The Soft City

Sex for Business and Pleasure in New York City

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Pub Date 05 Apr 2022 | Archive Date 13 Jul 2022

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Description

There is no rawer human experience than sex, and in a city as diverse as New York, sexual experiences come in many forms. In the pre-Giuliani days, temptation flooded Times Square on theater marquees and neon signs. Behind unmarked doors downtown, more adventurous experiences awaited for those in the know.

In The Soft City, the ethnographer Terry Williams, with the help of accomplices and informants, ventures deep into the underground world of sex in New York. The book explores different aspects of the “perverse space” of the city: porn theaters, sex shops, peep shows, restroom cruising, sadomasochism clubs, swingers’ events, and many more. Featuring field notes taken between 1975 and the present, The Soft City documents the ways that New Yorkers on the social periphery have thought about and pursued sex, whether for recreation or to make a living. It also presents an unconventional account of New York City’s many transformations, showing how the soft city—its people and their unique character—evolved in response to official and social pressures. Featuring Williams’s unmistakable portraits of the demimonde as well as the accounts of other ethnographers challenging themselves to dive into the city’s hidden crannies, The Soft City is as irreproducible as it is provocative.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Williams is a professor in the Department of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. His previous Columbia University Press books are The Con Men: Hustling in New York City (2015); Teenage Suicide Notes: An Ethnography of Self-Harm (2017); and Le Boogie Woogie: Inside an After-Hours Club (2020).

There is no rawer human experience than sex, and in a city as diverse as New York, sexual experiences come in many forms. In the pre-Giuliani days, temptation flooded Times Square on theater marquees...


Advance Praise

"The Soft City is a time-machine ride to a vanished New York, one in which the sex trade was wide-open—at once brazen and furtive, anonymous and eccentric, mundane and bizarre, outrageous and straitjacketed by repression. The impressive level of detail steeps the reader in all the sights, sounds, and even smells that cannot be experienced in today's world of distanced online pornography."

--Luc Sante, Bard College

"The Soft City is a time-machine ride to a vanished New York, one in which the sex trade was wide-open—at once brazen and furtive, anonymous and eccentric, mundane and bizarre, outrageous and...


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ISBN 9780231177955
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Featured Reviews

The Soft City from Terry Williams is the type of ethnographic study that makes for so much more than just an academic read. This book held my attention on several levels and far exceeded my expectations.

I am not an ethnographer though, like anyone involved in any kind of area studies, I am familiar with the field. I often come to such studies primarily for the information I will gain and less for any particular enjoyment in reading. Even some of the best, while they make good reading, they fall short of being a book that just compels you to read. Not so The Soft City.

There is the aspect that will make this an important contribution to the field, both on the topic specifically as well as a way to effectively conduct research. This was, even for someone like me who is not in the field, quite interesting.

One of the things that set it apart for me was the way the various other researchers had their voices included. We didn't just get a summation, we could feel like we knew, or at least had met, these people. They were every bit as interesting as the people they were observing. Getting a glimpse into what researchers bring to their research really, for me, rounded out the overall picture.

Another thing that made the book more interesting for me I will call the episodic nature of the book itself. These episodes, mostly separate field notes from different researchers, were tied together by the theory that was driving the research as well as the findings. As the city changed and the soft city formed and reformed within it, the stories and the theory had to be modified to account for everything. So when I say episodic I don't mean disorganized or chaotic but rather like separate squares in a quilt that come together to tell the story.

Highly recommended both for ethnographers as well as future policy makers (empathy would be a nice feature in such people). And, of course, readers who find the topic interesting.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.

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