Sex at Pigalle Place

Visiting Paris' Red Light District

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••• Dancers at the Moulin Rouge. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Entertainment

Place Pigalle has always been synonymous with sex, in all its more tawdry forms. It used to be the epicentre of sex shops, peep shows, strip clubs, cabaret and adults-only, X-rated adventures and was part of the red light district of Paris.

It still has a pretty notorious reputation as the popular hotspot for the more risqué crowd.  It’s known as the place where the strip clubs get you in with small admission charges, then sting you with very expensive drinks for you and for the girls, or boys, who suddenly appear at your table uninvited.

The shop windows are still full of models wearing next to nothing, scanty garments that can be super expensive or cheap as chips but which send out the same message - I am available for sex.

History of Pigalle

Pigalle began as an artist’s area, away from the sedate, grand and artistocratic buildings in the 1st arondissement set in all their glory around the grand Louvre and the Tuileries gardens. Pigalle is in Montmartre, the raunchy area of Paris crowned by the Sacré Coeur church. In the late 19th century, cabarets opened on Boulevard de Clichy, among them the Moulin Rouge, either famous or infamous, according to your taste. Toulouse-Lautrec arrived here from his home town of Albi and started to produce those wonderful posters and paintings of prostitutes, bars open late into the night, absinthe drinkers and dancers who had always doubled as prostitutes.

Pigalle got seedier in the early 20th century and it was not somewhere to visit unless you knew exactly what you were doing and where you were going - and had a certain reckless streak to you.

There are some surprising people who did know where they were going; apparently the British Prince of Wales, known for his sexual appetite, Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant were all customers. Inevitable, criminal elements moved in; rime moved in; drug gangs operated here; brothels did a roaring trade.

In the 1970s, the sex shops appeared with their lurid, enticing images and their promise of sex…however and whenever you wanted it.

Today, it’s changing, as all such areas do. But it’s a slow change, so you get a mix of the sordid and the quirky. And the old advice still holds true; be careful here though it's a pale imitation of its former raunchy self.

Museum of Eroticism

The Museum of Eroticism (Musée de l’érotisme) at 72, Boulevard de Clichy, 00 33 (0)1 42 58 28 73,  makes a serious attempt to present erotic art and sexuality. And as such it really does work. But don’t go if you’re shy, with somebody new or find all those artificial aids from around the world off putting. But it does also contain a fascinating collection of photos and drawings of brothels so you can always plea historic interest.

Montmartre Entertainment

  • The Moulin Rouge at 85 Boulevard de Clichy has plenty of semi-naked dancers in different acts. You can get tickets separately or join a tour which takes in dinner and cabaret. It remains as famous as it always has done. 
  • La Cigale at 120 Boulevard de Rochechouart is a historic theatre first opened in 1887 and now home to various different musical acts from rap to one-man shows. It featured in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and has hosted the greats like David Bowie, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
  • Le  Trianon is a beautiful over-the-top Art Deco concert hall and another one that has hosted the greats from Mistinguett and Jacques Brel to Macy Gray. The café-bar Le Petit Tiranon is good for French classics.
  •  Au Lapin Agile at  80 Boulevard de Rochechouart, is another historic venue which was a firm favorite with artists like Picasso. It’s cosy and is decorated with old furniture. 

Edited by Mary Anne Evans