Peepland

Times Square hasn’t stopped running on temptation, fantasy, and greed, but these things wear different clothes now. Sex is still for sale here—just look up. From underwear ads to HBO shows, sex spreads itself over the very billboards the city mandates that buildings in Times Square display—but it’s so aspirational, so plastic and corporate-sponsored, that it hardly registers as sex, and surely not as sleaze.

The women are never shown onstage or in their peep show booths, but backstage, grinning.

From Flickr via Dirk Knight.

The Forty-Deuce: The Times Square Photographs of Bill Butterworth, 1983-1984. Ed. Hilton Ariel Ruiz and Beatriz Ruiz. powerHouse Books, 2012.

In 1983 and 1984, when he shot the pictures collected in The Forty Deuce, Bill Butterworth was working as a “photo man,” taking portraits of people in Times Square and selling them the prints. The people who appear in Butterworth’s snapshot-style color photos are not the middle-class white tourists who frequented the neighborhood’s strip clubs and peep shows, but “regulars”: black and brown teenagers hanging out, shopkeepers, sex workers. At the time, the area was still New York City’s go-to spot for adult entertainment: of the seventy-three adult businesses the Department of City Planning identified in a 1984 citywide survey, over a third were located in Community District 5, home to Times Square and the strip of 42nd Street then known as the Forty Deuce.

It’s the everydayness of the X-rated that makes these photos fun to look at. A woman in a bikini rests her arm on a naked male mannequin wrapped in neon tubing. ORGY and BONDAGE placards directing patrons to the appropriate viewing stations have the dull municipal look of restroom signs. Cover the wall of dildos with your hand and the jowly shopkeeper could be selling anything.

That it might occur to you to do just that—to tune out the background and hone in on the subject—is what distinguishes Butterworth’s work from better-known images of the era. Documentary photography from the 1980s tends to focus on physical decay—the city as a ravaged beauty—with human beings used as texture, stylistic flourishes in the story of gloriously sick New York. But Butterworth is more generous. He knew many of his subjects personally, and the people in his photographs, with their peace signs and kung fu moves, look like they’re posing for a friend. They look like they’re having fun.

The book captures an array of gleeful quality-of-life offenses. A man in a mesh baseball cap and a Raiders starter jacket double-fists two bottles of Guinness in front of the Times Square Police Station. Inside a variety store, a teenager balances on one foot, brandishing samurai swords. An old white man wearing a boutonniere and a wedding ring smokes a cigarette inside a store lined with magazines like BLAST OFF, RAMROD, and FRENCH BUTTFUCKER. At the dildo shop, a NO SMOKING sign sits next to an ashtray.

Butterworth’s photos are neither streetscapes nor tightly framed portraits; 42nd Street is experienced as a mosaic of textures—gum-freckled sidewalk, flocked silver wallpaper, grids of mirrored glass tile—making it difficult to piece together a map of the place. Instead, the photos have a telescopic effect. They lead the reader from marquees and makeshift storefronts in through marbled theater lobbies all the way to the carpeted backroom brothels, which seem so far removed from the boisterous street scenes that I imagine all sound being muffled there, as though heard through wool felt walls. In one especially opulent room, I can make out, through the velvet and chiffon curtains, a set of Venetian blinds pulled down over the window. If the women in that room were to peek through those blinds, what would they see? How far above the street are they, how insulated from the world outside?

The streets of Butterworth’s Times Square are a male space, populated mostly by men—in his introduction, Carlo McCormick cites an ’80s statistic that for every woman on 42nd Street at any given time there were maybe eight men—whereas the women are usually pictured indoors. Most of the men look like they’ve come to Times Square to hang out; most of the women look like they’ve come to work. Even when barely clothed, they often carry a purse or a pocketbook. Sometimes the bag sits on a table next to them, almost out of the frame. It gives the impression that they are on their way to someplace else.

Though some women affect rote sexual poses—backs arched, hands on hips, asses angled slightly towards the camera—and wear the scrapes of rouge and superfluous accessories that signify sex for sale (when else would you belt your underwear?), most of the photos aren’t particularly sexy. The women are never shown onstage or in their peep show booths, but backstage, grinning, fanning stacks of dollar bills and giving each other bunny ears. Taken out of the context of theatrical seduction, their outfits—ear muffs and bikinis, sheer lace blazers and feathered slippers—seem contrived and strange. It’s odd to look at someone’s clothing and imagine it not so much as a reflection of her own style but as her interpretation of how sex should be packaged, like an echo of the peep show storefront.


