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  • Prostitution et Révolution. Les femmes publiques dans la cité républicaine (1789–1804) by Plumauzille Clyde
  • Jean-Marc Rohrbasser
Plumauzille Clyde, 2016, Prostitution et Révolution. Les femmes publiques dans la cité républicaine (1789–1804), [Prostitution and revolution: “public women” in the republican city], Ceyzérieu, Champ Vallon, “La chose publique” series, 400p.

This book explores a subject seldom addressed in history of the French Revolution: the classic thesis that prostitution was liberalized during the French Revolution against a backdrop of ideological collusion between political anarchy and absolute freedom in the sphere of mores. The author contends that rather than liberating prostitution, the Revolution gave rise to the first set of policies for decriminalizing it, meanwhile regulating it through a new system of control.

Her analysis of the phenomenon of prostitution makes amends for prostitutes’ invisibility while rejecting caricatures of their activity. The questions the author seeks to answer are clearly defined: What role did the Revolution play with regard to prostitution? Was decriminalization itself a revolution? In answering them, she puts forward a history of citizenship at the time of the Revolution – a matter of which we know little, she affirms.

C. Plumauzille is obviously not interested in judging prostitution but rather in discussing what the term meant and the experiences it covered. The point is to construct the concept of prostitution during the Revolutionary experience rather than to consider the phenomenon a pre-established category. This methodological pre-supposition necessitates a multidimensional approach: analysis of existing historiography, attention to legal frameworks and how they were applied in the field, study of interactions between institutional actors and women designated prostitutes, a concern to understand the modes of existence involved in the experience of prostitution, attention to prostitutes’ own words, their practices and their capacity for action.

The book focuses on Revolutionary Paris, an excellent site for studying the problem of prostitution and how it was policed. Part I (Chapters 1–3) is essentially descriptive; Part II (Chapters 4 and 5) presents events chronologically; Part III (Chapters 6 and 7) analyses prostitution as a condition of “diminished citizenship”.

Chapter 1 undertakes a quantitative assessment of the population of “public women” in Paris based on police and prison records; it is also attentive to institutional issues specific to this categorization. Chapter 2 studies the general “distribution” of the phenomenon in France’s capital city: the fantasy of the “New Babylon” but also an indication of the real supply of sexual services available in specific places whereas prostitution seemed an integral part of the urban fabric. Chapter 3 details the components of a sexual culture, the culture of “popular-class” urban life that took over in the new public space created by Revolutionary egalitarianism. That culture developed out of the tension between a newly emerging collective space in which behaviour was changing and police redefinitions of urban moral order.

Chapter 4 opens Part II on decriminalization. Since there are no available legislative sources, this part is based on parliamentary debates and the regulatory production of the police administration. From 1789 to 1792 a “legal silence” [End Page 363] reigned: prostitution was not debated in parliament and did not figure on the policy agenda. The author seeks to understand that political silence. Was it voluntary? Did it aim to make prostitution invisible or to free it from state control?

The period of silence was followed by an administrative approach – the title and subject of Chapter 5, which discusses the period 1793–1799. The year 1793 put an end to the liberalization of prostitution. The government that had organized the Terror wanted to rid the nation of socially and morally unassimilable elements. The point was to clarify the notions of good and bad citizen, to distinguish between the two, and so to provide a foundation for the practice of good republican morals and behaviour.

The third and last part of the book opens with a detailed analysis of police action for combatting prostitution. Throughout it, the author’s approach is socio-historical: the women designated in police records as “public women” are studied by way of their relations with the institution that was instrumental in defining them as such...


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pp. 363-365
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