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Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris 1st Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0801451560
ISBN-10: 0801451566
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Editorial Reviews


"This history brings to life les dames entretenues―women who dazzled and scandalized eighteenth-century Paris as mistresses of powerful men. Kushner traces the pathways to élite prostitution: many mistresses began as actresses and singers; others were sold into the demimonde by their parents. She finds that mistresses were held to have a stabilizing influence on men's romantic whims, and they enjoyed some of the benefits of married women. Contracts guaranteed their pay, and they were often the primary breadwinners for their own families. Some mistresses found lifetime partners in their patrons, and some achieved financial independence, but many were discarded by their late twenties and began a life of streetwalking. Kushner avoids over-contemporizing her subject, affording her women agency but not more than they actually had."―New Yorker

"In Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris, Nina Kushner paints a vivid picture of elite prostitutes, or dames entretenues, and the men who supported them. . . .Through an impressive archival analysis of thousands of pages of police reports, Kushner describes where these women came from, for whom they worked, the terms of their employment, how much they made, and if they had private lives of their own. . . .In a veritable tour de force, Kushner draws compelling portraits of these women's lives. . . .Kushner's study is richly textured, smart, and it is a lively read. She navigates extremely well between individual lives, as recorded by the police, and the larger population of kept women. Moreover, in framing sex as work, her research sheds important light on the realities faced by many French women of the mid-century, namely, significant economic fragility. It also offers opportunities to rethink libertine literature and Rococo painting that never tired of depicting the dames entretenues. Erotic Exchanges thus represents an excellent example of sociocultural history that compellingly recreates the demimonde, the women who worked there, and the culture that made it all possible."―Lesley H. Walker, American Historical Review (April 2015)

"Nina Kushner examines the role of girls' and women's agency along the spectrum of sex work that catered to an upper-class clientele, and in doing so, evokes both sympathy and admiration for her subjects."―Bust

"One of the most compelling features of the book is the fact that Kushner raises fascinating questions and draws attention to a number of paradoxes underlying the web of relations between police, prostitutes, clients and procurers. . . . Erotic Exchanges is not addressed to specialists in Enlightenment France (although those interested in the specific topic of eighteenth-century courtesans will appreciate having a social historian's expert perspective on the subject), but it offers a valuable contribution to the fields of women history or history of prostitution. Kushner's combination of careful archives research and sharp sociological analyses makes her book an intriguing look into the universe of eighteenth-century France’s elite prostitution."―Marine Ganofsky, French History (November 2014)

"In spring 1758 Dame Boujard entrusted her thirteen-year-old daughter Marie to the elite brothel owner Madame Varenne, who promptly set about hawking the girl's virginity. The marquis de Bandol negotiated a price of ninety-six livres (about half the annual salary of a shopgirl), but the deal collapsed when the client claimed that the girl was not a virgin. Marie then spent six months at Varenne’s brothel before contracting a venereal disease (probably syphilis); at the age of fifteen she became the mistress of the marquis de Persenat who paid off her mother’s considerable debts and offered Marie herself a contract of three hundred livres a month. Forgotten figures like Marie, her mother, Varenne, and the marquis populate Nina Kushner’s richly detailed and persuasive sociocultural history of eighteenth-century Parisian prostitution. . . . [T]his generous but unsentimental study will be of enduring value to those interested in women’s history, libertinage, and urban culture."―Thomas Wynn, French Studies (October 2014)

"Based on extensive archival research, this book provides a thorough and subtle analysis of relations between kept women and their keepers: patrons, madams, and police. Nina Kushner reconstructs the experience of the Parisian demimonde within the context of larger questions about sexual economy, female agency, and public order in eighteenth-century France."―Jeffrey Merrick, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, author of Order and Disorder under the Ancien Régime

