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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.
This book intricately weaves capitalism, social custom, and sex into a compelling narrative of nineteenth century New York City. The author doesn't just say that prostitution was prevalent, he cites newspapers, letters, public records, art, novels, circulars and other publications from the 1900s, which leave the reader in no doubt that prostitution was one of the leading industries of NYC at that time. The image of packs of teenage prostitutes roaming Broadway and the Bowery, (some as young as 10 or 12), will stay with me forever.
The writer goes on to illustrate how the lack of career opportunities for women and the exorbitant rents of Manhattan drove many women into the sex business. For most of these women, there were few choices: live in extreme poverty or turn a few tricks and have decent lodgings, food and clothing. Most of these women didn't think of themselves as "fallen". They were doing what was necessary to survive. They went willingly into prostitution so that their lives could be better. Ironically, although it was business that victimized and objectified women, prostitution gave many of them entrepreneurial opportunities. The sex business made some women rich.
It is interesting to note that the very society that reviled these women directly benefited from the real estate boom that the sex business made possible. Poor people couldn't have afforded the high rents, but prostitutes were able to. Once landlords realized how much more prostitutes could pay, they were happy to have them instead of "decent people". Not only did prostitutes pay higher rents, but they also paid police and politicians to "look the other way". A huge political machine grew up around the sex industry that aided and abetted it. Almost everyone had heard of Tammany Hall.
When you add in the fact that it became "trendy" during the 1900s for men to live the "Sporting Life" (prostitutes, gambling, drinking, boxing - all around partying), the flourishing of prostitution seems inevitable.
Eventually, the changing landscape of the real estate business, the increase of career opportunies for women, the availability of birth control, the changing attitudes towards sex and marriage, and a marked increase in benevolent societies designed to assist the poor and needy made the downfall of prostitution as inevitable as its rise.
This was a truly fascinating book. Normally it takes me weeks and weeks to plough through one of these non-fiction historical types of books, (even though I love them!), but I breezed through this one in about 4 days. I would recommend it to anyone, but particularly to those interested in the history of New York City, sex, and/or women.
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.