Grisettes on Campus

Louis Huart, writer of Physiologie de la grisette, wrote that grisettes were very particular as to who they chose as their lovers. Grisettes had a weakness for blonde and brown mustaches, and were only interested in young men. Instead of wooing the women with flowers, as might happen today, the students would woo grisettes with oranges and chestnuts--some of the grisettes’ favorite foods, in addition to pastries and other refreshments. Huart writes that grisettes were loyal to their lovers, and that they would reject offers from someone who was of working class and without social mobility. From the ages of 16-20, she would have only one lover, but she may have had more than one from 20-24. At this age, some grisettes became Lorettes [1].

According to “L’étudiant En Droit” (The Law Student), from Curmer’s French Encyclopedia, students would go to large balls in the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris with the hopes of meeting a young woman to be their grisette. The young women may also have been going to the dance to meet students. The two would meet and dance together before making a “pact” at “La Grand-Chaumière de Montparnasse” (a dance hall in Montparnasse). From this moment on, the two would have an arrangement. According to Cumer, the student would often miss his freedom and would pick fights in order to end the relationship, and she would get passed on to a friend. However, when this did not happen, the grisette and student would say their goodbyes at the end of the semester; he would promise to write, and she would be teary-eyed when he left. Without her, Curmer says that the student would be hopeless at taking care of himself. A student might have to walk to the top floor of his building bringing up water, books, food, and other supplies. The rent in the city is also more pricey than living in the country so a grisette may not have been able to afford her own apartment without the student. She may also have been trying to save up for her dowry [2].


Today’s college culture has replaced the need for grisettes through dorm living, dating apps, and dining halls. A woman who wants to read and write can attend college herself and thus does not need to learn through a male student. Students don’t need to find a romantic partner to help with chores when the college employs staff to cook and clean for the students. Instead, students are creating romantic and sexual relationships without direct exchange for domestic services, sexual services or poetry readings. Hookup culture thrives on newfound autonomy, decreased surveillance and coed living environments—all which are found in today’s college experience [3]. College is likely the first time a young adult encounters this sexual freedom, as most American parents do not permit the “sleepover” [4]. The “sleepover” is Schalet’s name for a boy and girl in high school spending the night together in a parent’s home.

Dating apps like Tinder make finding a “hookup” so immediate that male no longer seek out just one woman to provide sexual services like a grisette once did [5]. Today’s students can find a new partner every night if they desire. Both men and women pursue each other for a variety of sexual, romantic or platonic relationships. For example, some female students ask male students to help fix something around the house, to fix their car or for their sexual services. These services look similar to the ones provided by grisettes but the exchange is typically unspoken, not contractual. A man no longer charms a woman with chestnuts, instead the common tokens include chocolates, flowers, and pizza. Similarly, instead of meeting at a ball or other organized event, technology plays a large role in the early stages of communication between the two parties. Broadly speaking, third wave feminism, the rise and popularity of birth control, and a loss of marriage-focused relationships has allowed hookup culture to flourish [6]. With casual sex becoming not only more common but feasible with the option of the pill, alternative relationships like “friends with benefits” and “one night stands” have emerged [7]. These factors have all contributed to the loss of the grisette.

The grisette’s job of cleaning and cooking for the student has been taken over by dining services and campus hired custodians. In fraternities and sororities a “house mother” will provide the emotional support that a grisette might offer but that custodians do not. Oberlin College does not participate in greek life, but hires staff to maintain the buildings and students to be Resident Assistants instead. Students here have become less responsible for domestic chores in an attempt to make academics a priority (Read on: The Grisette as Nanny.) The student-grisette relationship was mutual beneficial in that the student need not pay for a housekeeper or a “lady friend” because she is receiving a place to stay, a secondhand education and a regular sunday outing with a wealthy student. Today’s system requires the student to pay the school to hire cooks and custodians. This arrangement also creates low-wage service jobs. Today, the grisette’s characteristics show in a variety of people and professions yet they are truly women of the past.


[1] Huart, Louis. 1841. Physiologie De La Grisette.Paris: Aubert, Lavigne ( p. 34, 40, 47, 104.

[2] Curmer, L. 1840. Les Français Peints Par Eux-Mêmes : Encyclopédie Morale Du Dix-Neuvième Siècle.L. Curmer (Paris) ( p. 18, 19

[3] Bogle, Kathleen A. 2008. Hooking up sex, dating, and relationships on campus. New York: New York University Press

[4] Schalet, Amy T. 2011. Not under my roof: parents, teens, and the culture of sex. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[5]  David, Gaby and Carolina Cambre. 2016. “Screened Intimacies: Tinder and the Swipe Logic.” Social Media Society 2(2):205630511664197.

[6] Garcia, Justin R., Chris Reiber, Sean G. Massey, and Ann M. Merriwether. 2012. “Sexual hookup culture: A review.” Review of General Psychology 16(2):161–76.

[7] Williams, J.C. & Jovanovic, J. Sexuality & Culture (2015) 19: 157. doi:10.1007/s12119-014-9252-3