Prostitutes and Arrests

Literary Representations
Lorettes and society

Lower Class Prostitutes and the Law
Representations in Les Miserables
Realities of Authority in Paris
Brothels and Streetwalkers

The Privileged Class: Courtesans

Defining the courtesan
Visual representations
Courtesans in reality




Prostitutes and the Law: Why Were They Arrested?

It is impossible to say how many unregistered prostitutes there were in Paris during the mid nineteenth century. Likewise, it is impossible to say how many men frequented the brothels or propositioned streetwalkers in the back of bars. Although many social studies have been completed on prostitution and the types of men who requested their services, there is no way of knowing exactly how many women were forced to sell their bodies on the streets of Paris.

It is known, however, that both registered prostitutes and unregistered prostitutes were frequent victims of assault, rape, and (though uncommon) murder. The only accurate record of prostitution is that kept by the members of the Gendarmerie Royale, as written in their daily logs, which were sent each day to the Prefecture of Police. These records show who was arrested, and the reason for their arrest. Most importantly, these arrest records provide the only firsthand look into the lives of unregistered prostitutes in Paris during that time, and also the relationship between these women and the authorities who arrested them.

Police were often called to brothels for noise complaints, and other petty crimes. The arrest records cite the arrondissement where the arrest occurred. As is evidenced on this chart, the main reasons why unregistered prostitutes were interrogated and taken into custody by the police were "contravention" and "malady". Less frequent were incidences of theft..

Venereal Disease

It is interesting to note that unregistered prostitutes were often arrested because they had venereal diseases. Could this be a response to the concerns Alexandre Parent-Duchatlet raised in his study of prostitution in Paris in the 19 century? It is probable that police were attempting to check the spread of venial disease in the city by forbidding these women to continue in their line of work. However, in most cases, as we learned in studying the brothels of Paris, the venereal diseases were contracted by the prostitutes *from* their clients. (In theory, the men who frequented the brothels should have been locked up instead of the prostitutes!) Here is a chart of the number of unregistered prostitutes arrested for "malady" in the mid 19th century:


  • Within a six year span, over one thousand women were taken into custody for having venereal diseases. Although the majority of these women were only arrested once or twice, it is questionable how police took these women into custody simply for having an ailment. Venereal disease, although it certainly had a negative stigma attached to it in the 19th century, was certainly not grounds for detainment. These arrests suggest that the police were not only figureheads of physical authority in Paris, but also the figureheads of moral authority:
  • Police (and government) in Paris could have easily turned a blind eye to unregistered prostitution in Paris, just as they turned a blind eye to the courtesans and lorettes, the upper and middle class counterparts of streetwalkers and those who worked in brothels. Instead, they took it into their own hands to clean up the city of Paris, which included getting rid of what they considered moral scum. Lower class prostitutes definitely fell into this category, according to the government, so they could justify arresting a prostitute simply because she had a venereal disease.
  • This chart, however, in no way represents the number of streetwalkers that were arrested in Paris during that time, since the number of prostitutes who were not arrested greatly outnumbered the number of prostitutes who were.


Jill Harsin reports in her book Policing Prostitution in Paris in the 19th Century that the term contravention was used by the police to connote any number of offenses committed. "On the few occasions when a prostitute was arrested specifically for theft and assault, it often meant that the authorities might be planning to bring her to trial for the more serious offense. Essentially, the term 'contravention', which means breaking the rules, was applied generally to offenses prostitutes committed.

Contravention is by far the most prevalent reason the Gendarmerie listed for arresting prostitute. This signified a violation of government legislated, police enforced regulations, and not a crime per se. Prostitutes were also arrested for vagrancy and theft, and sometimes for ambigous "crimes against persons. For whatever reason they were arrested, prostitutes found themselves dealing with police who were specifically assigned to them as members of the Prefecture. There was a definite procedure, which we will learn about next.

Click here to find out more about arrest procedures and prisons!