover, though Taddeo historicizes these developments from the late 1980s onwards, she fails to situate her “half-hookers” historically. For many working class women in the first half of the twentieth century, due to gendered economic biases, part time prostitution served as a necessary means to independent economic survival.

To Taddeo’s credit, the article grants women a sense of agency while outlining the subtle lines of difference between categorizations in this world ranging from bottle girls to half hookers to prostitutes. One of the more interesting implications of this development remains this sort of nightclub sexual specialization; each role with its specific pay scale, obligations, and demographics.

Unfortunately, the New York magazine article ignores the troubled place social arenas like clubs and amusements have long held among the public. Moreover, it fails to account for broader sexual changes that have unfolded over the past thirty years, such that one might believe that preoccupations with women’s sexuality emerged as a new phenomenon. However, Taddeo also lays out a world in which it would seem industrial like specialization has taken hold, dividing workers into four nebulous occupations each with its own particular role, bottle girls, VIP hosts, promoters, and party girls, all in an effort to supply sex without formally acknowledging its latent prostitution.

Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America 1900-1918 (1982), Meyerwitz’s Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 (1988), and Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York (1986) explored women’s lives from the vantage point of their own agency. Though each author acknowledged the influence of gendered economic markets, which ultimately reduced women’s choices and ability to remain independent, Rosen, Peiss, and Meyerwitz all exhibited understandings that women served as actors not just unfortunate victims. Moreover, women’s agency in these periods created spaces for future women and men. In sum, these authors revealed the influence working women exerted in turn of the century America, helping to shape the nation’s future sexual mores.

The role of gender in urban life and its public spaces serves as a major issue for historians. Women’s relationship with cities often occurred within an unequal system that punished single working and working class women socially, economically, and politically. Christine Stansell’s City of Women: Sex and Class in New York City 1790 -1860 reveals the misogyny and hostility that urban working women endured. Economically, most unions refused to admit them and employers underpaid them. Sexually, women live in society in which many men still saw coerced sex as their prerogative. (Stansell, City of Women, 185) Reformers of the time often labeled working class spaces especially those exhibiting crowded housing, boisterous streets, and a visible public female presence as vice ridden or dysfunctional.

Attitudes toward women and public spaces changed very little by the early twentieth century. Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930 illustrates the unease that working women unassociated with family or husbands caused in early twentieth century Chicago. Popular culture and reformers “used the overt sexual behavior of some “women adrift” to spread a new stereotype of women as sexual objects.” (Meyerowitz, Women Adrift, xxi) Types of housing like furnished room districts and visible heterosocial interactions in neighborhoods occupied by single working women drew suspicion and allegations. Similarly, Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York argues that working class and working women helped to create a new heterosocial youth culture that middle and upper class counterparts later adopted. Commercialized leisure spaces such as dance halls and amusement parks played a key role in establishing new public spaces for single women. However, female sexuality remained a dominant area of concern. The increased heterosocial nature of “cheap amusements” worried reformers who often associated commercialized spaces of leisure with sexual activity.

The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America 1900 -1918 makes several important points but prominent among them the argument that the shift from homosocial leisure activity to a more heterosexual example caused anxiety and brought accusations of sexual corruption. Saloons, theatres, and dancehalls stood accused of facilitating prostitution. However, commercialized leisure accommodated numerous groups and classes. While prostitution existed, it did so alongside other social and sexual interactions, further complicating distinctions.

Fears about female sexuality abated in the 1920s and 30s, though certainly flappers and their popular culture presence unsettled many Americans. When World War II erupted, concerns regarding women’s sexuality once again emerged. Karen Anderson’s Wartime Women: Sex Roes, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (1981) and Marilyn E. Hegarty’s Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II (2008), both explore aspects of women’s wartime contributions along with wider perceptions of female sexuality in the context of war. Anderson’s groundbreaking work explored the changes wrought by women’s movement into employment during World War II. Fears over women’s sexuality accelerated thus, the regulation of women’s behavior became a central aspect of psychological and social welfare officials as they attempted to explain and control female sexuality. Postwar America then turned to these practices as precedents to employ.

