trade and trick

(About the language of sex, with plenty of discussion of sexual acts, some of it in very plain terms, so not for kids or the sexually modest.)

Sexual vocabulary day, inspired by my puzzling about the syntax of the item trade (in examples like He’s looking for trade to service and He’s trade), which led me to a 2004 e-mail exchange — yes, still relevant — with a colleague about this item and its sexual lexical cousin trick.

Ajaxx63 Rough Trade t-shirt, on offer on the DealByEthan (men’s fashion shopping) site

The 9/23/04 e-conversation with my colleague K, lightly edited, and amended.

K: I have just read an article by a Canadian writer in which ‘trade’ is defined as a top. Is this usual?

Z: It’s not usual, and it’s off-base.

There are four relevant dimensions here:

1. Presentation of self, on a scale from butch to queen, with many specific identities along the way. Trade is on the butch end.

2. Preferred sex acts and roles therein. Trade is offering a dick to be sucked. Usually, period. certainly no reciprocity, and no affection (in particular, kissing).

The top/bottom labels these days are used only for anal sex, which isn’t normally relevant for discussions of trade, though a piece of trade might be willing to fuck you if that’s what you want. [AZ in 2021: maybe K’s Canadian writer was aiming at something like “insertor”, the guy who fucks or get sucked. But it certainly should include trade that gets jacked off, and customers who want to jack off the trade.]

(As background: for openly gay men, cocksucking is routine, everyday sex, and usually guys switch from “insertor” to “receptor” seamlessly. Fucking is more complicated: not everybody’s interested in it, and many guys who are have strong preferences for a role: from top to versatile top to versatile to versatile bottom to bottom (to use the most common descriptors).)

3. Preferences for characteristics of sex partners. Complicated for trade. Some prefer a “masculine” guy, others someone less “masculine” than they believe themselves to be.

4. Self-identification with respect to sexuality. Pieces of trade usually identify as straight. (So they fall within the larger MSM category, “men who have sex with men”.)

So…  paraphrasing the most recent edition of The Joy of Gay Sex: men who are or suppose themselves to be straight who allow gay men to suck them off. [AZ in 2021: This is the classic trade relationship, in which a gay man solicits the sexual act, or in which the sexual act is desired by both participants. No standard term for straight men who solicit blow jobs (or fucks) from gay men, who want to get serviced by them; or for straight men who seek out sexual services aggressively, who want to impose themselves on gay men.]

Sometimes there is an exchange of favors, so that the line between trade and hustler can be, umm, delicate.

K: I thought that ‘trade’ was, to put it briefly, a ‘pick-up for casual sex’,

Z: In the gay male context, this is “trick”, a related but different concept. I’ve had a wide experience of tricks, but I’ve never had the slightest interest in trade.

K: and I possibly wrongly assumed he could be top or bottom depending on the parties involved.

Z: You’re still talking about tricks, where everything is negotiable.

Dictionary time: sexual trade. Plus the sexual verb service. From OED3 (Dec. 2015; latest version published online March 2021) on the sexual nouns trade. First, a use (as in She’s in the trade) that’s irrelevant to this posting:

II. An occupation or profession, and related senses.
6. c. slang. With the. In various spec. senses.
(a) Prostitution. [1st cite 1592]

Then the main event:

IV. Things or people regarded as the object of trade.
17. slang (originally U.S., esp. among homosexual men). A man, esp. one who does not identify as homosexual and who is not penetrated sexually, who is sought, and sometimes paid, as a casual sexual partner by another man; sexual intercourse with such a man; such men collectively. See also rough trade n. [1st cite 1919 J. M. Feiselman Jrnl. 28 Mar. in  Rec. Court Inq. U.S. Naval Training Station, Newport, Rhode Island, Jan. 22, 1920 (U.S. National Arch., Rec. Group 125) VII. 2244 He was looking for trade but it was rather slim pickings in the YMCA. [clearly a M(ass) noun]. Frequently predicative: 1968 Globe & Mail Mag. (Toronto13 Jan. 7/4 If a hustler is not himself homosexual, or maintains the belief that he is not, he is called ‘trade’.]

And OED3 (March 2021) on the verb service:

1. a. transitive. To be of service to or perform a service for (a person). rare. [cites from 1602 through 1999; 1999 R. Madigan & M. Munro in T. Chapman & J. Hockey Ideal Homes? v. 68 Women in particular, because of their role in servicing others, need timeof their own as well as a place of their own.]
b. transitive. spec. Somewhat euphemistically: to give sexual gratification to (a person); esp. to perform oral sex on (a man). Perhaps partly a figurative use of sense 3a. Cf. also sense 6b. [1st cite: 1944 M. Shulman Feather Merchants iv. 17 They called me ‘Hot Helen’ then. Sometimes just ‘Hot’. I serviced ’em all—kings and stevedores, bankers and draymen. Then: 1972 ‘Coop’ Sexy Southern Boy ii. 30 In this job, you may sometimes have to service straight men, so I like to check out your technique with one of them.]