"Erotic Exchanges is an important and engaging book. Nina Kushner goes beyond anecdote while using anecdote-rich sources to give incredible texture to her study. It is a fascinating and compelling read."―Dena Goodman, Lila Miller Collegiate Professor of History and Women's Studies, University of Michigan, author of Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters

"In Erotic Exchanges, Nina Kushner rekindles discussion of a historical population for which we have a great deal of documentation. Because of police surveillance, the dames entretenues of eighteenth-century France can be followed in all phases of their work lives. The result is a textured and nuanced picture of possibilities and limitations for these women in their historical setting. Erotic Exchanges could reshape discussions of sex work in important ways."―Katherine Crawford, Vanderbilt University, author of The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance

About the Author

Nina Kushner is Associate Professor of History at Clark University.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (January 14, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801451566
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801451560
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #915,710 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By classicmaiden on January 14, 2014
Format: Hardcover
This is an expertly written Academic work, looking at elite prostitution as a form of work and placing the importance of this work in our understanding of women's history and sexuality in eighteenth-century Paris, both culturally and socially. The police had a department called Département des femmes galantes dedicated to reporting the lives of dame entretenue (kept women). It was a way for them to avoid scandal, which also meant that their focus was not so much in helping women in the Demimonde, but controlling it and wielding power over it.

At this time, it was important for girls and women of all walks of life, to work, to be wallflowers and then get successfully married. In many cases when the girls and women got deflowered before their marriage, it meant they could lose their job or/and not get successfully married. Virginity and youth was revered, and that is also why so many kept women and prostitutes were teenagers when they first started out - some not more than twelve years of age. There were many parents who were struggling financially who sold their girls to prostitution, often against their girl's will. In this time, parents had enormous power and rights over their children and the police rarely stepped in. Even if what the parents were doing was illegal; it wasn't always a question whether something was illegal or not, but more about avoiding scandal and making sure things were running smoothly, without too much notice. (It was surprising to see first hand through the reports the amount of network the police had and how much they actually knew.)

When a girl was successfully enrolled with a Madam, the goal was to find a patron they could become a mistress for.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Geonomeak on March 15, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A very scholarly and detailed investigation of the circumstances that the more exclusive kept women of 18th century Paris. I had no idea that the Parisian police kept track of so many women and their patrons, predating the Stasi and our current NSA, and it is amazing that so many of these records have survived. The role of women in that society and in those times was quite precarious and in many ways simply awful. This book discusses the many aspects of the few available means of survival for some women. It was a surprise to find that the Theatre, Opera and Ballet played such a role in in grooming and preparing a 'resume' for young women to enter into liaisons with upper class 'gentlemen'. It put a fresh light on the works of Degas and Lautrec et al.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book does not read like I thought it would based upon the title (and cover which is adapted for the subject). Rather, at times it reads like a matter-of-fact accounting authored by a surveillance agency hired to spy on an illicit activity whose membership more closely resembles an under-cover agent getting too close to the subjects. Perhaps the limited recorded data (reports generated by the police) prevented the author from being a little more descriptive; but you would think she could have found more sources to supplement these dry parts of the book. Having said that, I was most impressed with Kushner's theories regarding "sexual capital" and the various means through which it was achieved. The perceived value of virginity and brevity of sexual capital, and how some prostitutes could "milk" and extend the value (multiple patrons, developing networks, etc.), was well covered. She fairly discusses the stigmas and problems associated with the profession (including STD's) and still manages to provide a glimpse into the "heart love" experienced by a few woman in the business. In short, she nicely covers the origins of the girls, the pitfalls that exist and the benefit of the "Demimonde". Finally, this book helped me to better understand why an organized system of hierarchy not only served to protect prostitutes from the perils of street-walking, it also enabled them to be in control of their bodies (sexual capital). I think woman should have this right under all circumstances. I really liked this book.
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2 of 6 people found the following review helpful By John Pike on October 4, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Text book boring. First 1/3 of book just copied all the arcane laws that intertwined in the 18th. Century.
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