Building on Anderson’s focus on women’s wartime role, Hegarty’s work reveals the implicit double standard regarding male and female sexuality during WWII in which men’s sexual desires were to be expressed rather than restrained. Moreover, she points out the women who contributed to the war effort by laboring in leisure or service industries received little support for their efforts but rather found themselves “under surveillance by law enforcement and social service personnel” who suggested that those who eventually turned to prostitution “started out this way.” (Hegarty, Victory Girls, 120) Further complications regarding female sexuality emerged in a public discourse that “obligated wartime women to be sexually alluring and enticing” for servicemen. Soldiers needed “motivation and morale”, wartime society expected women “to repay him for risking his life in her defense.” (Hegarty, Victory Girls, 114)

More recent works such as Elizabeth Alice Clement’s Love for Sale: Courting, Treating, and Prostituion in New York City 1900-1945 support this viewpoint. Clement notes that “the War Department … launched a propaganda campaign that, while [acknowledging] the sexual activities of non prostitutes, did so by expanding the category of ‘bad’ women.” (Clement, Love for Sale, 243) Thus, both prostitutes and “pick-ups” spread disease thereby aiding the enemies’ war efforts, by war’s end the military harnessed the prostitute as a scapegoat for venereal disease rates. By classifying “promiscuous women” as such, the military utilized prostitution as a tool to regulate broader female sexuality.

With the end of the war came the development of a new system of dating. Beth Bailey’s From the Front Porch to the Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America (1989) traces the shift from courtship to dating, focusing primarily on the latter which lasted from roughly 1940 – 1960. The initial shift to dating away from courtship moved what had been a private activity under the control of the women to a public ritual that bound dating up with the economic mindset of America. Dating became a rough economic exchange that due to gendered economic biases clearly favored men. The working class patrons of dance halls, amusement parks, and arcades in the twentieth century’s early decades, that Peiss, Meyerwitz, and Rosen so carefully investigated, helped to shape and give meaning to these new dating structures. Like Anderson, Bailey acknowledges women’s increasing role in the national economy and those of their families. If Anderson pointed to the war’s contribution to this development, Bailey similarly concludes that the economic benefits of female employment allowed middle class families to “enjoy the good life.” (Bailey, From the Front Porch to the Back Seat, 104) Even if antagonisms declined, both Anderson and Bailey acknowledge that due to this development the “crisis of masculinity” that had begun with economic and social changes at the turn of the century accelerated.

The rise of organizational men, with skills that had been in the past viewed as more feminine, and presence of women in the workforce bred fears that modern society sublimated masculinity. Women’s employment “robbed men” of their masculinity, while threatening to usurp their position as family provider. In part to order such changes, etiquette manuals and scientific theories developed to enforce performative gender roles. Rules of etiquette established the proper behaviors that protected a women’s virtue, which by mid-century had become of central value, while enforcing men’s masculinity. Such conventions did not necessarily determine behavior but enabled women and men to situate themselves accordingly, thus providing a reference point and structure for judging their own activities.

The “sexual revolution” of the 1960s upset these conventions. Birth control, legislation, and feminism combined to reshape norms. While the 1980s may have represented retrenchment in some ways, as the New Right and others attempted to impose cultural norms that privileged traditional domesticities, yet sexuality in the public sphere continued to proliferate. The more prurient aspects of reality TV, the expansion of the porn industry, sexting, and the internet, notably its social networks have had indelible affects on our national psyche. While women’s sexuality appeared to expand outward, as many enjoyed greater sexual freedom publicly and privately, its questionable how much this has served feminist interests, perhaps even contributing to the sex industry that orbits around “bottle service.”

