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Erotic Exchanges

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In Erotic Exchanges, Nina Kushner reveals the complex world of elite prostitution in eighteenth-century Paris—the demimonde—by focusing on the professional mistresses who dominated it. These dames entretenues exchanged sex, company, and sometimes even love for being “kept.” Most of these women entered the profession unwillingly, either because they were desperate and could find no other means of support or because they were sold by family members to brothels or to particular men. A small but significant percentage of kept women, however, came from a theater subculture that actively supported elite prostitution. Kushner shows that in its business conventions, its moral codes, and even its sexual practices the demimonde was an integral part of contemporary Parisian culture.

Kushner’s primary sources include thousands of folio pages of dossiers and other documents generated by the Paris police as they tracked the lives and careers of professional mistresses, reporting in meticulous, often lascivious, detail what these women and their clients did.  Rather than reduce the history of sex work to the history of its regulation, Kushner interprets these materials in a way that unlocks these women’s own experiences. Kushner analyzes prostitution as a form of work, examines the contracts that governed relationships among patrons, mistresses, and madams, and explores the roles played by money, gifts, and—on occasion—love in making and breaking the bonds between women and men. This vivid and engaging book explores elite prostitution not only as a form of labor and as a kind of business, but also as a chapter in the history of emotions, marriage, and the family.

“Based on extensive archival research, this book provides a thorough and subtle analysis of relations between kept women and their keepers: patrons, madams, and police. Nina Kushner reconstructs the experience of the Parisian demimonde within the context of larger questions about sexual economy, female agency, and public order in eighteenth-century France.”—Jeffrey Merrick, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, author of Order and Disorder under the Ancien Régime

“Erotic Exchanges is an important and engaging book. Nina Kushner goes beyond anecdote while using anecdote-rich sources to give incredible texture to her study. It is a fascinating and compelling read.”—Dena Goodman, University of Michigan, author of Becoming a Woman in the Age of Letters

“In Erotic Exchanges, Nina Kushner rekindles discussion of a historical population for which we have a great deal of documentation. Because of police surveillance, the dames entretenues of eighteenth-century France can be followed in all phases of their work lives. The result is a textured and nuanced picture of possibilities and limitations for these women in their historical setting. Erotic Exchangescould reshape discussions of sex work in important ways.”—Katherine Crawford, Vanderbilt University, author of The Sexual Culture of the French Renaissance

308 pages, Hardcover

First published January 14, 2014

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About the author

Nina Kushner

5 books4 followers
Professor Kushner received a B.A. in history and religion from Dartmouth College in 1990, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1994 and 2005, respectively. She spent some of the intervening years in the Peace Corps in West Africa and working as a tour guide in New York City. She taught at the College of Charleston for several years before coming to Clark in 2005.

Current Research and Teaching
Professor Kushner specializes in early modern and eighteenth-century European social and cultural history, with an emphasis on France, women and sexuality. Her teaching repertoire includes courses on the history of early modern Europe, the national histories of France and England, the history of women, and the history of sexuality.

Her book Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris (forthcoming, Cornell University Press, winter 2013) uses police and judicial records alongside contemporary commentaries to reconstruct the demimonde of eighteenth-century Paris. Together with Daryl Hafter, Professor Kushner edited Enterprising Women: Agency, Gender, and Work in Eighteenth-Century France (forthcoming, Louisiana State University Press, fall 2014), which examines women and work in eighteenth-century France, and the methods by which historians study women as social and economic actors. She is currently at work on a new project tentatively called "The Rules of Adultery: Sexual Culture and Identity in Old Regime France," a study of marriage, cheating, and the construction of social identity in Old Regime France.

Selected Publications

Nina Kushner and Daryl Hafter, eds. Enterprising Women: Agency, Gender, and Work in Eighteenth-Century France (forthcoming, Louisiana State University Press, 2014)

Nina Kushner, Erotic Exchanges: The World of Elite Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Paris (forthcoming, Cornell University Press, 2013)

Nina Kushner, Countries of the World: The Democratic Republic of the Congo. London: Times Editions, Pte. Ltd. 2000.

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Displaying 1 - 21 of 21 reviews
Profile Image for Christine.
6,549 reviews473 followers
October 30, 2013
Disclaimer: Copy recieved via Netgalley for a fair review.

