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    Classifying the prostitute in eighteenth-century France

    Lewis, Ann (2012) Classifying the prostitute in eighteenth-century France. In: Lewis, Ann and Ellis, M. (eds.) Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture: Sex, Commerce and Morality. The Body, Gender and Culture 7. London: Pickering & Chatto, pp. 17-32. ISBN 9781848931343.

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    In his proposal for the reform of prostitution, 'Le Pornographe' (1769), Rétif de la Bretonne classifies twelve different types of prostitute to be found in eighteenth-century Paris – a schema which is reworked in later editions of this text. Louis-Sébastien Mercier provides a similar ‘haut gradin pyramidal’ in his 'Tableau de Paris' (1782-1788), although using a different set of terms. These texts interestingly suggest that the ‘prostitute’ could be perceived as a category notwithstanding the gulf separating the ‘fille entretenue’, ‘courtisane’ or actress from the common streetwalker (‘gouines’, ‘barboteuses’, etc.), or the fact that legally speaking, the crime (or definition) of prostitution was notoriously vague. These taxonomies also bring out the hierarchy – or ‘class structure’ – subtending the activity of prostitution. In this article, focusing on a selection of texts by Rétif and Mercier, I explore the shifting, and at times contradictory, ways in which these different ‘classes’ of prostitute are defined. I also examine the complex ways in which the representation of the prostitute is used to articulate anxieties relating to the structuring of society more generally: the terminology of ‘rang’, ‘classe’, ‘condition’ being used in both cases. In this respect, the figure of the prostitute functions symbolically at many levels. The rapidity with which she ascends/descends the ranks, and her cult of ‘appearance’ and ‘luxe’, evoke the spectre of social disorder, and of female ‘emancipation’. The recurring comparison between the low-class prostitute (who works as a necessity rather than by choice) with aristocratic ladies, whose ‘libertine’ behaviour is described as indistinguishable from that of prostitutes, functions polemically as a form of moral and social critique. These representations cannot, of course, be seen as direct reflections of social reality. But their mediation of a range of cultural anxieties relating to social order, family values, and the position of women in society, brings the question of class into sharp relief.


    Item Type: Book Section
    Keyword(s) / Subject(s): Rétif de la Bretonne, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, 'Le Pornographe', 'Le Tableau de Paris', prostitution, gender studies, eighteenth-century France
    School: Birkbeck Faculties and Schools > Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences > School of Creative Arts, Culture and Communication
    Research Centres and Institutes: Gender and Sexuality, Birkbeck (BiGS), Social Research, Birkbeck Institute for (BISR), Aesthetics of Kinship and Community, Birkbeck Research in (BRAKC)
    Depositing User: Ann Lewis
    Date Deposited: 29 Nov 2013 09:41
    Last Modified: 09 Aug 2023 12:32


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