La Mouche d'Or:
French Regulation Laws and the Myth of the Prostitute

In his 1880 novel Nana, Emile Zola set out to provide a naturalistic portrayal of the life of a courtesan, attempting through research to look beyond romantic and sensationalist portrayals and find the reality behind the glamorous career of the high-class coquette. For all his vaunted objectivity, though, Zola was firmly in thrall to a cultural symbol of his times, the truth of which he seeks to prove through his story of Nana's life and death. In an amusing moment, the journalist Fauchery publishes a piece that articulates what is essentially Zola's thesis statement:

Fauchery's article, entitled the "Golden Fly," was the story of a girl born from four or five generations of drunkards, her blood tainted by a long succession of misery and drink, which, in her, had transformed itself into a nervous decay of her sex... With her, the putrefaction that was left to ferment among the people, rose and polluted the aristocracy. She became, without herself wishing it, one of nature's instruments, a ferment of destruction, corrupting and disorganizing Paris.1

The ideas behind the novel did not come solely from Zola's mind. Positivists, social hygienists, and moralists had argued for decades that prostitutes had a negative influence on society; if they could not be eliminated, they must be controlled for the good of the populace. There arose in nineteenth-century France, particularly in Paris, a myth of the prostitute as Woman at her worst: bestial, diseased, filled with the taint of original sin. This myth, bolstered by social theories and science, was to be the main influence on French government policy and strategies regarding the oldest profession.

The basic French regulation system for prostitution had been in place since Napoleon's Consulate. Based on the idea that prostitutes should not be able to interact with honest women or young children because they would be a corrupting influence, the regulation system relied on a closed milieu where prostitutes could conduct their disagreeable activities under the watchful eye of the government. Women were to be divided according to a hierarchical system, making them easier to supervise and control. The by-laws on prostitution attempted to accomplish their goals through a system of registration, emphasizing maisons de tolérance, or brothels, as the easiest way to keep women off the streets. For the sake of practicality, the by-laws focused on prostitutes who solicited clients; they did not try to register or control higher-class courtesans or paid mistresses, who operated under a different system of patronage.2

Addressing the questions of regulation, Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet, a physician with a background in sanitation and hygienics, published De la prostitution dans la ville de Paris in 1836.3 The study, with its concerns regarding public health and moral contamination, influenced both future scholarship on the subject and government efforts to deal with the problem of prostitution. Parent-Duchâtelet argues that eradication of prostitution (which he doubted was possible) would damage social stability, removing a valuable outlet for male desires -- an outlet which he compares to "drains and refuse dumps"4 -- and increasing the incidence of rape and adultery. Prostitution was necessary for social order, but it also had the potential to seriously damage or even destroy that order.

Though the doctor had a more sympathetic and objective view of prostitutes than many advocates of regulation -- for instance, his studies of individual prostitutes led him, unlike many social Darwinists, to reject physiognomy as a method of identification5 -- he still believed that the prostitute represented a different sort of woman, "differing 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."6 The prostitute may not have borne physical stigmata, but she had a great love for idleness and luxury, drink and absinthe; she could not restrain her impulses toward any kind of indulgence, especially sexual sin. She posed a grave threat to polite society, as her career was temporary; after spending a few years in a debauched environment, a prostitute could be able to enter back into society. Such a woman would suffer from illness of a mental and spiritual kind, encompassing all manner of vices, even up to tribadism; her influence would corrupt everyone, especially innocent young women.7 For society's sake and her own, then, the prostitute had to be controlled by people possessing the restraint she lacked.