I know that I am not the only one who thinks the song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” is rather creepy. Very creepy. Totally creepy.
But actually, and this going to sound really mean, I think, at least after reading this book, the song is very French ( or at least of a French age).
Kushner details, and really details, the role mistress in the demimonde of France. She looks at the role from both sides – that of the client and that of the mistress (high class prostitutes only). The focus is on what the relationship might have been, what the terms of the contract were, and not the life of stories of any of the women involved.
For me, the most shocking bit of information was discovering that the French Police actually kept files on the prostitutes of the demimonde. It was a rather strange reading those sections while hearing about the latest NSA leaks. It seems the NSA could take lessons from the French Police of the eighteenth century. And you would be surprised what some of those police section heads got up to or what their wives got up to. The files were complete histories of these women, including their lives before they came to Paris and took up the job as it well. Kushner points out that it is rather likely that the French king got quite the chuckle by reading these reports.
The police apparently were also a means of enforcing contracts, if the police so chose to do so, though how much of the law the police actually enforced seems debatable. For instance, selling your daughter into was illegal but you could exchange her for money.

Yeah, it is the same to me too.

Starting with the police gives Kushner away into the world. She then breaks it apart and looks at all the angles, working from starting points to be sold into the demimonde, to how the madams worked, to the clients, and finally to the women themselves. The introduction is in some way, the most technique and boring part of the book. It takes roughly about 20 pages before the reader gets use to Kushner’s style or that the book really takes off.

What makes the book worth reading for the student of history or anyone interested in Paris is the picture, the complete picture that Kushner paints. This isn’t an opera or Camilla of the Flowers or Gigi; this is what the women actually did, how they lived, how the contracts work, how the women conducted relationships, and even retirement. At times, the picture is disconcerting, the watching of the police for instance, at times heart-breaking, and sometimes funny.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Profile Image for Sadie Forsythe.
Author 1 book262 followers
June 10, 2017
I think Kushner did a good job of taking what seems like an exciting subject and making it really academic, but also of taking information from a really dry source and making it readable. See, the vast majority of the data for this book about elite prostitutes in eighteenth-century Paris came from police records. So, as you can imagine, the source is informative about some things, but silent on others and there isn't a lot Kushner could be expected to do about that. I'm very glad I got the audio-version, I could listen to this a lot more easily than read it.

If you had asked me if a modern American could judge people, decisions and actions of people from eighteenth-century France, I would have said, "Of course not, it's a whole other culture." But one of the things Kushner did really well here was create for the reader (listener) a true understanding of just HOW different life in eighteenth-century France was. The understanding of family units was different. The ideas and ideals of love were different. The place and importance of sex was different. Gender expectations were different. Age of majority and adulthood were different. The social hierarchies were different, and on and on and on. There is no way to center and understand the demi monde or dames entretenues (kept women) using modern standards. I learned a lot about the world these women lived in and, in a way, I found this the most interesting part of the book.

I did feel like some important aspects were left out. What of children? Several times having children was mentioned. But how can we understand the life of women, especially women who have sex for a living with questionable preventative measures, without touching on children? What happened when they were pregnant? Who raised the children? Who claimed them?

Similarly, I felt it an oversight that Kushner didn't address, even briefly, that as the vast majority of her data came from police reports, most of the information was therefore first interpreted and filtered by men. She addresses them being police, but not the gender aspect. If history has told us anything, it's that men often misinterpret or misrepresent the motivations of women. At one point in this very book Kushner mentions that a police report calls one woman lazy because she hasn't gotten another job and has instead returned to prostitution, while the circumstances were almost certainly that she couldn't find another job and therefore did what she needed to do to survive. And even those reports written by madams themselves, were written to be given to a male audience they needed to keep pleased with them. How did this male gatekeeping effect what is and isn't known today? Perhaps we couldn't ever really know, but I would have liked a discussion.

