Bessette on Ross (2019)

Ross, Andrew Israel. Public City/Public Sex: Homosexuality, Prostitution, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Temple UP, 2019, pp. xi + 264, ISBN 978-1-439-91490-8

In his study of female prostitution and male homosexuality, Andrew Israel Ross places sex at the center of nineteenth-century Paris by showing how attempts at regulation unintentionally created a public sexual culture to which anyone could belong. Refusing to take “identity” as his analytical center, he shows how neither the prostitute nor the “pederast” remained fixed by virtue of their sexual behavior, and he deemphasizes the “marginalization” of their respective subcultures. Public City/ Public Sex is divided into three parts, which examine the spatial organization, discursification, and urbanization of public sex alongside archival and cultural documents (including letters, police records, medical treatises, novels, and paintings) to show how it permeated the city while evading the expectations of authorities, doctors, and moralists. By underscoring how urban sites made space for sexual desire that was fleeting and not contingent upon an identity, Ross’s argument offers a valuable contribution to the field of nineteenth-century French studies through inviting us to question seemingly static categorizations of gender and sexuality.

In the introduction, Ross develops the logic of regulationism through a Foucauldian lens to show how regulating spaces did not repress certain kinds of experiences but rather created them. A combination of medical and legal efforts to monitor female prostitution, regulationism was premised on male heterosexual desire, which required suitable outlets. Keeping sex hidden while acknowledging the sexual connotations of space, this organization relied on discreet signs so that it remained recognizable to those who sought it. This logic extended to any space explicitly or implicitly associated with sexual desire, providing all Parisians with the opportunity to encounter one another, whether prostitutes and clients, “pederasts” and partners, or passers-by. Through this permeability, Parisians collectively worked to shape modern urbanity and the sexual uses of space.

Part one investigates the intersection of sexual management, public hygiene, and policing as authorities attempted to encourage certain behaviors and sexual desires in the maison de tolérance and the pissotières. Ross shows that the ability to recognize these spaces implicated the general public because witnessing them elicited responses, whether positive or negative. Although regulationism kept prostitution behind closed doors, the brothel ironically became central to urban life as subtle signs, such as the marcheuse or the later gros numéro, reminded the public of its presence. The creation of the pissotières discussed in chapter two shares similarities with the brothel as it also conditioned ways of seeing, despite being an enclosed space. Meant specifically for male use, these public urinals were designed to be discreet but recognizable to the men who needed to use them. At the same time, men took advantage of these semi-private locations in order to meet other men for sexual encounters. Authorities struggled to surveil the urinal because it was difficult to know how individuals were using them, blurring the lines, Ross argues, between “respectable” men and “pederasts” while undermining the heterosexual desire on which regulationism was premised.

This growing public sexual culture on the streets led to new attempts to manage the prostitute and the “pederast,” the subject of part two of Ross’s book. Observing that “pederasty” had hitherto been understood as an act rather than an identity, and thus difficult for the police to identify, chapter three looks at how mid-century thinkers such as Ambroise Tardieu defined the pederast through the discourse of female prostitution. By associating male same-sex sexual activity with prostitution, the male body became legible and recognizable to both police and other Parisians. As the following chapter discusses, knowledge about the behaviors of prostitutes and pederasts disseminated to the streets, implicating the general public who now all understood the sexual undertones of random encounters. The ability to engage with, or avoid, sexual solicitation became a spatial practice for all Parisians, creating “a public sexual culture that threatened the distinction between sexual and nonsexual spaces and activities” (129).

The final section focuses on how authorities struggled to manage the expanding presence of public sex during the early Third Republic. In chapter five, Ross examines the numerous letters sent to police that objected to sexual impropriety, immorality, and crime throughout the city. Written mostly by middle-class men who tried to claim the city as their own in the name of a “public” that excluded prostitutes and pederasts, these complaints highlight a tension between space and sex with respect to republican notions of liberty and urban citizenship. As police responded to this growth of public sex through neo-regulationist surveillance strategies on the street, the “respectable” public nevertheless placed themselves at the mercy of the state as well. This failure to effectively distinguish the “respectable” from the sexual paves the way for the final chapter, in which Ross considers the sexual indecipherability inherent to entertainment venues of the fin de siècle. Sites such as the brasserie à femmes and the Folies Bergère capitalized on this ambiguity as business owners both applied and undermined regulationist logic in order to produce male desire. Whether heterosexual or homosexual, all of the venues hid the clients’ true desires under the premise of drink or dance, becoming spaces where middle and working-class Parisians mixed.

Public City/ Public Sex argues compellingly for the centrality of sex across nineteenth-century Parisian culture. Ross’s attention to the role of class, and his inclusion of other gendered experiences such as the brasserie à/pour femmes and male prostitution, makes this a comprehensive study. The major breakthrough lies in Ross’s methodology and displacement of heterosexuality, offering a fresh perspective to the familiar terrain of urbanization and prostitution. The book will appeal to anyone interested in gender and sexuality, urban studies, and power dynamics, both within and beyond nineteenth-century Paris.

Jordan Bessette
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill