Let’s call a cat a cat, in Eighteenth century France, a public woman was a prostitute. But such as in our modern society, a prostitute is a generic term which goes from the most dodgy street-walker to the gorgeous and refined courtesan. Who were they? What were the differences between them? It seems to be a terrible and sad cliché but they almost all had the same kind of story: a countryside girl who came to Paris to work, fall in love and was abandoned by their lover. Sometimes pregnant, sometimes ruined, they had only one way to survive: to sell their body. The other possibility is the will of countryside and poor girls to work enough to have a dowry and married. Most of the prostitutes had between 15 and 30 years old, and were from the lower class; were not accepted as femmes galantes very young girls and women from middling and upper-class families.
First of all, we have to take in consideration the regularity of their prostitution. Is being a prostitute their ‘full-time’ job or do they have occasional sexual encounters to supplement their income? According to the police documents, a lot of the girls had a proper job (like hairdresser or customer advisor in some shops) at the time of their first arrest. Second, it is important to have a closer look on their customers: did the girls accept any client or did they have regular ones, or even only one? In this case, the client is called patron and pay for most of the expenses of the girl, like rent, debts, servants, clothes or jewellery.
Moreover, there was a distinction in Eighteenth century between public woman and private woman, or public prostitute and private prostitute. Obviously the public prostitute was the street-walker, the girls in brothels, in short the prostitute who did not have the choice of their customer, neither of their number. They were the target of the police and the public opinion because of their bad morality. On the other hand, a kept woman or a courtesan, even if everybody knew who she was and who was her lover, was quite rarely in trouble with the police or even the public opinion (at least not during the first half of the century): it was accepted that French nobleman should have a mistress and look after her. A courtesan could even have several lovers, changing partner every night, she still would have a better reputation than any of the street-walkers.
Street-walkers and girls in brothels were the cheapest prostitute. But if a girl was lucky enough to catch a fish (noble man or bourgeois, in preference with money) he would not let her in the brothel, but would install her in an apartment with few servants (at least a maid and a cook) and give her regular income. The girl would become a kept woman (femme galante) and the gentleman her patron. In exchange of money, gifts and financial support, the patron expected obviously sexual encounters. This relation was most of the time not really binding for the girl: the patron would come two to three times a week, bring her to the theater or to do a walk, have a diner and would almost never stay to sleep at hers. Only few exception had been noticed when the patron was madly in love of his mistress and could not bear to spend a night away from her. To be in this kind of relationship was not only about sex, but a kind of companionage. Some couple lasted for years, even decades. It is interesting to notice that patrons were not really faithful to their mistress, neither were the mistresses. They often have another patron, occasional sexual encounters to make extra money or a lover, called a greluchon.
A courtesan is the opposite of the whore and implied to have a refined libertine above mercenary considerations, above the rough subculture of the brothel and the street. Moreover, the courtesan was able to sing, play music and have a brilliant conversation to distract her patron and impress his friends. However, this is the definition of the Italian Renaissance, really embodied in France only during the Sixteenth-century by the courtesan and brilliant writer Ninon de Lenclos. Courtesans in Eighteenth-century might have a beginning of education, but they did not have culture, so elevated conversation could only be made with salonnières. Like femmes galantes, courtesans were above prostitutes: their beauty and their personality made them have a great success and so the most wealthy and prestigious patrons.
We loose the tracks of most of the prostitutes after their thirties. Marriage was the ultimate goal for women in Eighteenth-century France. Most of the kept women who married did it when they were young and had few resources, those marriages were most of the time catastrophic. Some married, sometimes to wealthy men, but did not. Femmes galantes and courtesans have to retire of elite prostitution from the beginning of their thirties: childbirths, loosing teeth, venereal diseases and just getting old made them lose their appeal. Those who were not money wise or did not find a husband probably went back to basic prostitution, ending their live as street-walker.