Intended as the first of a projected series of works with the general title ‘Idées singulières’, this is an important early manifesto for the regulation of prostitution, published not in London, as the title-page maintains, but in Paris in 1769. It also holds a significant place in the historical use of pornography—literally ‘writing about prostitutes’—as a term, being the modern coinage of the word. (The English word ‘pornography’ does not enter the language until 1842, ‘pornographer’ in 1847.)
The author was the French novelist Nicolas Restif de la Bretonne (1734–1806), who issued the work anonymously, presenting it with a preface claiming that the idea was not a French invention at all but one found in the manuscript of a young Englishman by the name of Lewis Moore. In a series of letters, the work presents an anatomy of prostitution, noting its inevitability in cities such as Paris and its dangers to public health and morality. Most interestingly, it then outlines a system of regulation, with well-managed maisons publiques, in which prostitutes are required to stay, where they are protected and cared for, and where customers are strictly controlled. A major preoccupation is the contemporary anxiety over the (wrongly) perceived decline in population, a decline to which prostitution was seen to have contributed. Restif proposes that pregnant prostitutes be required to take their pregnancies to term; their children should be brought up and educated within the maisons publiques and take up alternative professions when of age.