Take for example, the controversial June 2006 Rolling Stone article “Sex and Scandal at Duke.” Rolling Stone contributor Janet Reitman explored the Duke “dating” scene or lack thereof in the wake of the Lacrosse scandal. What she found proved mystifying to even those of Generation X. Following around several female coeds, Reitman found a pervasive sense of insecurity combined with an equally nervous expression of feminist ideals. According to Reitman’s article, sorority girls and other hoping to move in the university’s highest social circles, attached themselves to athletes and frat guys, as one coed confesses to Reitman, “they are the only ones that matter really.” (Reitman, Rolling Stone, “Sex Scandal and Duke”) Another similarly minded Duke female undergraduate summarized, “Its a BMOC thing,” she related, “They have it all – you want to be part of that.” In fact, as the article points out, these girls, raised on Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, see strength in their sexuality not weakness. They see their ability to dominate or be sexually free as feminist even it still hinges on male desires. For example, “World War III” party, held annually by a Duke fraternity involves selecting the girls that members of that frat perceive as the hottest, then have them dress and behave provocatively toward rushes. As one coed named Anna described it, “It was like a huge dry orgy.” Anna also noted that she was flattered to participate “We were like, yes, we’re going to do this – because [the guys] choose,” says Anna, “They’re very selective …” Others concurred noting that an invitation signified who was the “hottest of the hot.” Reitman notes the perverse symmetry to this, yes, in one way the girl’s sexuality enables a form of dominance, but “on the other hand”, she writes, “it was all done at the direction of the boys, for whom the party was designed.”

Like Bailey’s dating structure, the emphasis on popularity emerges. Despite being some of the brightest students period, Donna Lisker, Director of the Duke University’s Women’s Center, notes that its that “men set the social rules” at Duke, not women/ “They throw the parties, they create the expectations, they created the standards,” Lisker pointed out, “and these women – these incredibly smart women – on some level, being accepted by their peers is so important that they put aside their values and standards. They dumb it down.”

Reitman’s journalism stands as only one example of the new dating structures that seem to influence perceptions and sexuality. The Clinton scandal remains a constant reference point. In this regard, both the New York magazine and Rolling Stone articles make President-intern sex references and explain the ubiquity of oral sex among the younger set. Moreover as the Aughts progressed, sex blogging by women and men proliferated. Even more traditional sources began exploring the younger generations sexual habits. If Bailey pointed out that by the 1920s sex became youth culture’s defining characteristic, “sex became [its] central public symbol … a fundamental part of the definition that separated youth from age,” (Bailey, Front Porch to Back Seat, 80) it would seem that this focus continues. Even Thomas Wolfe tackled the subject in 2004’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, in which Dupont University’s, ostensibly Duke, dating scene strongly resembles that of the 2006 Rolling Stone article. Jacob Weisman’s November 24, 2004 New York Times review of the work referred to its plot as a “comic book version of college” that focused too narrowly on fraternity and sorority social structures, “But the invisible worlds revealed in ”I Am Charlotte Simmons’ are pretty much confined to the frat party scene and the familiar scandal of N.C.A.A. basketball.” The same criticism could be leveled at Reitman’s piece. Still, clearly convention continues to, in many ways, dictate actions, but the confusing interpretations of what “feminism” is today, proves increasingly complex. In this cultural atmosphere does bottle service and “half-hooking” seem so simple?

With that said, aspects of the New York magazine article illustrate similar themes as those of twentieth century’s first two decades and a clear connection to more recent reflections on youth dating habits. First, it is and always has been about the money and popularity. For example, with the rise of bottle service staffing changed, “Cocktail waitresses evolved from out of work actresses into Penthouse Pet level creatures who sparred with their co-workers for client gratuities by expanding their breadth of service. Their take home pay skyrocketed fro $300 a night to $3000 banner shifts.” Additionally, like the part time entrepreneurs of Rosen and Meyerowitz, a certain grey area exists regarding their activities. First, while bottle girls have clients, who they are expected to flirt with, there is not a clear sexual obligation. However, they do supply “models” who ultimately do sleep with the bottle girl’s clients. The allure of fame or even a tangential relationship to it appears just as important to the party girls of New York nightclubs as with the sorority coeds of Duke, as Taddeo notes, “In most cases, there is an exchange, gifts or help for success – though with celebrities, what the girls receive is often just the privilege of being with a storied name.” Importantly, these women’s ability to remain hush hush about their hook-ups remains vital to future success, “To be a girl who is trusted, you need a track record of having slept with famous men and not talked about it. It’s an unwritten resume.” Once again the rules seem dictated by men.

