The Case of the Closely Watched Courtesans

The French police obsessively tracked the kept women of 18th-century Paris. Why?

Resting Girl, probably a portrait of Marie-Louise O'Murphy, mistress to Louis XV of France.
Resting Girl, probably a portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy, mistress to Louis XV of France.

Painting by François Boucher. Image courtesy of Wallraf-Richartz-Museum/Creative Commons

An hour with a prostitute costs on average $150, though prices can range from as low as $5 for a single sex act to $1,000 an hour, the going rate for “high-end” online escort services in Miami. Many of those in the sex trade were encouraged by family members to take up sex work. Pimps rely as much if not more on emotional manipulation than physical violence to control their sex workers.

These are some of the findings of a recently released study by the Urban Institute describing the structure of the underground commercial sexual economy—street and Internet prostitution, escort services, massage parlors, brothels, and child pornography—in eight major cities across the U.S. Funded by the National Institute of Justice, the report is unprecedented in its scope and depth: It will surely change how both lawmakers and law enforcers think about the sex trade and shape their approaches to control it.

Trying to understand the underground sex economy, however, is as old as police work itself. One of the very first police forces in the Western world emerged in 18th-century Paris, and one of its vice units asked many of the same questions as the Urban Institute authors: How much do sex workers earn? Why do they turn to sex work in the first place? What are their relationships with their employers?  

And yet, unlike the Urban Institute researchers, who undertook their study in the hope that a better understanding of how this underground economy functions might lead to better public policy, this Parisian vice unit had more nebulous motives. Its inspectors compiled vast dossiers of information on the city’s elite sex workers and their patrons. But they rarely acted on that information. To this day, it remains a mystery why the Parisian police spent so much time and effort observing an underground economy it apparently had no interest in curtailing. But their files are an historian’s dream. They paint a vivid portrait of 18th-century Parisian life and offer a particularly fascinating view of the city’s elite sex workers, who had greater social mobility than most women in that period.

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The focus of this particular vice unit was the demimonde, the world of elite prostitution. The policing of street prostitution and brothels that catered to men of little means were left to other police personnel, who were far more aggressive in their tactics. They apprehended street prostitutes and those who worked in taverns. They raided and shut down brothels, bringing all those arrested women—prostitutes and petty madams alike—to police court where they were tried en masse and then taken, heads shaved, to serve time in Paris’ famous women’s prison, La Salpêtrière.

Elite prostitution was treated differently. Certain brothels that catered to the male elite were allowed to operate. It was one duty of the vice unit’s inspectors to make sure the madams of these “authorized” brothels abided by certain rules, one of which was to supply the inspectors with a steady stream of information. But most of the unit’s energy was spent watching a particular group of elite prostitutes that worked as professional mistresses. Called kept women (the French term is dames entretenues), these women (and girls) provided sex, company, and sometimes even love for elite men in exchange for being “kept,” financially supported so that they could establish and maintain a household. La galanterie, the practice of being or keeping a mistress, was not illegal, even while prostitution was.

A View of Paris With the Île de la Cité, 1763.
A View of Paris With the Île de la Cité, 1763.

Painting by Nicolas-Jean-Baptiste Raguenet. Image courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum/Creative Commons

The vice unit, which operated from 1747 to 1771, turned out thousands of hand-written pages detailing what these dames entretenues did. Being kept in the 18th century was not a profession in the modern sense of the term, but it was a job. What was sold was standardized: sex, company, the pretense of affection, and usually the illusion that the patron was the center of the mistress’s world. Kept women had oral contracts with their patrons, which stipulated how much the mistress would be paid each month, and whether the patron would set his mistress up in an apartment, buy her new furnishings, pay her bills, and give her gifts. The mistress’ duties were not delineated but rather were “understood,” leaving a great deal of room for misunderstanding.

In following kept women about Paris, the police, much like the authors of the Urban Institute report, were interested in every aspect of these women’s professional and personal lives, from their entry into sex work to the intimate details of their relationships with their patrons. They gathered biographical and financial data on the men who hired kept women—princes, peers of the realm, army officers, financiers, and their sons, a veritable “who’s who” of high society, or le monde. Assembling all of this information required cultivating extensive spy networks. Making it intelligible required certain bureaucratic developments: These inspectors perfected the genre of the report and the information management system of the dossier. These forms of “police writing,” as one scholar has described them, had been emerging for a while. But they took a giant leap forward at midcentury, with the work of several Paris police inspectors, including Inspector Jean-Baptiste Meusnier, the officer in charge of this vice unit from its inception until 1759. Meusnier and his successor also had clear literary talent; the reports are extremely well written, replete with irony, clever turns of phrase, and even narrative tension—at times, they read like novels.

