Prostitution in France

 [The author of this report, William Acton, was a serious student of prostitution who campaigned for its regulation in London. In that connection he published a detailed survey of English prostitution in 1857, and compared it to systems elsewhere. Below appears his account of legalized prostitution in Paris in the 1850s.]

The great object of the system adopted in France is to repress private or secret, and to encourage public or avowed prostitution.

I may, however, as well premise by observing that the authorities of Paris by no means pretend to have established a control over the whole prostitution of that city. The concubinaires (kept mistresses) they cannot reach. The large sections of superior professional prostitutes, whom the French term femmes galantes (gay women) and lorettes (women of easy virtue), evade them, as do also vast hordes of the lowest class of strumpets who throng the low quarters and the villages of the Banlieue....

The official registration of common prostitutes.. is now either on the voluntary demand of the female or by requisition of the Bureau des Moeurs (Bureau of Public Morals). On appearing before this tribunal, the candidate, after declaring her name, age, quality, birth-place, occupation, and domicile, is submitted to a searching examination, as follows. Is she married or single? Has she a father and mother living, and what are their pursuits? Does she reside with them; if not, why not, and when did she leave them? Has she children? How long has she inhabited Paris, and can she be owned there? Has she ever been arrested, and if so, the particulars? Has she previously been a prostitute; if so, the details? Has she had any, and what, education? Has she had any venereal infection? Her motives for the step?

She next proceeds to the Bureau Sanitaire, is medically examined, and enrolled in that department. If found diseased, she is consigned to the Saint-Lazare Hospital forthwith. Steps are meanwhile taken to verify her replies at the Bureau des Moeurs, and formal communications are now made to the mayor of her native commune, and an appeal for the woman's redemption to her parents....

Should the relatives of the girl be willing to receive her, she is remitted to them at the public cost. She, however, frequently refuses to disclose them, or is ignorant of their existence, and it rarely occurs that they reclaim her. If, as has happened, she be a virgin or a minor, she is consigned to a religious establishment. Should spleen or despair cause the step, and she show symptoms of good qualities, immediate attempts are made to change her intention, and she is often sent home, or placed in a reformatory at the public cost. If her parents reside in Paris they are communicated with. All, in fact, that the Bureau des Moeurs can do, I should in justice say, I believe to be done, to warn and restrain the female about to enroll herself in the ranks of public prostitution, and only when all has failed is the formality complied with. This formality, which takes the form of a colourable contract or covenant between the prostitute and the authorities, would seem to argue a sort of consciousness on the part of the latter of the entire illegality of the proceedings throughout....

This over, the individual is presumed at liberty to select the category of prostitution in which she will be comprehended. If she is totally destitute, or any arrangement to this effect had been previously entered into, she is registered to a certain licensed house, to whose licensed proprietress she becomes a marked and numbered serf or chattel, to be used or abused, within certain limitations, at discretion. If she has command of capital enough to furnish a lodging of her own, she is provided with a ticket, or carte....

On the reverse…are printed the following:


Public women, en carte, are called upon to present themselves at the dispensary for examination, once at least every fifteen days.

They are called upon to exhibit this card on every request of police officers and agents.

They are forbidden to practise the calling during daylight, or to walk in the thoroughfares until at least half an hour after the public lamps are lighted, or at any season of the year before seven o'clock, or after eleven P.M.

They must be simply and decently clad, so as not to attract attention by the richness, striking colours, or extravagant fashion of their dress.

They must wear some sort of cap or bonnet, and not present themselves bareheaded.

They are strictly forbidden to address men accompanied by females or children, or to address loud or anxious solicitations to any person.

They may not, under any pretext whatever, exhibit themselves at their window, which must be kept constantly closed and provided with curtains.

They are strictly forbidden to take up a station on the foot-pavement, to form, or walk together, in groups, or to and fro in a narrow space or to allow themselves to be attended or followed by men.

The neighborhood of churches and chapels, within a radius of twenty-five yards, the arcades and approaches of the Palais Royal, the Tuileries, the Luxembourg, and the Jardin des Plantes, are interdicted.

The Champs Elysees, the Terrace of the Invalides, the exterior of the Boulevards, the quays, the bridges, and the more unfrequented and obscure localities are alike forbidden.

They are especially forbidden to frequent public establishments or private houses where clandestine prostitution might be facilitated, or to attend tables-d’hote, reside in boarding-houses, or exercise the calling beyond the quarter of the town they reside in.

They are likewise strictly prohibited from sharing lodgings with a kept woman, or other girl, or to reside in furnished lodgings at all without a permit.

Public women must abstain when at home from anything which can give ground for complaints by their neighbors, or the passers-by.

