Echoes of the Demi-monde

by | February 27, 2021 | General | 4 comments

From Wikipedia:

Demi-Monde is French for “half-world.” The term derives from a play called Le Demi-Monde, by Alexandre Dumas fils, published in 1855. The play dealt with the way that prostitution at that time threatened the institution of marriage. The demi-monde was the world occupied by elite men and the women who entertained them and whom they kept, the pleasure-loving and dangerous world Dumas immortalized in the 1848 novel La Dame aux Camelias and its many adaptations. “Demimondaine” became a synonym for a courtesan or a prostitute who moved in these circles—or for a woman of social standing with the power to thumb her nose at convention and throw herself into the hedonistic nightlife. A woman who made that choice would soon find her social status lost, as she became déclassé.

The demi-monde used to be much bigger than it is now. Before the social upheavals of the 1960s, just about anyone who had a sex life that wasn’t confined to married heterosexual monogamy was in one or more of the overlapping circles of the demi-monde. Men who desired other men risked being arrested, as did people of any gender who got paid for sexual service. Women-loving women risked the same legal penalties (which varied by state) as gay men and sex workers in the U.S. — but not in Commonwealth countries, including Canada.

The Canadian Criminal Code doesn’t mention sex between women. It’s just not there. There is an anecdote about how Queen Victoria cleverly refused to sign a law against “sodomy” that included women, and most of Canadian criminal law can be traced back to British law. However, I’m skeptical of anecdotes. At the time when male politicians were busily drafting laws against “vice” in Victorian England, women didn’t really have the status of adult citizens. Why write women into every criminal law when most of them were under the authority of their fathers or husbands? Male heads of households could decide what they could tolerate from their female wards.

The “gay community” of Regina, Saskatchewan, where I “came out” as a lesbian in the early 1980s, was not considered respectable by anyone, least of all by the people in it. Dr. Valerie Korinek, who teaches at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, recently gave a talk on Zoom, based on her 2018 book, Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930-1985. Dr. Korinek claimed that it was harder to find interview subjects in Regina than anywhere else, and she speculated on the reasons. Regina is the seat of government of the province of Saskatchewan, and it is also the national headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. A heavy government and police presence promotes conformity and fear of the law.

When I went to the “gay club” for the first time, it was so dark that I wasn’t sure I would recognize any other members of that demi-monde by daylight. The rule was that newcomers could visit the bar a few times, but then must pay the membership fee and sign the registry. Later, when I was elected to the board, I saw that most names on the registry looked too fanciful to be the same names on people’s birth certificates.

I knew that the federal Omnibus Bill of 1969 had suddenly brought Canada into the modern era by liberalizing divorce, abortion, and sex between men by making it more-or-less legal in “private” places, subject to interpretation. This was generally considered a sign of progress.

The legal status of women-loving women didn’t change in 1969. What was invisible stayed invisible.

On my first night at the bar, I met Jo, as I’ll call her, who became my first “woman” lover, loosely speaking. She called herself a “dyke,” and bought all her clothes in men’s clothing stores. I had a daughter from a previous marriage to a man, and I moved us in with Jo before I knew her very well. I was afraid of the gossip that would ensue if too many of my neighbours in a housing co-op for low-income single parents became aware that Jo was spending nights in my apartment.

The new apartment I shared with Jo was soon filled with her drinking buddies from the bar. Most of the “dykes” in that crowd were convinced that lesbianism was illegal, and I couldn’t persuade them otherwise. Several of them had spent time in the minimum-security women’s prison in Saskatchewan, and I came to recognize the DIY blue tattoos of an ex-con. They had all been convicted of something other than consensual sex with female companions, but the fact that they had been locked up seemed like proof to those who knew them that all “dykes” were subject to legal persecution.

When I told Jo’s friends that I was working on a Master’s thesis at the local university (originally a branch of the University of Saskatchewan), they seemed amused. As far as they could see, I had delusions of middle-class success.

I was alarmed to learn that Jo had been fired from her job as assistant manager of a pizza parlour because she had been caught with her hand in the till. She explained that: 1) she had been drinking, and therefore couldn’t be held responsible for what she did, and 2) the money was easy to grab, so she couldn’t be blamed for grabbing it.

I tried to reason with her. Jo had a daughter of her own, conceived when she passed out at a party in the presence of men. Jo’s daughter was being raised by her foster-parents, but Jo wanted us to raise our two children under one roof. As I pointed out, this would require stability of several kinds: financial, emotional, occupational, domestic.

Jo grew tired of my nagging, and she watched me when I withdrew money from the ATMs which had recently been installed in local banks. One day, she helped herself to the contents of my bank account, and fled to the western city of Calgary during the annual summer Stampede.

I asked my parents for help, and they were glad that I wanted to leave my stunningly unsuitable roommate. They hoped I was over my “lesbian phase,” and they helped me and my daughter move in with them. From there, I reported Jo’s theft of my money to the Regina police.

This was a bold move, and I knew it. I wondered whether anyone in the demi-monde I had joined would ever speak to me again after they learned that I had reported my own lover. On the other hand, I didn’t want to become known as a sitting duck, someone who could easily be fleeced.

As soon as Jo returned to town, I told her what I had done. She appeared at my parents’ house and threatened to show them some compromising photos of her and me. (The only photos I knew of showed both of us with all our clothes on. I wasn’t sure what she thought that proved.)