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Here is an example. In 1752, Inspector Meusnier wrote a report about a woman named Demoiselle Blanchefort. It was the first of at least 20 that came to make up her file, covering more than a decade of her life in elite sex work. The first report was a sort of back history, which the inspector tried to assemble on most of his subjects. It explained how the subject under surveillance came to be an elite prostitute. Blanchefort, Meusnier wrote, was the daughter of a surgeon in Angers, a city in western France. Surgeon in this period was not yet a high-status profession. It was closer to the artisan than the professional, still linked in popular thinking with barber—the red and white strips of the barber’s pole represented the blood and bandages once associated with the trade. Blanchefort, like most kept women, was from the lower middle of the social spectrum. The inspector did not seem to know her real name, or how or why she came to Paris, but he was able to trace her once she became an elite sex worker at the brothel of Madam Carlier, where she took the name “Victoire.” Victoire was not a virgin, claimed Meusnier. Brothels were not supposed to take virgins as workers, though they often did and with police cognizance. The report, as with most reports, justified why it was permissible, in the state’s eyes, for Blanchefort to be a prostitute. Her virginity gone, she was “ruined,” theoretically unfit for marriage.

Meusnier goes on: At Carlier’s, Blanchefort met an army officer who pulled her out of the brothel to set her up as his mistress. This was a common practice; customers often met their future mistresses at these establishments. To take Blanchefort, the army officer had to pay all of her debts, which could be significant. Debt was one way the madams bound sex workers to them, compelling them to stay in the brothels to work. Some workers arrived with debt the madams assumed. Others borrowed money from the madams to pay for their food and clothing and particularly for medical care, the cost of which could easily exceed a prostitute’s earnings.

According to Meusnier, Blanchefort had some sort of venereal infection. The army officer had her see his company surgeon, and Meusnier reports that the couple was “happy.” But within a few months, the officer had to leave town, ending the relationship when he did. Emphasizing the transactional nature of these affairs, many patrons would not pay for a mistress they could not visit. To make ends meet, Blanchefort eventually went back to work in a brothel, this time that of the infamous Justine Paris, whose elite establishment was visited by Casanova and described in his memoirs. Before being fully established as kept women, many elite prostitutes returned to brothels between patrons. Blanchefort was reinfected yet still landed a new patron, this time the son of a financier. He paid what Meusnier called “her ransom” and set her up in an apartment. At this point, Victoire took the name Blanchefort. She was 17 years old.  

"Portrait de Mademoiselle Rosalie Duthé," oil on canvas, 1792.
Portrait of courtesan Rosalie Duthé, circa 1792.

Painting by Henri-Pierre Danloux. Image courtesty of Karlsruhe State Art Gallery/Creative Commons

After a two-year break, Meusnier returned to the dossier of Demoiselle Blanchefort. Her fortunes had changed, greatly. She now called herself Varenne (the constant name changes are one of the challenges facing the police, and scholars trying to reconstruct this world centuries later). In two short paragraphs, Meusnier caught his files up to date. Varenne had had a number of wealthy patrons and the cumulative result of their benefaction was her “perfectly furnished” apartment in the Marais section of Paris. The term “perfectly furnished” indicated that Varenne had made it in the demimonde. She possessed not only furniture of necessity such as a bed and table, but also those of display and various objects d’art. The furniture would have been of the best quality, stylish and expensive. Kept women were obsessed with furnishings. As the historian Kathryn Norberg argues, their possessions distinguished these sex workers from streetwalkers, by defining a home and suggesting permanence. Given their extraordinary cost, furnishings were also a form of capital acquisition and functioned as status symbols. Varenne’s furnishings (as well as her jewelry and clothes) represented the value other elite men placed on her services, making her a more expensive commodity in the subculture of the demimonde. This sort of financial mobility and wealth acquisition was unheard of for women from such backgrounds. Had Varenne stayed in Angers, the most she could have expected was to marry a man in her father’s profession, or one who had a similar social status.

