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Splendor and Miseries

Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850

by Alain Corbin, translated by Alan Sheridan
Harvard University Press, 478 pp., $39.50

La Vie quotidienne dans les maisons closes, 1830–1930

by Laure Adler
Hachette, 260 pp., FF118

Figures of Ill Repute: Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century France

by Charles Bernheimer
Harvard University Press, 329 pp., $29.95

I love prostitution in and for itself…” Gustave Flaubert wrote in 1853 to his mistress, Louise Colet.

In the very notion of prostitution there is such a complex convergence of lust and bitterness, such a frenzy of muscle and sound of gold, such a void in human relations, that the very sight of it makes one dizzy! And how much is learned there! And one is so sad! And one dreams so well of love!1

Sex work,” as it is now fashionable to call the profession,2 is highly paradoxical: it demands that a woman offer her body but withhold her pleasure, sell her flesh but reserve her emotions, and remain, in the truest sense, impenetrable; it can be seen as her most humiliating subjugation or as her ultimate freedom from male dominance. These ambiguities of prostitution, its “splendor and miseries,” were examined with particular intensity by the two generations of men—those of Flaubert, Maupassant, Zola, Degas, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and numerous other chroniclers of the bordello culture—who came of age in France under the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe between 1830 and 1848, or under the Second Empire that followed.

There are a great many social and political reasons for the extraordinary flourishing of bordellos during the July Monarchy. From the 1820s on, the Industrial Revolution, which affected France many decades later than England, created a large new female proletariat of pitifully underpaid factory workers, who were easily drawn into the sexual market. The expansive economic climate created by the revolution of July 1830 and the suspension of most forms of censorship imposed by the previous Bourbon rulers also helped vastly to increase the numbers of prostitutes under the reign of the bourgeois king.

Furthermore, as the very term maison de tolérance implies, France already had a long tradition of legalized prostitution. In 1796 the responsibility for surveying filles publiques had been given to the police authorities of each French city, who assigned teams of doctors to check prostitutes periodically for venereal disease. In 1828, under the orders of Paris’s prefect of police, weekly inspections were required by law, and most French cities followed suit. This was the fertile ground upon which the pioneer of French bordello life, a priggishly moralistic citizen named Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet, constructed his remarkable system of legalized, “regulated” prostitution.

Parent-Duchâtelet was a medical doctor and an expert on public hygiene with a morbid fascination for decomposition and excrement. An esteemed member of his government’s Public Health Council, he invented numerous implements and items of clothing designed to protect citizens who worked in morgues, slaughter-houses, or sewers (which he referred to as the city’s “most useful monuments,” and visited many times a month) from being overcome by disease or stench. And from 1830 on, reflecting the obsession with social hygiene that characterized the newly powerful bourgeoisie, Parent-Duchâtelet simultaneously took on the tasks of revamping the capital’s sewer and prostitution systems, frequently equating the two in his rhetoric. His magisterial two-volume study, De la Prostitution dans la ville de Paris, was written during the same six-year period in which he wrote his numerous government reports on the disposal of human feces and the recycling of dead horseflesh. Parent-Duchâtelet justified his passionate dedication to the study of prostitutes (a labor which he envisaged as a service not only to his own country, but “to all civilized governments”) in the following manner:

If, without scandalizing anyone, I was able to enter the sewers, handle putrid matter, spend part of my time in the refuse pits, and live as it were in the midst of the most abject and disgusting products of human congregations, why should I blush to tackle a sewer of another kind (more unspeakably foul, I admit, than all the others) in the well-grounded hope of effecting some good by examining all the facets it may offer?

In another passage he writes:

Prostitutes are as inevitable in an agglomeration of men as sewers, cesspools, and garbage dumps; civil authority should conduct itself in the same manner in regard to the one as to the other; its duty is to survey them, to attenuate by every possible means the detriments inherent to them, and for that purpose to hide them, to relegate them to the most obscure corners, in a word to render their presence as inconspicuous as possible.

De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris, published in 1836, had an immediate and revolutionary impact on the control of France’s sexual trade and provided guidelines for police regulation of prostitution for the rest of the century. Until the 1830s, whores had been able to find clients in numerous bars and gambling houses. Parent-Duchâtelet’s system outlawed such licentious practices, replacing them with a network of meticulously surveyed maisons de tolérance (also referred to as maisons closes), and required that the names of all prostitutes be inscribed in the police registers.

Parent-Duchâtelet’s strategy of containing and hiding legalized vice was based on an ancient notion, set forth by Saint Augustine in his De Ordine, that sex workers are a necessary evil who help to maintain social order. But in fact it segregated prostitutes more severely than they had been in most periods of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when they were restricted to certain urban districts and often made to wear some item of clothing to denote their trade.

For a few decades Parent-Duchâtelet’s system imposed on sex workers a bondage seldom paralleled in its degradation and severity, one ironically similar to that of the most cloistered convents. Helpless before the greed of their bordellos’ patronnes, most prostitutes lived in a state of humiliating indebtedness. They often did not even own their clothes; they were forced to “do” between a half-dozen and a dozen clients a night and to work throughout their menstrual periods. They were allowed an average of two outings a year (on July 14th, and for some religious observance or a death in the family).

Successful escapes were very rare, owing to the vigilance of the patronnes, who bribed police handsomely to track down any deserter; and chances of returning to a more normal life were made equally difficult by the police’s reluctance ever to delete a prostitute’s name from its registers—throughout the nineteenth century no more than an estimated 5 or 6 percent of filles publiques ever managed to have their names deleted.