All in all, I thought it was a thorough academic handling of an interesting subject and Sally Martin did a fine job narrating it, even with all the French, as far as I could tell.
Profile Image for Robert Miller.
140 reviews4 followers
March 10, 2014
This book does not read like I thought it would based upon the title (and cover which is adapted for the subject). Rather, at times it reads like a matter-of-fact accounting authored by a surveillance agency hired to spy on an illicit activity whose membership more closely resembles an under-cover agent getting too close to the subjects. Perhaps the limited recorded data (reports generated by the police) prevented the author from being a little more descriptive; but you would think she could have found more sources to supplement these dry parts of the book. Having said that, I was most impressed with Kushner's theories regarding "sexual capital" and the various means through which it was achieved. The perceived value of virginity and brevity of sexual capital, and how some prostitutes could "milk" and extend the value (multiple patrons, developing networks, etc.), was well covered. She fairly discusses the stigmas and problems associated with the profession (including STD's) and still manages to provide a glimpse into the "heart love" experienced by a few woman in the business. In short, she nicely covers the origins of the girls, the pitfalls that exist and the benefit of the "Demimonde". Finally, this book helped me to better understand why an organized system of hierarchy not only served to protect prostitutes from the perils of street-walking, it also enabled them to be in control of their bodies (sexual capital). I think woman should have this right under all circumstances. I really liked this book.
Profile Image for Artemiz.
874 reviews29 followers
November 19, 2014
Erotic Exchanges by Nina Kushner is very interesting study about elite prostitution in eighteenth century. For a most of us prostitute is a prostitute weather she is elite or not, but this book gives this word some unexpected depths and layers. There is also interesting information about their social background and their dealings with police and families and lovers and patrons ... it's really interesting and makes you thinking, are the lives of the modern women much different? Sure, titles are changed - Patron/Dames Entretenues relationship now days is called money mogul/arm candy relationship and Patron/Concubine relationship is open marriage but the essence is still the same. And if you say now, red in face, women have rights to chose now and have rights to independence and they do not have to marry at all if they do not want, then settle down, I did not mean every woman, I meant the women who chose the dependence.

It's a good book to gather new and interesting information and maybe to some even a good book to stop and think, that their lives aren't as bad as they think, it could be much worse.

And if you feel that you would like some more about this subject, then I recommend a movie House of Tolerance (L'Apollonide).
Profile Image for Sally.
68 reviews
May 4, 2014
This is a scholarly work, rather than a popular history book. I had been expecting more about the people who were involved, but it is about broader patterns rather than individuals. If you're looking for scholarly historical background, this is a great book - if you're just looking for a good read about this subject, though, I would probably suggest choosing something else (Courtesans by Katie Hickman, for example).
Profile Image for Klissia.
638 reviews8 followers
September 12, 2021
A fonte de informação analisadas é unimendisional neste livro, da polícia francesa do século18,que "espionava " a vida de todos, em especial das prostitutas de elite de Paris vistas como celebridades da época.
É interessante este outro mundo social, moral e cultural tão diferentes e inaceitável para os padrões civilizados, humanitário e feministas de 2021. Relata toda as formas de contrato e relacionamento sexuais existentes, como a prostituição espontânea, por fuga da família, ou necessidade financeira, que acaba gerando uma certa independência, que só as mulheres nobres possuíam.
Percebe- se aqui que ter uma "amante " paga era mais um hábito de status ,rito de passagem para a vida de casado ,ou de busca de "afeto" do homem, numa sociedade permeada de predadores sexuais e masculinidade tóxica (que ainda perdura até hoje).
E o início da hipocrisia e ideais burguesas de família, há tanto pra analisar e refletir aqui , mas é só o ponto de vista masculino" devo procurar obras e diários de mulheres da época para preencher as lacunas deste.

Consegui compreender um pouco as expectativas ,condição e limitações da vida da mulher do final do século18 que não diferem muito das de hoje.

A obra ficcional do Zola "Nana" conseguiu retratar com fidelidade esse mundo decadente das coquetes de Paris, me fez reavaliar e apreciar sua obra.
Profile Image for Emily Ross.
1,085 reviews24 followers
June 4, 2017
I was given this free review copy audiobook at my request and have voluntarily left this review.