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Over the next eight years, Meusnier and his successor, Inspector Louis Marais, charted Varenne’s career. Marais’ final report, dated Feb. 26, 1762 found Varenne, after a decade of sex work, now in possession of significant wealth for someone of her background and on the verge of marrying her boyfriend, who was an army officer and a noble. She was stealing from her patron to pay for the nuptials. Did the marriage go through? The inspectors hoped it would not, fearing the social destruction of the officer. If it had, it would have represented a significant jump in social status for Varenne. But the real question is why did the police even care about the marriage, Varenne’s furniture, her love life, and her virginity?

The question only becomes more vexing when you consider what the police were supposed to be doing in the 18th century. The police at the time were responsible for all that was necessary for “the good regulation of a city.” By the time of the Revolution, the Paris police regulated the city’s markets; ensured the honesty of its merchants; lit, cleaned, and made safe the city’s streets; fought its fires; ran its prisons; solved its crimes; kept its wayward elements in order; and made sure its abandoned babies were cared for. They were also charged with spying on and suppressing subversive elements in the population and making sure the city was provisioned with all that it needed, even in times of dearth, because not doing so increased the very great risk of riot. In the 18th century, the lieutenant general, the officer in charge of the police, was mayor, city manager, and top cop. Police interest in the demimonde certainly fell within their larger charge. But with so few men and so much to do, a great deal of which concerned the political stability of the city and the safety of its inhabitants, why did the police devote such considerable resources to following kept women around and writing down what they did, when these women were neither criminals nor considered subversive?

Disappointingly, the archives have failed to provide a definitive answer, and none of the more logical explanations have stood up to scrutiny. It is unlikely that the dossiers were used for judicial purposes as being kept was not illegal. Kept women were never arrested for selling sex. Patron blackmail, another possibility, seems unlikely. It assumes patrons wanted their affairs hidden. Some did. For many others, however, mistress-keeping was a display of status and hence required publicity. Another theory is that the police may have watched these women so that they could prevent the depletion of those family fortunes made vulnerable by infatuated sons of the wealthy and powerful. But while Meusnier and Marais were well aware of who was bankrupting whom, the inspectors intervened only when they were asked to do so, which happened less than a handful of times.

A final and enduring theory is that the reports were meant as bedtime reading for King Louis XV and his mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, who had been the protector of the police lieutenant general most responsible for establishing the unit in the first place. According to this theory, the reports were meant to enliven the reputedly jaded, enervated royal sex life. But the biggest strike against this theory is the reports themselves. They contained so many third-party references to the king, and related so many incidents at which he was present, that it is unlikely these documents were intended as a royal read. If anything was destined for the king, it was probably the Anecdotes Galantes—a newssheet of sexual gossip of le monde—which the unit began to produce only occasionally beginning in 1764. Each issue was but a few pages in length, hardly an efficient use of a sophisticated surveillance unit. So the question remains—why did Meusnier and Marais care about Varenne?

Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour, circa 1750-1758.
Portrait of the Marquise de Pompadour, circa 1750-1758.

Image courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland/Creative Commons

A clearer motive lies both in the larger police mission in this period and in understanding the importance of the demimonde, this particular sex market, to elite male society in the 18th century. The Paris police was rapidly changing in the middle of the 18th century, driven both by the needs of the police themselves in their effort to control and administer a city that was increasing in size and sophistication and by royal demands that the Paris police serve as sort of a domestic intelligence agency. Paris was the kingdom’s capital and, at a half-million souls, by far its biggest city. It could be unstable and dangerous. Its proximity to Versailles, the seat of the monarchy that King Louis XIV deliberately built some 13 miles away, having been traumatized by political revolution and uprisings in the city during his youth, made the capital’s stability and obedience even more important. Crucial to that control was information.

From its very inception in the mid-17th century, the Paris police (which took decades to actually become an integrated functioning institution) was concerned about particular groups of people considered innately dangerous to the realm. These included Protestants, foreigners, and Jews, those whose allegiances to the French Catholic state were suspect. They also included the gens sans aveu (people who have not sworn allegiance or people without papers), such as beggars, vagrants, and street prostitutes, individuals who posed a threat not only by their disruptive presence in the street but by their position in society. Everyone in early modern France was supposed to belong to a social unit such as a family, a household, or a guild, for example. Each unit theoretically occupied a niche in a larger social hierarchy. This system ensured each person was under what 18th-century political thinkers considered to be the “natural oversight” of their superiors, a hierarchy at the top of which sat the king. Being outside this system was highly problematic to the state because such a person was beyond social and political systems of control. For the police, controlling these populations meant keeping track of them, which in turn required developing the capacity to spy and manage information.

