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If you walk along the banks of the Seine River, Montmartre, or around the Eiffel Tower, it is easy to spot couples of lovers everywhere. After all, Paris is the City of Love.
Communication services and tourist agencies carefully maintain the gentle and benevolent image of a Paris City of Love. Yet a century ago, this radiant reputation was not that of sincere love but rather that of mercenary love. For it was largely the expansion of the body trade in the 19th century that gave Paris its erotic, later romantic, aura.
How Prostitution Made Paris the City of Love
It was by the end of the 19th century that Paris established itself as Paris City of Love. At that time, France was under the Third Empire, sideburns were in fashion, and the Parisian society and moral codes were very different from what we know today.
In the Paris of the Third Empire, the married couple was not the place of carnal desire. ‘If a wife destined to be honest sought to provoke the desire of her husband, she could attract the discontent of him.’
To avoid this unwanted situation, husbands in Paris made extensive use of the ‘asphalteuses,’ ‘lorettes,’ ‘pierreuses’… in other words, prostitutes.
There was a clear division of women between whores and household angels. Wives had to be respected and treated like pretty dolls, while the prostitutes or women with a sexual life out of marriage were the women with whom men experienced sexual pleasure but also love passion.
The bourgeois wife had to stay at home and take care of it. At that time, women in Paris could not go to a café or a restaurant alone without risking being considered a ‘femme de petite vertu’ (woman of little virtue). On the other side, it was common to see in these places honest men in the company of courtesans without the need to hide it.
This social phenomenon was similar in other big cities like Berlin or New York, with the difference that it was much more visible in Paris. Here’s why:
Paris and the Haussmann Works
By the end of the 19th century, the French capital was overcrowded, dingy, dirty, and riddled with disease. Why, Emperor Bonaparte pondered, was it not more like London, with its grand parks and gardens, its tree-lined avenues, and modern sewage system? Paris, he declared, needed light, air, clean water, and good sanitation.
Napoleon III commissioned Baron Haussmann to clean up and embellish Paris. Haussmann cut a swath through the cramped and chaotic labyrinth of slum streets in medieval Paris, knocked down 12,000 buildings, cleared space for the Opera Garnier and Les Halles marketplace, and linked the new train terminals with his long, wide, and straight avenues.
The winding and dirty streets of medieval Paris were home to the prostitutes. Chassed from their former territories, a real female migration then took place from these districts towards the boulevards of the Madeleine, des Capucines, des Italiens … These were the ‘asphalteuses’.
Just behind these boulevards, it was easy to find brothels of all kinds and budgets. Cafés and restaurants were places of culinary tourism as well as important places of prostitution, while balls or café-concerts mingled gallant men and public girls.
Prostitution activity in Paris of the Third Empire also grew up because there were a large number of single people, especially migrants, militaries, students, and especially workers. The Haussmann works was the most extensive public works program ever carried out in a European city, turning Paris into a vast building site for more than 17 years and attracting workers from all of France and Europe who wanted to have fun after their working day.
Paris and the World Fairs
During the Third Empire, the phenomenon of sex tourism was particularly significant during the World Fairs and other important fairs in Paris, and the French capital was known as ‘the brothel of Europe.’ Historians count 2,650 official prostitutes in Paris in 1878 and 6,000 in 1900!
Even the Tsar, during the Paris World Fair of 1867, only granted a quick visit to the various pavilions for the benefit of a dinner at the Café Anglais, a performance of The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein at the Théâtre des Variétés and two visits to the Mabille ball.
It was also around these World Fairs when the first ‘prostitution guides’ of Paris appeared and were translated into different languages. These guides claimed to be ‘for the exclusive use of men’ and only indicated ‘places of pleasure where a man cannot lead his legitimate wife and children.’
How Paris Capital of Prostitution became Paris City of Love
The evolution of Parisian women in society has enabled the City of Light to go from the ‘European brothel’ to the romantic city par excellence. Parisian women emancipate and also populate public places like cafés or restaurants. These women marry for love, to men with whom they can live a passion.
Also, the city became a muse for lots of national and international artists. Therefore, all the romanticism and inspiration are somewhat shown in their works.