When Paris was the Whorehouse of Europe

Vers le Sud by Laurent Cantet, Lady Bar by Xavier Durringer, Paradise: amour by Ulrich Seidl… These films, among others made over the last two decades, have featured the sex tourism of Europeans on different continents. In fact, sex tourism is almost exclusively viewed as a practice of travellers from Western or industrialised countries toward emerging countries – the Caribbean and South-East Asia in particular. But at the end of the 19th century, it was not Pattaya, Marrakech or Béjaïa, but rather Paris that attracted tourists eager for carnal pleasures.

The extension of the French and European rail network, the improvement and development of the Parisian hotel industry, and the Universal Expositions made Haussmannian Paris one of the main tourist destinations of the time. However, in the second half of the 19th century, the cultural tourism celebrating Parisian heritage sites and the cultural and intellectual offer of the capital was gradually replaced by recreational tourism oriented towards leisure. In this entertainment tourism, visiting Parisian places for soliciting and prostitution, as well as carnal knowledge of “the Parisian woman”, played a considerable role.ris au XIXe siècle, Paris : Vendémiaire.

  • Gonzalez-Quijano L., 2015, Paris, capitale de l’amour. Filles et lieux de plaisir à Paris au XIXe siècle, Paris : Vendémiaire.


La Vie Parisienne: the Erotic and Joyful Imaginary of the Capital

“What I want from you, Paris/what I want, are your women/ Not the bourgeois women, nor great ladies/ But the others…you will understand what I mean” sings the Brazilian in Offenbach’s Parisian Life when he arrives at the western train station (Act 1, scene 12). Parisians are joyous and Paris is the city where people enjoy themselves. Many of the city’s visitors see her only as an entry point to the pleasures and enjoyments unknown in the provinces or abroad. Even the Tsar, during the 1867 Universal Exhibition, granted only gave a quick visit to the various pavilions, so he could have time for a dinner at the Café Anglais, a performance of La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein at the Théâtre des Variétés and two visits to the Mabille Ball. His interests were similar to those of more anonymous Russian tourists who, at the end of the century, were fascinated by the grand boulevards and considered it essential to visit the Opera and the Comédie-Française.

In the second half of the 19th century, the construction or rather the literary and dramatic amplification of a Paris of pleasures and its busy, exciting and carefree Parisian life had very real consequences, which can only be understood as part of the influence of French culture of the time. French authors were massively read and translated, while plays created in Paris were performed in a large number of capital cities. For example, Jacques Offenbach’s La Vie parisienne triumphed not only in Paris but also in Brussels, Vienna and Berlin – where it was performed more than two hundred times. French literature and France’s dramatic and lyrical repertoire deeply permeated European and even worldwide imaginations, to the point of making Paris into a gigantic amusement park, a city that lives only for pleasure and amusement. And many travellers, like the Swedish Baron de Gondremarck, invented by Offenbach, have only one intention: “to get really screwed” (Act 2, scene 6).

What to Know, What to Do: Practical Guides to Carnal Pleasure

To help them discover Paris, a whole series of tourist guides were published in the second half of the century. They claimed to be “for the exclusive use of men” and indicated only “places of pleasure where a man cannot take his legitimate wife and children.” Written in French but also in foreign languages, they have evocative titles such as Paris-fêtard : guide secret de tous les plaisirsNocturnal Pleasures of Paris or The gentlemen’s night guide : The gay women of Paris and Brussels….to which is added a faithful description of the night amusements, in those gay capitals, and the Guide secret pour étrangers et viveurs : Secret Directory of foreigner Bachelor in Paris : Zerstreuen amüsieren : Casas nocturnas : Nocturnal pleasure.

CC Wikimedia Commons Émile Bernard

These guides for provincial or foreign tourists describe the same places as the more general guides – cafés, restaurants, theatres, concert cafés, etc. –but they highlight above all the enterprising women who visit them. They do not hesitate to advise and warn their readers of the risks they may incur. The last chapter of Alfred Delvau’s Guide des plaisirs de Paris is entitled “Women’s Deceptions of Sentiment” and reveals some of the tricks that public girls and enterprising Parisian women used to extract the most money from their clients. This 1908 guidebook also warns its readers against entôlage (a prostitute stealing from her client) and recommends, “beware of ladies who make you drink and who play it up too much in private rooms. If you are too weak regarding the fair sex, carefully refrain from carrying a lot of money and leave your values at your hotel.”

