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City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 Paperback – March 17, 1994
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“Gilfoyle has tied together into one package the interrelationship between the role and status of women, American ideas about sex, the effects of urbanization and immigration, real estate speculation, vigilantism, and politics. . . . In short, he has effectively brought issues of sexuality into social history. . . . Deserving of the highest praise.”
- Vern L. Bullough, Historian
“Remarkable. . . . [A] clear and fascinating narrative . . . [that] opens up plenty of new lines of inquiry. . . . A major contribution to the history of gender, popular culture, and the life of New York City.”
- Elliott J. Gorn, Journal of American History
“A fascinating study. . . . Gilfoyle does not simply catalogue the omnipresence of the postitutes. He situates their trade in the economic life of the city. . . . City of Eros is social history at its best, beautifully written, with a mosaic of rich detail that informs but does not overwhelm the narrative line.”
- David Nasaw, New York Times Book Review
“A wonderful book. The research is overwhelming in breadth, precision, and imagination. City of Eros beautifully portrays an aspect of social and urban, as well as economic history, which we can no longer ignore.”
- Mary P. Ryan, University of California, Berkeley
About the Author
Timothy J. Gilfoyle is an acclaimed historian. His first book, City of Eros, won the prestigious Nevins Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians. He is professor of history at Loyola University in Chicago.
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City of Eros details New York's sex industry all the way back to the 1700s. This book is filed with several illuminating facts. In particular, many people will probably be surprised to find out that prostitution was essentially decriminalized for most of the city's history. With that said, it was a de facto decriminalization. Some of the most respected names within the social and economic elite class made fortunes by owning property in these vice districts. This was a widely commercialized industry in which the police, city officials, and political machines grew in power from the kickbacks of the prostitution industry. Gilfoyle describes the anti-prostitution reform movement and brilliantly illustrates the socioeconomic/political factors that brought this openly commercialized industry to an end.
Also, the focus is somewhat meandering. Despite the title, City Of Eros doesn't necessarily stick to it's topic of prostitution but ends up venturing into the areas of pornography and literature. There is one utterly pointless chapter entitled 'A Gay Literature' which deals exculsively with the role of the prostitute in literature which I felt was wholly unnecessary and diverting.
But this is where the criticisms end. In the main, City of Eros is a splendidly researched piece that at it's best moments, truly conjures up the spirit, atmosphere and grunge of 19th Century New York. The slums of Five Points is truly brought to life as is the general experience of being a prostitute/madam/pimp/customer in those times. The sense that one comes away with is that of a city riddled with overt prostitution - it was everywhere, in plain view and considered to be an integral and accepted part of New York society. It's also interesting to note how little has changed regarding the media's hysterical portrayal of prostitution. The truth is that, then as now, coercion was rarely employed. Most women who engaged in this kind of activity did so for short periods of time in between employment or even to supplement the low incomes earned as seamstresses and servants.
Also noteworthy are the vivid descriptions of the male sporting culture which viewed the frequenting of brothels and promiscuity as being expressions of ultra-masculine behavior, expressions that reflected a rebellion against the taming and control of male sexuality that marriage was percieved to have involved.
New York was definitely a rough and wild town once upon a time. City Of Eros does an excellent job in conjuring up that wildness for our dainty 21st Century sensibilities.
It actually was! And that's the most fascinating argument that the author brings up and successfully proves in the book.
Fun, witty and at the same time serious historical reading. I've never been so much engaged in any scholarly book like I was in this one. It is so well-written.