Breaking the Social Stereotypes of the 19th Century French Poor

Losing Their Innocence

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"This father was one who risked his daughters; he was playing a game with destiny, and he put them into the stake...from all this the result was, in the midst of human society constituted as it is, two miserable beings who were neither children, nor girls, nor women, a species of impure yet innocent monsters produced by misery."

Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Marius Book VIII, Chapter IV

 

Child prostitution was rampant in 19th century Paris, as daughters- frequently prepubescent- were forced into sexual encounters with bourgeouis men for as little as a single franc. The transactions were informal, and the girls tended to be taken to a dark alley or under a bridge; occasionally, a room in her own home became used for the purpose. As the majority of lower class prostitutes were not registered, no regulations concerning age of consent were enforced. Reports were rampant of businesses implicated in the selling of children. Police reports yield the example of florist stands in Toulon which were merely a front: the young girls that worked there, most between the ages of 11 and 13 years old, would be deployed to the homes of wealthy patrons for "deliveries."

Studies done at the time indicate that 21% of working prostitutes lost their virginity prior to their 16th birthday, although the age of highest incidence was 17. In contrast to most perceptions, the client responsible for this defilement was rarely middle-aged or older. 73.5% of the men were between 18 and 28, with the age of highest incidence 22. Given these girls' youth, it is likely that many of them were introduced to prostitution by their impoverished family. Ironically, when a young girl was impregnated by a client, her family would generally throw her out on the streets for bring shame upon the family. Left destitute and alone, with no developed skills, they resorted to the only life they were accustomed to and joined the ranks of streetwalkers.