CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1This book explores a subject seldom addressed in history of the French Revolution: the classic thesis that prostitution was liberalized during the French Revolution against a backdrop of ideological collusion between political anarchy and absolute freedom in the sphere of mores. The author contends that rather than liberating prostitution, the Revolution gave rise to the first set of policies for decriminalizing it, meanwhile regulating it through a new system of control.

2Her analysis of the phenomenon of prostitution makes amends for prostitutes’ invisibility while rejecting caricatures of their activity. The questions the author seeks to answer are clearly defined: What role did the Revolution play with regard to prostitution? Was decriminalization itself a revolution? In answering them, she puts forward a history of citizenship at the time of the Revolution – a matter of which we know little, she affirms.

3C. Plumauzille is obviously not interested in judging prostitution but rather in discussing what the term meant and the experiences it covered. The point is to construct the concept of prostitution during the Revolutionary experience rather than to consider the phenomenon a pre-established category. This methodological pre-supposition necessitates a multidimensional approach: analysis of existing historiography, attention to legal frameworks and how they were applied in the field, study of interactions between institutional actors and women designated prostitutes, a concern to understand the modes of existence involved in the experience of prostitution, attention to prostitutes’ own words, their practices and their capacity for action.

4The book focuses on Revolutionary Paris, an excellent site for studying the problem of prostitution and how it was policed. Part I (Chapters 1-3) is essentially descriptive; Part II (Chapters 4 and 5) presents events chronologically; Part III (Chapters 6 and 7) analyses prostitution as a condition of “diminished citizenship”.

5Chapter 1 undertakes a quantitative assessment of the population of “public women” in Paris based on police and prison records; it is also attentive to institutional issues specific to this categorization. Chapter 2 studies the general “distribution” of the phenomenon in France’s capital city: the fantasy of the “New Babylon” but also an indication of the real supply of sexual services available in specific places whereas prostitution seemed an integral part of the urban fabric. Chapter 3 details the components of a sexual culture, the culture of “popular- class” urban life that took over in the new public space created by Revolutionary egalitarianism. That culture developed out of the tension between a newly emerging collective space in which behaviour was changing and police redefinitions of urban moral order.

6Chapter 4 opens Part II on decriminalization. Since there are no available legislative sources, this part is based on parliamentary debates and the regulatory production of the police administration. From 1789 to 1792 a “legal silence” reigned: prostitution was not debated in parliament and did not figure on the policy agenda. The author seeks to understand that political silence. Was it voluntary? Did it aim to make prostitution invisible or to free it from state control?

7The period of silence was followed by an administrative approach – the title and subject of Chapter 5, which discusses the period 1793-1799. The year 1793 put an end to the liberalization of prostitution. The government that had organized the Terror wanted to rid the nation of socially and morally unassimilable elements. The point was to clarify the notions of good and bad citizen, to distinguish between the two, and so to provide a foundation for the practice of good republican morals and behaviour.

8The third and last part of the book opens with a detailed analysis of police action for combatting prostitution. Throughout it, the author’s approach is socio- historical: the women designated in police records as “public women” are studied by way of their relations with the institution that was instrumental in defining them as such. Daily police work went together with Parisians’ increasing intolerance of prostitution in the city, creating a set of intertwined dynamics that worked to eradicate public prostitution and exclude its practitioners. “Honest citizens” were concerned about the visibility of prostitution in public space and the scandal it created. Meanwhile moralizers of every stripe, through their discourses and practices, developed new frameworks for combating prostitution, thereby compensating for the “legal silence” identified and studied in Part II.

9Chapter 7 centres on the empirical process by which “public woman” were identified and arrested; the author studies how they came to be branded as such. On the basis of a qualitative study of police reports, Plumauzille sketches out the contours of police action, police thinking, and the criteria of the categorization applied. She also assesses the individual experiences and trajectories of women labelled “public”.

10She concludes by recalling that in the decade following the events of 1789, treatment of prostitution was divided between a liberally inclined legal regime and police and administrative handling that perpetuated the stigmatization of “public women” in a self-proclaimed “regenerated” society. Despite this tension, the author contends, the Revolutionary decade was a period in which the status of prostitutes in society was redefined and surveillance and control of their activity reorganized in connection with the new issues involved in administering an unprecedented space of liberty.

11The reader will readily perceive the coherence and of course the interest of this study. The different methodological approaches used to grasp the subtle dialectic linking or opposing individual behaviour and administrative action – a dialectic that constitutes the veritable backbone of the author’s thinking – enable her to encompass the many different aspects of the prostitution issue during the Revolutionary decade.

12C. Plumauzille claims that her work sheds light on a veritable blind spot in current historiography of prostitution. She has given us a new view of the problem – long overdue – and her holistic approach, transcending the dry meticulousness of her sources, together with her use of well-established historiographical methods that make the most of connections with such related disciplines as demography and sociology are all major strengths of the book.

13The work does elicit a few general questions, however. Could this kind of thinking on the Revolutionary period be applied to other historical periods, some of which have already been explored in detail but without the tools used here? What would happen if we asked the same type of questions about other but likewise agitated periods? Would we find a similar fit in them between types of experience and institutional frameworks? Would we find the same dialectic of the individual confronted with and confronting norms or laws?

14In conclusion, it is worthwhile noting the prolific, extremely useful bibliography, organized by topic, and the ever precise and well-documented historiographical references. Recommended reading.

Uploaded on on 25/08/2017
Distribution électronique pour Ined Editions © Ined Editions. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait