26 November 2008

Social Taboos: Brothels

By Jennifer Linforth

The brothel of the 19th century was place of relaxation--ordinary and commonplace. Though not blatantly labeled on any maps, their locations were well known. Controlled and efficient, the brothels of Paris were a well organized business venture both for the clients and the employees.

(Image: 1894, Toulouse-Latrec)

Brothel tokens jingled among coins in the pockets of many noblemen--young and old alike. Historically they catered to the rich, until all classes became involved and a department store attitude was developed. The quality of brothels differed to suit their clientele. The luxury brothels served the bourgeois offering plush and elaborate settings and equally exotic sexual experiences. These cost up to 100 franc a night. Opposite this was the common whorehouse. For 5-10 francs a gentleman could have his encounter and be on his way, perhaps even to the lowest of brothels--the low class whorehouse that cost a mere franc.

Running it like any well oiled business, the mistress of the brothel was the head of household. Meeting and greeting the clients, she chose the correct prostitute for those filling her pocket. These prostitutes were above their unregistered sisters—the mere streetwalkers--for they were treated far better. All those working in the brothels were registered with the Gendarmerie Royal and the prefecture of police. In 1850 Paris was estimated to have 34,000 prostitutes. The official brothel numbers in Paris: 1810=180; 1840=200; 1870=145; 1881=125; 1892=59; between 1871-1903 155,000 women were registered as prostitutes.

The public started to frown upon brothels and this social outcry resulted in the brothel being a scar on the landscape of society. Therefore the brothel, once obviously flaunted in Paris, was required to be inconspicuous come mid 1820s.

By the latter half of the century, while there was still sexual freedom, views of the moral standing on promiscuity became more prevalent. In a study in 1883 by Pierre Veron, adultery after marriage was inevitable. Men placed fidelity first as a quality sought in a wife, but 84% thought it was possible to deceive one's wife without ceasing to love her. Eighteen percent of women agreed. "I make love to my wife when I want a child... the rest of the time I make love with my mistresses," one industrialist was quoted in 1880. "Wives are to produce heirs. For pleasure men seek mistresses...

...and therefore seek the brothel...."