For about two weeks, Jo and I yelled at each other over the phone. I told her that if she paid me back in full, there would be no case, I would refuse to testify against her, and the police would leave her alone. She promised to pay me back—eventually. I told her this had to happen soon if she wanted me to call off the attack dogs.

Then the phone calls started. Almost every one of Jo’s friends called me at my parents’ house, demanding to know whether I had reported them to the police. What had I said?

I asked them if they been involved in Jo’s bank heist, and they seemed confused. The standard response was, “I don’t know nothin about your money.”

At length, the dust settled. Jo’s friends seemed greatly relieved to learn that the cops weren’t after them for anything to do with me, even though they had heard from Jo that I had come to the bar for the purpose of getting all the “queers” locked up.

Jo never paid me back, and she acquired a record for “grand larceny,” theft over $500, although she wasn’t jailed for that. Instead, I was given custody of her car in lieu of repayment, even though I couldn’t drive. I ended up selling it for much less than she owed me.

For years, I seemed to be known in certain circles as a police plant, a “straight” academic type who never really fit in with the “dykes” and “fags” of the club. However, I met more compatible people in the queer community, and joined several groups that advocated for greater social acceptance and legal protection.

Emerging from a shadowy demi-monde into the light of visibility feels surrealistic. I doubt whether the transgender, non-binary and pansexual, polyamorous millennials among my students believe for a moment that the police are just waiting to arrest them for being “perverts.”

Wherever you live, there is probably still a demi-monde near you: a community of sex workers which overlaps with a community of the poor, the racially oppressed and of non-violent drug users. There is still work to be done, not only in “rehabilitating”  the “fallen,” but in lifting the concrete blocks off their necks. Those of us who believe in sexual freedom have a responsibility not to romanticize the culture of the closet.



Jean Roberta

Jean Roberta once promised her parents not to use their unusual family name for her queer and erotic writing, and thus was born her thin-disguise pen name. She teaches English and Creative Writing in a university on the Canadian prairies, where the vastness of land and sky encourage daydreaming. Jean immigrated to Canada from the United States as a teenager with her family. In her last year of high school, she won a major award in a national student writing contest. In 1988, a one-woman publisher in Montreal published a book of Jean’s lesbian stories, Secrets of the Invisible World. When the publisher went out of business, the book went out of print. In the same year, Jean attended the Third International Feminist Book Fair in Montreal, where she read a call-for-submissions for erotic lesbian stories. She wrote three, sent them off, and got a letter saying that all three were accepted. Then the publisher went out of business. In 1998, Jean and her partner acquired their first computer. Jean looked for writers’ groups and found the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, which was then two years old! She began writing erotica in every flavor she could think of (f/f, m/f, m/m, f/f/m, etc) and in various genres (realistic contemporary, fantasy, historical). Her stories have appeared in anthology series such as Best Lesbian Erotica (2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, Volume 1 in new series, 2016), Best Lesbian Romance (2014), and Best Women's Erotica (2000, 2003, 2005, 2006) from Cleis Press, as well as many others. Her single-author books include Obsession (Renaissance, Sizzler Editions), an erotic story collection, The Princess and the Outlaw: Tales of the Torrid Past (Lethe Press), and The Flight of the Black Swan: A Bawdy Novella (Lethe, also in audio). Fantasy stories by Jean include “Lunacy” in Journey to the Center of Desire (erotic stories based on the work of Jules Verne) from Circlet Press 2017, “Green Spectacles and Rosy Cheeks” (steampunk erotica) in Valves & Vixens 3 (House of Erotica, UK, 2016), and “Under the Sign of the Dragon” (story about the conception of King Arthur) in Nights of the Round Table: Arthurian Erotica (Circlet 2015). This story is now available from eXcessica ( Her horror story, “Roots,” first published in Monsters from Torquere Press, is now in the Treasure Gallery of the Erotic Readers and Writers Association. With Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman, she coedited Heiresses of Russ 2015 (Lethe), an annual anthology of the year’s best lesbian speculative fiction. Her realistic erotic novel, Prairie Gothic: A Tale of the Old Millennium, was published by Lethe in September 2021. Jean has written many reviews and blog posts. Her former columns include “Sex Is All Metaphors” (based on a line in a poem by Dylan Thomas) for the Erotic Readers and Writers Association, July 2008-November 2010. The 25 column pieces can still be found in the on-site archives and in an e-book from Coming Together, Jean married her long-term partner, Mirtha Rivera, on October 30, 2010. Links:


  1. Lisabet Sarai

    “Those of us who believe in sexual freedom have a responsibility not to romanticize the culture of the closet.”

    Sex workers have been hit harder than almost anyone by the COVID pandemic. This is true even in places where selling sex is supposedly legal. Without customers, and in an environment where close contact with strangers could be fatal anyway, these women (and men, I presume) have no options at all.

    Do you really think your students who in other eras might have vanished into the demi-monde really feel part of the heteronormative society in which they live? If so, that is a huge step forward.

  2. Rikki de la Vega

    AMEN!!! Bob Dylan said it best. “To live outside the law you must be honest.”

    • Jean

      I’m not sure if gender-and sexually-diverse students really feel like part of a heteronormative society, but there seems to be more acceptance of diversity now than in the past, especially in fairly liberal circles (universities, arts communities).

  3. Jean

    I’m not sure if gender-and sexually-diverse students really feel like part of a heteronormative society, but there seems to be more acceptance of diversity now than in the past, especially in fairly liberal circles (universities, arts communities).

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