Browse Exhibits (3 total)

Prostitution and Stigma Cross-Culturally: Paris, Nairobi, and California


This exhibit compares the stigmatization of indoor prostitution with that of outdoor prostitution. These two forms of prostitution carry significant (but varied) meanings with regard to stigma in that they are reflective of class lines.  To explore this comparison more deeply, I juxtapose three different cultures: Paris in the 1830s, Nairobi in the 1900s, and California in the late 1990s-early 2000s.  In doing so, I examine how the dominant attitudes affiliated with indoor and outdoor prostitution inform kinship and living structures for female prostitutes in each of these places and time periods.  The patterns and differences between these three cases demonstrate that stigma (like prostitution) varies across cultures.

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Types of Prostitutes in 19th Century France

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This exhibit illustrates different facets of prostitution in 19th century France. Prostitution was a common social phenomenon that was practiced by women regardless of class, but the type of prostitute varied depending on the status of the men involved. The social standing of prostitutes often shifted throughout their lifetimes, but their roles generally remained within four basic levels of prostitution. This exhibit focuses on these four important types of prostitutes, imagined and mythologized in various media of the time. The lorette, the aspiring courtesan, was the prostitute of mystery, elusive and secretive, often evading the government’s health regulations. The grisette was a prostitute from a working-class background, often found inhabiting the apartments of young Parisian students. The fille publique or streetwalker, was from the lowest class of prostitute and often attracted the poorest customers. Walking the street alone or in groups, la fille publique was most vulnerable to police repression. And finally, women in “maisons closes” or brothels, catered to men of different social classes. The most luxurious brothels attracted middle class men with their continuous business. These women, though varying in status, participated in a form of sexual commerce that was common in French society in the 19th century.

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From Lorettes to Escorts: Media Representations of Female Sexworkers


In 19th century French literature and art, the lorette was a sexworker, typically of the working class from different cities across France, whose goal was to improve her social standing in Parisian society through lavish gifts from her wealthy clients. While not always successful, lorettes aimed to achieve enough social mobility to fool members of the elite into thinking that she was one of their own. Although the lorette was made popular through caricature and satire, and later in famous novels, there are references to real-life lorettes in the work of Alexandre Parent du Châtelet, Maurice Alhoy and Paul Gavarni. In these media representations, lorettes are simultaneously fetishized for their sexual prowess and feared because of their materialism and greed, which threatened to financially and morally degrade members of Paris’ elite.  

The modern-day equivalent of the lorette is an escort. An escort is a sexworker who accepts cash and sometimes luxury gifts from elite clients in exchange for her work so that she may gain cultural and social capital. Escorts are racially and ethnically diverse and are not limited to women. Just as lorettes were portrayed in writing and art, escorts are shown in modern media, like television and film, but they have autonomy over their own stories. In these stories, they become the protagonist of their own narrative by making their own decisions about their clientele, personal lives, and finances, rather than being depicted as a reliant, subservient and malicious character like the lorette.

The increased autonomy that an escort has in media representations has evolved from the objectifying male gaze seen in 19th century literary examples of lorettes, demonstrating the transformation over time of attitudes towards sexwork and female sexual empowerment.

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