Prostitution in Paris

Prostitution in Paris, both street prostitution and prostitution from dedicated facilities has a long history but also its own modernity in the French capital. Prostitutes are mostly women but also include transgender people and men.


Middle Ages

Louis XI organised the profession by limiting the streets where prostitutes could operate. The king considered them "crazy or drunk with their bodies".

In 1446 new rules reinforced the measures being taken by prohibiting the wearing of certain outfits considered to be highly provocative; feather, fur and the infamous gold belts.[1]

Early modern era

Women who were guilty of "public debauchery, prostitution or scandalous behaviour" were locked in the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, which had been created by Louis XIV in 1656.[2]

Before the French Revolution in 1789, there were estimated to be 30,000 prostitutes in Paris, plus a further 10,000 high-class prostitutes.[3] At the beginning of the Revolution, decriminalization was the order of the day, the royal orders were abandoned and in 1791 prostitution no longer appeared as part of the criminal law.[note 1][4] However, the population was worried about the increase of prostitutes and the threat of syphilis. On October 4, 1793, the Commune of Paris issued a regulatory order forbidding prostitutes to stand in public spaces to "incite to debauchery".[5] Although it led to the arrest and sanitary control of more than 400 prostitutes in 1794, this decree did not prevent the continued development of prostitution, particularly at the Palais-Royal, which became the first sex market in the capital. There were many "daughters" that crisscrossed the garden paths and galleries of the Palace, and erotic shows and shops dedicated to prostitution.[6]

Contemporary era

19th century

Under the July Monarchy, a medical hygienist and sewer specialist,[note 2] Alexandre Parent du Châtelet published in 1836 the book Of the prostitution in the city of Paris, considered in terms of public hygiene, morality and administration: a book supported by statistical documents drawn from the archives of the Prefecture of Police, which will remain the reference study on prostitution for several decades. Parent du Châtelet considers that a certain tolerance of prostitution should be allowed to maintain the current order, but mentions its dangers and therefore the necessity for control. To do that he advocates maison-closes, a hospital to treat women with venereal diseases, a prison to punish those who break the law and houses of repentance. Female prostitutes must report to the police headquarters and undergo medical examinations. Infected women are to be treated in the infirmary of the Prison Saint-Lazare, which was opened 1836. They can not leave the establishment without being cured.[7] The overall purpose of this policy is to control and hide, as far as possible, prostitution, which was viewed as a necessary evil. Alexandre Parent du Châtelet submits: "It is important to hide death as much as sex, flesh decomposing as much as the flesh object of desire."[8]

20th century

Of men born between 1920 and 1925, one in five had experienced her first sexual relationship in a maison-close.[9]

Paris accommodated many brothels until their prohibition in 1946 following the introduction of the Loi Marthe Richard. 195 establishments were then closed in Paris.[note 3] Among the most famous are the One-Two-Two, Le Chabanais, Le Sphinx and La Fleur blanche.[10]

An exhibition about historical Paris brothels took place from November 2009 to January 2010 in an art gallery across the street from the former Le Chabanais.[11][12]

21st century

Prostitution is legal in France, and therefore in Paris. However, certain activities related to prostitution are prohibited, such as brothel-keeping (since 1946), pimping and prostitution of minors. Moreover, since the law on 13 April 2016, clients of prostitutes are criminalised.

In 2004, according to OCRTEH (Central Office for the Repression of Trafficking in Human Beings), there were between 7,000 and 7,500 prostitutes of all sexes in Paris. Marie-Elizabeth Handman and Janine Mossuz-Lavau argue that these figures do not take into account modes of prostitution whose participants have never had any involvement with the police, such as escorts who find clients on the internet or salaried women who are limited to a few liaisons a month.[13] In 2010, Brain Magazine published a map of prostitution in Paris by area of origin: South American transexuals in the Bois de Boulogne; African prostitutes in Barbès-Rochechouart as well as in vans known as "BMC" (Bordel militaire de campagne) in the Bois de Vincennes, French in Strasbourg – Saint-Denis; Chinese, Mongolian and Romanian at the Porte Saint-Martin; and finally, along the Boulevards of the Marshals, are Romanian, Maghreb and African prostitutes.[14]

Since the law to penalise the customers of prostitution, passed in April 2016, the conviction of more than 400 customers in Paris was recorded from 2016 - 2017.[note 4] Most of these lawbreakers were caught in the Boulevards of the Marshals, Bois de Boulogne, Bois de Vincennes or the 350 so-called massage parlours scattered around the capital.[15] Jean-Paul Mégret, head of the Brigade de répression du proxénétisme (BRP) of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris, considers that this law has the effect of "Driving girls off of the streets and into hotels and apartments, everything is happening via cyberprostitution".[16]

