- Early Modern Sex and Its Theaters
Prostitution is popular work. Nobody in the French eighteenth century said so with greater candor than the literate socialite Charlotte-Élisabeth Aïssé, [End Page 356] who began life destined to become a Circassian princess yet found herself sold into sexual slavery and only later rescued by a family member. The letters of Aïssé touch on her own tribulations far less frequently than on her impressions of what she described as a profusion of prostitutes in Paris: “The Opéra girls and other call girls overrun Paris—one cannot take a step without being surrounded by them” (Lettres de Mademoiselle Aïssé à Madame Calandrini, ed. Alexandre Piedagnel [Paris: Librairie des bibliophiles, 1878], 48; my translation). This comment is significant for two reasons. First, it emphasizes the inundation of all ranks of society with women whose regular work involved selling sex. Second, it groups theater women [les filles de l’Opéra] with common prostitutes [les filles de joie], thereby suggesting the fluid movement of sex workers between the glittering stages of institutionalized theater and the sordid social stages of private parlors and public satires.
The remarkable ease with which female sex workers moved between clients and contexts takes pride of place in Nina Kushner’s Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris. In fact, the powerful proteanism of Parisian prostitutes is something that Kushner attributes to finances, since many such women staked their livelihoods on the social and fiscal gains that came with sexual service to wealthy patrons. The elite nature of Enlightenment prostitution had as much to do with an aristocratic male clientele as it did with the promise of a woman’s attaining a level of personal wealth that could in itself be considered aristocratic. Kushner’s study is most virtuosic in its discussions of the business of elite prostitution as labor. On display throughout chapter five (“Contracts and Elite Prostitution as Work”) are terms one would associate with labor both as a means to financial gain and as an enterprise tied to certain social and contractual obligations. We learn, for instance, that many of the organizational heads of sex work in the Parisian eighteenth century—from madams, to theater impresarios, to the parents of youthful provincial virgins—capitalized on kept women’s complicated status as cultural commodities. The dame entretenue who comforted her married lover, the prostitute who married later in life, and the teenage virgin who embarked on a career as Opéra soloist and public sex symbol quested after improved social standing and fiscal independence during their peak years of biological and sexual maturity. Yet, as Kushner explains, these women were never necessarily “passive subjects of their own biology and market forces” (159). Instead, they actively invested in themselves by seeking relationships with the highest-paying patrons they could attract. For the men who communed with these savvy stars and starlets, prostitution was equal parts sexual gratification and conspicuous consumption. Many suitors even saw their prestige increase when news of their relationships with elite theatrical performers went public.
The theaters in which these relationships unfolded involved the world of the performing arts as well as the familial and financial arenas in which women and their lovers found themselves “staged” as desired and desiring sexual subjects. Every instance of contracted sex work involved a kind of performance, from the aspirations of young stage artistes who moonlighted as kept women to the hunger for emotional intimacy and nontraditional social prestige that drove many men into the arms of prostitutes and madams. This concept of prostitution as performance—as publically visible entertainment—also pervades the essays in Prostitution and Eighteenth-Century Culture: Sex, Commerce and...