Those who may infringe the above regulations, resist the agents of authority, or give false names or addresses, will incur penalties proportioned to the gravity of the case.

To recapitulate, then: the public women called filles soumises, inscrites, or enregistrees, over whom the Bureau des Moeurs of the prefecture of police has cast its net, are divided into two categories:

1. Domiciled in, and registered to certain licensed houses, for whom the keepers of those houses are responsible.

2. Free prostitutes, who are responsible to the authorities direct. The first, or filles des maisons, are known at the Bureaux by their number, and that of the house to which they are inscrites, and are termed by themselves filles a numero. Their health is inspected by the official medical staff, at the house of their inscription, once in every week. The second form two sub-classes-viz., women who have their own apartment and furniture, and others, who, by special permit, live in furnished lodgings, etc....

(The Bureau Sanitaire) was placed upon its present footing in 1828. The medical staff consists of ten superior and ten assistant surgeons....

The inspection, for which the speculum is very frequently used, is performed with all the delicacy consistent with accuracy, and great dispatch; the average time occupied being three minutes, which includes filling up the papers.

The same policy which considers the registration of the prostitute indispensable to public order, dictates the exercise of considerable caution in liberating her from supervision. The formalities which attend.. the authorized "radiation" [striking off the roll] are numerous and strict. The petition must.. .be in writing, and supported by evidence of an intention really and truly to abandon the mode of life. The corroborative demand of an intending husband; of parents or relatives who will be responsible for future conduct; in certain well-authenticated cases, that of one who will secure her as a mistress against future want; or a medical certificate of inability to continue prostitution, all command respect and action, more or less immediate. But the mere profession of changed sentiments is treated with suspicion, and a probation of two or three months under private surveillance is insisted upon. The prayer is granted only on its being made clear that it results from something more than an intention passagere, or disgust at the inspection--that means of honest support are more than probably forthcoming, and that public order and salubrity will not be jeopardized by the reappearance of the petitioner as an insoumise upon the public streets.

The authorized annual radiation during the ten years ending 1854, averaged 258, of whom 24 per annum became wives. The unauthorized average 724, and the recaptures 450 per annum, respectively.

The Parisian maisons de tolerance, formerly called bordels... in which prostitutes are lodged gregariously, are, generally speaking, under the most complete supervision of the police. Numerous formalities must be gone through before a license is granted by the Bureau des Moeurs, and stringent regulations must be complied with under inexorable penalties. The houses must be confined to one purpose, excepting in the Banlieue (precincts of a city), where, from the impossibility of exercising perfect control, and other considerations, a dispensation is granted to deal, during pleasure, in liquor and tobacco. They may not exist near places of worship, public buildings, schools, furnished hotels, or important factories. They may not be on a common staircase. They are not allowed to be near one another, within the wall, but in the Banlieue their concentration is imposed. They must be distinguished from other houses by the size of the figures of their number, which must be two feet in length....

Among the regulations applicable to the maittresses, or dames de maison, are the following:

They must lodge no more inmates than they have distinct rooms.

They may keep no child above four years old upon the premises.

They must report, within twenty-four hours, every application made to them for lodgings, and every change of lodgers, and also keep accurate registers for the inspection of the police. Their windows must be kept constantly closed, and be either of ground glass or provided with blinds and curtains.

They may place no person at their door as a sign of their business, before seven or after eleven, P.M.

They must enforce upon the women under their authority the observance of the provisions of the carte.

They may not receive minors, or students in uniform.

They must report immediately all cases of disease, and generally keep record of all that passes in their houses, or transpires with regard to their inmates.

Those of the Banlieue must conduct their lodgers once in every week to the central sanitary office for examination; must demand the permits of the military at night, and make return of all cases of excessive expenditure on their premises, or residence by strangers for more than twenty4our hours.

They may not send abroad more than one woman each at one time, the effect of which provision is that there being (for the sake of example) 204 houses and 1,504 femmes numerotees on the register, the streets may be said to be permanently secured against the presence of 1,298 individuals of the class.

The dames de maison are, of course, a vicious and, as a general rule, ferocious mercenary band, tyrannizing over the unfortunate helots who form their stock-in-trade, and abjectly crouching before the inspector, the surgeon, and the detective. The possession of a house of this kind is the highest aspiration of the prostitute. Such a woman sometimes succeeds in attaining to this pernicious eminence, but it is more frequently in the hands of families in whom houses and goodwill descend as heritable property. The recent editors of Parent's work instance that as much as 2,400 has been given for such an establishment, and 8 has been offered as fine to avoid suspension for three days of one of the lowest. Large as these sums may seem, especially when reduced into francs, they will by no means surprise persons cognizant of the property amassed by those who minister, for ready money only, to the lower gratifications of even our more thrifty countrymen.