Prostitutes had to be watched carefully not only for their moral failings but because they were notorious for carrying syphilis, a disease so feared in the nineteenth century that those who studied it were required to coin a neologism -- syphilophobia. Parent-Duchâtelet's reservations regarding the prostitute as a source of infection were adopted and emphasized by later doctors, politicians, and social activists who shared this phobia. A disease that can be inherited or acquired through sexual intercourse, syphilis causes open sores, skin rashes, mental illness, blindness and death. By the end of the nineteenth century, some doctors and clinicians theorized that many hereditary ailments actually derived from syphilitic infection. Professor Alfred Fournier and his followers, in the late nineteenth century, believed that hereditary syphilis led to racial degeneration, causing almost all types of congenital defects and weakness in the offspring of the European peoples. Moreover, it was responsible for mental derangement that led to criminality and loose morals, including sexual compulsions -- such as prostitution.8

Not only did the syphilologists blame sexual degeneracy on syphilis, but they also attributed the spread of syphilis among the bourgeoisie to male patronage of working-class prostitutes, postulating a vicious circle of disease causing its own propagation. As more upper-class men indulged in prostitution and spread the infection to their wives and children, more people would become debauched and fall into the gutter, there to die -- but not before continuing the cycle of infection. Professor Alfred Fournier in particular advocated tighter regulation of prostitution because of his belief in this cycle.9 Prostitutes were to blame for the spread of syphilis because of their already loose morals; hence, they were subject to regulation and health examinations where men were not, because of the widespread belief among regulationists that "only women 'generated contagion,' 'plied a trade,' and 'could hide the disease' so well."10

In the interest of disease control and public decency, French by-laws required that the women who plied their trade in the streets register with the local prefecture of police. Procedure varied from town to town; in Paris, a woman had to answer a few simple questions about her marital status, her family, her offspring, and her reasons for becoming registered as a prostitute. She could choose to become a fille à numéro, a prostitute with a registration number who worked at a brothel, or a fille en carte, an independent practitioner. Women arrested for unregistered prostitution were either given the option to register or, if they had a previous arrest on record, would be forced to do so. A woman could get her name removed from the registry lists by presenting a marriage certificate, having a serious lover submit a petition, or opening her own brothel.11

The maison de toléérance was the center of the regulationist scheme, as the best way to keep an eye on prostitutes was to confine them to a house which they were not permitted to leave. The brothel was to be a sort of prison, down to the bars on the windows. Women's rooms were to be at least one story up, to prevent escape or unauthorized entry, and their doors could not be locked. As part of the hierarchy of authority, the dame de maison, or madam, and her assistants kept strict watch on the women, only rarely allowing them to leave the house. Government inspectors could enter at any hour of the day or night to conduct any business necessary.12 The entire situation reflects both the growing authoritarian voyeurism of French government and the belief that the prostitute was a dangerous creature, needing to be caged and tamed, kept from respectable society. The constant surveillance would prevent not only misbehavior with men but also sexual contact between women, keeping the prostitutes free from bad influence; should they become too corrupt, they could still be kept from influencing others in their turn. More importantly, the frequent health checks would ensure that venereal disease did not spread to the upper classes.

The contrôle sanitaire, or health check, was required for all registered prostitutes; those who lived in brothels underwent health checks on the premises, whereas those who worked independently had to come in to the city dispensary for examination. In Paris, the dispensary was in the courtyard of the prefecture of police, emphasizing the criminality if not the illegality of prostitution. Examinations were often perfunctory; in the interests of time, the doctors would bring women through as fast as they could, often not using a speculum, spending a little over a minute with each woman. They must have missed a great many cases of venereal disease by simple oversight, especially since sick women used tricks of makeup and chemicals to disguise chancres and open sores. Both prostitutes and regulationists agreed that the health check was degrading, and there is a sense that doctors spent so little time with their patients not only because of time constraints but, in part, because they were disgusted with their work.13

Registered prostitutes who fell ill, along with unregistered prostitutes found to have venereal diseases when arrested and examined, were sent to the hospital for treatment and containment. The most famous of these hospitals was Saint-Lazare, in Paris, whose infirmary was reserved solely for sick prostitutes. Conditions and medical treatment were primitive for the times; there were no washbasins or bidets until the twentieth century, and the course of treatment for syphilis was, in many cases, too short and perfunctory to effect a cure. The greater emphasis was placed on keeping the women isolated. Registered prostitutes could not mix with the unregistered, and the nuns who supervised the hospital watched their patients through holes in the walls and exerted rigid control over all communications with the outside. It was essentially a prison, as were many hospitals for prostitutes.14 The conditions were so disgusting that many women rebelled; as Alain Corbin says, "[T]he fact that such hospital revolts could continue right up to the First World War without the municipalities taking the most elementary humanitarian steps as a result is very revealing of the attitude of the public toward sexuality."15 Clearly no one cared much for the comfort of prostitutes, or even for their health; it was far more important that they be kept from contaminating "decent" society.