Types of prostitution

Public spaces

Until the late 1980s, prostitution in the Rue Saint-Denis extended from the Les Halles to the Porte Saint-Denis. Once the hotels and studios were closed, the majority of the prostitutes left and the average age those who remained increased. In the past, the street has accommodated up to 2,000 women.[17]

The majority of prostitutes in the Bois de Boulogne are immigrants, and they group themselves in the woods by nationality.[18] Prostitution in the woods of Bois de Vincennes is different, it is carried out mainly in vans. Prostitutes each other and improve their security by consolidating the vehicles in the same locations.[19]

Chinese prostitution in Paris began in the late 1990s. Chinese prostitutes work mainly on the streets of some neighbourhoods, where they are nicknamed les marcheuses (the walkers). They also work in massage parlours or from the internet. In 2016, Médecins du Monde estimated that there were 1,450 Chinese prostitutes in Paris.


Following the solicitation law of 2003, prostitution on the internet developed strongly. In 2002, 108 sites covered Paris, then in 2003 the number of Paris sites increased to 482, in 2004 the figure almost doubled with 816 sites.[13]

Several street names refer to the prostitution activities they housed:

  • Rue Brisemiche and rue Baillehoë, which means "Give Joy": in 1388 residents of Saint Merri started a petition demanding the expulsion of "wenches", traders opposed it because of trade from the women.[1] Now part of Rue Brisemiche in the 4th arrondissement.
  • Rue Gratte-Cul (Great Ass Street), now Rue Dussoubs in the 2nd arrondissement.[20]
  • Rue Maubuée (Dirty Washing Street). Now Rue de Venise in the 2nd arrondissement.[20]
  • Rue du Poil-au-Con (Hairy Bottom Street).[1] Now Rue du Pélican, in the 1st arrondissement.[21]
  • Rue Pute-y-Musse: pute meaning whore and musse which means stroll in Old French. Now called Rue du Petit-Musc and is in the 4th arrondissement.[22]
  • Rue Tire-Vit,[20] vit is synonymous with "penis", Latin vectis, a bar or a lever. The street is now called Rue Marie-Stuart and is in the 2nd arrondissement.
  • Rue Trace-Putain, later rue Tasse-Nonnain, putain and nonnain are old names for prostitutes. it was later absorbed into Rue Beaubourg[23] in the 3rd arrondissement.
  • Rue Trousse-Nonnain (Fuck Nun Street).[20] Now Rue Beaubourg in the 3rd & 4th arrondissements.
  • Rue Troussevache - now rue de La Reynie in the 1st & 4th arrondissements.[20]

In art

Charles Baudelaire is quoted as saying "What is art? - Prostitution."[24] In 2015, the Musée d'Orsay presented the exhibition Splendeurs et miseries. Images of Prostitution, 1850-1910.  It was a collection of works in the fields of painting, sculpture and photography.[25]


Nicolas Sarkozy recognised that the traditional sex worker was part of France's national cultural heritage.[26] Paintings and drawings of maisons closes (brothels), and prostitution appear frequently in art over the centuries. Some of the best known are scenes in brothels produced by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, among others. Impressionist works depicting the prostitute often became the subject of scandal, and particularly venomous criticism. Some works showed her with considerable sympathy, while others attempted to impart an agency to her; likewise some work showed high-class courtesans, and others prostitutes awaiting clients on the streets.


In the novel Nana, Émile Zola dealt with the theme of female prostitution through the journey of a lorette to a cocotte, whose charms bewitched the highest dignitaries of the Second Empire. He was inspired by Blanche d'Antigny and his first love, Berthe. The novelist also included elements of Valtesse de La Bigne and Delphine de Lizy.

In Quiet Days in Clichy, the writer Henry Miller recounts his bohemian life in Paris during the 1930s.[27] He treasures "the impression of a little paradise on earth," detailing his sexual adventures with prostitutes,[28][29] "On a gray day, when it was cold everywhere except in large cafes, I tasted in advance the pleasure of spending an hour or two at Wepler before going to dinner. The pink glow that surrounded the whole room came from the whores who usually gathered near the entrance ... The corner where they met was like the Stock Exchange where the sex market, which had its ups and downs, like any market. As the saying goes, there are only two things to do when it rains and whores never waste their time playing cards".[30]

Amongst writers depicting the life of women in prostitution in France are Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo.