With every decade, the police brought more groups and more types of activities under surveillance. By the 1720s, for example, agents stationed in cafés wrote down overheard conversations, in part to satisfy a monarchy increasingly concerned with public opinion. By the 1730s, the police had a fairly sophisticated operation to track and arrest men who had sex with other men in public. By the late 1740s, however, police surveillance had extended beyond those subjects, like writers or homosexual men, whose threat to the existing political and social order was clear. In principle and largely in practice, it extended to anyone outside the social hierarchy and to any group that met behind closed doors. Contemporaries were convinced spies were everywhere, an impression the police actively fostered. The last lieutenant general before the Revolution boasted in his memoirs that if five people stood on a street corner in the capital, three of them “belonged to him.”

Eighteenth-century Parisians overstated the extent of surveillance, perhaps because they did not really understand its purpose. By the late 1740s, the police were no longer collecting information in order to investigate criminals or even to anticipate problems. As French police scholar Vincent Milliot argues, by spying on Parisians, the police were literally incorporating them, putting those outside the hierarchy into a special group—the spied upon—for which the police provided oversight. More generally, however, the police were gathering information just to gather information, endeavoring to make the city visible to its government. Intelligence gathering had it own momentum.

So what of kept women? If they were hurling epithets against the king, plotting sedition, consorting with enemies of the state, and secretly converting to Protestantism, the police never indicated. They were not a threat to men who hired them, even socially. Rather, like the gens sans aveu, the police kept track of them as part of the effort to provide oversight to a group that naturally had none. Kept women were largely outside the concatenation of corporations that defined 18th-century France. Few were married and hence were not under the “governance” of husbands. Those living with families often dominated them, as heads of household and hence were not supervised by fathers, as was considered natural. They were free to leave their patrons and often did. They were not bound by the workshop and hence the master.

But the contents of the police files suggest a second reason why Varenne was interesting to the them, why they expended so much energy collecting so many details on her life, and why Meusnier wanted to be assured Varenne was not a virgin when she walked through the door of Carlier’s brothel. The demimonde was an important part of elite culture. The inspectors exposed the workings of this community to their superiors, but they also provided the community with a loose sort of governance. Their goal wasn’t to shut it down, but to make sure that the buying and selling of mistresses occurred within police view and that buyers and sellers did not scandalize the rest of Parisian society. The inspectors set limits on acceptable behavior. They determined, very generally, who could be a professional mistress. They decided which elite brothels could operate and where. The latitude allowed to the tolerated madams was remarkable. The inspectors permitted them to sell children, girls as young as 12, as long as they were made aware of the transactions, even as such sales were considered both criminal and reprehensible.

As for mistresses and their patrons, the police watched and scribbled, scribbled and watched. Occasionally they mediated between patron and mistress or mistress and someone in her community who wished her gone, like the local priest. Occasionally they stepped in to stop a patron from spending himself into ruin or to arrest a kept woman for something unrelated to being a mistress. But mostly they just observed.

What the state and the police wanted to make visible was a commercial sexual economy, which, if not quite underground, was not easily seen. And so for more than two decades the inspectors investigated this economy, cultivating huge networks of informers. They wrote reports, day after day in long hand, meticulously checking their facts, editing and re-editing, tightly focused on the same sorts of questions that continue to interest us today: from the motivations and experiences of sex workers, to the flow of money, to the institutions that shaped their world and the culture that set its unofficial rules. 

So what became of Varenne? Surely the police documented her fate somewhere, but those reports have disappeared, and with them the conclusion to her story. This leaves us to speculate as to her fate. For all the power kept women could gain through their work, their status was always precarious. As they aged, many had no choice but to continue selling sex, even as their declining desirability forced them from the boudoir on to the street. But given her rise from the brothels to a well-appointed Parisian apartment, we can surmise that Varenne was a savvy operator. Perhaps she used her considerable wealth to marry her noble boyfriend or to set up a business, as some kept women did when they retired from sex work. We do not know for sure. We can only hope. 

This article was adapted from Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris.