Catherine Phipps on French military brothels

In the latest post in our Hor’s d’Oeuvres series, we caught up with Catherine Phipps to talk about her new article on the bordels militaires de campagne in France and Morocco.

Catherine Phipps is lecturer in the history of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Bristol. She has just finished her doctorate in history at the University of Oxford, looking at colonial and interracial sexuality in the French Empire in Morocco. Her work addresses colonial power through interracial intimacy, mixed marriage, sex work and queer identities.

Photo of Catherine smiling.

Hi Catherine, thanks for joining us to talk about your new article on French military brothels. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?

Hello, thanks for having me. I think they’ll be horrified, if I’m completely honest. I think readers used to colonial histories where sexual exploitation is rife will not be surprised, but it’s difficult not to read some of this material and come away reeling. Such matter-of-fact documents that lay out such a cruel system are hard to read.

What happened to many of these women is horrible, but the fact that the French military system was designed to allow for them to be exploited is even more shocking. That this was taking place after brothels were banned in the metropole makes it even more appalling.

Do you have a favourite example or anecdote you came across in this work?

“Favourite” doesn’t feel quite the right word for such a grim subject matter, but I found it worthwhile to be able to include quotations from Moroccan women who sold sex in this period. I have included quotes from Fadma, a Moroccan woman who worked in a French military brothel in Vietnam and was interviewed in Dalila Ennadre’s 2008 documentary (which Marie Robin at Columbia introduced me to).

I have also been able to include poetry from Mririda N’Ait Attik, a Moroccan poet and performer who sold sex in the Atlas mountains near Azilal, whose oral poetry was transcribed and translated in French in 1927. It was Selma El Houary at the Centre Jacques Berques in Rabat who pointed me towards her incredibly powerful work, for which I’m eternally grateful. This was the nearest I could come to first-hand accounts from women working in these illegal French military brothels in France.

What’s the thing you most regret having to leave out of this piece?

There’s some really fascinating and shocking archival material about French military brothels in other countries (Algeria and Vietnam in the 1950s) that employed Moroccan women, as well as in France before this period. I would have loved to have been able to include this material but it was utterly impossible to do it all justice within just one article.

Can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?

My doctoral thesis at Oxford was on interracial relationships in the French empire in Morocco, and this was how I came across the material this article, specifically the memos that it’s based on. The way I found them also speaks to changes in research methodologies: I was discussing with my supervisor, James McDougall, different ways to approach colonial histories of prostitution when he mentioned some of these memos in files I’d previously looked in, a huge file in the archives in Nantes labelled simply “prostitution”. As I explain in my article, I’m hardly the first person to discover this, but I am the first historian to conduct an in-depth case study. The next time I was back in Nantes for research, I went through the file in much more detail and saw it all come together. 

It makes me slightly uncomfortable that I’d previously been so close to these documents and missed them. Part of that is the tendency to have to fight hard to spend a week or so a year in the archives themselves, and the pressure to see everything.

What else have I almost read and then passed over? I understand that James worked in these archives for months when he was finishing his doctorate *cough* years ago, taking notes in pencil on everything he saw. I’m conscious that we’re forced to interact with the documents differently now: there’s plenty to be gained in terms of hoarding information in hundreds of photographs, but I also wonder what’s been lost.

Are you a ‘plan it all in detail’ writer, or a ‘start writing and see where it goes’ person?

I am certainly someone who finds what they want to say as they say it. I think a large part of working through archival material is just writing down notes to try to understand how it all fits together, and the hard slog of just getting it down on paper. It takes me vast quantities of coffee and biscuits, but I enjoy the act of writing and working through it all.

Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone this question because we live in hope.

I read a lot of novels.

I firmly believe that they made us better and more interesting people, let alone researchers or writers, but I find reading more broadly to be an incredibly thought-provoking way to get a touch of distance. I’d recommend that, plus a large quantity of coffee and biscuits. I’ve also always been a fan of the “creativity beer”, anything that gets you to sit down and just start producing words, although I definitely would not recommend more than one. Hemingway’s suggestion to “write drunk, edit sober” clearly did not stem from experience of archival research… 

Who did you get feedback from on the article? Did you give talks on this topic or share drafts with colleagues or non-specialists? 

I had an enormous amount of help from Claire Eldridge, who is one of the co-editors of French History. The article must have gone through about four rounds of edits, each of them making it a substantially better piece than before. She seems to have an engineer’s eye for seeing how everything fits together as a whole and a surgeon’s eye for being able to zero in on the meaning of the thing to cut it out.

James McDougall was also instrumental, as well as feedback from Christina de Bellaigue, Brenda Stevenson and Lyndal Roper, although now I’m just showing off about how much support I got during my doctorate. They were helpful and supportive, particularly since it was useful to get a distinctly Modern French colonial history approach from Claire and more centred around gender history from them.

What do you think helpful feedback on writing involves?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we would all like someone else to come along and write our conclusions. I think many of us struggle to see the broader picture and how everything pieces together. Any feedback that pushes someone to think further about what this all means, how it all fits together, and to see any broader impacts is helpful. 

What’s the word you can never type right?

I am mortified by how many times a day I type “soliders” instead of soldiers. Do you have any idea how many times a day I have to type that?!

What are you working on next?

I’m trying to pitch a postdoctoral research project looking at the relationships that took place between North African colonial troops in France during the Second World War and French women. Many of these marriages were possible in Frane, but the couples were banned from entering North Africa. I’m particularly interested in this being the way that many people in metropolitan France experienced the control of sexuality present in the French empire for the first time, how these links with North Africa were felt in rural French communities.

I’ve also editing an edited collection, Histories of Sex Work Around the World, that will come out next year with Routledge. It has some really rich contributions to help offer creative new approaches to the history of sex work.

If you could see one change in academia in the next five years, what would it be?

Perhaps all junior academics should have this on a t-shirt, but I would like a permanent job, please.

I’m incredibly grateful to be part of the history department at Bristol, and I know it’s even harder for those researchers who aren’t in full-time work at the moment, but I also know that I’m seeing the long-term psychological impact on early career academics of never feeling able to put down roots or invest in anywhere or anyone because we may have to move again in a few months. I dream of owning a sofa.

Éclair or saucisson?

Neither, I am firmly fromage.


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