I don't think that my review of The Sexual Organization of the City can possibly do justice to a book filled with information, analyses, theory, and reflections on every one of its 359 pages of text. As I followed the intertwined lines of inquiry that threaded their way through each chapter, my thoughts tumbled over themselves, and my continual jottings eradicated the white margins of my book. This is a densely packed book—not a quick read—but one that is well worth the investment of time. Despite being written by several sets of authors who write from differing viewpoints, the chapters flow well from one to the next, as they are logically ordered and unified by a shared database and strong theoretical underpinnings. It is a book that asks important questions pertaining to sexual attitudes and practices, drawing on sociology, geography, and an understanding of social networks and placing them within well-grounded theoretical frameworks.
Laumann and his colleagues set the stage for their analysis of sexual beliefs and behaviors within a large metropolitan setting by asking two key questions: How does sexual partnering become organized within local settings, and what are the consequences of the sexual relationships that result? How do communities, institutional actors, social networks, geographical space, and culturally defined sexual meaning systems play a role in both the choice of sexual partner and the outcome of the relationship? Sexual partnering is viewed essentially as a local process, since to some extent the search for a partner—but, more important, the development of a sexual relationship—takes place when partners are within geographic proximity, that is, when they are close enough for it to be feasible to have sex.
Because geographical location and social networks take center stage, data must be available at the neighborhood level in order to investigate detailed aspects of social context in trying to assess how sexual partners meet and organize their sexual relationships. The data used throughout The Sexual Organization of the City are taken from two different sources. First, between 1995 and 1997 Laumann and his colleagues conducted a follow-up study to their earlier National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS) called the Chicago Health and Social Life Survey (CHSLS). The CHSLS was designed specifically to complement the NHSLS questionnaire but with a focus on local sex markets. In addition to a representative sample of Cook County residents, they selected four neighborhood samples, each with its own set of sexual marketplaces. Shoreland is a community whose residents are upwardly mobile with high income and levels of education. It is a highly secular community, with approximately 25 [End Page 471] percent of residents claiming no religious affiliation. It also has a sizeable gay and lesbian population. In contrast, Westside is a heavily Catholic, poor, working-class neighborhood with a large immigrant population from Mexico. Erlinda is also predominantly Hispanic and Catholic but is more racially and ethnically diverse than is Westside. It contains more later-generation Hispanics, 40 percent of whom are Puerto Rican. Finally, Southtown is 98 percent African American and a community of churches. The CHSLS additionally conducted 160 interviews with community leaders and service providers representing medical, religious, legal, and social services. These interviews provide valuable insight into the institutional regulation of sexual expression.
The authors define the sex market as the "spatially and culturally bounded arena in which searches for sex partners and a variety of exchanges of transactions are conducted" (8) and assign a central role to sexual orientation and race/ethnicity in defining the boundaries of sex markets. However, the authors also realize that sex markets are externally organized, structured by being embedded within local social systems, limited by geographic boundaries...