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

For most of the nineteenth century, according to Timothy J. Gilfoyle, prostitution occupied a prominent and remarkably public place in New York City life. Brothels operated openly, and the leading madams of the city became celebrated figures in local society. Moreover, New Yorkers from across the social spectrum were involved in the world of commercial sex; members of patrician families owned land that contained houses of ill fame, and men in the city, including the high-born and the well bred, embraced a gender-based subculture that promoted and glorified sexual indulgence.

Changing patterns of land use, Gilfoyle argues, transformed prostitution in New York City during the decades after 1820. Earlier in the century commercial sex had been geographically and culturally marginalized. Prostitution remained concentrated on a few blocks and hidden from public view. After 1820, however, dramatic shifts in the city's real estate market helped to spark a "sexual revolution" in New York. As land values skyrocketed, property owners recognized that brothel keepers were stable tenants and that commercial sex was profitable. Houses of ill fame began to appear everywhere, and market forces redefined prostitution, making sexual activity increasingly "secularized," organized, and a market commodity.

Changing patterns of male leisure reinforced the expansion of prostitution and the commercialization of sex. Gilfoyle argues that a "sporting-male subculture," in which "unregulated sex was the categorical imperative", flourished during this period. As men from all levels of society reveled in open displays of sexual indulgence and aggressiveness, entrepreneurs responded to the increasing demand for commercial sex and established brothels, concert saloons, cabarets, and theaters where sex could be easily procured. Even popular literature, according to Gilfoyle, celebrated the world of the prostitute and the sporting male. Land pressures and cultural forces thus combined in the nineteenth century and moved commercial sex "from the fringe to the core of city social life".

Late in the century, Gilfoyle explains, new patterns of land use triggered a second transformation in the structure of prostitution. The industrialization of the garment industry, for example, produced greater competition for land in lower Manhattan and pushed brothels uptown, where the sex trades became more concentrated in an entertainment district. Furthermore, the rise of tenements in the city created new opportunities for prostitutes, many of whom moved into these buildings, undercutting the brothel and the madam who had controlled prostitution for nearly a century. The construction of skyscrapers and apartment buildings also contributed to this transformation by moving commercial sex to more hidden and private settings. In a brief discussion at the end of the book, Gilfoyle asserts that during the early twentieth century demographic, cultural and institutional changes--the end of mass immigration and the resulting reduction in the number of transient men, the drop in the age of marriage, the rise of premarital sexual relations and affectionate marriage, and the relative success of government reform crusades--reduced demand for prostitutes and accelerated the decline of commercial sex. By 1920 prostitution had, once again, become hidden and marginalized.

Gilfoyle's analysis of the geography of prostitution is particularly strong. Using court records, "underground" guidebooks, the memoirs of prominent New Yorkers, and an impressive array of other sources, he identifies and plots the locations of the leading brothels in New York. Moreover, he skillfully links changes in the locations of houses of prostitution to larger shifts in land use in the city.

This emphasis on the geography of commercial sex, however, results in an analysis that focuses on the brothel rather than the prostitute. Thus, City of Eros provides a rich treatment of the most famous brothels and colorful vignettes of prominent madams, such as Julia Brown, who moved in the highest circles of New York society. But Gilfoyle offers fewer insights about less formal and less celebrated forms of prostitution. Streetwalkers and women who engaged in casual or part-time prostitution, for example, receive little attention. Nor does he systematically examine the worldview of the women who engaged in prostitution or who served as the "models" in the model-artist shows and striptease acts that became popular in nineteenth-century New York. Too often, Gilfoyle draws conclusions about all women who were involved in the sex trades on the basis of source material dealing with wealthy madams. As a consequence, prostitution appears quite clean, profitable, and safe.

Similarly, middle-class men and prominent reformers dominate the analysis. George Templeton Strong's observations and Anthony Comstock's views receive detailed treatment. The author also offers an interesting analysis of the dynamic relationship between prostitution and moral reform. Gilfoyle devotes less attention, however, to working-class and foreign-born men and women, who comprised the majority of the city's residents as well as the vast majority of those involved in the sex trades. Moreover, the sporting-male subculture that Gilfoyle describes is surprisingly monolithic. In fact, he argues that this "gender identification more often overwhelmed divisions based upon class, religion, and ethnicity". Although his emphasis on gender relations is well conceived, a culturally derived identity such as "masculinity" probably had a very different meaning for a working-class immigrant that it did for Richard P. Robinson, the Connecticut-born "nabob" who was charged in the widely publicized Helen Jewett murder case.

In short, Gilfoyle has written a good book, and his examination of the geography of brothel prostitution represents a strong contribution to urban and social history. If other scholars can extend the frame of analysis to include sustained discussions of casual prostitution and streetwalking as well as to include examinations of sexual and gender relations that are informed by class, race, and ethnic perspectives, our understanding of sexuality and prostitution in the nineteenth-century city will be remarkably complete and sophisticated.
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Author:Adler, Jeffrey S.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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