Gangrene of Society: Images of Prostitution in France

Emile Zola's "Nana"

Emile Zola’s “Nana”

In France, one of the popular visions of prostitution presented the negative image of Butler and Stead’s victimized Magdalenes. In this version, the roles of the victim and the aggressor reversed. Female vice, not male aggression, drove prostitution. Corroding society, ambitious prostitutes of both lower and middle class backgrounds were seen as seducing and corrupting men. This perspective accompanied a political movement towards increased state regulation. Historian Alain Corbin explained this fearful view towards prostitutes:

Prostitution [was] seen as a gangrene rising from the lower depths of society and    invading the entire social body during the Second Empire. Corruption throughout                        the laboring classes, the old terror of the early nineteenth century, [had] taken            root. (Corbin, Women for Hire, 20).

In the French political atmosphere, the image of the prostitute represented vice, social disorder, and a weakness of government.

A strong advocate of social regulationist policies, French hygienist Parent-Duchatelet (1790-1835) was one of the main architects of this vision of prostitution. On moral grounds, the basic idea of selling sex did not bother him. In fact, he insisted that prostitution was a necessary evil, promoting social order; he believed that without this outlet for their desires, men would “sow discord” within the home (Corbin, 4). Employing analogy, Duchatelet compared prostitution to an organism’s excretory system, carrying out an unsightly but indispensable function for society (Corbin, 4). He advocated state supervision of the sex trade, insisting that prostitutes be identified and separated from polite society. In his view, women in the “class of public prostitution” differed “as much in their morals, their tastes, and their habits from the society of their compatriots, as the latter differ from the nations of another hemisphere” (Corbin, 5). These women could not be allowed to re-enter polite society lest they spread their necessary vices to the middle and upper classes. At this time, there was a general fear in French society of the “vicious […] and dangerous” lower classes (Corbin, 4). Prostitutes represented the coarser classes’ values, which Duchatelet and other regulationists feared would filter up through the levels of society.

Parent-Duchatelet also held an intense fear of lesbianism and of venereal disease. To him, female homosexuality represented a complete disordering of social behavior and morality. He believed that prostitutes ran a higher risk of becoming lesbian, a complete upheaval of normal sexuality that formed the ultimate threat to society (Corbin, 7). Stressing the epidemic-like qualities of venereal diseases, he warned: “Of all the diseases that can affect mankind through contagion, and which have the most serious repercussions on society, there is none more serious, more dangerous, and more to be feared than syphilis” (Corbin, 5). For Duchatelet, who so often compared society to the human body, venereal disease represented a serious sickness of the body politic as a whole.

Duchatelet was part of the regulationist camp, a political movement that advocated stronger state control and regulation. Just as Butler and Stead had conjured the sympathetic archetype as a political tool in England, French regulationists also cultivated a specific characterization of prostitutes for political purposes.  Duchatelet characterized a prostitute as a smart woman who knew her trade and her customer base well.  He created a hierarchy, classifying women by the men that they seduced. He wrote, “Usually, the most distinguished class of prostitutes chooses its lovers among law students, medical students [etc.] the rest are left to workers of all kinds” (Corbin, 6). His stereotype of a prostitute was immature, lazy, and unattached. Rejecting the typical work and stability of managing a household, his archetypal fallen woman lived idly and in vain pleasure. She was also in constant motion. Shifting quickly between both lovers and physical addresses, she represented instability, “turbulence,” and “agitation” in society (Corbin, 7). For Duchatelet, the fluidity of her place of residence also represented her dangerous mobility between classes (Corbin, 7). He used these threatening characteristics to justify the call for more state regulation of prostitution.

The regulationist movement saw prostitution as “both necessary and dangerous,” a trade that “must be tolerated, but closely supervised, with a view to preventing any excess” (Corbin, 9). This line of thought advocated policies that created a closed environment that was highly compartmentalized and supervised by authorities. In order to insulate polite parts of society, prostitution was to be concentrated in state regulated brothels that were sealed off from the public (Corbin, 10). The idea of panopticism also played a part in the call for obsessive regulations. Activists like Duchatelet insisted that all aspects of prostitution be exposed to the eye of the state, “invisible to the rest of society […] but perfectly transparent to those who supervise it” (Corbin, 9). Brothels would have to be registered and strictly regulated in order to suppress disorder, advocate sanitation, and make “repression easier” (Corbin, 10). Enforcing bureaucratization, the brothel-keeper, the “madam,” was to be a respected authority figure that was directly accountable to the state. Regulationists also advocated different categories of brothels divided along class lines, separating houses that catered to lower classes from those that targeted the middle and upper levels (Corbin, 11). To further this political movement, regulationists relied on the archetype of a prostitute as a threat to society’s order, viewing the industry as an unavoidable and inherently female vice that must be supervised and controlled.

Emile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana exhibited many aspects of this French attitude toward prostitution. Historian Alain Corbin contended, “In many respects, Nana is the daughter of post-Commune regulationist obsessions” (Corbin, 29). Representing the idly luxurious stereotype of a prostitute, the central character, Nana, flaunts her sexuality on the theater’s stage and in the social circles of French elites. She uses a collection of men, some scandalously young and some scandalously old, to fulfill her insatiable desire for opulence and excitement. Symbolizing disorder and degeneration, her corrupted sexuality destroys the men who fall beneath her spell. Unable to deny her any pleasure, the Count Muffat is forced to accept her lesbian love affairs; and the Count Vandeuvres immolates himself after being accused of fixing a horse race for a filly named after the musical star. Constantly in motion and constantly demanding pleasure, Nana devours the fortunes of all the young men she seduces. In the end, she falls to the grossest of scourges, the righteous consequence for unruly prostitutes. Venereal disease kills her while she is alone in her hotel room. Zola ends the book by describing the symbolism of her revolting corpse:

Venus was rotting. It seemed as though the poison she had assimilated in the gutters, and on the carrion tolerated by the roadside, the leaven with which she had poisoned a whole people, had but now remounted to her face and turned it to corruption. (Zola, Nana, 545)

Nana’s insatiable sexuality represented the gangrene of the lower and dangerous classes, presenting a threat to the order of society. She embodied the stereotype of an insatiable, idle, and biologically contagious prostitute that Duchatelet and the regulationists had characterized. As Zola wrote, her vice “had poisoned a whole people.” This image of prostitution justified the deluge of state regulations needed to safeguard the body politic from her corrupting influence. 

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