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Customer Review

on 1 June 2012
This book's close reading of a particular time and place is absolutely reflective of America in this period (the situation was different again in San Francisco for instance where there was a larger contingent of Chinese migrants). Statistics around sex work are notoriously difficult to rely on as it's likely many sex workers chose to operate informally, drifting in and out of their profession, never submitting to being counted, interviewed, listed etc. Marilynn Wood Hill is quick to point this out though and she also interrogates prior studies, reading them for evidence of bias and plain old nineteenth century misogyny.

When she does relay statistical data she interprets it sensitively conveying how prostitution was, for many women, a more realistic means of sustaining an independent living than low-paid labour or even marriage. Her study also points out the many risks women in the profession faced and how the law operated in their favour sometimes (with surprising examples). The book's strength is its creation of characters; its women come alive making me wish they'd been asked the right questions long ago. Its other strength is its emphasis on the quotidian (what these women earned, what they were likely to have spent it on). I would like more data around black prostitutes but again Wood Hill extracts what she can from her sources.

I bought this book whilst researching prostitution in New York during the antebellum period and its descriptions and data informed at least one episode in my novel. It's a riveting read.
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