This film is partly based on an interview with an actual child prostitute that worked in New Orleans during the early 20th century as found in the book "Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District" by Al Rose.
The movie opens with eleven-year-old Violet (played by a 12-year-old Brooke Shields) watching the birth of her baby brother. This echoes her own beginnings as the daughter of prostitute Hattie (Susan Sarandon) and an unknown client. Violet is one of several children living at Madam Nell's (Frances Faye) swanky New Orleans brothel in 1917.
Early one morning photographer Bellocq (Keith Carradine) comes calling looking for a model. Hattie poses for him while Violet watches. At first Bellocq finds Violets inquisitive nature a bother, but after a while he starts to like her. Violet seems fascinated by Bellocq as he never seems to want to have sex with the girls, but just photograph them.
Even given her tender years Violet has been become part of the brothel business. She is playing in one of the upstairs bedrooms when her mother brings a client in telling him that Violet is a virgin and only for "French." Hattie indicates Violet is to follow them back to her room where Hattie climbs on the bed and starts to undress and the client drops his pants and sits down. It is clear that Violet is expected to stimulate him orally. With the resigned sigh of someone who has already done this too many times Violet enters the room, closes the door and the scene ends.
When Violet turns 12 arrangements are made to auction off her virginity. Nell gives a dinner party for her best clients during which Violet, dressed only in a sheer, see-though gown is paraded around the table on a platter as the madam announces the auction. A few minutes later, redressed in a white party dress, Violet stands in the parlor while the men of the house bid on her. The winner (Don Lutenbacher), then carries Violet up to a bedroom. A short scream announces the loss of her virginity and we see her client hurriedly depart from the house. When the other girls check on Violet they find her motionless lying across the bed and fear the worst. She breaks out laughing and we realize she is only joking with them, though she winces when she sits up, telling us that her initiation into womanhood has not been completely painless.
Violet now becomes a regular part of the brothel lineup, though not always at her convenience. She is interrupted mid-bath by Madam Nell who wants to show her to a rough-looking farmer customer (Hobe May). (This scene involved nudity for Shields and is one of the more controversial in the film).
One day Hattie's client/ boyfriend, Alfred Fuller (Don Hood) announces he is moving Hattie and her baby son to St. Louis where he will marry her. His plans don't include Violet as Hattie in her vanity has told him Violet is her younger sister. Hattie promises Violet at the right time she will break the news to him and send for her. Hattie leaves and Bellocq complains to Nell about Violet being left alone. Nell's response is that Violet is now making plenty of money on her own and the only reason Bellocq is concerned is that he has fallen in love with her, something he vehemently denies.
Violet misbehaves and Nell orders the bartender (Henry Braden) to take her to woodshed and discipline her. We hear the beating after which a defiant Violet emerges and declares to Nell, "It didnt hurt!" When she turns away though we see the whipping was violent enough to shred her nightgown and we can see her bare bottom.
This incident causes Violet to leave the brothel and move in with Bellocq. He is opposed to the idea at first but Violet uses her feminine charms to convince him to let her stay. However, she soon becomes bored of just being his photography model and he is not yet prepared to deal with her childishness. After one long nude photography session (This scene involved frontal nudity for Shields and is also highly controversial) they fight and in revenge Violet scratches some of the Belloca's valuable negatives and he throws her out of the house.
Violet returns to the brothel, but it is clear that things are not going well there. The Navy has pressured the city into closing the district. At Nell's house items are being sold off one-by-one and the girls are making arrangements to find other places to live. Violet packs her things too, but before she can get far Bellocq arrives, tells Violet he is going to marry her and she agrees. Though a girl as young as Violet usually needs her parents permission to marry it is allowed because she has been abandoned. Violet, the girls and Bellocq celebrate with a picnic along the river.
One morning at Bellocq's house after about two weeks of marriage it is clear that Violet has not quite adapted perfectly to the role of a wife as all she seems to do is have sex and sleep, but it is clear that Bellocq still loves her. Violet and Bellocq's breakfast is interrupted when Hattie and her new husband arrive. They demand that Violet come with them and join them in St. Louis as part of a "proper" family. Violet is torn between Bellocq and her mother, but as her mother has the firmer legal claim, Violet has little choice but to go with her. At the station her new step-father attempts to take a family portrait of his wife and her son and daughter, but it is clear from Violet's expression that Violet wonders if she can ever go back to being just a child after having lived as an adult.