I’ve always had this burgeoning curiosity of the old Times Square, even before seeing (and enjoying) HBO’s The Deuce. Who were the people that worked these parlors? The sex shows? The hustles? Where did they go when they were done? What are the truths and the myths surrounding the deuce? And moreover, how did one of America’s major entertainment landmarks become a red light zone of sex?
Josh Friedman’s collection of story/essays covers almost all of this. I learned about the performers and the reluctance that drove them into their profession. The ones Friedman interviewed weren’t trafficked or underage. They were certainly exploited but they used said exploitation to their advantage, milking the male gaze for all the money they could get. They’re sales people putting their bodies for sale.
The owners of the clubs mostly come off as decent folk, even with their mob connections. There’s little talk of casting couches and back room bjs. They live in places like Queens and Westchester and descend with the rest of the crowds to Times Square at night.
Some parts were incredibly gross, even for a person like me who considers themselves open-minded. From a woman trying to hit the mark of world’s largest gangbang to the men who perpetuated the old peep shows and masturbated to the women who worked them, one can see how Times Square got its grimy reputation in that time.
I also got a good sense of the forces that were trying to help; the churches, the businesses, the runaway shelter. Even though they all demonized pornography more than just the general inequity within American governance, one gets the sense that they were trying to help.
The problem was that on the polar opposite of the sex trade were the developers who came and turned Times Square into a playground for the rich. I won’t argue that it needed to be reformed but it priced out a lot of longtime residents and employees. And for the faults of Times Square, there is something to be said for middle class folks who are looking to fairly pay for sex work and having a place to do it. Sadly, the book doesn’t say anything about queer sex except to demonize transfolk; Samuel Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue goes longer on this.
Overall, it’s a fascinating read that gave me my money’s worth. It might be too much for folks with weaker constitutions but you’ll learn a lot if you stick with it.