The Elite Prostitutes of 18th-century Paris—and the Detectives Who Watched Their Every Move

Then, again.
April 15 2014 11:37 PM

The Case of the Closely Watched Courtesans

The French police obsessively tracked the kept women of 18th-century Paris. Why?

Resting Girl, probably a portrait of Marie-Louise O'Murphy, mistress to Louis XV of France.
Resting Girl, probably a portrait of Marie-Louise O'Murphy, mistress to Louis XV of France.

Painting by François Boucher. Image courtesy of Wallraf-Richartz-Museum/Creative Commons

An hour with a prostitute costs on average $150, though prices can range from as low as $5 for a single sex act to $1,000 an hour, the going rate for “high-end” online escort services in Miami. Many of those in the sex trade were encouraged by family members to take up sex work. Pimps rely as much if not more on emotional manipulation than physical violence to control their sex workers.

These are some of the findings of a recently released study by the Urban Institute describing the structure of the underground commercial sexual economy—street and Internet prostitution, escort services, massage parlors, brothels, and child pornography—in eight major cities across the U.S. Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the report is unprecedented in its scope and depth: It will surely change how both lawmakers and law enforcers think about the sex trade and shape their approaches to control it.

Trying to understand the underground sex economy, however, is as old as police work itself. One of the very first police forces in the Western world emerged in 18th-century Paris, and one of its vice units asked many of the same questions as the Urban Institute authors: How much do sex workers earn? Why do they turn to sex work in the first place? What are their relationships with their employers?  

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And yet, unlike the Urban Institute researchers, who undertook their study in the hope that a better understanding of how this underground economy functions might lead to better public policy, this Parisian vice unit had more nebulous motives. Its inspectors compiled vast dossiers of information on the city’s elite sex workers and their patrons. But they rarely acted on that information. To this day, it remains a mystery why the Parisian police spent so much time and effort observing an underground economy it apparently had no interest in curtailing. But their files are an historian’s dream. They paint a vivid portrait of 18th-century Parisian life and offer a particularly fascinating view of the city’s elite sex workers, who had greater social mobility than most women in that period.

* * *

The focus of this particular vice unit was the demimonde, the world of elite prostitution. The policing of street prostitution and brothels that catered to men of little means were left to other police personnel, who were far more aggressive in their tactics. They apprehended street prostitutes and those who worked in taverns. They raided and shut down brothels, bringing all those arrested women—prostitutes and petty madams alike—to police court where they were tried en masse and then taken, heads shaved, to serve time in Paris’ famous women’s prison, La Salpêtrière.

Elite prostitution was treated differently. Certain brothels that catered to the male elite were allowed to operate. It was one duty of the vice unit’s inspectors to make sure the madams of these “authorized” brothels abided by certain rules, one of which was to supply the inspectors with a steady stream of information. But most of the unit’s energy was spent watching a particular group of elite prostitutes that worked as professional mistresses. Called kept women (the French term is dames entretenues), these women (and girls) provided sex, company, and sometimes even love for elite men in exchange for being “kept,” financially supported so that they could establish and maintain a household. La galanterie, the practice of being or keeping a mistress, was not illegal, even while prostitution was.

A View of Paris With the Île de la Cité, 1763.
A View of Paris With the Île de la Cité, 1763.

Painting by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet. Image courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum/Creative Commons

The vice unit, which operated from 1747 to 1771, turned out thousands of hand-written pages detailing what these dames entretenues did. Being kept in the 18th century was not a profession in the modern sense of the term, but it was a job. What was sold was standardized: sex, company, the pretense of affection, and usually the illusion that the patron was the center of the mistress’s world. Kept women had oral contracts with their patrons, which stipulated how much the mistress would be paid each month, and whether the patron would set his mistress up in an apartment, buy her new furnishings, pay her bills, and give her gifts. The mistress’ duties were not delineated but rather were “understood,” leaving a great deal of room for misunderstanding.

In following kept women about Paris, the police, much like the authors of the Urban Institute report, were interested in every aspect of these women’s professional and personal lives, from their entry into sex work to the intimate details of their relationships with their patrons. They gathered biographical and financial data on the men who hired kept women—princes, peers of the realm, army officers, financiers, and their sons, a veritable “who’s who” of high society, or le monde. Assembling all of this information required cultivating extensive spy networks. Making it intelligible required certain bureaucratic developments: These inspectors perfected the genre of the report and the information management system of the dossier. These forms of “police writing,” as one scholar has described them, had been emerging for a while. But they took a giant leap forward at midcentury, with the work of several Paris police inspectors, including Inspector Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, the officer in charge of this vice unit from its inception until 1759. Meusnier and his successor also had clear literary talent; the reports are extremely well written, replete with irony, clever turns of phrase, and even narrative tension—at times, they read like novels.

* * *

Here is an example. In 1752, Inspector Meusnier wrote a report about a woman named Demoiselle Blanchefort. It was the first of at least 20 that came to make up her file, covering more than a decade of her life in elite sex work. The first report was a sort of back history, which the inspector tried to assemble on most of his subjects. It explained how the subject under surveillance came to be an elite prostitute. Blanchefort, Meusnier wrote, was the daughter of a surgeon in Angers, a city in western France. Surgeon in this period was not yet a high-status profession. It was closer to the artisan than the professional, still linked in popular thinking with barber—the red and white strips of the barber’s pole represented the blood and bandages once associated with the trade. Blanchefort, like most kept women, was from the lower middle of the social spectrum. The inspector did not seem to know her real name, or how or why she came to Paris, but he was able to trace her once she became an elite sex worker at the brothel of Madam Carlier, where she took the name “Victoire.” Victoire was not a virgin, claimed Meusnier. Brothels were not supposed to take virgins as workers, though they often did and with police cognizance. The report, as with most reports, justified why it was permissible, in the state’s eyes, for Blanchefort to be a prostitute. Her virginity gone, she was “ruined,” theoretically unfit for marriage.

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