Andrew Israel Ross

Public City/Public Sex: Homosexuality, Prostitution, and Urban Culture Nineteenth-Century Paris, traces the relationship between public sexuality and the redevelopment of Paris during the nineteenth century. It argues that a history of Paris without attention to sexuality is necessarily incomplete because both women who sold sex and men who sought sex with other men participated in the development of modern urban culture. Although both groups were heavily policed during the period, efforts to regulate the appearance of public sex only made it increasingly important to navigating a transforming city, as city residents and visitors continued to come across and react to evidence of public sex. Prostitutes and pederasts (as they were called) shaped nineteenth-century urban culture because they quite literally forced everyone who used the city to reckon with their presence. As readers enter the brothels and public urinals of the nineteenth-century city — to name just two spaces — they will see how encounters between Parisians, visitors, the police, prostitutes, and pederasts shaped the city we know so well today. Readers will therefore find the familiar sights of Paris transformed as they recognize that what we once thought were marginal figures — those who supposedly lived in the shadows — were actually central to modern urban life.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what questions do you still have?

Ross: I first began looking at the history of sexuality in France as an undergraduate, when I completed an honors thesis on the relationship between discourses about “depopulation” and those of homosexuality in the fin-de-siècle. While completing that project, one of my advisors recommended that I pick up George Chauncey’s Gay New York. Having not had the opportunity to actually take a history of sexuality class in college, the book was revelatory. I entered grad school, then, essentially planning on writing a version of that book for Paris, with an emphasis on the nineteenth century. As I began planning, however, I decided to reverse a bit the analysis. Rather than looking for specific people, I would look at specific spaces. In doing so, began to see that an analysis of the relationship between urban space and sexuality would necessarily involve attention to how people interacted in the city. Out of this insight came my first article, which was a history of men seeking sex with other men in Parisian public urinals (heavily revised into chapter 2 of my book) and, in particular, how the police struggled to distinguish those men from others using the facilities. As I delved deeper into the archives following that work, I came to understand as well that a history of homosexuality in nineteenth-century Paris would necessarily be incomplete without attention to the history of prostitution as well because the police considered the two to be related problems (I discuss this in a more recent article). And so my project transformed from one about homosexuality, to one about public sex more broadly.

I remain interested in the relationship between male homosexuality and female prostitution, in particular how it changed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. If I am correct that the two were often equated during the nineteenth century, they obviously split apart at some point. I make some allusions as to why this might be the case (the rise of identity politics; the rise of psychological explanations for homosexuality) in the conclusion, but I am not sure that I fully captured it. My next project, which will take on more explicitly the political dimensions of this story at the end of the century, will explore some of these issues.

NOTCHES: This book is about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to? 

Ross: Primarily urban history. Obviously, there is a rather large literature on the history of Paris, especially the nineteenth century, which is when Paris underwent many of the large transformations that made it the city we know today. However, few of these histories take seriously the ways that sexuality may have shaped those urban transformations. A major goal of my book, therefore, was to situate prostitution and homosexuality within that narrative. As I do so, my book also addresses knowledge production, the rise of consumer culture, the formation of citizenship.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book? 

Ross: Though I also completed research in the French National Archives, Bibliothèque National, and Archives de Paris (the city archives), most of my material comes from police sources located in the Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris. In order to contextualize those materials, I also rely on published moral commentary, medical treatises, and sociology (the most famous of which is probably Alexandre Parent-Duchâtelet’s exposé of early nineteenth-century Parisian prostitution).

The police archives proved even more fruitful than I had expected, after the archivists there introduced me to a series that had barely been used before, containing the remaining records of the Paris morals brigade. In particular, it included letters sent to the police complaining about public sex in nineteenth (and twentieth) century Paris, as well as the reports the police generated in response. While other historians — most notably the late Michael Sibalis — had begun sifting through the documents and some French historians — such as Régis Revenin — had used them in their own work, I luckily came across them just after they had been cataloged and just before they entered reclassification. I made analyzing these documents central to my project because they revealed so clearly how all city wanderers — not just prostitutes and pederasts — encountered evidence of public sex in the city. They are those rare materials that give (mediated) voice to what people in past were thinking and I was able to use them to make an argument about the ways that sex stood at the center of efforts by these letter writers to get the police to listen to their demands, and therefore new definitions of urban citizenship in a Republic.

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to? 

