These days, French political culture appears to be retreating from its stereotypical liberalism on one of its best-known “vice” industries: the sex trade. Controversial new legislation in the country would criminalize paid sex — and sex workers see the proposed law as an assault on their dignity and safety.
The legislation — which just passed a vote in the Assemblée Nationale and is slated for a Senate vote soon — does not explicitly outlaw the act of selling sex, but it penalizes its purchase: A prostitution client may be fined up to 1,500 Euros. This penalty would build on a number of existing French constraints on sex work-related activities, such as pimping or running a brothel, that stop just short of outlawing prostitution altogether.
The aim of the legislation, which mirrors a widely praised model policy originating from Sweden, is to “reduce demand” by criminalizing the procurement of sexual services. But the ostensible moral purpose of the law — to protect women, especially underage girls, from exploitation and violence—obscures broader questions of economic agency, sexual prudence and social stigma. And that’s why many of its opponents are the very same people the law purports to “save.”
“What’s proposed with this law is actually not to protect these people. It’s just to increase the criminalization,” says Morgane Merteuil, general secretary of STRASS, a Paris-based national network of sex workers and their allies. STRASS, along with other critics of the legislation, including health experts and human rights groups, has argued that though the legislation does not exactly criminalize the act itself, criminalizing the purchase of prostitution services will still alienate sex workers from law enforcement, the healthcare system and other social supports.
The legislation debate is further complicated by the question of the undocumented immigrants who reportedly make up the majority of France’s sex workers. Through the proposed law, migrants would be offered a temporary residence permit when they agree to leave the trade. Though rights advocates acknowledge that many migrant women, while perhaps not trafficked, may opt for another job if they had the opportunity, some also point out that it is unethical to condition legal status on sexual behavior in such a stigmatized industry.
Rather than trying to police sex workers and their clients, Merteuil tells In These Times, the French government should “give [them] the power to not be trafficked” by de-stigmatizing prostitution and helping sex workers earn a steady living, escape coercive situations or, if they wish, transition to a different vocation.
In France and other areas where sex work is routinely “busted,” including many United States cities, sex workers often get ensnared in raids or jailed, regardless of the stipulated target of the law. In New York, for instance, sex workers, including many immigrants, have reported harassment and assault by police. Condoms, a crucial protection against HIV/AIDS, have allegedly been routinely seized as “evidence” of so-called wrongdoing in places like New York and Los Angeles. And in Brazil, the government’s rush to improve its reputation prior to the World Cup has launched anti-prostitution “cleansing” campaigns that, according to one researcher’s field dispatch, may ultimately leave sex workers at even greater risk of arrest, isolation or brutality at the hands of law enforcement or clients.
Hardline anti-prostitution rhetoric typically insists that sex workers, particularly women (though there are also male and transgender sex workers who remain largely invisible in the debate), are so vulnerable to abuse that society must legally eradicate the phenomenon altogether. From sex workers’ standpoints, however, the abolition of prostitution is unlikely to protect anyone from exploitation. Instead, they say, those lawmakers wishing to aid sex workers should civilly empower them through a labor union, give them equal access to welfare benefits or stop constraining them with unfair immigration barriers.
In a critique of the “Swedish model” in the New York Times, Carol Leigh, director of the Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network, cites extensive independent research from Australia dissecting the abolitionist framework as unrealistic and driven by a misguided view of sex workers as intrinsically victimized or “enslaved” rather than part of a broader labor system. She contends:
Contrary to popular stereotypes, sex workers are valuable members of our communities who contribute a great deal to their families, and to the economy of their countries. Accepting this would create a practical and fair approach to sex worker safety, and let us reject antique moralism that protected women from sex itself and used public order laws to control the poor.
Recently, sex workers themselves have tried to seize the public arena by proactively mobilizing against violence and trafficking. As Melissa Gira Grant has reported, the protests led by sex workers earlier this year — following the murders of two sex workers in Turkey and in Sweden — were not only an expression of collective outrage, but also a proclamation of labor solidarity.
Restricting, criminalizing, and shaming sex work (and the people who engage in these transactions) may make sex work more taboo, but it will never make it completely undesirable. Instead, it will abandon sex workers to navigate an oppressive legal régime that recognizes them only as victims or perpetrators, not as citizens with complex backgrounds and objectives.
“Choice is not the issue here,” Merteuil argues. “In all situations, we have to help people to be able to make the best choice for them … never criminalize one of their choices.”
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.