Foreign clients were in fact highly sought after by both public girls and prostitutes. Usually coming to Paris for a short period of time, determined to have a good time and not very familiar with the prices and fares normally charged, the women hoped for high profits, or even an unexpected rise in social status at the hands of extremely rich and sentimental gentlemen or flamboyant foreigners. The situation was such that Parisians who frequented these public women complained about it: Maupassant protested in 1878 to Gustave Flaubert against the increase in the price of prostitutes and the fact that they were all monopolized by foreigners.

Tourism for Pleasure and Prostitution

CC PxHere

Sex tourism was particularly important during the five Universal Exhibitions. Many guides to the pleasures of Paris were published in those years. During the 1889 Universal Exhibition, 17 brothels were created, bringing the number of Parisian brothels to 70. But by 1890, only 58 remained. It would seem that some were only opened to exploit the tourist windfall of the Universal Exhibition or that some decided to close shop after taking advantage of an exceptional year.

The development of this sex tourism also pushed the boundaries of leisure tourism: some places for prostitution or gallantry become tourist places, without necessarily consummation. The mansion of the great courtesan of the Second Empire, La Païva, became a restaurant indicated as such in the Paris-Parisien guidebook: “In the former mansion of Countess Henckel of Donnersmarck (La Païva). – Parisian curiosity (you can dine in the old bathroom, etc.). Very elegant; many foreigners; music.” In the 1930s, travel agencies presented luxury brothels as curiosities of the capital and tourist coaches went there: the price to visit was 35 francs for the one at rue des Moulins and 50 francs rue du Chabanais (whereas to go upstairs with a girl, the price was 20 francs).

CC Wikimedia Commons
Leonetto Cappiello

However, the imaginary around the “Parisienne woman” and the capital of pleasures did not only benefit brothels and prostitutes. An entire part of the entertainment and leisure industry specialized in the evocation and sale of these souvenir-images of Paris. Pornography also profited from flood of tourists and an abundant clandestine production was, for example, intended for visitors to the 1900 Universal Exhibition. To attract tourists to their establishments, theatre and show directors literally litter disseminated scenes of welcoming and scantily clad women; they played on this imaginary of a Paris having a good time, the enjoyment and sexual license that were supposed to prevail there. Les Folies-Bergère featured shows about these hedonistic representations of Paris (Cythère, Montmartre, Les Grandes Courtisanes), while Mademoiselle de Presles skilfully undressed in a show entitled Réveil d’une Parisienne [the Awakening of a Parisian Woman].

Statistics are lacking to quantify the phenomenon of sex tourism that affected the capital in the second half of the 19th century. But this dynamic between the libertine imaginary of Paris and tourism can be seen through the “souvenirs of Paris,” and in particular illustrated postcards. They were enormously successful in France as soon as they appeared in 1880 and millions were shipped during the Belle Époque. Among the countless cards dedicated to the capital, there were fanciful series such as La Tournée des grands-ducs and Les Bas-fonds de la vie parisienne, erotic postcards entitled Les Vestales parisiennes and Les déshabillées de la Parisienne, advertising cards distributed by brothel or meeting houses. These cards were sometimes kept as souvenirs but most often sent to illustrate a Parisian trip and its enjoyments.

Tourists and travellers thus collaborated in the construction of this discourse on entertainment in the capital, of which they were perhaps the first to be taken in, but which they generally hastened to reinforce upon their return. This imaginary was stimulated and maintained by pimps and other sex workers; especially so by the various sectors of the leisure industry (hotels, restaurants, shows, etc.). They were at the origin of so many visits to the capital that can really be termed sex tourism in referring to the enthusiasm for Paris.

Crédits image à la Une : CC Wikimedia Commons Toulouse Lautrec et crédits image d’entrée : CC Patrick Mignard pour Mondes Sociaux

Citer ce billet
Lola Gonzalez (2019, 24 janvier). When Paris was the Whorehouse of Europe. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 29 mai 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/u9c1

Lola Gonzalez

Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, LabEx SMS (l.gonzalezquijano@gmail.com)

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