“Can’t can’t” to “Cancan”
Paris’ history of prostitution goes a long way back, and may be one of the explanations for the sexual sophistication of its inhabitants. While rulers as far back as Charlemagne and Louis IX tried banning open prostitution, it was nevertheless largely tolerated. A few streets were even designated for brothels within the city walls.
Then, in the 18th century, Paris’ previously unspoken-of underworld came out into the open, giving the city her reputation for eroticism and debauchery. With the Enlightenment and anti-Royalist theories came the intellectual “libertins” supporting sexual liberalism. You could say that the 1789 Revolution was also a sexual one. Think - or Google - Marquis de Sade and you’ll understand.
The 19th century brought some order to the post-Revolution debauchery with the legal registration of brothels and their employees. Sex took on a more theatrical role, casting aside her more salubrious reputation and attracting visitors from all over the world to her cabaret halls predominantly in the districts of Montmartre and Montparnasse. In 1989, the brothel girls - who made up the first dancers of the Moulin Rouge - danced a provocative interpretation of the cancan, shocking yet seducing the audience.
Les Années Folles (the Crazy Years) cemented Paris’ reputation for hedonism and eroticism, but, in 1946, the French government closed down the brothels. Nevertheless, Paris continued to be known as a sexually-focussed city, although the emphasis took a different turn: Because sexual liberation was at the forefront of French culture and philosophy, the fight for women’s rights and sexual equality was a natural evolution.
As it is now
What can be shocking for a first-time visitor to Paris is the casual, even banal attitude that the locals have towards prostitutes and the sex trade. Go to the area around Pigalle and you’ll find pushy street vendors, sex museums, tacky peep shows and “hostess” bars in the middle of an otherwise very charming and touristic area. The grimy Avenue de Clichy crosses right between the 18th and 9th arrondissements, popular for their characterful bars and typically French restaurants. The pious Sacré Coeur watches benevolently over the entire scene, making for an excellent metaphor.
Further towards Paris’ centre is the famous rue saint Denis. Here, prostitutes from around the world and of all ages hang on street corners, dressed in cheap faux leather miniskirts and leopard-print coats. The mid-section of the road caters for older tastes, with ladies who have been working the streets for decades, whereas further up the road you’ll see groups of Eastern European girls, shivering in the cold and watched over by their pimps.
Despite these tragic scenes, the area is known as a trendy one and, just one road across, the real estate prices skyrocket. Many French startup companies have bought offices here, just a few metres away from an entirely different business…
On the edge of Paris, in the Bois de Boulogne (a lovely large park popular with families on the weekend), sex workers have set up small vans to conduct their business - or they disappear into the woods with the client. This area is particularly known for transvestite prostitutes.
Rules and regulations
What exactly are the rules nowadays on prostitution? France seems to be struggling to find laws that fit. Legally, a woman is allowed to be a prostitute, but she may not approach men to offer her services. Pimping and trafficking are illegal, and yet clearly rife.
There is considerable support for the re-legalising of brothels, even from certain French feminists who see it as the right to do what one wants with one’s body. In surveys, opinion is divided, with many giving contradictory replies - an exact representation of France’s attitude towards prostitutes. Back in the early 2000s, Nicholas Sarkozy even acknowledged the fact that the traditional French sex worker was part of the country’s heritage.
Underneath it all
But what’s with the idea that all French women are sexually confident? Does it have any foundation?
Far from the prostitutes found on the rue saint Denis, in the Bois de Boulogne or in the Pigalle district, the truth of the alluring Parisienne cliché lies under her clothes: Parisian women spend a lot on underwear because they appreciate the importance of good quality lingerie. Just take a moment to look at the prices next time you go for a shopping trip in Paris and you’ll see for yourself. It’s the same attitude that they apply to food produce and wine - quality over quantity!