This was a very academic historical work. I had been expecting a popular history type of book, but was pleasantly surprised with the style it was written in (and the regular references to Darnton). It details the different types of prostitutes (shocked for the majority of people who believe that a prostitute is a prostitute is a prostitute) which was pretty spectacular. Previously, my only encounter with prostitutes was The Secret Diary of a Call Girl and to see the actual rivalries and roles within eighteenth century Paris was really good. Also, I really liked the link between actresses and prostitutes. I've always been told that the ancient French word for actress was the same as the word for prostitute so to finally understand the link is pretty awesome.
That being said, this book was really dry. I had to keep rewinding to listen to sections again in order to understand what was being said.
Profile Image for Sarah.
102 reviews2 followers
June 27, 2017
This was an interesting look at prostitution in eighteenth century France. Most of what was discussed occurred in Paris. The primary focus was elite prostitution however it covered a wider range, including a long chapter on policing in Paris both in general and specifically in relationship to prostitution. Overall I felt the book was well written but it did need some additional editing as the author repeated them-self several times. I had also been hoping for more information about the prostitutes daily lives and less of a legal and economic discussion of prostitution.

I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Rachel Lakian.
45 reviews5 followers
January 17, 2021
If you are looking for a popular history read this may not be ideal. Kushner keeps a more academic tone and method than books meant for a larger audience. I do agree with the reviews that this lacks additional perspectives and does not address how childcare factored into contract negotiations in the Patron / Mistress relationships. This seems to be due to a lack of existing primary sources- understandable given the archive destructions in the Revolution and the literacy level of several individuals Kushner highlights.

I throughly enjoyed the research and the theory of sexual capital Kushner posits. Also ... only the French 🤦‍♀️
September 16, 2021
Now I remember why this was in my Kindle folder of “Read, Awaiting Review” but I could not remember anything about it.

The book premise seemed like an interesting, and possibly educational/historical, read on the Parisian professional sex scene (modern sugar babies?).

I just could not get into the writing. It was almost like reading an interview or investigation file....but also, written where it was trying to be in the form of maybe a story.

It was not the book for me. I have a wide range of book plot/topic/category interests, but this just was not my flavor. I’m sure there are plenty out there that may enjoy the book, if educational type of historical writing is your thing.
Profile Image for Jerra Runnels.
48 reviews3 followers
October 8, 2019
I read this book for my graduate level women and modern European history class. It was my additional reading for the week that I gave a presentation on. It was such an interesting book. It was well researched and written in such a way that it doesn’t feel like you are reading a scholarly work. I had a lot of questions afterwards. I took her theme that elite prostitution in 18th century Paris was a profession, and presented how the roles of the police, prostitution, madams, and patrons all shaped the demimonde to back up her theme. Very interesting book
Profile Image for Janice Feng.
415 reviews3 followers
December 30, 2020
In here for the methodology to do feminist/women's history. The content is interesting as well.
Profile Image for libraryfacts.
687 reviews
April 24, 2019
This is an expertly written academic work, looking at elite prostitution as a form of work and placing the importance of this work in our understanding of women's history and sexuality in eighteenth-century Paris, both culturally and socially. The police had a department called Département des femmes galantes dedicated to reporting the lives of dame entretenue (kept women). It was a way for them to avoid scandal, which also meant that their focus was not so much in helping women in the Demimonde, but controlling it and wielding power over it.

At this time in Paris, it was important for girls and women of all walks of life, to work, and then get successfully married. In many cases when the girls and women got deflowered before their marriage, it meant they could lose their job or/and not get successfully married. Virginity and youth was revered, and that is also why so many kept women and prostitutes were teenagers when they first started out - some not more than twelve years of age. There were many parents who were struggling financially who sold their girls to prostitution, often against their girl's will. In this time in Paris, too, parents had enormous power and rights over their children and the police rarely stepped in. Even if what the parents were doing was illegal; it wasn't always a question whether something was illegal or not, but more about avoiding scandal and making sure things were running smoothly, without too much notice. (It was surprising to see first hand through the reports the amount of network the police had and how much they actually knew.)

When a girl was successfully enrolled with a Madam, the goal was to find a patron they could become a mistress for. It meant security in that the girl would have a monthly salary, a household, and would have a "degree of agency and a potential for financial success." It also meant that their bodies were not "common to all", as was the case for a "fille du monde, or a prostitute". Many were theater performers and some worked in fashion, and they would sometimes find patrons this way; the salaries for dancers, for example, at the Opéra or at Comédie Française, were incredibly low and they struggled.

