Adam Smith in Love: 18th-Century Sex in the City of Lights

Below is another extended excerpt from the most recent version of my “Adam Smith in Love” paper:

*** One remarkable historical source of this aristocratic double standard–chastity and sexual purity for the poor; romance and sexual liberation for the nobility and the nascent bourgeoisie–are the secret records of the Parisian police or Archives de la Prefecture de Police Paris.[1] In summary, one of the very first police forces in the Western world emerged in 18th-century Paris, and one of its units was the Département de femmes galantes, which was devoted to the demimonde, the exclusive fantasy world of elite prostitution.[2] The Département de femmes galantes, which operated from 1747 to 1771, kept detailed records of the activities of Paris’s high-end sex workers or “kept mistresses.”[3]

What does any of this have to do with Adam Smith? Recall that Doctor Smith lived in Paris from late-December 1765 to mid-October 1766. During this time, Smith attended many plays, operas, and musical concerts. John Rae and Ian Simpson Ross–scholars who have produced two of the most comprehensive biographies of Adam Smith–have commented on Adam Smith’s fondness for the opera during his second sojourn in Paris, i.e. Dec. 1765 to Oct. 1766.[4] What Rae and Ross have left out, however, is the fact that these venues were the center of an elite sexual marketplace, the famed dames entretenues or kept women of Paris. (See generally Kushner, 2013.) Famous for their talent, glamour, and beauty, they were the most highly-sought after women of pleasure in all Europe. (Ibid., p. 3.) Also called femmes galantes, “they earned their living by engaging in long-term sexual and often companionate relationships with men from the financial, political, and social elites, known as le monde (high society).” (Ibid.)

This high-end sexual market, the demimonde, was a highly-structured one, and more importantly for this paper, in mid-18th Century Paris the demimonde overlapped directly with the world of the theater.[5] Although not all theater women were kept mistresses or femmes galantes, “[i]t was widely understood that any woman in the Opéra, and to a lesser degree the other theater companies, was a dame entretenue, or at least wanted to be. Most contemporaries assumed that [female] performers took on patrons because they needed the money and because, in the very act of being on the stage, they were already at some level prostituting themselves.”[6] So, why was the theater the center of this high-end sex market? According to Kushner (2013, p. 5), “being on the stage greatly increased what I am calling ‘sexual capital,’ the desirability of a mistress and hence the prices she could command for her services.”[7] In addition, the Paris theater district was teeming with high-end brothels and places of ill-repute.[8]

To sum up, although there is no evidence of Adam Smith himself keeping a mistress–of partaking in the pleasures of the Parisian demimonde–during his ten-month residency in Paris (late-December 1765 to mid-October 1766), by all accounts (especially Rae and Ross) Doctor Smith was moving in elite aristocratic circles during his travels and that some of the “great men” he met and philosophized with during this ten-month sojourn may have been the kind of wealthy and powerful men who would have kept mistresses or who would have had a more “liberal” (in the classical sense of that term) attitude toward love and sex.

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[1] See generally Andrew Israel Ross, 2017.

[2] See generally Kushner, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See, e.g., Rae, 1895, Ch. 14; Ross, 2010, Ch. 13.

[5] Cf. Kushner, 2013, pp. 4-5: “The demimonde overlapped with the world of the opera and theater: “About a fifth of the kept women under police surveillance at midcentury worked in the theater. Most were in the Opéra or its school, as dancers and singers.”

[6] Ibid., p. 31.

[7] Cf. ibid.: “Theater women tended to dominate the top ranks of the dame entretenues in terms of earnings and status.”

[8] Cf. Kushner, 2013, p. 110: “Many brothels were in the center of town, on the rue St. Honoré or nearby, making them convenient for men leaving the Opéra.”

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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3 Responses to Adam Smith in Love: 18th-Century Sex in the City of Lights

  1. Pingback: Compilation of my most recent Adam Smith blog posts | prior probability

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