Review: City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920

City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920
City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790-1920 by Timothy J. Gilfoyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you met Tim Gilfoyle, I would venture a guess that your first thought wouldn’t be, “I bet this guy wrote the definitive book on the commercialization and later regulation of sex.” And yet, here we are. City of Eros was, and still is an important book for anyone interested in urban history especially, but if you are working on gender, cultural history and the nineteenth century, you’d best pick up a copy.

Gilfoyle takes us on an interesting and entertaining (not something I say about a lot of these old-comp books) through the history of prostitution in New York City. From this basic premise, we see how the city itself changed, the expansion of the middle class and the conflict of values that would ultimately result in the Victorian hegemony of the late nineteenth century. What I think is most effective about Gilfoyle’s narrative is that it was more than just the cultural shift that change the attitude toward prostitution, but there were economic shifts as well that resulted in a decline in prostitution. Even so, while the “oldest profession” may have never been fully accepted at any time in American History, it did have a much more legitimate place in urban society before the turn of the century. This legitimacy allowed prostitution to thrive in the city within almost every neighborhood. It also allowed for a division of labor that was also reflected in the burgeoning industrial society. Like the new factories, the native born had better job placement, where as the recent immigrants were consigned to street walking. In both cases, however, the law generally protected the working women. Prostitutes were much more willing to ask for police aid than their twentieth century counterparts.

Which of course is the tip of the cultural iceberg. As the class division from the working class to the middle class become more stark, that great middle class fear of downward mobility begins to influence the thinking and reaction to prostitution. Protecting the innocent (read young women) becomes a larger and larger concern as the nineteenth century comes to a close. Add to this the greater moral concern about other behaviors (mostly of middle class men) and the stigmitization of prostitution becomes a very clear process.

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