Though it was not a common solution, there was still one more place for the prostitute aside from the brothel and the prison-hospital; perhaps she could never become a respectable woman again, but she could become a repentant one. Rehabilitation took place in the religious sphere, where the former prostitute could achieve decency through rigid Catholic discipline at an establishment modeled on the nunnery. To curtail her love of luxury, she dressed in homespun and had her hair cut off, as the nuns did. Her sexual urges found no outlet because she was isolated from men and supervised around women. Essentially, she was a second-class nun, required to work and attend services along with the sisters who watched over her. The environment of poverty, chastity, and obedience was the exact opposite of what her previous life had supposedly been. The evils of prostitution could be expiated through penance and asceticism, and even if a woman might be tempted to backslide, she would have no way of harming decent people.16

Regulationism was predictably fallible -- it was impossible to force every prostitute to register. Filles insoumises, unregistered women, operated on the streets and in unlicensed brothels in defiance of the prefecture of police. In the years between 1871 and 1903, there were 155,000 registrations and 725,000 arrests for solicitation17 -- one registered prostitute for every six unregistered women arrested -- and there were certainly many more women who were never caught. It was frightening enough that the regulationist health checks failed to catch many cases of venereal disease, but there were untold thousands of women who were never checked at all. Worse, many unregistered prostitutes had direct contact with the bourgeoisie that the registered women could not have; one study conducted between 1878 and 1887 found that 31.2% of unregistered prostitutes were domestic servants.18 The master of the house, perhaps not knowing that his maid was a prostitute, might indulge in what he considered to be "safe" infidelity and condemn his family to disease and death, all because of an unregistered prostitute.

The general problems were obvious, but there were others; by the later part of the nineteenth century, brothels were having an increasingly difficult time remaining profitable. In Paris, there were 200 official brothels in 1840; by 1892, there were 59.19 Hausmann's renovation of Paris had destroyed many brothels and changed the districts around, and higher rents and fees made the maison de tolérance a risky investment. Unlicensed brothels and prostitutes were able to operate without as many restrictions, and they easily took business from the maisons de tolérance -- men probably did not appreciate the government breathing down their necks every time they wanted a sexual encounter. The maisons were forced to compete by offering costumed prostitutes, extravagant décor, sexual paraphernalia, and voyeuristic experiences featuring lesbianism and bestiality. While these features attracted fetishists, sadomasochists, and other paraphiliacs, they drove away the vast majority of men who merely wanted intercourse and felt revulsion at such debauchery.20 The Second Empire took a laissez-faire stance regarding the regulation laws, and allowed the decline of the maisons, because morality had become less of a concern as the Catholic Church lost its power in France. However, the Third Republic (though it was no friend of the Church) attempted to tighten its control of prostitution again -- there were far more pressing issues than moral decline to consider.

The rise of the venereal disease rate in the 1880s prompted a syphilophobic reaction among hygienists and government officials alike. Alfred Fournier began his campaign to raise public awareness of the devastating and widespread effects of syphilis, making it clear that the regulationist system needed a serious overhaul in order to contend with the threat. The prostitute became the focus of many anti-venereal efforts, a source of contagion rather than an embodiment of sin. There was a great deal of truth to the stereotype, of course, as prostitutes have always been vulnerable to disease by the nature of their profession. In the atmosphere of venereal paranoia that characterized the end of the nineteenth century, though, the prostitute was identified with disease to such an extent that she became an inhuman terror, reminiscent of Woman as original sin incarnate.21