Taddeo provides a useful case study with “Kim,” a 26 year old New York cocktail waitress. Kim summarizes her role succinctly,” You’re a bottle waitress, and that means you’re half a stripper and half a pimp,” she noted, “You’re making hooker money, right? So, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…” If not true sex work, Kim herself refers to it as “bottle hookering” even comparing her take home pay to a college aged escort she knows, “Her prices are $100 for a handy, $150 for a blowjob, $200 for doin’ it … Mine are $400 for a bottle of Grey Goose, $300 for Veuve, and $700 for Cristal.” Moreover she concedes that while she may not be technically selling sex, she offers “a form of social prostitution.” So in essence, Kim and others like her operate as middlewomen in the sexual process, serving as conduits for wealthy and famous men’s sexual proclivities. So where does the sex then come from? Party girls — models, actresses and young women –who enjoy spending time in hot clubs or with famous celebrities. Bottle girls and promoters often deliver these girls to the clubs. Their appraisal of these girls often amounts to very little as Taddeo quotes one industry insider who suggests promoters often text him messages like, “I’ll be rolling deep with about a dozen hookers.”

Kim and many girls like her don’t lack options. Like her Duke counterparts, she was educated at a “very good East coast university.” Kim summarized her decision simply: “I figured: I’m cute, I’m young, I can make a shitload of money, so” she says, holding up two middle fingers, “fuck it!” Many of the party girls are not very dissimilar. This fundamentally contrasts with Rosen, Meyerowitz, and Clement’s examples. Of course, the vast majority of commercial prostitution in America entraps those from lower income groups, the rise of middle and upper class markets can be clearly illustrated in what’s become the GFE or Girl Friend Experience. Now men increasingly want their escorts to provide girl friend like company. Such roles demand more than sexual skills in many cases. The imposition of middle class domesticities on prostitution suggests the continuing erasure of brightlined divisions of sexuality, clearly differentiating between prostitution and other less pejorative sexual acts.

Interestingly, the way party girls benefit illustrate several aspects of Piess and others. For example, the practice of treating, developed in the first decades of last century. Women often expressed a need for item, show, or activity, expecting their male companion to purchase said item/service/product and in return, receive some sort of sexual favor. This practice often unfolded in the arcades, amusement parks, and public theatres of the day, the nightclubs of the early twentieth century. Now compare this to today, as part-time promoter Richard Garcia explains:

Party girls are more like freelancers, and sex is their currency. The exchange happens like this. A girl will say to a guy she has not slept with yet, but perhaps they have kissed or she’s let him touch her, “I’m short on my rent” or “There’s this dress I really want.” After sleeping with him a few times, she might say, “I need a tan. I should go to Miami.” The beauty is in the subtle gaucheness. “There is no nightly prostitution for the half-hookers,” says Garcia. It’s a weekly thing, or a monthly thing. And when both sides have gotten what they want, they move on.

The intermittent nature of this sort of behavior mirrors similar efforts by working class women who engaged in “part time prostitution” to make ends meet. However, large differences remain, these girls often hail from middle and upper middle class backgrounds. Their intermittency may sometimes be about finances but more often rests less desperate motivations.

If financial necessity fails to be the only driving force in this equation, what are the other dynamics at play? The culture of TMZ, “The Hills,” and other mixes of reality TV and celebrity gawking have put forth new conventions. If Beth Bailey pointed to the etiquette manuals, youth media/culture and “social science” relationship experts as the basic foundations upon which conventions were established, today youth culture remains a vibrant part of such developments. However, the pervasiveness of media – from the aforementioned TMZ to Youtube – means conventions are splintering. However, this fragmentation is a tired argument at T of M. More importantly, these conventions continue to be negotiated by youth themselves, thought it remains unclear which youth. While their own manipulation of social networks et al help to determine the rules of the game, the undeniable culture of celebrity and wealth, as promoted by Laguna Beach, The Hills, The Kardashians, or even the university lacrosse team, pervades conceptions.