Serving Sex: Playing with Prostitution in the Brasseries à femmes of Late Nineteenth-Century Paris
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Serving Sex:
Playing with Prostitution in the Brasseries à femmes of Late Nineteenth-Century Paris

In a front-page 1882 article in Le petit parisien, Jean Frollo drew his readers’ attention to a new kind of drinking establishment appearing on the streets of Paris. He claimed that these cafés, called brasseries à femmes because they employed serving girls who interacted with the customers, threatened the well-being of the city’s youth: “Young people, sometimes children, lean on wooden tables, forcing themselves to swallow some infected beverage without grimacing, smoke cigarettes, and try to earn the approval [suffrages] of the venue’s goddesses.” These women, Frollo explained, “circulate, pouring the venue’s poisoned ambrosia, sitting next to this one, provoking that one” in an effort at selling as much drink as possible.1 With their presence thus depicted as the key component of the experience, these “goddesses,” the serving girls, differentiated the brasseries à femmes from other kinds of drinking establishments. Serving up not just drink but an entire experience predicated on the interaction between customer and server, the brasseries à femmes simultaneously provided a novel form of pleasure, a unique business opportunity, and a target for moral disapproval.

First appearing in the 1860s, brasseries à femmes received a great deal of attention from the Paris police and various moral commentators because the way they used sex to attract customers linked them to the problem [End Page 288] of “clandestine” or unregulated prostitution.2 This rhetorical connection between prostitution and serving drinks was part of a discourse that consistently described working-class women as being in danger of falling into prostitution, but it was also reflective of the changing nature of the business of sex itself.3 According to Alain Corbin’s influential interpretation, late nineteenth-century Parisian prostitutes increasingly catered to the desires of their growing bourgeois clientele by emphasizing practices of seduction rather than the base fulfillment of sexual need.4 The serving girl’s job amounted to performing her own sexual availability in order to attract a clientele. Frollo’s article warned that the serving girls targeted youths who risked being drawn into a realm of false desire—“a world of perfections and the ideal of their pubescent dreams.” In doing so, serving girls revealed their “evil eye . . . if one means by these words the terrible, incessant influence exercised on youth by these women, who, under the cover of a more or less acceptable métier, practice in all safety the role played in a more troublesome and dangerous way by their rivals of the street.”5 Frollo thus reduced a novel form of public entertainment and female employment to something more readily comprehensible: prostitution. In doing so, he rooted the brasseries à femmes in new practices of venal sex that justified persistent police attention and consistent moral concern.

Brasseries à femmes seemed different from other kinds of Parisian drinking establishments in the late nineteenth century because they explicitly used their female employees to deploy strategies of sexual titillation that would encourage men to consume. While prostitutes and other working-class women had increasingly integrated themselves into the life of the French café as both customers and employees during the French Revolution, the [End Page 289] brasseries à femmes of the early Third Republic (1870–1940) explicitly demanded that the employees use sex to provoke, encourage, and otherwise incite the customers to drink.6 Unlike in cafés that hired barmaids (filles de comptoir), no “protective counter,” as one moral commentator called it, separated the server from her customer in the brasseries à femmes.7 Instead, serving girls flirted with the clientele and cajoled them to consume. They sat with—and sometimes on—the customers while moving to and fro in the raucous café. Their flirtatious behavior implicitly hinted at the possibility of consummating a sexual encounter after work.

Unlike explorations of the French café as a site of political organization, class formation, and intellectual exchange by scholars such as Thomas Brennan, Susanna Barrows, and W. Scott Haine, I emphasize the café as a site of pleasure.8 The brasseries à femmes were venues in which momentary sexual pleasure was the entire point. As such, they attracted the attention of state...


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