Before he died of exhaustion at the age of forty-six, Parent-Duchâtelet (always accompanied, he prudishly insisted, by a member of the police force) visited brothels at every time of day or night to survey the magnificent orderliness of his achievement. According to this Linnaeus of prostitution, France’s growing number of registered whores (10,000 of them in Paris alone in 1836 by his estimate, 30,000 according to police records) contributed to “the maintenance of social harmony.” But as dictators know all too well the control of dangerous elements is made more efficient by rigorous classification. Beyond giving directions for their surveillance, Parent-Duchâtelet also created a new terminology for different kinds of working girls that would last into the twentieth century: filles en carte (duly registered whores); filles en numéro (those few lucky women who received a percentage of their clients’ payment from their patronnes;) insoumises or filles de barrières (literally, unregistered “street-walkers,” whose shameless flaunting of his system, in Parent-Duchâtelet’s view, made them “unworthy to appear on the registers of prostitution;”3 ) and the even more dangerous femmes galantes, femmes à parties, femmes de spectacle et de théâtre—those higher class sex workers or courtesans, later referred to as cocottes, mangeuses d’hommes, or grandes horizontales. These were considered by Parent-Duchâtelet the most subversive of the lot; for through their social mobility they threatened, like Zola’s Nana, to become “an offal which would rot the very aristocracy,” “a ferment of destruction” who could “corrupt and disorganize Paris through her milky thighs.”4

Each of the four books under review explores some aspect of France’s bordello culture during the July Monarchy and the Second Empire, including the misogynous social attitudes (succinctly expressed by Parent-Duchâtelet’s central metaphor of the whore-as-sewer) under which it flourished and the artistic works inspired by this vast sexual commerce. The most majestic, path-breaking, and taxing book of the lot is Alain Corbin’s Women for Hire, the first systematic investigation of the political and economic aspects of the French sex trade. Corbin, a professor of history at the Sorbonne, includes over two dozen graphs and tables illustrating such minutiae as the previous occupations of prostitutes at different moments of French history (domestic servants and garment workers were most numerous). He divides the history of the French prostitution business into three distinct phases: “Regulationism”—the strategy of strict confinement and concealment pioneered by Parent-Duchâtelet, which lasted until the late 1850s; “neo-regulationism,” the more tolerant system that evolved during the Second Empire and the Third Republic; and “sanitarism,” the even looser arrangements that emerged after World War I, aspects of which survive in France to this day.

Describing how Parent-Duchâtelet’s “regulationist” system became more tolerant after the 1850s, Corbin emphasizes the effects on Paris and other large French cities of the urban planning of Baron Haussmann, which resulted in the destruction of the very districts of the nation’s larger cities—the poorer neighborhoods in the centers of towns—in which maisons de tolérance had traditionally been situated. The rise in the cost of real estate was such that starting or even maintaining a tolérance became extremely risky.

From the 1860s on, various political pressure groups tried with some success to abolish the “white slave trade” of regulated bordellos. Seemingly oblivious to the greatly increased threat of venereal disease any such ban would bring, the nascent feminist movement organized a strong campaign to outlaw prostitution altogether; the increasingly powerful Socialist Party stopped short of abolition but lobbied to soften the regulations that had controlled sex workers during the July Monarchy.

By 1880, Parent-Duchâtelet’s enclosed maisons de tolérance had been replaced by a more loosely controlled network of maisons de passe or maisons de rendez-vous, bars, cafés-concert, brasseries à femmes, and by various clothing, millinery, and perfume shops (boutiques à surprise) where sexual trade went on in back rooms. By the 1900s numerous laws had been passed requiring that prostitutes must live outside the maisons de rendez-vous in which they worked. After 1910, supervision of bordellos became even more lax; the patrons or patronnes of various types of maisons were no longer required to obtain permission from the local préfecture and could admit unregistered prostitutes.

Neo-regulationism” made it possible for a growing number of women to avoid registration with the police—in 1892 the number of filles insoumises was estimated to be as high as 100,000 in Paris alone. Most prostitutes were now free to solicit clients in front of their hotels, or even on the grand boulevards designed by Haussmann to create a healthier, more decorous Paris. They were paid directly by their clients, and owed their keeper nothing more than the rental fee of their rooms. An interesting aspect of this neo-regulationist phase is that it created a far wider spectrum of sexual services. The grander maisons de tolérance, which continued to flourish after 1870, survived by becoming maisons de débauche, offering a variety of erotic refinements, perversions, and spectacles for high society voyeurs: tableaux vivants of nuns being raped, or lesbian scenes staged with leather straps and dildoes of British make. Grandly decorated rooms were designed for group sex or parties carrées (partner-swapping). To satisfy sadomasochists, machines were provided for giving localized electric shocks; and for those interested in bestiality Great Danes and Newfoundlands were particularly popular.

  1. 1

    Gustave Flaubert, Correspondence, edited by Jean Bruneau (Paris: Pleiades, 1989), Vol. II, pp. 340–341.

  2. 2

    See Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry, Frederique Delacoste and Priscilla Alexander, editors (Cleis Press, 1987). This is one of the better feminist anthologies on the theme of prostitution.

  3. 3

    Parent-Duchâtelet, De la Prostitution dans la ville de Paris, Vol. I, p. 128.

  4. 4

    Emile Zola, Nana (Paris: Editions Fasquelle, undated), p. 205.

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