We are not certain that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, but one thing is certain: it has been around for a long time. If we still don’t know a lot about this profession, whose taboos and secrets are only being lifted very slowly, we know even less about brothels, these places in which some worked (or work, depending on the country). Well, this top is here for you!
1. Under Napoleon, “houses of pleasure” are legalized in France
And before that, in the 13th century (under Louis IX), tolerance towards prostitution was proclaimed, and establishments specialized in carnal commerce. The shutters being constantly closed, it is a red lantern which signals the opening of the place to the public. The prostitutes are then “under house arrest”: they are only allowed to go out on certain days of the week, always accompanied by “sub-mistresses” (that is to say, the landlady).
During the reign of Louis XV, brothels were very successful. It was from 1770 that public protests became more and more numerous. At the same time, the number of occasional prostitutes, working without intermediaries, grows. These elements lead to the decline of brothels.
The revolutionary period decriminalized prostitution. The “small brothels” then multiply. A little more than 10 years later, in 1804, and on Napoleon’s orders, the prefect of police of Paris (Dubois) prescribed the official organization of “houses of pleasure”. From there, the brothels and those who work there are controlled by the “scrutineering brigade”. In reality, this “tolerant” law was not really so: it made it possible to hide prostitutes in order to “preserve morality”, at a time when the bourgeoisie was radiant.
2. … But they are (really) older than that
In ancient Greece, there were already brothels! The legislator Solon (640 BC / 558 BC) inaugurated them under the name of “dicterions”. We then speak of “state brothels”, run by the “pornobosceions”, themselves supervised by civil servants. They are first established in ports, for sailors.
In ancient Rome too, prostitution and sexuality were much less taboo than today. After Domitian (51 – 96), brothels (called “lupanars”) opened. They are generally located near barracks and ramparts. Why ? Well, because those who work there are female slaves, destined for the soldiers. Yeah, not phew. The prostitutes are dressed in yellow clothes, since this color is that… Of shame and madness. Nice.
3. Only men could go to brothels
Lupanars were a place exclusively designed for male pleasure. No customer could enter. Only men. Homosexuality was accepted, but the conditions were clearly established: the client had to be the “dominant” and the prostitute “the dominated”. If homosexuality was not badly perceived, it was, on the contrary, very badly seen to have passive relations. So so open-minded, this story.
4. Red lights, symbols of brothels
Brothels are a microcosm. Between the exterior, often a cold facade and without any distinctive sign, and the interior, lively and often largely decorated, the contrast is strong. To indicate the location of a brothel, and in the absence of being able to display a large sign, the tenants simply placed a red light at the entrance. From 1890, these same lights were used in the USA to signal prostitution areas. In Amsterdam, this will have given the name of the famous “red light district”.
5. In the 19th century, Paris was considered “The brothel of Europe”
In the 19th century, Paris attracted by the extension of its rail network, the improvement of the hotel industry, the various Universal Exhibitions, but not only. From the second half of the century, a new type of tourism took on more and more importance: sex tourism, in the various brothels and soliciting places in the capital. Parisian prostitutes inspire authors, painters and photographers. We hear about them and the city “of pleasures”, “the light city”, “exciting” or even “hectic” all over Europe and even the world. At the same time, in fact, French authors are massively translated and read, the theaters of the world adapt French works… Little by little, many countries consider Paris as the number one city of amusement and pleasure. “Rendezvous” houses are multiplying there, especially on the right bank.
6. Moreover, it was at the “Chabanais”, in Paris, that King Edward VII had his reserved room
Eh yes ! The brothel “Le Chabannais” played a strategic role in Franco-British relations, since before becoming king of the United Kingdom, Edward VII had his little habits there. He even had a special chair installed there, called a “love seat”, so that he could continue to get laid despite his health problems. A historical anecdote of ass as we like.
7. Brothels were banned in France in 1946
A ban is governed by the “Marthe Richard” law, eponymous of this woman who was a prostitute, aviator, spy, resistance fighter during the Second World War, then politician, elected to the Council of Paris. During this last life, she becomes the standard bearer of the fight against brothels, while many politicians have their little routines there. A law that has divided, some regretting the absence of supervised places to protect prostitutes and regulate practices. A year before the law, there were still 1,500 brothels in France, including 177 in Paris.
8. Brothels were not all as beautiful as the Chabanais
On the contrary, even. There was a strong contrast in the treatment of prostitutes, between the five luxurious brothels of the capital, and the others. In these places, the girls were pampered and well treated. A truth from the milieus of the Haute, which hid the reality of other places, sexual prisons governed by moral and physical violence, in which beatings, alcoholism and drugs were commonplace. Proof of a very limited respect for sex workers: prostitutes were called “parcels” by “brokers”. They were subject to a quasi-military hierarchy, had to buy their own clothes, linen and hygienic products from the landlady. In this way, they were kept in a spiral of debt, often used to justify large withholdings on their passes. To top it off, they worked almost every day and lived in workbenches or attics.
9. And Europe….
In several countries bordering France, brothels are still legal. In Belgium, they are “prohibited, but tolerated”. They are mainly located in the border area with France, and attract many French customers. In Switzerland, we speak of “erotic salons”. They exist legally, since the offense of pimping was removed from the country’s Penal Code in 1992. In Greece, it is enough to be over 21 years old, to be registered and to hold a medical card, updated every two weeks, for prostitution.
Germany is now considered “The biggest brothel in Europe”. In 2019, there were 3,500 legal brothels nationwide, including 500 in Berlin. Since the law of 2002, legalizing prostitution, the number of “Eros Center” has multiplied. There are now about 400,000 prostitutes for 1 million customers in the territory: this is 15 times more than in the Netherlands. (Source)
10. … And Amsterdam is still a special case
It’s no secret that certain areas of Amsterdam, and more particularly the “Red Light District”, are known for prostitution. It has become a tourist activity, offered as an organized tour or guided tour by certain travel agencies.
In this neighborhood, the brothels are not that closed. We are far from the gray facade which lets nothing show: some “exhibit” the prostitutes in shop windows. The neighborhood is organized by street: one street for women of color, one for plus-size women, another for ladyboys, etc. To symbolize the presence of a transsexual prostitute, the red light is replaced by a blue light.
There, the activity remains supervised. Many police patrol the area to ensure the safety of sex workers and clients. Photographs are strictly prohibited. Professionals must be registered and register with the commercial register, have a license proving their autonomy, and be at least 21 years old.