Nina Kushner did an excellent job of explaining the central arguments at the beginning of the book. She focuses on the facts we have from the police reports, yet makes the subject come alive on the page. If you're interested in this subject, then this book would make for a great choice.
Profile Image for Denise.
453 reviews62 followers
April 11, 2015
I received a reviewer's copy of this book on Netgalley.

As usual, it's so much harder to write a coherent review for a book that's awesome. Nitpicking is fun, but it's pretty easy, and when reviewing good books it's hard to do anything other than list all the things you liked and say "wow."

This book is a reconstruction of the lives of 18th century French prostitutes based on police dossiers. The front half of the book focuses on the many different reasons women entered prostitution at that time: a strategic choice, lack of other viable career options after a fall from grace, being pushed into it by family. It strikes a delicate and very successful balance between acknowledging the victim side of sex work as well as the idea that women at this time did have personal agency, and they used it. The back half of the book starts to get more into the theoretical, analyzing the women's individual choices in their careers (such as what patrons they were able to obtain and how, or the strategic advantage to marrying) through the lens of "sexual capital," which is a bit of a newer theory. I would have liked to see a little more discussion of how the women of the Opera used their sex work to advantage their dancing/singing career, as the author focused more on women who used their Opera status to leverage their mistress career, and not vice-versa.

What I took away most from this book was simply that sexual life in 18th century France was truly a universe unto itself! I thought I knew a fair amount of basic background knowledge about 18th century Europe, but boy was I wrong. I really can't remember the last time I read an academic work outside of my field that I enjoyed this much. What a thoroughly wonderful piece of scholarship. And the best part - it's actually pretty affordable for non-institutional buyers, unlike a lot of academic books.

Only downside is that there's a nice pink butt on the cover. Bit racy for the library new books display, but hey, maybe that'll get some random sex-hopeful undergrads to read it, who knows.
Profile Image for Lauren McCullough.
157 reviews7 followers
April 5, 2016
This is a very academic text, but works well as an audiobook if you're interested in the period and/or subject matter.

The book explores real accounts from police & madame records along with historical accounts of the lives of the dames entretenues of Eighteenth-Century Paris. It can be a little dry when you first start out, but once you begin to understand the dynamics of the story telling and writing the style begins to flow. It's really an interesting look into the sexual and social politics of the time and there are "cameos" of some well known names including Casanova.

Sally Martin does a GREAT job with all the french pronunciation, and I swear you'll begin to believe that YOU TOO can speak the language. (I've been walking around saying dames entretenues for weeks because it's so much fun!)

NOTE: I was provided this audiobook at no charge by the author, publisher and/or narrator in exchange for an unbiased review via AudiobookBlast dot com
Profile Image for Kurt Olausen.
74 reviews4 followers
April 2, 2014
Very well researched and written. This was a very interesting book, and integrated academic observation with vignettes about a number of 18th-century "characters" which brought the issues and history to life. Full disclosure: Nina and I went to high school together, so I do want to support a friend. Having said that, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes history, and is particularly interested in women's roles in history. A longer review will be posted on my blog: thescentofbooks.blogspot.com.
Profile Image for Deedra.
3,737 reviews19 followers
June 20, 2016
This book is full of names and dates of prostitutes from the 18th century.It tells how girls became courtesans,Madames,etc.It tells of parents selling girls for large sums so some man could have a virgin,sometimes more than once.It is a world where women have little say,unless they've made something of themselves in their little part of the world.We learn that Madames sometimes helped rivals,gave police information and some were outright spies for police.It is a very interesting read.Sally Martin does fine narration.
I was given this book free of charge for an honest review.
Profile Image for Lauren Albert.
1,798 reviews161 followers
February 1, 2014
I found this very interesting--especially her approach which situates the women in their time and place. Kushner begins by explaining the police surveillance and trying to understand why they kept the elaborate records they did and why they looked the other way for a lot of behavior that was actually illegal. I think she did an excellent job showing the women's lives and covering the unlucky as well as the lucky.
Profile Image for Chris Witt.
304 reviews11 followers
July 4, 2014
A dense read, as most scholarly work tends to be. Really well researched. Important read, perhaps, for those whose interests ans/or studies intersect with 18th century Parisian culture.
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