… 6. a. transitive. Of a male animal, esp. a stallion, bull, etc., kept for breeding: to copulate with (a female). [1st cite 1947]
b. transitive. In extended use: (of a man) to have penetrative sexual intercourse with (a woman). [1st cite 1973]

And then two blog postings:

— on AZBlogX on 11/17/15, “Cockfest #1: the basic offer”, in which a young man offers his dick to be sucked; “The kid could easily be trade, and if that’s a fantasy (or preference) for you, go with it”

— on this blog on 1/1/16, “Get Sporty”, on the gay slang rough trade: ‘rough or lower-class men sought, and sometimes paid, as casual sexual partners by more privileged or affluent men’ (NOAD2); in a photo, “Here we see male model Christian Hogue playing at being rough trade …”

Dictionary time: sexual trick. From GDoS:

noun trick-1: 1 sexual intercourse, occas. other forms other forms of sexual encounter, esp. a prostitute’s intercourse (or other activity) with a client. [from mid-16th century on through 1998; at least one cite with a male prostitute] … 3 a prostitute’s client, whether hetero- or homosexual [cites from 1925 through 2007, including 1994 Gary Indiana cite from Rent Boy] 4 any casual sex partner [cites from 1935 through 2007, very heavily gay] 5 general term of abuse, equating the subject with a whore’s client [1st cite 1957] 6 (US) a prostitute [cites from 1974, 1993, 1997-2000, all female] … 8 a boyfriend, hetero- or homosexual [2 cites] …

noun (also as adj.) tricking: (orig. US black) having sex for money [cites from 1934 through 1997, all apparently of women]

verb trick: 1 to work as a prostitute, to have sex with a client; thus tricking n. [cites from 1956, all apparently female] 2 to have casual sex [4 cites from 1969 through 2005, 2 of them gay] 3 (gay) to pick up a partner for casual, unpaid sex [just 1 cite, from 1978, though this is the usage is very familiar to me in a gay context] 4 of a man, to pay for sex with a prostitute

For the verb, there’s a strong tendency for the sense to be commercial if the subject is female, casual if the subject is gay male.

The syntax of the sexual noun trade: background. The background is material from a handout for an LSA paper, “Between count and mass: Furniture and other functional collectives” by Scott Grimm and Beth Levin, Stanford University, January, 2011 . (Bear with me; this will become relevant. First furniture, then servicing trade.) What follows is part quotation from the handout, part paraphrase of relevant material.

Grimm & Levin look at furniture-nouns: furniture, mail, luggage, change, jewelry, ammunition,… They’re problematic because of a surprising combination of properties, which straddles M(ass) and C(ount):

— Like core liquid and substance M nouns (e.g. water, butter, sand, sugar), they are non-countable (no plurals, among other things)

— But unlike core M nouns (and like collective C nouns), their denotations appear to include individual objects

The nouns designate artifacts — which differ from natural kinds in that they have a function: furniture furnishes a space, mail transmits material through the postal system, etc. They are functional collectives.

From furniture to sexual encounters. The sexual noun trade (which semantically designates a sociocultural category with a function, not a natural kind) is morphosyntactically a M noun: it has no plural and doesn’t allow individuation with a, each, every, etc. (though it allows totality determiners like all, most, some, etc.); individuation is managed instead via a partitive construction, especially with the all-purpose partitive noun piece. With the sexual noun trade (disregard other nouns trade):

*(two) trades (cf. *(two) furnitures), *a trade (cf. *a furniture); but ✓most trade (cf. ✓most furniture), ✓a piece of trade (cf. ✓a piece of furniture)

In addition, the bare noun trade can be used predicatively (and is in fact very often so used):

He’s trade (not my boyfriend) (cf. ✓That’s furniture (not my exercise equipment))

So sexual trade works a lot like the functional collectives furniture etc.

At the moment, I can’t think of another noun with human reference that works like a functional collective; all of the Grimm & Levin nouns have inanimate reference. But that just might be a failure of my imagination.


3 Responses to “trade and trick”

  1. TommyBoy Says:

    I recently observed the label ‘side’ for gay guys who don’t like to fuck or be fucked and who find bottom or top inadequate to describe themselves. I wonder if this expression will gain a greater usage in the future.

  2. Bird Says:

    How about “we’re having company over?”

    I like “side” but I can only imagine him as a third. Like “middle”.

  3. Customer care and the holiday weekend | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] the sexual usage. From my 4/16/21 posting “trade and […]

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