Ross: My book used “public sex” as its lens for exploring the lives of marginalized people in the nineteenth century, but although this strategy allowed me to capture female prostitutes, men who sought sex with other men, and Parisians who saw them in the same frame, other sexual identities got left behind. I would like to know more about the history of public heterosexuality during the nineteenth century, but I regret even more the relative dearth of discussion of lesbianism in my book. While I do reference women who sought sex with other women when my sources reveal them, they do not appear as often as I would have liked. In part this is due to the differences in the ways that men and women were able to access public space in the first place. Men had more ready access to spaces that allowed them to seek out sex, so they appear more frequently in the documents. This becomes less the case by the end of the century when, as I discuss, lesbians began opening up commercial spaces for their own purposes. At the same time, lesbian desire was often collapsed with discussions of prostitution. Recent lesbian histories have shown how important women’s relationships with other women were to institutions that were central to nineteenth-century life (such as the family), but I think that a fuller history of lesbian desire in public would necessitate a new look at prostitution and the ways that the two intersected and diverged throughout the century.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Ross: I first encountered the history of sexuality as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis. I was fairly involved in the LGBTQ community and saw the pursuit of the history of homosexuality as part of my efforts there. This initial interest was then heightened as I began to truly explore the field. I was especially excited about its theoretical engagements after reading Foucalt following a course that revolved around Edward Said’s Orientalism (my first introduction to critical theory). I became fascinated by the ways history could reveal the ways that what we perceive as natural were in fact constructed. The implication that our very sense of self had a history brought me to the history of sexuality specifically. I also happened to have an especially generous advisor, Steven Hause, who helped me develop my own voice in sexuality studies, even as his own interest remained grounded in women’s history. This combination, energized by theory, grounded in social history, was precisely what I needed to launch myself into the field when I began graduate school.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

Ross: There are a few ways my book could be used in the classroom. In French history courses, the book has a great deal to say about the history of Paris, engaging primarily with ongoing interest in the role of ordinary people in the development of modern urbanism, while also broadening the story beyond Haussmannization. I could see the book being assigned with other considerations of urban change — Richard Hopkins’s Planning the Greenspaces of Paris comes to mind. Still within French history, my book could be usefully deployed in discussions of nineteenth-century policing, governance, and politics. Because the book spans the nineteenth century, it can be a useful tool with which to ask to what extent political changes were reflected in social and culture changes as well.

History of sexuality classes would find in my work an example of the “city-study,” and would nicely complement a reading from within that genre, whether one focusing on prostitution or homosexuality. In addition, as a consideration of identity (or lack thereof) within queer studies, it would work well with recent considerations of how historians should or should not approach homosexuality in the past. Here I think especially of David Halperin, Valerie Traub, and Laura Doan’s work.

Finally, my work engages more broadly with cultural history. Courses on the history of consumerism and urban culture will find my discussion of sex and entertainment especially useful. Taking on themes such as mass consumption, the performance of identity, the meaning of public spaces, my book will find a ready audience with students who are encountering the varieties of doing history. Grounded in the archives, my book nonetheless tries to resist making definitive claims about the history it is “recovering” and instead recognize the ways it participates in the construction of a much more contingent past. A methods course may want to pair it with my own article on how I used my archives or other similar considerations of how to wrestle with the queer past.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Ross: My book offers lessons about the ways that queer people locate and create their own spaces, often in the face of repressive and sometimes violent forces. It showcases the ways that marginalized people nonetheless find ways of expressing themselves and ensuring that their forms of expression shape the broader community. It argues that queer people have always been central to urban life and that their exclusion or marginalization from it is what is new. It intervenes in our understanding of the relationship between queer lives and the authorities — especially the police — as it shows how the relationship between these two groups was often reciprocal rather than simply repressive. Lastly, and most importantly, by uncovering some of the quite different ways that queer people in the past understood both themselves and their relationship to other marginalized people, it showcases another possible way of organizing community. One based not on discrete sexual identities, but rather on shared purpose and experiences that often cross those identities. Insofar as it participates in this queer turn, it historicizes it, shows that it is not new, and that what queer politics seeks to construct needs to reckon with both the ways it is implicitly drawing on the past and moving beyond it.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

Ross: This is a good question! I am currently writing an article on Josephine Butler’s campaigns against regulated prostitution in Paris during the 1870s. I am interested in the ways the politics of the regulation of prostitution crossed between France and England and in particular how the policing of Paris became deployed to make very large claims about the proper relationship between state regulation and sexual freedom. This article is a way for me to begin thinking through some broader issues that I am interested in exploring in my next book, which will explore the rise of transnational thinking about sex and sexuality and the formation of modern political and sexual identities in fin-de-siècle France and Great Britain.

Andrew Israel Ross is an Assistant Professor of History at Loyola University Maryland where he teaches courses in European history, French history, and the history of sexuality. He previously taught at the University of Southern Mississippi and Kenyon College. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and has been the recipient of several major awards, including a Georges Lurcy Fellowship for research in France. His work has appeared in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, and French Historical Studies. He is currently completing an edited volume, Histories of French Sexuality: Enlightenment to the Present (under advance contract with University of Nebraska Press), with Nina Kushner.

Creative Commons License

NOTCHES: (re)marks on the history of sexuality is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

For permission to publish any NOTCHES post in whole or in part please contact the editors at

Leave a Reply