As a child scanning the world for secret, adult things, I knew the most common and straightforward sign for sex was a picture of a sexy woman, a babe with voluminous AquaNetted hair, wearing garter belts and glaring hungrily from a yellowing poster or the plastic cover of a rental videotape. For a time, the sex ladies were my most alluring models of womanhood, in part because their world was so explicitly adult. They lived in the adult aisle of the video store, the adult section of the free weekly newspaper, and the most exciting parts of the city. Gradually, though, my fantasies of becoming a sex worker fell away, not because of the sex—I was dying for that—but because I wanted to be famous. And nobody, I began to realize, knew the names of the women on the street corners and the back pages. They were talked about with pity and disdain, if they were talked about at all.

Towards the end of The Forty Deuce, there is a photo of two teenage girls posing on the sidewalk against black doors trimmed with gold. The girl on the left is in jeans and sneakers, but the other wears dark nylons and burgundy heels, a brown sweater with an asymmetrical neckline, a long striped skirt, and a black leather trench coat. Her hair is blond and meticulously curled. The studied polish of her outfit, down to the seashell earrings and subdued rose lipgloss, recalls the opulent sensuality of the velvet-trimmed brothel. Each time I flipped through the book, I paused at this photo; the girl’s face was familiar. Finally I recognized her as Venus Xtravaganza, star of Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, the 1990 documentary about New York’s ballroom culture, and the gay and trans youth who called the ball world home.

As opposed to the predominantly white and middle-class Greenwich Village gay scene that prized steely eyed, square jawed masculinity, ballroom culture rewarded black and brown queens from the inner city and the outer boroughs who imitated and reworked mainstream culture as they “walked” in drag competitions. The Forty Deuce was integral to ball culture. Many of the drag queens worked the corners or the peep shows of 42nd Street. Sally’s Hideaway, the famous club that housed the annual “Paris is Burning” ball, was located at the heart of Times Square. 

Venus, a transgender teen saving up money for her sex change, was a femme realness queen; she won trophies at drag balls for being able to blend in as a glamorous straight girl. In the film she professes her dreams of becoming a supermodel, of getting married in a white dress and moving out of the city. “I want to be a spoiled, rich, white girl,” she says. “They get what they want.” Venus made her living as an escort and, off and on, as a prostitute. In 1988, her body was found strangled and stuffed under a motel room bed.

In the introduction to The Forty Deuce, Carlo McCormick notes that the book’s poignance lies partly in the subjects’ anonymity; friends and coworkers often didn’t know one another’s real names or backgrounds. Venus changed her first name in her early teens and took Xtravaganza as her surname when she became a member of the House of Xtravaganza. A paradox of Times Square was that you could at once go there to be recognized and to be forgotten.

In Paris is Burning, as a voiceover tells us of her death, we see footage of Venus reclining against the seawall at the Christopher Street Pier while the sun sinks low over Jersey City. Empty shopping bags and piles of debris lie at her feet. On the concrete behind her someone has tagged the word SUPREME. Recently, while re-watching Paris is Burning, I recognized something in this scene that I hadn’t noticed before. The fluffy blond mall bangs, the lime green sleeveless blouse unbuttoned down to her bra, the way she leans low across the boombox to have an older man light her cigarette, then rolls her eyes at the camera: this is what I thought life would look like when I grew up.


“If you study the history of Times Square,” wrote Marshall Berman in the mid-1990s, “it’s amazing to see how pervasive nostalgia is as an organizing force for visions of the place.” Hilton Ariel Ruiz, one of the editors of The Forty Deuce, played in the arcades on 42nd Street as a child in the 1980s. The writer William J. Stern, who was part of New York’s Urban Development Corporation (UDC), which spearheaded the cleanup of Times Square, has said that nearly all of the people involved in redevelopment were native New Yorkers who yearned for the Great White Way of the immediate postwar years. Today’s nostalgics get accused of conflating the long-lost city with the gallivanting of their young adulthood, but often enough, they are longing for fruits never tasted, for the world they watched from the bedroom window or the bus or the backseat of a car: a fantastic neon peep show behind glass panes.

