A Naughty Parisian History Primer

ImageIf Parisians seem more sexually sophisticated than their anglo-Saxon counterparts, it’s only because they’ve had a long time to perfect their naughty ways. Paris is a city where the quest for joie de vivre has long been taken to its debauched extremes, with a reputation as a capital of forbidden pleasures and illicit indulgences spanning centuries. From royal dalliances of Reine Margot in the 16th century to the high-class brothels of the early 20th century, even today we remain enchanted and fascinated by the tales of those who once made Paris their playground for erotic exploits.

The Age of (Sexual) Enlightenment

Naughtiness is as old as the city itself, but it wasn’t until the social and moral upheavals of the 18th century that Parisians began openly practicing what was once carefully hidden behind locked doors. Inspired by the enlightenment ideals of atheism and antiroyalism, the pre-revolutionary intellectuals known as “libertins” denounced religious conventions such as chastity and monogamy. As opposition to the Church and King continued to grow, support for legalized prostitution and liberal sexual practices spread through the city’s fashionable circles. A whole new code of seduction – manipulative, self-serving, and heartless – was defined by Choderlos de laclos’ influential novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”  “Pleasure at any price” (Plaisir a tout prix) became a common motto among the nobility, taken to its sadistic extremes by the infamous Marquis de Sade, who spent thirty years of his life imprisoned for his pornographic writings and sexually violent perversions

The Sexual Revolution

When the city’s politics spiraled out of control during the 1789 Revolution and the subsequent Terror, sexual liberty became as much a part of the innate rights of man as liberté, egalité, or fraternité. Prostitution and pornography flourished, and nightly erotic ‘shows’ were conducted in such public areas as the Palais-royal and the Place Dauphine. Women could be found for the willing in one of the many burgeoning brothels or cruising the streets near a hotel de passe that rented rooms by the hour. Though the same vices could be found in cities around the world, Paris began to set itself apart from other European capitals with its unabashed view of sexuality. Unhampered by secrecy, the French reveled – and still do, to a certain extent – in flaunting their liberal beliefs and hedonistic activities as evidence of their lack of Puritanical prudery.

Parisian Brothels

After the chaos of the revolution, the empire imposed its own sense of order on the new sexual mores of the city in the 19th century. More than 180 of the infamous “maisons de tolerance,” brothels legally registered by the State, were operating in Paris by 1810. Strictly regulated by French law, each employee was registered and weekly health-inspections were mandatory. Most brothels were found in the artistic enclaves of Montmartre and Montparnasse, offering customers the realization of their wildest fantasies – for the right price. Costumes, theatre sets, and a plethora of women and boys were kept at hand to reenact any flight of fancy. Their opulent settings and cabaret entertainment attracted some of the most illustrious figures of the early 20th century…

Cabarets and Cancans

The French cabaret scene emerged alongside the brothels at the end of the 19th century, particularly in Montmartre’s red-light district of Pigalle. This colorful and raunchy world, immortalized in the paintings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, allowed men and women of all classes to escape the usual rules and social barriers. The brothel girls who made up the original dancers at the famous Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889, performed a vulgar and provocative interpretation of the traditional working-class party dance known as the Cancan. Audiences were both shocked and enthralled. In a Parisian nightlife guide published in 1898, the French Cancan dancers are described as “an army of young girls who dance this divine hullabaloo… With such elasticity when they launch their legs upwards that we may presume that they are at least as flexible with their morals.” As the popularity of dance hall entertainment grew, the “working girls” were replaced by the professional dancers who continue to impress us today with synchronized high kicks, rather than sexual high jinks.

19th-century Courtesans

Somewhere between the low-brow world of brothels and the respectable world of the haute monde, were the pampered ladies of the demimonde. Also known as les Grandes Horizontales, these courtesans became a mainstay of high society, Always in the public eye despite their notoriety and questionable morals. The era’s best-known demimondaines were Marie Duplessis, la Présidente, la Païva and Cora Pearl, veritable celebrities who were wooed publicly by men such as Charles Baudelaire and Prince Napoléon. Neither prostitutes nor mistresses, they lived extravagantly on the favors of their rich lovers and enjoyed a level of freedom from the strict social codes that upper class women were expected to follow.

