Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris - Nina Kushner
"In Erotic Exchanges, Nina Kushner reveals the complex world of elite prostitution in eighteenth-century Paris—the demimonde—by focusing on the professional mistresses who dominated it. These dames entretenues exchanged sex, company, and sometimes even love for being “kept.” Most of these women entered the profession unwillingly, either because they were desperate and could find no other means of support or because they were sold by family members to brothels or to particular men. A small but significant percentage of kept women, however, came from a theater subculture that actively supported elite prostitution. Kushner shows that in its business conventions, its moral codes, and even its sexual practices the demimonde was an integral part of contemporary Parisian culture.

Kushner’s primary sources include thousands of folio pages of dossiers and other documents generated by the Paris police as they tracked the lives and careers of professional mistresses, reporting in meticulous, often lascivious, detail what these women and their clients did.  Rather than reduce the history of sex work to the history of its regulation, Kushner interprets these materials in a way that unlocks these women’s own experiences. Kushner analyzes prostitution as a form of work, examines the contracts that governed relationships among patrons, mistresses, and madams, and explores the roles played by money, gifts, and—on occasion—love in making and breaking the bonds between women and men. This vivid and engaging book explores elite prostitution not only as a form of labor and as a kind of business, but also as a chapter in the history of emotions, marriage, and the family."

My Thoughts:

This is an expertly written Academic work, looking at elite prostitution as a form of work and placing the importance of this work in our understanding of women's history and sexuality in eighteenth-century Paris, both culturally and socially. The police had a department called Département des femmes galantes dedicated to reporting the lives of dame entretenue (kept women). It was a way for them to avoid scandal, which also meant that their focus was not so much in helping women in the Demimonde, but controlling it and wielding power over it.

At this time, it was important for girls and women of all walks of life, to work, to be wallflowers and then get successfully married. In many cases when the girls and women got deflowered before their marriage, it meant they could lose their job or/and not get successfully married. Virginity and youth was revered, and that is also why so many kept women and prostitutes were teenagers when they first started out - some not more than twelve years of age. There were many parents who were struggling financially who sold their girls to prostitution, often against their girl's will. In this time, parents had enormous power and rights over their children and the police rarely stepped in. Even if what the parents were doing was illegal; it wasn't always a question whether something was illegal or not, but more about avoiding scandal and making sure things were running smoothly, without too much notice. (It was surprising to see first hand through the reports the amount of network the police had and how much they actually knew.)

When a girl was successfully enrolled with a Madam, the goal was to find a patron they could become a mistress for. It meant security in that the girl would have a monthly salary, a household, and would have a "degree of agency and a potential for financial success." It also meant that their bodies were not "common to all", as was the case for a "fille du monde, or a prostitute". Many were theater performers and some worked in fashion, and would sometimes find patrons this way; the salaries for dances, for example, at the Opéra or at Comédie Française, were incredibly low and they struggled. There is so much more I could say about this book, but Nina Kushner did an excellent job of explaining the central arguments of the book in the beginning of the book.

Throughout the book, you come to understand how life was socially and culturally for these women at this time in history. If you're interested in women's history and social history, I would highly recommend this book. Though a word of warning, this is an academic work which means that the book can be a bit of a challenge and not so accessible to read. It's an interesting subject, or it can be if written well. I think Nina Kushner excelled at being very clear throughout the book. She weaves quite a complicated tale, but it felt very level-headed and understandable in the writing, I thought.


I received an ARC through netgalley from Cornell University Press, in exchange for an honest review. Set for publication January 14, 2014.