The gains of the mistresses of these houses in the better part of Paris are enormous. A medical friend told me that he once, while attending a woman of this class, said he supposed she gained a great deal?-"Yes, my income is considerable," she replied, "more than the pay of a French marechal!"...

These women are undoubtedly, as a rule, well-fed and well-dressed. There is usually a debtor and creditor account between them and the mistress of the house, with whom it is always an object to keep her lodgers in her debt, this being the only hold she can have upon them. They are supposed, by a pleasing fiction, to pay nothing for their lodging, firing, and light, and there is certainly no actual charge made on this account; but, as a makeweight, one-half of what they earn is considered to be [their] portion, while the other half is paid over to these avaricious duennas, and goes towards defraying the boarding and other expenses. Such a bargain can only be struck by utterly improvident and reckless persons, and goes far towards proving them incapable of regulating their expenses for themselves; it is believed in France that, if they were not cared for by their mistresses, they would sink at once into the extreme of poverty, and this affords, to my mind, one of the few excuses that can be made for the toleration of such houses. I have read in a French work upon prostitution some horrid paragraphs that I do not care to extract, showing the fearful depth of infamy to which these miserable women are sunk, it being even hinted that their mistresses compel them to practise unnatural crimes by threats of expulsion, to which also they are encouraged by extra douceurs (presents) from the debauched habitues. So long as a woman is much sought after, the mistress proves obsequious and kind, taking her occasionally to the theatre, and permitting her other indulgences; but so soon as the public desert the waning prostitute, a cause of quarrel is found, and she is brutally turned out of doors, often with no better covering than an old petticoat or worn-out dress. Thus is it that the public prostitutes step at once from luxurious salons to dirty hovels. A man-servant is rarely met with in these houses, the domestics being generally prostitutes....

The fille en carte of Paris obtains, of course, what she can for her services, but the usual fee is from two to five francs. In the tolerated houses, the sum charged by the establishment varies from five to twenty, in addition to which the generosity of the visitor usually dictates a trifling present to the victim, pour ses gants (glove-money), as it is called. At the Barriers, artisans pay by custom one franc, soldiers fifty centimes, or a fivepenny silver piece. Excited to drink (for, as I have mentioned, the sale of liquor at the lowest class of houses is winked at by the police) by their visitors and the dames de maison, each from different motives, these filles numerotees of the Banlieue are from habitual intoxication so incapable of sanitary precautions or observance of decorum, that in their case, at least, the regulations of the Bureau des Moeurs may be esteemed rather a blessing than a curse.

Similar systems, more or less improved upon the Parisian type, prevail at Toulon, Lyons, Strasburg, Brest, and other large French garrison towns.

This sketch of French prostitution would be incomplete if I did not compare the condition of the streets of Paris with that of our own. The prostitutes in Paris are not spread all over the streets, as in London; they are only to be found in certain localities prescribed by the police. The fille de maison may be met gaudily dressed, quickly walking backwards and forwards, in certain back streets; but even there she is not allowed to actually solicit, though, as may be supposed, she does not fail to attract the attention of passers-by. The fille en carte is the prostitute whom the stranger is most likely to meet with, and she is generally less gaudily dressed than the fille de maison, and is allowed by the police to walk up and down in certain less frequented streets, but not to go beyond them. She likewise is not allowed to solicit.

The clandestine prostitute, notwithstanding all the precautions of the police to register every woman gaining her livelihood by prostitution, is frequently to be met with in the streets of Paris. Work girls, servants, and girls serving in shops, who wish to increase their small earnings, and yet are not registered by the police, come under the head of clandestine prostitutes. These last, of course, are not more subject to control than ordinary persons, but the police in Paris strictly supervise all women known by them to be prostitutes, and render the streets passable at all hours of the evening or night to respectable females, and solicitation is strictly forbidden. Moreover, Frenchmen do not, as a rule, go into the streets of Paris after dinner to meet with adventures; they rather frequent the casinos or houses of accommodation. And even if some women are to be seen in certain streets in Paris in the early part of the evening, after half past eleven the streets are quite deserted, as the police oblige every woman to retire to her room at that hour. How different is the condition of the streets of London; and we might well follow in this respect the example of the French. In London a man has prostitution thrust upon him; in Paris he has to go out of his way to look for it; so that external decency, so outraged in England, is there maintained.

Source: William Acton, Prostitution, 2d ed., ed. Peter Frye (London: MacGibben and Kie, 1968), pp.97-107, abridged.