“Disorderly Houses: Residences, Privacy, and the Surveillance of Sexuality in 1920s Harlem,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 21, 3 (September 2012): 443-466
(Submitted January 2010; accepted January 2011)
The article argues that despite overcrowding, Harlem’s residences provided privacy, due to the regular, extended absence of residents at work, the willingness of those not bound by familial ties to look the other way, the ability to pass as married or as heterosexual, and the limited surveillance conducted by public and private authorities. Residents used that privacy not simply for the marital sexuality that reformers promoted, but for homosexual, extramarital and premarital sexual activity, ranging from casual relationships to informal unions, and to operate venues that commodified privacy and gave others space for the same kinds of sexual expression.
There are several maps posted on the Digial Harlem Blog that are related to the article’s arguments. The police focus on street prostitution rather than what happened inside residences is evident in the map of prostitution arrests. Divorce raids, which offer a glimpse of the privacy that unmarried couples could obtain in residences, are mapped in this post. The night life venues that residents operated in their homes for a black clientele, away from the nightclubs and speakeasies frequented by whites, can be found on the map of Harlem’s nightlife.