Leah Benque (GSAS '22)

Leah Benque (GSAS '22) participated in the virtual Columbia in Paris program in Spring 2021. She also completed an internship with the program in Summer 2021 while conducting research for her master's thesis in Paris.

September 14, 2021

What is your experience in the Columbia in Paris program?

I had the opportunity of taking a course with Professor Christelle Taraud through the virtual program in Spring 2021. Her class “Sex Trade Economy” thoroughly shaped my research skills and historical interests, and also enabled me to converse and communicate with my peers within the global center. When I saw that Columbia in Paris was offering a summer social media internship, I decided to apply. The internship coincided with my summer research in France on prostitution during the nineteenth century and gave me the opportunity to engage further with the Columbia community while improving my communication, writing, and outreach skills.

What kind of research were you working on in Paris?

I was completing my research for my master’s thesis (MA in International and World History with London School of Economics) on the history of prostitution in Paris and London.

Can you tell us more about the topic of your thesis?

In the nineteenth century, France established the système réglementariste for prostitutes, which quickly spread over to England. According to many historians, including Alain Corbin, the system was about control, surveillance, and regulation.

An important facet of the system was the medical visit, in light of the rise of venereal infections. Women were obliged to visit the doctor every 15 days. If they were found to have syphilis, by the 1830s, they would be sent to the hospital-prison Saint Lazare. The London Lock Hospital in England had a similar objective — but the English feminist Josephine Butler lead the fight against the système reglementariste, which she deemed to take away from women’s personal liberties. She called the gynecological visit a ‘surgical rape’.

It has been fascinating to read police and medical reports and other official documents, along with 19th century photographs of Saint-Lazare, and the carte de visite that prostitute women had to carry around.

How did you carry out your research?

In June and July, I visited 7 different archives in Paris: Bibliothèque Marguerite Durand (Olympiades), Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris (Saint-Paul), Bibliothèque de l’Hôtel de Ville, Bibliothèque Henri Feulard (Hôpital Saint-Louis), Archives de l’APHP (Hôpital de Bicêtre), Archives de la Préfecture de Police (Pré-Saint-Gervais), and Bibliothèque interuniversitaire de Santé (Rue de l’École de Médecine).

How do you feel looking back at your summer in Paris?

It has been incredible to balance my time between the archives and Reid Hall this summer, and I look forward to putting together my findings for my thesis!