The best books on sex and the city in modern France

Holly Grout Author Of The Force of Beauty: Transforming French Ideas of Femininity in the Third Republic
By Holly Grout

Who am I?

Holly Grout is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama. Her research interests include the cultural history of modern France, women and gender studies, and the history of beauty, fashion, celebrity, and consumer culture. Her current project, Playing Cleopatra: Inventing the Female Celebrity in Third Republic France, investigates many of the same themes around sexuality, female bodies, public decency, and spectacle. She chose these works in particular because they exemplify some of the best on sex and the city, and they address many of the same issues that Colette raised so long ago – suggesting that sex and the city was a turn-of-the-century fascination in Paris long before HBO turned it into an international cultural phenomenon.


I wrote...

The Force of Beauty: Transforming French Ideas of Femininity in the Third Republic

By Holly Grout,

Book cover of The Force of Beauty: Transforming French Ideas of Femininity in the Third Republic

What is my book about?

The market for commercial beauty products bloomed in Third Republic France, with a proliferation of goods promising to erase female imperfections and perpetuate an aesthetic of femininity that conveyed health and respectability. While the industry’s meteoric growth helped to codify conventional standards of womanhood, The Force of Beauty shows how it also targeted women as consumers in major markets and created new avenues by which they could express their identities.

This book explores how French women navigated changing views of femininity. Seamlessly integrating gender studies with business history, aesthetics, and the history of medicine, The Force of Beauty offers a textured and complex study of the relationship between the politics of womanhood and the politics of beauty.

The books I picked & why

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The Pure and the Impure

By Colette, Herma Briffault (translator),

Book cover of The Pure and the Impure

Why this book?

Although best known to Anglophone readers for her novel Gigi (1944), Colette considered Ces Plaisirs (These Pleasures) later titled The Pure and the Impure, one of her best works. A titillating exploration into the erotic underground of early twentieth-century Paris, the novel’s semi-autobiographical characters pursue a range of sexual experiences and sensual pleasures. Traversing the capital city’s carnal playgrounds, from its fashionable opium dens to its commercial boudoirs, Colette troubles the complicated relationship between sex and love – presenting both as a worthy if ultimately futile human pursuit.


Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France

By Rachel Mesch,

Book cover of Before Trans: Three Gender Stories from Nineteenth-Century France

Why this book?

In Before Trans, literary scholar Mesch explores the lives and writings of Jane Dieulafoy (1850–1916), Rachilde (1860–1953), and Marc de Montifaud (1845–1912), three authors whose gender non-conformity challenged nineteenth-century notions of French womanhood. Mesch’s sensitive, engagingly written account uses the personal stories of these individuals to reveal how the complicated identity politics of fin-de-siècle Paris were rooted in immutable definitions of sex difference. An original work, and one of the first to examine the history of the modern transgender identity, Mesch’s book challenges us to think more carefully and more critically about sex and its utility as a signifier of identity.


Public City/Public Sex: Homosexuality, Prostitution, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris

By Andrew Israel Ross,

Book cover of Public City/Public Sex: Homosexuality, Prostitution, and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris

Why this book?

Public City/Public Sex offers a provocative foray into the dance halls, brothels, and even the public urinals of nineteenth-century Paris. By centering sexuality conceptually and geographically, Ross advances the novel argument that public sex constituted public culture in the capital city. Vividly illuminating how urban clandestine and public sexual encounters (between men and women, men and men, and to a lesser extent, women and women) necessitated a new form of civic management, Ross cleverly demonstrates the intricate, intimate ways in which sex was implicated in, and developed alongside, the modern city.


Uncovering Paris: Scandals and Nude Spectacles in the Belle Époque

By Lela F. Kerley,

Book cover of Uncovering Paris: Scandals and Nude Spectacles in the Belle Époque

Why this book?

Taking us inside the artist balls, music halls, and into the hidden bohemian enclaves of Paris, Kerley examines the myriad ways that the sexualized female body was commodified and spectacularized at the turn of the twentieth century. At this time, the nude female body reigned supreme as a subject of fine art as well as on the commercial stages of the bustling metropolis. Nude women were everywhere, even as respectable women were increasingly told to cover up. How to reconcile the contradiction between woman as housewife, woman as a harlot? This is a central question of Kerley’s beautifully written, thoughtful book.


Working Girls: Sex, Taste, and Reform in the Parisian Garment Trades, 1880-1919

By Patricia Tilburg,

Book cover of Working Girls: Sex, Taste, and Reform in the Parisian Garment Trades, 1880-1919

Why this book?

Tilburg transports us from the world of art and artistry examined in the texts above to examine how new notions of sex and sexuality impacted the lives of ordinary working women. Through the figure of the idealized working Parisienne, the midinette, and the real-life woman worker she represented, Tilburg demonstrates how contemporaries evoked women’s working bodies as symbols of French taste and craftsmanship while also regarding them as potentially dangerous sexual and political subordinates. A painstakingly researched book, Working Girls brilliantly captures the insidious ways in which woman as cultural symbol covers over the socioeconomic hardships and political limitations real women encountered in everyday life.


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