One of the best documents of Times Square in the 1980s was, in fact, shot through a window. Charlie Ahearn’s 1991 film, Doin’ Time in Times Square, is made entirely of footage he shot from his apartment on 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue. In this film, often called the “home video from hell,” Ahearn juxtaposes street fights, solicitations, and the all-night glow of the Adonis Theatre against footage of family Christmas celebrations and his children’s birthdays. In one sequence, Ahearn’s toddler son plays behind the curtains, then peers out at the camera, smiling. In another, we do not see the boy, but we hear his father’s voice: “Pssst. Get away from the window, Joe.” In the final shot of the film, Joey is staring out onto the street, watching snow fall. “I really felt at that time,” Ahearn has said, “like I didn’t have to read a magazine or a newspaper or anything. If I wanted to know what was going on, I looked outside my window, and that was plenty for me.”

Ahearn said that he documented the “death throes of a neighborhood being strangled by real estate for over two decades,” and even in the background of Butterworth’s photos—which are much sunnier than Ahearn’s film—you can catch glimpses of the precarious state that the Deuce was in. Pegboard-covered walls and narrow concrete arcades packed tight with games, mismatched sections of flooring outside the peepshow booths—there is a slapdash quality to the interiors that reflects the instability of a neighborhood surviving on underground economies.

Sex and crime had been a part of Times Square’s history since at least the turn of the century. (Before its name was changed in 1904 to commemorate the New York Times moving into a skyscraper on 42nd Street, Times Square was called Longacre Square, and was known as a seedy red-light district.) But by the 1960s, the nationwide loosening of censorship laws, coupled with the vacancies left by an ailing theater world, allowed the sex industry to flourish on 42nd Street. By the time Butterworth started taking pictures there, Times Square had become local politicians’ favorite symbol of disorder in a city that was crawling back from the brink of bankruptcy and plagued by an ever-increasing crime rate.

Recognizing the symbolic potential in cleaning up the “heart of the city,” as well as the financial gains to be made by bringing bigger, “legitimate” business onto such a prime swath of real estate as Times Square, then-mayor Ed Koch began taking proposals from developers in 1980; by 1990, the UDC had used eminent domain to condemn over two-thirds of the 13-acre site slated for redevelopment. As McCormick notes, the haphazard interiors in Butterworth’s photos reveal the negligence of landlords who had let formerly palatial theater houses or hotels slip into disarray as they waited to be bought out, while still charging steep rents to the cash-heavy high-turnover sex businesses that could afford it.

Lots of cash gets flashed in Butterworth’s book. People fan stacks of bills on the sidewalk, they count money into cash registers—one man has a bouquet of dollars poking through the fly of his pants. But all the illicit money that was floating around the Forty Deuce couldn’t compare to the big investments on the way.

The full transformation of Times Square didn’t take place until the mid-90s, after Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor and the Walt Disney Company invested $8 million in the renovation of The New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street. Already media companies like Bertelsmann and Viacom were moving into the area, but Disney’s involvement marked a turning point. Before they would finalize their commitment, Disney insisted the state sign deals with Madame Tussaud’s and AMC, and evict the remaining peep shows on 42nd Street.

In 1995 when, with the cleanup of Times Square fully underway, New York City passed a zoning resolution that would curtail the creation or expansion of adult businesses, public opinion was largely on the city’s side. In a hearing of the Manhattan Borough President’s Task Force on the Regulation of Sex-Related Businesses, “offensive signage depicting eroticism or sexually explicit words were noted as especially problematic for children; sometimes these signs were located near school bus stops.” At the time there were no restrictions on how far an adult business could be from a school or house of worship; in Greenwich Village, a resident complained that an adult video store was displaying images of a woman having sex with a donkey only 40 yards from a parochial school.

For many, the issue was not that sex was for sale but that it had to be so public, so lurid. “The problem,” said an unhappy neighbor, “is not that it’s a porn store but that it looks like hell.” At one community board meeting in Hell’s Kitchen, residents testified for six hours about a 15-foot illuminated sign reading “NUDE.” But comments in newspapers and public forums revealed that porn businesses didn’t just offend people’s moral or aesthetic sensibilities—neighbors were scared of the disorder they associated with sex businesses and that “type of clientele.” One owner of a not-for-profit SRO pointed out that the people who loitered outside a nearby sex shop gave the neighborhood a “different feeling.”

Complaints about vice in Butterworth’s Times Square—about vice, in general, in the city—are often tinged by racial and class prejudice. It can be hard to parse concerns about real crimes from perceptions of criminality, as in the continued fights between wealthy West Village residents and the queer teenagers who still hang out on the piers where Venus Xtravaganza once spent her evenings. In a video called Fenced Out, made in 2000 by a group of teens concerned about the city’s plans to redevelop the Christopher Street Pier, kids who once flocked to the area from the outer boroughs talk about the importance of the piers as a place to be themselves, as a place to be seen. In the video someone mentions a boy who, before heading home, would change out of his dress and wig and slip them into a backpack. Defenders of the piers as a gathering place talk about their historical and symbolic significance in New York City’s gay culture, but sometimes, for a person who needs somewhere to sleep, or to hang out, it’s a lot simpler than that. Said one teen, “It was just an easy place to get to know people without spending money.”

