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Âpres vertiges (Tough Times) Prostitutional arrangements and excesses during the second half of the nineteenth century


Covering the period from the 1850s until the eve of World War I, this book examines the second half of the nineteenth century with its intertwining of political stability and turmoil, economic prosperity and poverty, social traditions and upheavals , cultural classicism and avant-gardism. out of these contrasts, although tempered by mobile, nuanced interfaces, emerged the striking scenery of prostitution depicted in its plurality, ambivalence and emotional power. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, films, furniture and objects led to so many encounters with the protagonists of a shady world that intrigues, attracts, turns off, repulses, questions without ever becoming tiresome. This theory of eva-nescent powers, whereby sex is exchanged for money, bundles together prostitute(s) and client(s), as well as pimps and madams, councillors and police officers, actors and actresses, in the shadow and the bright light of a contested prostitutional order. Regulation, contestation by placing women and girl prostitutes under the supervision of the police des moeurs (vice squad), by forcing them to submit to medical checkups (1802), then by legalising the existence of brothels or maisons de tolérance (1804), the Consulate opted for a novel method of overseeing female prostitution outlined during the Revolutionary period. Regulationism met venal sexuality halfway by taking it in hand rather than banning it or trying to eradicate it. With this regulatory social mission to carry out, it was then regarded as a 'necessary evil' in the light of sexual demands consubstan-tial with virility. This doxa, reflecting ingrained beliefs with respect to differentiated sexual identities, persisted throughout the nineteenth century, and beyond. At the start of the Third Republic, Maxime Du Camp returned to the same type of topos in explaining prostitution in terms of 'the brutality of men's passions, the organic and moral weakness of women' . These prejudices, mixed with pragmatism, incited the authorities to present reg-ulationism, also developed in the colonies, as a public health measure helping to control venereal disease and liable to maintain the cosy family unit. The idea was first to identify and create a file for women engaged in debauchery, then to relegate them to specific locations. Placed under the watchful eye of doctors and police, the brothel was expected to optimise the system's efficiency. It fell to the mayors to draft their local byelaws and register the said filles soumises, the one exception being Paris, where this task was assigned to the chief of police. Women who applied to join a brothel were registered on the brothel-keeper's books and issued with a number, while those opting to be streetwalkers received a card listing their health and other obligations. So prostitutional activity per se was not an offence. However, it could become one, as a 'public offense against decency' under the criminal code of 1810, which also explicitly punished procuring when performed on minors under the age of twenty-one. Published in 1836, De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris, a veri-table sociological survey of prostitutes, left a lasting mark on minds and writings, and established its author, the physician Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet, as the iconic exponent of regulations. Paradoxically, it was when it was checked by the rise of illegal prostitution and the closing of many brothels that the 'French system' was exported to Victorian England. Feminists were mobilised, notably under the leadership of the Englishwoman Josephine butler and the Frenchwoman Maria Deraismes, and the protest movement built up momentum during the 1870s. The French model at that time crystallised the converging criticism from both men and women who called for its abolition in the name of women's dignity , family values, religion, as well as the upholding of common law and individual freedoms.
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hal-01353773 , version 1 (06-10-2017)


  • HAL Id : hal-01353773 , version 1


Gabrielle Houbre. Âpres vertiges (Tough Times) Prostitutional arrangements and excesses during the second half of the nineteenth century. Guy Cogeval. Splendeurs et Misères. Images de la prostitution, 1850-1910, Musée d’Orsay/Flammarion, pp.30-45, 2015, 0, 978-2-0831-7274-0. ⟨hal-01353773⟩
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