Predecessors to the American Sex Worker Movement

In the 1830s, Alexandre Parent du Chatelet embarked on an unprecedented research project to collect information on Parisian prostitutes. The resulting work, De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris, created an epic historical and sociological document that offers a lens through which to view prostitution today. Parent du Chatelet’s work demonstrates that prostitutes have always found ways to rebel against the forms of social control which are forced upon them, and the marked differences between these early forms of resistance illustrates the ways in which sex worker activism has evolved over the decades.

The section “Of some chance disturbances caused by prostitutes,” Parent du Chatelet described the following scene (translated from the original French) of prostitutes causing a scene in a Parisian church:

From 1820-1821, some prostitutes took to entering into various churches and behaving in sucha manner as to draw attention and to cause trouble. They were chased away but would stay atthe doors of the temples, continuing to cry even more, so that one was obliged to forbid them from the churches during the time at which the divine office was celebrated. This measure was taken by the request of the archbishop of Paris at the pressing solicitation of multiple protesting clergymen. From this time on, the police captains had always given necessary orders so that the public houses would be closed Christmas eve at 10PM because of the midnight mass when the ceremonies began. Those which knew of the disturbances that had taken place every year in various Parisian parishes during this ceremony, appreciated the wisdom of this measure which reclaimed, after so much time, the general order and the decency of the worship.

It is known that, in the carnival and in all of the public celebrations, that prostitutes had a particular tendency to break the rules and return to their natural tendencies; this is an observation for which I found a multitude of times in the comunications of the police captains. I do not know, however, if these particular orders were ever given to the detectives for these particular circumstances.

Despite not being heavily organized, nineteenth century Parisian prostitutes made their displeasure with their marginalization known. The excerpt does not address whether or not the prostitutes had a goal in causing disruption, but the simple act of resisting regulation and control is a theme that is still seen in present-day activism.




[1] Translation of Parent-Duchatelet Composite File, 2013. Translation by Greggor Mattson, PhD, 2016. Translation by Noëlle Marty ’17, 2016.