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  • Housewife or Harlot? Sex and the Married Woman in Nineteenth-Century France
  • Rachel Mesch (bio)

In eugène brieux ’s 1897 play Les trois filles de M. Dupont (Mr. Dupont’s Three Daughters), young Julie is outraged by her husband’s bedroom behavior. Confessing her disgust to him directly, she laments: “They used to say about us: housewife or harlot. Now it’s all changed. There’s been progress—you need both in the same woman: housewife and harlot.”1 Julie’s comment expresses a critical conflict stemming from changing views about wives’ sexual identity in nineteenth-century France as marital sexuality was expanded beyond its purely procreative purposes to allow for sexual pleasure. At the time of Brieux’s writing, marriage itself was in the midst of profound transformations and had been subject to pressures for some time due to a variety of social and economic factors, including changes in divorce law, reforms in girls’ education, and concerns about population decline.2 Some of these shifts had consequences in the bedroom itself. By the end of the nineteenth century bourgeois men and women were more likely than ever to choose their partners based on mutual attraction and companionship, and husbands were expected to love their wives not only in theory but in practice.3 [End Page 65]

In large part in the interest of nurturing France’s vulnerable birthrate, which had begun declining by midcentury, nineteenth-century doctors began not only to allow for but also to insist upon mutual sexual pleasure within the context of conjugal relations, injecting a measured amount of erōs into the marital alcove and thus transforming and expanding the possibilities for marital sex.4 With this newly eroticized notion of healthy marriage the precise balance of wifeliness and passion became a consuming issue, at the heart of determining new female roles beyond a medical context. The emphasis on marital sexuality gave rise to a series of questions that captured the French imagination as it struggled to define the terms of this new notion of domestic harmony and, in particular, what it would mean to be a good wife. To what extent should a woman be expected to satisfy her husband sexually? asked medical and literary texts alike. If female sexual pleasure was to be accepted as part of healthy conjugal relations, how were women to reconcile this innovation with the traditional notion of the ménagère (housewife) or bonne épouse (good wife) who, despite her reproductive role, was meant to repress all sexual expression? Was it possible to be a wife and a sexual being at the same time? Was this something men desired in their wives?

These kinds of questions surfaced in both medical and literary forms, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century. Brieux’s play is but one example. Concerns generated by these questions demonstrated that sex in marriage—theoretically, the healthiest, safest, least pathological place for it—was not without danger. Rather, to judge by medical and literary texts from the second half of the century, marital sex appears to have been fraught with peril at every potential wrong turn. In what follows I consider some of the different ways that the perils of female pleasure were conceived by doctors and writers of both sexes as a way of gaining insight into the contested nature of the wife’s sexual identity in nineteenth-century France. [End Page 66]

In nineteenth-century medical discourse marriage was described as a cure for the ills of human passions and instincts. Despite the fact that these passions were perceived as natural stirrings of human sexuality, they required taming through a coupling geared toward procreation. Marriage in its medical understanding was sometimes advised as a prophylactic, thwarting hysteria in the young woman on the eve of its onset, and sometimes as a treatment, even miraculously bringing fertility to the most hard working prostitute once she entered its bonds.5 In a widely read hygiene manual on conjugal relations, Des rapports conjugaux considérés sous le triple point de vue de la population, de la santé et de la morale publique (Concerning Conjugal Relations Considered from the Triple Perspective of Population...


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pp. 65-83
Launched on MUSE
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