Not so long ago the French would shrug and sigh about prudish societies where sex could still provoke scandal, scoffing at melodramas acted out in the USA by politicians caught doing something opposed to so-called family values. Dominique Strauss-Kahn used this tradition with his claim to be engaging in ‘libertine activity’ when he paid for sex at parties. Now this is changing, not only because of Strauss-Kahn’s continuing saga but because the French parliament is set to pass a law against buying sex that was previously associated with countries to the north.
A couple of years ago I wrote Europe’s anti-prostitution initiatives multiply, discussing France in the context of the European Women’s Lobby campaign for a Europe Free from Prostitution. UN Women National Committee Sweden recently called this ‘an issue that divides the world, and where the Northern European and the global women’s movement fight for recognition of fundamentally different values.’ Perhaps now France will feel more northern than southern Europe.
In networks of activism for sex workers’ rights and better commercial-sex laws, the bill set to pass in France has been a focus of campaigning for some time. Many unfamiliar with the subject cannot believe their ears when told about the contradictory law known as the Swedish or Nordic model, which prohibits the buying of sex while allowing it to be sold. In Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores I said:
Yes, it’s illogical. But the contradiction is not pointless; it is there because the goal of the law is to make prostitution disappear, by debilitating the market through absurd ignorance of how sex businesses work.
Although a lot of activism now takes place via social-media websites, sometimes an email is better. Thierry Schaffauser sent the following ideas in a message about the current situation in France to an activist list. I have added links he provided and edited so that outsiders to these conversations may understand. The full text of the proposed French law can be read here: Proposition de loi renforçant la lutte contre le système prostitutionnel.
I think what we fear is going to happen.
The Socialist party introduced the bill, which was co-signed by all other parties affiliated to the Socialists as well as the Communist and Left parties, so there is already a majority in favour of the law. The right wing might vote with them as well. Even MPs who are against the law will probably vote for it, out of party discipline and to avoid being labelled as sexist, pro-pimp and pro-prosti-killers by feminists (prosti-tueurs is the new name they give to men who buy sex).
In parliamentary hearings two former prostitutes were invited to speak, both affirming the shame, degradation and self-destruction of prostitution. Current sex workers were not asked to testify; one of us spoke along with the health organisations. We have held many demonstrations and shown all the evidence, but we are ignored. The sponsors use flawed evidence and anonymous testimonies; they don’t care about NGOs or research.
Sponsors of the bill claim all the time that 90% of prostitutes are victims of trafficking. This percentage may be their estimate for non-French sex workers, not trafficking victims, but abolitionists don’t distinguish between the two. No source is given for the figure. All migrants are defined as trafficked.
Sex workers who oppose the bill are accused of being a non-representative and privileged minority, so selfish that we defend our own interest and those of pimps and willing to sacrifice the majority of poor victims of trafficking and rape. They insist they will not pass a law on behalf of sex workers who claim to consent to prostitution. They say that our consent is flawed due to poverty and other constraints, and believe that if we were to leave prostitution and go into therapy we would recognise that we had lied to ourselves and that prostitution is, in fact, harmful.
Migrant sex workers from all parts of the world increasingly join the sexworker union STRASS, but they don’t participate in public debates because of the language barrier and the stigma. During our last demonstration there were many migrants, but they were ignored by mainstream media. The bill would make it possible for migrant sex workers to get a six months’ residence permit on condition they agree to stop prostitution.
Sponsors of the law don’t care that only 22% of the French population are in favour of fining clients 1500€, because they say in Sweden the law succeeded in changing people’s minds about prostitution. They share the same goal to educate people in France. The bill would mandate school programming to teach that buying sex is like rape and that prostitution is degrading.
The bill says street soliciting will be permitted, but local by-laws can be passed to maintain public order, so sex workers would not even be decriminalised.
The bill would instruct Internet Service Providers to alert authorities and give power to block access to websites suspected of profiting from prostitution, which means even escort advertising could be targeted. One MP said it would be possible for police to use our phone numbers, which we fear means they could listen to conversations in order to identify and arrest clients and lead to forced entry into our homes and workplaces.
Sponsors of the bill don’t even listen to police, who say criminalising clients would be too difficult to implement and would divert efforts to combat trafficking.
A few days ago a group of reactionary right-wing men started defending the right to buy sex in a very sexist manner. They are being widely reported in the media, and sex workers who oppose the bill are made to look as if we side with them, which is terrible for us.
I don’t know what to do now.
See La pénalisation contre-productive for more on the bill from Thierry Schaffauser.
Many of Thierry’s comments illustrate how certain social actors are disqualified from participating in debates, including when their own welfare is at stake. The most peculiar idea pushed by abolitionism is that there must be a single interpretation for the act of selling sex, that all who do it must agree about the experience. In the case of sex workers who do not want their clients penalised, crusaders give a range of excuses for why their opinions are not relevant, appropriate, serious or believable, allowing their exclusion from debate. Somehow prostitution has come to be a subject where disqualification and discrediting are major tactics for winning political campaigns, where crusaders aggressively dismiss women, men and transgender people from attempting to tell their experiences. The most extreme disqualification goes to the voice of anyone currently selling sex:
Aucune personne prostituée pendant qu’elle exerce la prostitution ne dira jamais qu’elle est contrainte, jamais. Tout le monde effectivement dit que ‘je le fais volontairement’. Ce n’est qu’au moment où la prostitution s’arrête que les personnes disent en fait ce n’était pas ce je disais. – Danielle Bosquet
This authoritarian trump card permits anyone claiming autonomy in selling sex to be dismissed on non-provable ‘brainwashing’ grounds. See Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores for more on how disqualification works.
The turning of all migrants who sell sex into victims of trafficking is what drove me into reading and research in the late 1990s. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry is the result of that research, along with articles in academic journals that opened the door to a new field of study. Moral entrepreneurs disqualify this work, too, as exceptional and irrelevant.
The French legislation is highly repressive in many ways. That it is sold as morally righteous confirms my feeling that we have moved into a period of Social Purity, the name given to a movement in Anglo countries in the late 19th century, in which the pursuit of prostitutes and their clients was a principle activity. The difference now can be seen in clauses to the French bill that would increase police power by allowing more surveillance of telephones and possible blocking of Internet sites where sex is offered for sale. The Rescue Industry now propose to save us from even the sight of advertisements considered to foment prostitution; we are all to be re-educated and rehabilitated for our own good.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist