The best books on sex and the city in modern France

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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Pure and the Impure

Holly Grout Why did I love 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.

By Colette, Herma Briffault (translator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Pure and the Impure as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Colette herself considered The Pure and the Impure her best book, "the nearest I shall ever come to writing an autobiography." This guided tour of the erotic netherworld with which Colette was so intimately acquainted begins in the darkness and languor of a fashionable opium den. It continues as a series of unforgettable encounters with men and, especially, women whose lives have been improbably and yet permanently transfigured by the strange power of desire. Lucid and lyrical, The Pure and the Impure stands out as one of modern literature's subtlest reckonings not only with the varieties of sexual experience, but…


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

Holly Grout Why did I love 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.

By Rachel Mesch,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Before Trans as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A fascinating exploration of three individuals in fin-de-siecle France who pushed the boundaries of gender identity.

Before the term "transgender" existed, there were those who experienced their gender in complex ways. Before Trans examines the lives and writings of Jane Dieulafoy (1850-1916), Rachilde (1860-1953), and Marc de Montifaud (1845-1912), three French writers whose gender expression did not conform to nineteenth-century notions of femininity.

Dieulafoy fought alongside her husband in the Franco-Prussian War and traveled with him to the Middle East; later she wrote novels about girls becoming boys and enjoyed being photographed in her signature men's suits. Rachilde became famous…


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

Holly Grout Why did I love 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.

By Andrew Israel Ross,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Public City/Public Sex as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the 1800s, urban development efforts modernized Paris and encouraged the creation of brothels, boulevards, cafes, dancehalls, and even public urinals. However, complaints also arose regarding an apparent increase in public sexual activity, and the appearance of "individuals of both sexes with depraved morals" in these spaces. Andrew Israel Ross's illuminating study, Public City/Public Sex, chronicles the tension between the embourgeoisement and democratization of urban culture in nineteenth-century Paris and the commercialization and commodification of a public sexual culture, the emergence of new sex districts, as well as the development of gay and lesbian subcultures.

Public City/Public Sex examines how…


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

Holly Grout Why did I love 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.

By Lela F. Kerley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Uncovering Paris as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From 1889 to 1914 nude spectacles increased at an astonishing rate as a result of burgeoning artistic experimentation, the commercialization of the female body, and the rise of urban nightlife. In particular, artists' balls and music halls provided creative spaces in which women, artists, impresarios, and the illustrated press could cast the natural body as a source of sexual pleasure, identity, and reform. Emphasizing the role of erotic entertainment as an outlet and agent of modern sensibilities, Uncovering Paris: Scandals and Nude Spectacles in the Belle A0/00poque offers a fresh approach to important topics of the period- Bohemian artists, the…


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

Holly Grout Why did I love 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.

By Patricia Tilburg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Working Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the twentieth century dawned and France entered an era of extraordinary labor activism and industrial competition, an insistently romantic vision of the Parisian garment worker was deployed by politicians, reformers, and artists to manage anxieties about economic and social change. Nostalgia about a certain kind of France was written onto the bodies of the capital's couture workers throughout French pop culture from the 1880s to the 1930s. And the
midinettes-as these women were called- were written onto the geography of Paris itself, by way of festivals, monuments, historic preservation, and guide books. The idealized working Parisienne stood in for,…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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