I recently encountered a description of the English Aphrodites in Geoff Nicholson, Sex Collectors: The Secret World of Consumers, Connoisseurs, Curators, Creators, Dealers, Bibliographers, and Accumulators of ‘Erotica’ (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 116:
Considerably more impressive, though unfortunately anonymous, was a female member of an English eighteenth-century orgy society called the English Aphrodites. She listed 4,959 partners, including 93 rabbis, 288 commoners, 119 musicians, 342 financiers, 439 monks, 420 society men, 117 valets, 47 Negroes, and 1,614 foreigners. But I find these statistics confuing. I mean, are musicians and foreigners mutually exclusive categories? Weren’t some of the officers also society men? Was none of the ‘Negroes’ a foreigner? Are we imagining a series of tightly overlapping Venn diagrams here? But at least she gave a precise number.
Since I had never heard of this society, this woman, or her astonishing and—frankly improbable—list of sexual conquests, I went in search of more information. Nicholson does not provide any references—i.e. any evidence—for his claim. Having Googled a few of his numbers, however, I found this:
The first wife swapping club was founded in London in the 18th century. Men had to pay £10,000 to join - women got in for half price. One woman member who kept a diary had sex with 4,959 men in twenty years (including 439 monks, 93 rabbis, 117 valets, 47 negroes and 12 cousins).
This is on "Dr Vernon Coleman's 101 Amazing Facts about Sex," but I found this, with slight variations in a number of places on the net, including on Swinger's information pages. But never with any references.
However, with the prospect of a diary, a manuscript record, solid documentary evidence behind this claim, I looked more deeply.
In October 2000, a post is recorded in the HistSex Archives as follows:
To give an idea, the diary of a female member of the notorious French sex club the Aphrodites, lists nearly 5,000 amorous encounters over a period of twenty years. By the breakdown of profession:
‘272 princes and prelates, 929 officers, 93 rabbis, 342 financiers, 439 monks, 420 society men, 288 commoners, 117 valets, 2 uncles, 12 cousins, 119 musicians, 47 Negroes, and 1,614 foreigners (during an enforced absence to London, probably during the Revolution)’
Now it appeared that our English Aphrodite was French, but that she stayed in London during the Revolution. This discovery was a little disappointing, since I am primarily interested in British erotica. Nevertheless, once on the trail like this it is hard to stop. So I didn't.
The next step back in time was via Bernard I. Murstein, Love, Sex, and Marriage Through the Ages (New York: Springer Pub. Co., 1974), 211–12, 241 n56–57:
French Love Club
On the institutional level, the most notorious French organization devoted to the pursuit of sexual happiness was the Aphrodites, a club whose membership was limited to 200. Each member paid an initiation to the club commensurate with his rank, plus a membership fee (£10,000 for men, £5,000 for women). Money was not the only requirement: the applicant had to undergo a demanding lovemaking bout for several hours, witnessed by a incorruptible judges, before |212| being accepted or rejected on the basis of the performance.
Thanks to its well-stocked treasury, the club purchased an elegant country house with special decor and grounds for amorous purposes. One item of furniture, the avantageuse, which was designed to supplant the bed as the foundation of love, had some special features:
The lady must let herself fall backwards after having grabbed on both sides two columns representing two Priapes. A thick, firm pillow, covered with satin supports her from the top of her head to the slit of the buttocks. The remaining portion of her body waves in the air down to the feet which fit into what kind of stirrup which is set a short distance away. Those stirrups are not movable but are softly stuffed. Thus the legs and thighs are forced to bend into the shape of an inverted V. The feet of the gentleman are supported by a kind of saddle. His knees rest on a cross beam. Lying in this position, he is perfectly within reach of the aim of his exercise. His hands finds two cylindrical supports on the woodwork on the outside of the piece of furniture.*
The diary of one female Aphrodite lists 4,959 amorous encounters over a period of 20 years. That sex can sometimes overcome class barriers is testified by the breakdown by profession ‘… 272 princes and prelates, 929 officers, 93 rabbis, 342 financiers, 439 monks … 420 sociality men, 288 commoners, 117 valets, 2 uncles, 12 cousins, 119 musicians, 47 Negroes, and 1,614 foreigners (during an enforced absence in London—probably during the Revolution).**
The love climbs never became widespread because they required not only an above-average sex drive and pocketbook, but a willingness to undergo notoriety for one’s lechery. To have one lover at a time was fashionable; to have them by droves, without regard to station or publicity, was scandalous. For the average well-to-do person who craved a little excitement without sacrificing security, attendance at a masque proved an admirable substitute.”
