“(The French have) more words for “working girl” than any other language I know…. There’s cocotte, horizontale, grisette, demi-mondaine, courtisaine, demi-castor, dégraffée, irregulière, femme galante…At some stage, disconcertingly, the definitions blur, and common prostitutes at the bottom of the ladder become revered courtisans at the top.”
– from True Pleasures: A Memoir of Women in Paris
It sounds relatively advantageous to be a prostitute in the belle époque while the romantic view of the Parisian cocotte flourishes to this day—gay, carefree, enjoying her work—the reality was, not surprisingly, very different and depending very much on the circumstances of the prostitute. The top-class courtesans, known as les grandes cocottes, are most of what we remember about the era today; on a blurry line between mistress and high-class prostitute, these women were the luckiest of them all, after whom the prostitutes of the famous brothels came. Then, the roughly 30,000 licensed streetwalkers who served clients in state-approved hôtels de rendezvous were not as “lucky” as the ones within the legal brothels and must not be forgotten — aside from the non-licensed sex workers roaming the streets. The hourly rate in such budget brothels was a mere 1 franc ($7.50 today).
Nicknamed maissons d’abattage (“slaughterhouses”), these hotels were where patriarchy was at its finest. Men took numbered tickets, lined up outside doors and a worker would endure something between 60 to 100 “sessions” a day. Abuses were rampant, either by the clients or the Morality Police, whose job was to hunt down unlicensed prostitutes within Paris. This Police were the agents of the health inspections; women who were doubted to carry such diseases were sent to police infirmary. After a one-minute examination, if found ill, the woman would be sent to prison or Saint Lazare Hospital, both where they received no visits by anyone except for death.
Not surprisingly, even a bit higher from the streetwalker life was not a good life for a sex worker. Legal brothels were practically prisons for the prostitutes; a former prostitute at top of the hierarchy (“the Madame”), consisting of only females along with assistants who were there to guard the girls. The best way to keep an eye on the prostitutes was thought to be to keep them in the house and never permit them to leave. The Madame would not allow outdoor trips except for rare urgent situations. The “beautiful” white skin of the women was not a result of cosmetic effort; the girls saw the sunlight quite rarely, for they were allowed to go out, even if rarely, at night to escort a client during a dinner or for some similar occasion.
Unless a rich man decided to “buy” their freedom, the prostitutes were in a vicious cycle of debt; they needed to purchase their clothing, hygiene goods and daily expenses. When they were old and their beauty faded, most of the prostitutes from the luxury brothels would end up in the “slaughterhouses” mentioned above.
So, no. Being a prostitute in Paris, even during the belle époque was not a decent lifestyle unless you were among the extremely lucky minority.