Jean Charles Berthier
Shovan M. Rahman
“Sex work” was hardly a priority in the French election campaign, yet it became one of the defining social issues of Francois Hollande’s Socialist government. In June 2012, the women’s minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, made the bold announcement that she wanted to “abolish prostitution” in France and Europe. In December 2013, the French Assembly overwhelmingly passed a bill imposing stiff fines on sex buyers, while exempting from criminal liability those who sell sex, offering prostitutes exit strategies and assistance. Those seeking to buy sex will now face a 1,500 euros ($2,000) fine, and 3,750 euros ($5,000) in case of repeated offence. The proposed law was to be examined by the French Upper House Senate in June 2014, and returned to the Assembly in the autumn session, and the text was to be promulgated in the beginning of 2015.
Supporters of the legislation vigorously condemned the idea that men are legally and culturally entitled to purchase women’s bodies to fulfill their sexual fantasies, and call that prostitution is inherently immoral, commercially exploitative, empowers the criminal underworld, and promotes the repression of women by men. Others, in opposition, claim the measure would further marginalize prostitute women, endangering them more. On one side, the sex industry and its proponents argued that prostitution is just another job or “sex work,” to use a term created by its supporters to normalize and mainstream prostitution. Legalize it and the government can make it safe. The other side, led by abolitionists, believes the application of the law will dry up the demand for commercial sex and promote gender equality.
One may remember that demonstration of prostitutes who chanted the slogan “Less whores than good wives”, implying that conjugality is the place where lovemaking can be repeated monotonously without feeling, where women are merely subservient objects to men.
There was also a romanticism attached to prostitution, among writers, in the world of bad boys, a world untouched by the law, in which a number of cinematic masterpieces have been made. Paintings and drawings of “Maisons closes” (brothels), and prostitution appear frequently in art over the centuries. While authoring “Les Misérables”, the celebrated Victor Hugo wrote in 1862 that despite affirmations slavery had vanished from European civilization, it still existed – as prostitution was imposed on women.
France is following the example set by Sweden in 1999 in an effort to abolish prostitution. According to Kajsa Wahlberg, a Swedish National Police detective-superintendent, the law’s moral underpinning is based on promoting gender equality and ending violence against women. In that context, buying sex is seen as victimizing prostitutes. However, the trade has not disappeared in Sweden since the law was introduced, but street soliciting is down significantly.
Since its introduction, the law has triggered passionate debate in France, with raucous television talk shows in tow relishing the circus. A motley crew of self-dubbed “343 bastards” signed a petition exhorting the government to “keep your hands off my whore.”
If one only takes a tour of Paris at night on the ring roads to see all these very young women from Eastern European countries in dire situation, facing great uncertainty in front of unpredictable clientele, in extremely squalid conditions, no one would have any doubt in condemning the trafficking human beings or women, who are nothing but commodity “managed” by criminal networks and subjected to greater physical and moral violence where they are only broken selves. There is no doubt that these are criminal practices. The purchase and abduction of girls through the international channels, in which there is no place for showing weakness. In some countries the concept of what may be called a professional prostitution is coming up and wants to be recognized as a profession that would establish a free choice.
Recently in ” Borgen ” a Danish TV series widely watched, such a position has been defended during the hearing before a committee of the actual situation of voluntary prostitutes and that the law must take into account. Anyone who wants the good of the other, with a definition of property primarily based on family values and has plans to do well regardless of the deepest desires of human beings that morality is only in the judgment. It is the same in the field of substance abuse and risk, reduction policy is not yet fully accepted for moral reasons while the war for the eradication and prohibition leads to a worsening of the situation and makes it difficult for the existence of places where there may be some hygienic conditions for the exchange of syringes and avoid all kinds of wounds, infections and dangerous situations. Laws against soliciting customers, fines and other legal taxes have consequences for many women, who were forced to pander themselves on the city periphery, forests and other unsavoury and insecure places, and therefore subject themselves violence, and possibly rape.
CSA, a polling organization, has carried out several surveys on prostitution in France. A 2002 telephone survey analyzed French attitudes about prostitution. 64% of respondents said that prostitution was “a degrading practice for the image and the dignity of the woman (or the man)”. 66% of those questioned favoured the reopening of the “maisons closes” (brothels), 37% wanted the clients to be criminalized, 22% wanted the prostitutes to be criminalized and 33% wanted all forms of prostitution to be made illegal. Poll results reported in 2010 gave 59% in favour of reopening of the brothels, and 10% opposed.
Layla, a 32 year old Algerian transgender sex worker living in Paris, thinks transsexual sex work is a reflection of daily discrimination. “As a transsexual, you can’t find work, no one will rent you an apartment and it’s a difficult existence. Often this seems the only option,” she said. “I can’t go back to Algeria because of the way I look. My parents think I’m waiting tables here. I just want a normal life as a transsexual, to run a shop or hairdressers. But I have to pay 50 euro a night to live in a dire hotel room with no toilet. This is the only way I can get the money. I work a few hours a night, 11pm until 2am. I try to choose men in their 40s, who I think are safe. I’m really scared on the street, but I’m most scared of the police.”
In a café near Vieux Tours, in central France, Christelle, 24, and few other sex workers were discussing this controversial law. When asked about her opinion on this issue, Christelle replied: “Instead of abolishing all prostitution, why doesn’t the government first end the prostitution of minors and human trafficking? They’ve already got all the laws to stop that, yet it still exists.” Before leaving the café, she added “It’s not possible to abolish prostitution by fining the clients. Look at the death penalty, did that stop murder?”
Legislation in France, lies somewhere between laws in the Netherlands and Germany, where registered sex workers pay taxes and receive health benefits, and Sweden, where clients are already targeted. The French once had a famously tolerant approach towards prostitution. “Filles de joies” operated legally under Napoleon, and brothels were inspected for health standards. It was not until the post-war period that the French began to clamp down, outlawing brothels, in 1946.
There are a certain kind of men who because of their social circumstances (and sometimes, pathological reasons) are not socialised normally to be able to have normal relationships with women, much less sexual ones. In such cases the only way they can have sex is with a prostitute or what is now called a “sex worker.” If there are certain women who voluntarily do such “sex work” then it doesn’t necessarily have to be demeaning or dangerous. Society has to decide whether such exceptional situations exists where exceptions to the prostitution laws can and should be made. But above all we must say a definitive no to slave trade and trafficking, and yes to freedom; no to that harmful unequal system where women are treated as objects and prey and have no voice.
What has not been touched is pornography. It is pornography that creates the mind-set of an ever-growing number of internet viewers of pornography who seek violent and aberrant sex outside their normal sexual relationship. Prostitutes often play a part in the fantasy sex of such pornography users. But because pornography is a multi-billion Euro industry, often owned by powerful people, the politicians leave it alone, and there is no great public debate about it.
Prohibiting prostitution is not enough. To make that work the government has to create alternatives to the “sex workers” in terms of training for alternative job markets, and enough support during the transition so that they do not fall through the cracks. Education on Gender Equality undoubtedly plays an important role in understanding different sexual identities and respect for a woman’s body. On one hand the Socialist Party put its progressive social liberalism on display when it legalised gay marriage. But that is not enough. It has to take a proactive stance in promoting true equality for all genders.