The Crazy Years

After the hardships of the Great War, Paris rebounded with another wave of joyous hedonism known as Les Années Folles. An influx of pleasure-seeking Americans, fleeing Prohibition and close-mindedness back home, arrived just in time to take advantage of the laissez-faire party atmosphere and the dollar’s strong exchange rate. The prominence of eroticism and liberal sexuality inspired the works of writers and artists such as Henry miller, Anaïs Nin, Man Ray, Brassaï, and the Surrealist intellectual Andre Breton, who viewed sex as the most important of man’s irrational urges. Famous lesbians like Gertrude Stein and the wild child Natalie Barney lived their lifestyle openly, hosting influential salons in their Montparnasse homes, while the young African-American dancer Josephine Baker became an overnight sex symbol when her 1925 Revue Nègre debuted at the théâtre des Champs-elysées. The emergence during this period of the first “made in Paris” pornographic films and electronic vibrators finally sealed the city’s reputation as the European capital of naughtiness. Black Tuesday brought an end to the free-flowing Champagne in 1929, but the spirit of the times lived on in novels such as Henry miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”

The Rise & Fall

The popularity of Paris as a destination for carnal diversions gave rise to a whole new industry of travel guides catering to male visitors. In Bruce reynolds’ 1927 guidebook, Paris with the Lid Lifted, American and English travelers were walked through such delicate social interactions as picking up a Parisian woman or finding and utilizing the services of the neighborhood brothel. As other industries (and countries) crumbled during the World Wars, the Parisian sex industry continued to thrive during the Occupation with brothels that catered specifically to Officers or other ranks, as well as to their usual clients. Arletty, an ex-prostitute and later star of “Les Enfants du Paradise,” summed it up: “my heart is French, but my ass belongs to the world.” But after the liberation, this lax attitude toward enemy relations was just another reason to close down the brothels for good. In 1946 French authorities – acting on the orders of Marthe Richard, an influential World War i spy and ex-prostitute – shut down the “maisons de tolerance” and auctioned off their glitzy interiors. Far from putting an end to the sexual activities of Parisians and visitors, however, these closures merely pushed traditional prostitution underground, while opening avenues for new expressions of eroticism.

Cultural Revolution

Undeterred by Marthe Richard and her name-bearing law, Paris kept her place in lascivious circles with her leading role in the cultural revolutions that would eventually loosen the binds of a very conservative post-war France. Existentialist writer Simone de Beauvoir gained fame in 1949 for her feminist treatise “The Second Sex,” as well as for her “untraditional” lifelong relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. In the 1950s, the original Paris-based Olympia Press published erotic and controversial novels including Nabokov’s “Lolita,” J. P. Donleavy’s “Ginger Man,” and Pauline Réage’s “Story of O.”  But the French were uncharacteristically behind their anglophone contemporaries on one front, only approving the sale of the birth control pill in 1967. Students at the University of Paris, protesting their institutionalized “sexual repression” symbolized by the separate academic buildings for men and women, sparked nationwide general strikes in May 1968 that would eventually usher in a new era of free love and liberal thinking. Sexual liberation was so much at the forefront of the French social culture of the time that film censorship was almost entirely removed in 1973, a year later the controversial soft porn film Emmanuelle (based on the 1957 novel by Emmanuelle Arsan) became an overnight success, with more than 50 million spectators around the world, a dozen spin-offs, and a decade-long run…

Modern Naughtiness

Today, many of promiscuous Paris’ landmarks bear little resemblance to their past selves, and visitors seeking the sublime often find that the erotic has long since given way to the hardcore. Pigalle is overrun with peep shows, “hostess” bars, and their pushy sidewalk hustlers preying on unsuspecting male passers-by and since the intervention of Marthe Richard, Parisian brothels and prostitution along the rue St-Denis have been almost wholly appropriated by street pimps and impoverished immigrants. On the flip side, sexuality is such a commonplace and commercialized aspect of the modern cityscape that it’s become almost banal.


Excerpted from “Naughty Paris, a lady’s guide to the Sexy City.”  on sale at WHSmiths Bookshop,  248 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris

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