Freedom's Sex Problem

Hannah Frydman, “Freedom’s Sex Problem: Classified Advertising, Law, and the Politics of Reading in Third Republic France.” French Historical Studies 44, no. 4 (October 2021): 675-709 (Winner, Malcolm Bowie Prize).

In Third Republican Paris, newspapers’ classified sections were cast as sites of sexual demoralization peopled by prostitutes, pornographers, and abortionists. Moralizing this space was no easy task: sex was discussed in code, making it hard to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate ads—between ads for midwives and those for abortionists. Could the law read symptomatically to make the distinction? Or was it limited to surface reading? This article shows how classified texts became sites of regulatory indeterminacy, staging tensions between the regulation of “deviant” sexuality and republican ideals. It reconstructs the legal history of “immoral” advertising through decades of legislative reform and judicial equivocation, which laid the cultural and legal groundwork for the restrictive 1920 abortion law and 1939 Family Code, both of which made it possible to police the unsaid, thereby privileging the control and management of sexuality in the interest of the nation’s reproductive future over democratic freedoms.

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