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13 - Sex in Eighteenth-Century Paris

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 April 2024

Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Mathew Kuefler
San Diego State University
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Eighteenth-century Paris was the site of multiple sexual cultures ranging from permissive to conservative. All these sexual cultures operated within a set of prescriptive legal, religious, and moralistic discourses that prohibited sex outside of marriage while often supporting sexual pleasure within it. Many Parisians ignored these prescriptions, often with impunity. The police concerned themselves with public sex and intervened in private affairs only when asked to do so. Paris was home to a diverse permissive sexual culture. It was comprised of a portion of the financial, social, political, and intellectual elite, often identified as libertines, for whom sex outside marriage was both widespread and widely accepted. It also included men who had sex with each other as part of Paris’s extensive sodomitical subculture, though there is little evidence of a modern homosexual identity. Prostitution was endemic in Paris, encompassing numerous forms of transactional sex that translated into a sort of hierarchy, with women kept as mistresses by men of the elite at the top and those catering to marginal men at the bottom. We know least about the sex lives of other ordinary people, though evidence suggests many had sex outside of marriage and many cared deeply for their spouses.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2024

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Further Reading

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