Historical Tidbit on Parisian Morality

Rolla by Henri de Gervex (1852-1929) in the Musee Beaux-Arts, BordeauxUninhibited sexual pleasure in the city of love during the 19th century could cause a 21st-century woman’s cheeks to blush.  Prostitution and brothels were at their heyday, and they served a purpose to meet the needs of men both rich and poor. After all, marriage was an institution for producing children; prostitutes and mistresses were for pleasure. The brothel was a place of relaxation for men and accepted as normal practice in society.

How many prostitutes were there during this time period? Brothels or mansions of tolerance, as they were called, housed 15,000 prostitutes in 1883. Between 1871 through 1903, approximately 155,000 women were registered card-carrying ladies of pleasure. Women were required to register at the Bureau of Morals if they wished to work in the profession.  Afterward, they received a huge laundry list of regulated behavior for their conduct indoors and outdoors. During that time period, 725,000 were arrested by the police for suspected prostitution because they failed to register with the Bureau.

Jobs were scarce for women and the survival of the poor difficult. Even married women participated in prostitution. There were roughly 125 Paris brothels in business during the 1870s.  Brothels were considered a cleaner and more regulated system of pleasure, keeping individuals from sexual perversion by giving them an alternative to the women on the streets. Women willing to give satisfaction to the male population were rampant on every corner, and like any other morally questionable practice, it carried consequences.

We tend to romanticize all this into lovemaking in historical romance novels without penalty, except perhaps a baby or two out of wedlock. Unfortunately, all those pleasures carried risks, especially contracting syphilis.  How many had the disease? You might wish to sit down. Fourteen to fifteen percent of deaths were attributed to sexually transmitted diseases. Some reports carry it as high as 17%. One-tenth of the population contracted syphilis. You may think that’s not many, but one-tenth of the population equated to four million people. Syphilis was attributed to 40,000 stillbirths yearly, when gone untreated, progressed into a dastardly end. Half of the cases were contracted between the age of 14 and 21. As one report put it, young people could not wait to dispel their chastity.

Treatment for syphilis was inadequate and understanding by the medical community of the disease somewhat lacking. There were hospitals and clinics set up to specifically treat the disease, but many found it embarrassing to seek treatment. Effective treatment really didn’t arrive until approximately 1910 with the onset of better antibiotics. Earlier, Mercury and Potassium iodide were used.

Nowadays, we’re probably a bit more sophisticated when it comes to sex and STDs. After all, we’ve evolved, right? We can insist on blood tests before we hop in bed with a man or use methods of birth control and protection. I guess social progression does have its trade-offs, but I have a sneaking suspicion with the number of historical romances sold each year women would rather fantasize in another century with handsome aristocrats and take their chances. After all, it’s just fiction and not reality.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s