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About Erotic Exchanges

In Erotic Exchanges, Nina Kushner reveals the complex world of elite prostitution in eighteenth-century Paris by focusing on the professional mistresses who dominated it. In this demimonde, 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.

Testimonials

Reviews of Erotic Exchanges

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.
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.
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 Exchanges could reshape discussions of sex work in important ways.
This history brings to life les dames entretenues - women who dazzled and scandalized eighteenth-century Paris as mistresses of powerful men. Kushner traces the pathways to elite prostitution: many mistresses began as actresses and singers; others were sold into the demimonde by their parents. She finds that mistresses were held to have a stabilizing influence on men's romantic whims, and they enjoyed some of the benefits of married women. Contracts guaranteed their pay, and they were often the primary breadwinners for their own families. Some mistresses found lifetime partners in their patrons, and some achieved financial independence, but many were discarded by their late twenties and began a life of streetwalking. Kushner avoids over-contemporizing her subject, affording her women agency but not more than they actually had.
...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.