In the early 1930s, the film Faubourg Montmartre retraces the dramatic story of two sisters. One of them seeks to lead the other into a life of lust. While one loses her job, the other sinks into prostitution and drugs. However love still offers a second chance...[8]

The Musée de l'Erotisme in Paris devotes one floor to the maisons closes. It exhibits Polissons et galipettes, a collection of short erotic silent movies that were used to entertain brothel visitors, and copies of Le Guide Rose, a contemporary brothel guide that also carried advertising.[31] The 2003 BBC Four documentary Storyville - Paris Brothel describes the maisons closes.


Documentary photographer Eugène Atget photographed street scenes and architecture in Paris between 1897 and 1927. Many of these street scenes included prostitutes.[32]

Brassaï published photographs of brothels in his 1935 book Voluptés de Paris.[33] A voluminous illustrated work on the phenomenon is Maisons closes. L'histoire, l'art, la littérature, les moeurs by Romi (Robert Miquet), first published in 1952.

In 1971, photographer Jane Evelyn Atwood moved to Paris. She began to photograph the world of prostitution in Paris in 1976, especially in the Rue des Lombards and Quartier Pigalle.[34]

Notes & references


  1. The Penal Code 1810 does not classify prostitution as a crime
  2. Châtelet Alexandre Parent is the author of an essay on sewers or drains of the city of Paris published in 1824
  3. Nationally 1,400 maison-closes are closed
  4. On a national level, 937 clients were caught


  1. Lemonier2015, p. 118.
  2. Hensinger, Eliane. "La prostitution et la police des mœurs au xviiie siècle à Paris" (PDF). Maison de la Géographie de Montpellier (in French). Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  3. Carlier, Axelle. "Petite histoire de la Prostitution à Paris". Paris ZigZag (in French). Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  4. Plumauzille 2016.
  5. Mossuz-Lavau 2015, p. 34.
  6. Plumauzille 2013.
  7. Mossuz-Lavau 2015, p. 39.
  8. "Putain(s) de capitale : le Paris de la prostitution". Paris Cinema Region (in French). 2013. Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  9. Lemonier 2015, p. 61.
  10. Paulet, Alicia (13 April 2016). "Prostitution: "70 ans après la loi Marthe Richard, le constat est effrayant"". FIGARO. Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  11. Genevieve Roberts (6 November 2009), "Sin city: show celebrates the Paris brothel that was loved by Cary Grant", The Independent, London
  12. "Maisons Closes 1860-1946", VINGT Paris News, 2009-12-08, archived from the original on 2009-12-15
  13. Mossuz-Lavau & Handman 2005.
  14. Marx, Daria (25 February 2010). "Cartographie de la Prostitution Parisienne". (in French). Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  15. Carez, Céline (9 April 2017). "Paris : plus de 400 clients de prostituées épinglés depuis un an". (in French). Le Parisien. Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  16. Sellami, Stéphane (6 September 2018). "Prostitution : enquête sur les nouveaux visages du proxénétisme en France". Le Point (in French). Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  17. Kemmet, Brendan (10 February 2002). "La nouvelle carte de la prostitution à Paris". (in French). Le Parisien. Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  18. "Prostituées, clients, bénévoles: un soir au bois de Boulogne..." (in French). 28 March 2015. Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  19. Mossuz-Lavau & Handman 2005, p. 60.
  20. Robb 2010, p. 390.
  21. De Baudouin, Pierre (29 December 2017). "Quelle histoire se cache derrière le nom de votre rue ?". France 3 Paris Ile-de-France (in French). Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  22. Deutsch, Lorant (29 July 2016). "La rue du Petit-Musc, prisée par les prostituées et Jean de la fontaine". (in French). Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  23. Géraud 1837, p. 235.
  24. Servin, Lucie (29 September 2015). "Du bordel dans l'art". L'Humanité (in French). Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  25. "Splendeurs et misères. Images de la prostitution, 1850-1910". France Inter (in French). 22 September 2015. Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  26. Gangoli & Westmarland 2006.
  27. "MILLER, Henry (1891-1980)". Ambassade et consulats des Etats-Unis d’Amérique en France (in French). Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  28. "Henry Miller y coule des " jours tranquilles "". Le parisien. 21 July 2000. Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  29. Steffens, Wilko (26 December 2013). "Essen, Gespräche, Sex | Henry Millers "Stille Tage in Clichy"". (in German). Retrieved 10 February 2019.
  30. Mollier 2018, p. 44.
  31. A Nice Mix of Art, History and Sex, Metropole Paris, 16 January 2004
  32. White 2001, pp. 41–43.
  33. Storyville - Paris Brothel, BBC Four documentary, 2003
  34. "Exposition photo - Jane Evelyn Atwood, Histoires de prostitution, Paris 1976-1979". L'Œil de la Photographie Magazine (in French). Retrieved 10 February 2019.


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