One of my favorite photos in The Forty Deuce shows three young men looking down at the camera from atop a scaffold. One squats on a plank, flashing peace signs and sticking out his tongue, while the other two grab the bars of the scaffold as though they might climb even higher. The marquee behind them reads “SPLATTER UNIVERSITY.” These days when I hear someone refer to New York City as a playground, I picture the day-drinking Sex and The City set that teeters through the Meatpacking District, but in this photo the city looks like a real playground: chaotic and free of charge. The scene seems too fun to be legal. I can’t imagine anyone hanging out on a scaffold for very long in today’s heavily surveilled Times Square, where 1,633 people were stopped and frisked at the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue in 2011 alone. It’s no accident that the final photo of The Forty Deuce—the only candid shot in the book—is of a man in handcuffs being walked down the sidewalk by two policemen.

Butterworth’s Times Square was neither a utopia nor a hellhole—it was a peculiar vision of freedom in a society that is fundamentally racist, classist, sexist and sexually repressive. Official narratives of Times Square are full of trash metaphors—the city sweeping a neighborhood clean—which is especially maddening when you consider how many people in Butterworth’s photos were condemned to die in the AIDS and crack epidemics by a public and a government that didn’t think their lives were worth all that much. One thing that unites today’s Times Square detractors with those from the bad old days is that they don’t actually go there much. If The Forty Deuce teaches us anything it is to look more carefully, and more generously, at the things we tend to pass by.


It’s hard for me to walk through Times Square now without wondering who Butterworth might photograph today: the boy in zombie facepaint drinking an ice coffee at the end of his shift at Times Scare; the comedy club barkers; the bootleg purse hustlers by the 49th Street station; the Grey Line bus employees slap-boxing each other on a slow day. The regulars who make their livelihoods here are still the most interesting people on the Square, though the things they sell have changed.

One thing that remains the same is the branding in the background: the McDonald’s arches; the candy bars at concessions stands; the labels on beer bottles; the logos for sports teams. The advertising industry understands our capacity for nostalgia—we feel betrayed each time the Coca-Cola can changes. Sneakers—which are more brand than style—look more or less the same today as they do in The Forty Deuce. Some have noted that the book captures a shift in subcultural style, from disco to hip hop, but the growing ubiquity of shelltop Adidas also seems an ominous sign of the corporate-backed monoculture that has crept into the city, and the blind brand loyalty that comes along with it. These days just about the only time you’ll see a pack of grown New Yorkers sitting idly on the sidewalk in Times Square is when the newest Jordans are released at Foot Locker.

Times Square hasn’t stopped running on temptation, fantasy, and greed, but these things wear different clothes now. Sex is still for sale here—just look up. From underwear ads to HBO shows, sex spreads itself over the very billboards the city mandates that buildings in Times Square display—but it’s so aspirational, so plastic and corporate-sponsored, that it hardly registers as sex, and surely not as sleaze. If you happened to be in Times Square this past spring you might’ve passed by a billboard featuring Jennifer Love Hewitt, who plays a sex worker on the Lifetime TV series, The Client List, advertising the show with her rich and famous cleavage—you can sell it, but it better not look like hell.

On the outskirts of Times Square you can still find survivors from the Butterworth days. Show World Center, once called “the McDonald’s of Sex,” has downsized since its peak, and the sign on its doorway—“NO ID? DON’T GET MAD, JUST GET OUT!”—indicates that management is coming along with these law-and-order times. The neon on the sign for Smith’s Bar is partly blown out; from a block away it looks like it says “Smut Bar.” Only the torso lights up on the neon bikini lady above the Playpen, and a sign has been up in the window for a while: GIRLS WANTED TO WORK IN FANTASY BOOTHS. I like these places. The post-obscenity laws, pre-internet proliferation of porn theaters and dirty video stores was just a blip on the timeline of American cities, but for some of us it is forever tied to the excitement of the street. One evening this summer I watched a group of schoolchildren on 50th Street crane their necks to look through the windows of an old triple-X video store as their chaperones tried to scoot them quickly down the sidewalk. The sign above the store, framed in theater lights, read: MIXED EMOTIONS.

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