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Pederasts and Others: Urban Culture and Sexual Identity in Nineteenth-Century Paris

Between 1873 and 1879, the Prefecture of the Police in Paris kept a ledger of arrests for public offenses against decency, which they entitled “Pederasts and Others.” In it they included male prostitutes, thieves, and vagrants, as well as men who sought the company and sexual favors of other men. In the opinion of the police, this group of individuals was routinely involved in a variety of illegal acts, such as theft, blackmail, assault, and murder. The police believed that pederasts were prone to criminal behavior and that criminals were prone to pederastic acts. Therefore, in order to control this subterranean world, the police went beyond their charge of simply enforcing the laws by interpreting them broadly and applying them loosely. This practice was part of the police’s attempt to maintain the political and social order of France during the critical years following the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. It was also part of a long tradition of surveillance and harassment of socially marginal groups, whom the police suspected of disorderly conduct.

As a practice, the police patrolled certain areas of the city that they considered dangerous, looking for any kind of unusual activity, which they often found, whether that activity was truly illegal or not. Among the individuals arrested were men whom the police had caught in the midst of various sexual acts and men whom they had followed after receiving information from a variety of sources. Some of these men they arrested two or three times, occasionally releasing them after questioning, but frequently charging them with a crime and sending them on to the courts. The courts almost inevitably convicted them and sent them to prison.

For a number of reasons, the arrested men told the police about their relationships with other men, especially when they believed that such information would help alleviate their own predicaments. Some of them did so out of fear or intimidation, while others thought that they could manipulate the police. The information they supplied sometimes helped them avoid a prison term, but in most cases it did not. It merely prompted a further investigation of their friends, acquaintances, and associates. The police diligently recorded all of the information gathered from these men. Sometimes they pursued this information vigorously, but at other times, they merely noted their names and addresses, hoping to catch them in a compromising situation at a later date or to use them as informants in another case. All of this research, surveillance, and harassment contributed to the police’s construction of same-sex sexuality as crime.

Despite the biases of the police ledger, it is still a heretofore untapped source of information on the social history of the male homosexual subculture. It includes the names, addresses, occupations, ages, and other personal information of the men arrested or investigated. It also records the date, time, and place of the arrests, as well as the activities in which they were engaged. Finally, it lists the penalties that they received. It demonstrates that the men caught by the police were typically young, single, working-class or lower-middle-class men from the provinces. They were usually independent from their parents or guardians, struggling to make a living in a difficult, even hostile, urban environment. They were primarily without much education, so that they went about their affairs with little concern about documenting them. Hence, they left little information about themselves, other than the statistics the police compiled. In their leisure time, these men sought to make friends and acquaintances as well as to find amusements and adventures in their new home, the city of Paris. Occasionally they resorted to prostitution and thievery to support themselves, but most of the time they were simply seeking diversions from their daily lives in the pursuit of sexual pleasures.

In this pursuit, the men who met one another in the public areas of the city established for themselves a distinct way of life. Their relationships with one another provided them with various means of emotional and material support. These relationships were extremely complex. Some were based on money, others on anonymity and chance encounters, still others on friendship or long-term companionship. In some cases, these men lived together as friends or lovers, and in other cases, they inhabited the same boarding houses as neighbors. They obviously knew one another, and they formed through their networks of relationships a community of mutual understanding.

A social history of this subterranean world is important, because the men who made up the male homosexual subculture of nineteenth-century Paris had a profound, widespread, and lasting influence on the development of modern sexual identities. This collection of individuals was not unique to Paris, nor was it new to the 1870s. It had existed in one form or another for quite some time, and it had much in common with other male homosexual subcultures in other major European cities. Although discontinuities and differences existed, they were matters of degree, not of substance. The continuities between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the similarities between Paris and other cities demonstrate that these men formed for themselves specific habits, attitudes, and values that distinguished them from the rest of the men in their social milieu. Their sense of belonging to a particular community gave them an identity, which was based upon their behavior and relationships. Through their contacts with the police, the courts, the medical profession, and the intellectual elites, they also contributed indirectly to the new discourses on same-sex sexuality, which became so important to the concept of modernity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their stories are interesting in and of themselves, but they are also a significant part of the history of sexuality in the modern world.

William A. Peniston is the librarian at the Newark Museum and the co-editor of Queer Lives: Men’s Autobiographies from Nineteenth-Century France.