* J. Hervez, “Les Sociétiés d’amour au 18-ème siecle”; quoted in N. Epton, op. cit., pp. 256–57 (author’s translation).
** Ibid., p. 241.
And here I came to a stop. “Jean Hervez” (pseud. of Raoul Vèze), Les sociétés d'amour au xviiie siècle. Les sociétés où l'on cause d'amour, académies galantes, le code de Cythère, Les societes ou l'on fait l'amour. Le culte d'Aphrodite et ds Lesbos. Les Arracheurs Depalissades Brevets d'amour … d'après les mémoires, chroniques et chansons, libelles et pamphlets, pièces inédites, manuscrits (Paris: Daragon, 1906) is not on Google Books. Or at least, it is not available in Australia on Google Books. There is no copy in any Australian library and the only copy for sale online is Euro 245.
Nina Epton, Love and the French (London: Cassell, 1959), is held in an Australian library, just not Monash, and so I put in an inter-library loan request and waited. And waited. And while I waited I found a few more references, all citing Epton. So I kept waiting.
When my inter-library loan copy arrived—sans title-page—I discovered more informations, as follows:
In addition, there were secret societies whose members met to make love in special establishments devised by refined debauchees. Such where the Aphrodites, under the patronage of the Marquise de Palmazère, whose headquarters remained in Paris until the Revolution, when most of its members dispersed, either to have their frivolous heads chopped off, or to pursue their activities elsewhere.
It was not be easy to be accepted by the Aphrodites and, moreover, it was expensive. Every new member of these Order was expected to make an entrance gift compatible with his financial status, and in addition the membership fee amounted to £10,000 for a gentleman and £5,000 for a lady. Bad debtors were pursued relentlessly, but as soon as the question of striking them off the roll arose, they generally paid up on the spot to, neglecting all their other debts rather than have to relinquish the extraordinary pleasures afforded by this unique club.
The Aphrodites had a special ‘country house’ near Montmorecy, with gardens specially planned for amorous pastimes. The site was well hidden from the outside by high walls. Inside, the grounds were cunningly divided into woods, shrubberies, mazes and groups of pavilions. The central building or Hospice, as it was called, was built in the style of the pastoral retreat; the dining-hall represented a copse with hand-painted breaches curving up to a blue glass dome. Lawns, tree-trunks, marble balustrades, were cleverly disposed so as to give guests the impression that they were dining in the gardens of a château.
An immense rotunda flanked by colonnaded walks was reserved for special meetings. In the centre was an altar surrounded by statues of the gods and goddesses of love. A series of private boxes upolstered in pink taffeta and hung with silver gauze concealed private love sessions. Each box was provided with ingenious placed peep holes.
The architect of the Hospice, Monsieur du Bossage, invented a piece of furniture called an avantageuse, which was supposed to be more comfortable than the softest bed or divan and better adapted to the purpose of a rendezvous. The avantageuse has been described as follows full: ‘La dame doit se laisser aller en arrière après avoir […].
New issue that was limited to 200 addicts family Perez. This season and higher ranking clergy. Aspirin it’s worth thoroughly examined during a to field and wrist test that lasted for three hours, presided diet in proud to all dignity erase ill watered crayons to the victor. New members who filed to win the seven crayons retain the three houses were not highly regarded. The admittance ceremony was a splendid a fading, culminating in effect were three of Roman that can earlier.
The Journal of one of the female Aphrodite has been preserved; the Lady gives the list of 4,959 amorous rendezvous for a period of twenty years—not excessive when one considers the club’s reputation. This figure includes 272 princes and prelates, 929 officers, 93 rabbis, 342 financiers, 439 monks (nearly all Cordeliers, with a sprinkling of ex-Jesuites), 420 society men, 288 commoners, 117 valets, two uncles and twelve cousins, 119 musicians, 47 Negroes, and 1,614 foreigners (during an enforced absence in London—probably during the Revolution). Like so many other debauchees, the lady had a bent for statistics.
Implausible as I thought this story at the start, Epton's information is very specific and convincing. But, although she says that "The Journal of one of the female Aphrodite has been preserved," it is Raoul Vèze [aka Jean Hervez] that she cites. It was obvious therefore that, come hell or high-water, I was going to have to get a look at a copy of this Les sociétés d'amour au xviiie siècle. While stewing on this, I Googled bits of the French text that Epton quoted, on the off chance that it was reprinted in full elsewhere. This turned out to be a very good move, as you will discover in Part 2 of this saga.