Courtesans

 

19th century Paris was full of sexual hypocrisy. Prostitution in all its forms was widespread and financially supported by the male population. Many of the upper class men supported courtesans. It was a social norm for men to have a mistress but not to let that knowledge be widely known. A man was to support his mistress but to never fall in love with her. Despite all the tacit rules that accompanied having a mistress many men spent more time , and discussed important issues, with their lovers instead of their spouses.

Courtesans were kept in a certain luxury which common prostitutes could not hope to afford and were showered with gifts and other extravagances. In status courtesans were similar to lorettes though their lovers wealthier and of a higher class. Few courtesans doted on the men that they were supported by. Faithfulness was only maintained as long as it suited the woman. When the luxurious lifestyle and gifts began to loose their luster or began to dwindle, the courtesan would find another benefactor and regain her life of upper class living.

In popular culture the courtesan is much romanticized and idealized. In theater, literature and film the courtesan is usually either portrayed as a scheming, ruthless seductress or as a woman who had fallen upon hard times and was supporting herself in the only way she could. More truth could be taken from the latter. Courtesans were making a living in one of the only, and certainly the most profitable, forms of employment for women, however they were not forced into the lower paying, and less respected profession of the streetwalker.

Courtesans came from a higher class then the common prostitute. They were able to pander to the high-class expectations of the upper crust of society and only entertained the elite set. Courtesans were almost indistinguishable from the respectable women who hated and shunned them. Because courtesans were not bound by the confines of polite society, they were able to voice their own opinions and many were even politically active. This was quite a radical notion at a time when women's rights were just gaining a small foothold

Courtesans enjoyed a much freer lifestyle then most other women of French society during the 19th century yet they still were able to enjoy many of the same pleasures as the elite society. In Paris courtesans could be seen strolling down the streets, enjoying the vistas in the beautiful gardens, or sitting in one of the many cafes. Paradoxically, while the elite French women turned their noses up at the courtesans they adopted many of their styles of dress. To many people on the street the distinction between the courtesan and the bourgeoise women was impossible to make. "One does not know nowadays, if it's honest women who are dressed like whores or whores who are dressed like honest women".

 

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