The neoregulationism of the Third Republic focused more on eliminating the threat of venereal disease than on isolating the prostitute from decent society. Fournier, who denounced the prison model of Saint-Lazare as ineffective and inhumane, developed a new model of treatment and hygiene. Prostitute registration was still one of the main concerns, but the practice of enclosure was in large part discarded. Supervision would take the place of isolation, a state of affairs that probably encouraged registration among those who had chafed at the idea of being locked in a maison de tolérance. Treatment for disease would occur in regular hospitals, not prisons. The police were responsible for bringing unregistered women who solicited in the streets to the court and making certain that registered women kept up their regimen of health checks. It was a less authoritarian and more appealing system in some respects, a system where medicine did not equal humiliation and prostitution did not equal imprisonment. For all that, though, it was still a system predicated on the idea that prostitutes were a special threat to society; while the syphilologists claimed that moral considerations did not enter into their work, the fact that they gave such primacy to a venereal disease suggests that they still retained some concept of original sin and punishment for sexual transgression.22

Transgression was the prostitute's major sin; she flaunted her sexuality in defiance of the Church's moral teachings and the social ideals of French life. Her relative freedom compared to the average woman, her strange practices of vice and greed, and her possible infection made her loom in the public imagination -- larger than life, distorted and inhuman. There were likely prostitutes who fit the description of the Golden Fly, who dragged dozens of respectable men into immorality and inflicted horrible cases of syphilis upon entire families, but they could not have been common or all of France would have collapsed long ago. As Stéphane Michaud says of Zola's destructive protagonist: "Nana, that filthy, devouring beast, is not so much social history as myth."23 It was that myth, rather than the real prostitute, that the French regulationists ultimately sought to control.


Corbin, Alain. Time, Desire and Horror: Toward a History of the Senses. Translated by Jean Birrell. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995.

Corbin, Alain. Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Cambridge; Harvard University Press, 1990.

McMillan, James F. France and Women 1789-1914: Gender, Society and Politics. London: Routledge, 2000.

Michaud, Stéphane. "Artistic and Literary Idolatries". Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. In A History of Women In The West: Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War, ed. Geneviéve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, 121-144. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1993.

Walkowitz, Judith R. "Dangerous Sexualities". In A History of Women In The West: Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War, ed. Geneviéve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, 369-398. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1993.

Zeldin, Theodore. France 1848-1945: Ambition, Love and Politics. London: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Zola, Emile. Nana. Translated by Burton Rascoe. New York: Knopf, 1922.


1. Emile Zola, Nana, trans. Burton Rascoe (New York: Knopf, 1922), 184.
2. Alain Corbin, Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850, trans. Alan Sheridan (Cambridge: Harvard, 1990), 9.
3. Corbin, Women, 462.
4. Corbin, Women, 4.
5. Corbin, Women, 8.
6. Corbin, Women, 5.
7. Corbin, Women, 4-5.
8. Alain Corbin, Time, Desire and Horror: Toward a History of the Senses, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Polity, 1995), 118-121.
9. Corbin, Time, 123-124.
10. Cited in Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State (New York: Cambridge, 1980), 177, quoted in Walkowitz, "Dangerous Sexualities", in A History of Women in the West: Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War, ed. Geneviéve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot (Cambridge: Belknap, 1993), 376.
11. Corbin, Women, 30-34.
12. Corbin, Women, 10-11.
13. Corbin, Women, 88-91.
14. Corbin, Women, 94-96.
15. Corbin, Women, 98.
16. Corbin, Time, 89.
17. Theodore Zeldin, France 1848-1945: Ambition, Love and Politics (London: Oxford, 1973), 308.
18. James F. McMillan, France and Women 1789-1914: Gender, Society and Politics (London: Routledge, 2000), 108-109.
19. Zeldin, 307.
20. Corbin, Women, 123-125.
21. Corbin, Women, 246, 250-251.
22. Corbin, Women, 253-258.
23. Stéphane Michaud, "Artistic and Literary Idolatries", trans. Arthur Goldhammer, in A History of Women In The West: Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War, ed. Geneviéve Fraisse and Michelle Perrot (Cambridge: Belknap, 1993), 132.
the sibyl of cumae