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The Soft City: Sex for Business and Pleasure in New York City
Terry Williams
Columbia University Press / Softcover / Apr 2022
9780231177955 (ISBN-10: 023117795X)
Sex Therapy / Sociology
price: $39.95 (may be subject to change)
312 pages
Not in Stock, usually ships in 7-10 business days

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.


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.
— Lucy Sante, Bard College, author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

The Soft City, a magnificent synthesis of public spaces where sex takes place, is a compelling collage ethnography of the invisible part of New York City. Williams takes the reader to parts of the city that are not mapped and places where the lives of 'disposable' people unfold. Through a complex and vividly written narrative, consisting of storiettes, the reader is exposed to experiences with sexuality among people from numerous walks of life. As new insights emerge, the reader is challenged not to judge. Peeking through a lens that is focused on desire, the reader becomes both a spectator and eyewitness of sexual communities and the public spaces where sex takes place. Williams’ important and provocative work emphasizes how much is not apparent unless we look for it. A powerful reminder for all.
— Claire E. Sterk, President Emerita and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Public Health, Emory University

Terry Williams and his team of (apprentice) ethnographers chart the Soft City, or the sexual underground of New York City, via four decades of field notes. These vignettes expose a vast variety of perspectives—different epochs of the Soft City, a diverse set of scholars, a variety of venues, and the cast of characters who dwell in these temporal locations—through which the reader is treated to an understanding of human sexuality as heterogeneous as the city itself.
— Beverly Yuen Thompson, Siena College

An incredible ethnographic exploration of public sex in one of the world's most diverse cities: New York. Sociologist Terry Williams offers a brilliant micro-sociological analysis of the ways in which desire, pleasure, sexuality, and gender are socially organized and experienced in contemporary societies.
— Ana Cárdenas Tomažic, Ludwig-Maximillians-Universitat, Munchen

I met Professor Terry Williams in the mid-1990s when together, along with a varied cadre of sociology students, embarked into unveiling the softness of the city's sexual fabric. During those amazing outings, my hard core (as a young Latina immigrant at the time) melted into the faintness of our study participants' stories that would become alive at sex shops, peep shows, topless bars, gay and transgender cabarets, and BDSM clubs. Underlying the political economy of desire, the soft city revealed to me in what Williams calls the 'erotic poetry of pain,' and via our communal need to be welcomed by strangers in almost unexpected ways.

In this book, Williams masterfully unveils his own trajectory, and that of his sociology apprentices, coming of age as acutely sensitive—yet vulnerable—fieldworkers, all inhabitants of a sexually malleable urban hub. Together, they perfected the ethnographic métier by diving into the rough corners of the city's lubricious pores. With painstaking rigor, Williams brings decades of fieldwork to fruition, revealing the cosmopolitan aesthetics of a sensuous underground milieu. A must-read for anyone eager to hone the craft of engaged ethnography, this book will also appeal to those interested in the subversive, albeit commoditized geography of transgressed desire in a globalized world.
— Anahí Viladrich, Queens College, City University of New York

Rich with theory and story, The Soft City reveals a New York that many overlook. Williams is no detached researcher. By weaving himself into the settings and scenes he describes he uses the power of ethnography to argue for the honoring of desire and protecting of personal freedom.
— Elizabeth Anne Wood, Nassau Community College

Required reading for students of New York City history, as well as the history of sexuality.
— Gotham Center for New York City History Blog

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).

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