A French debate on prostitution

Back from Paris where she has been interviewing prostitutes, politicians, police, and feminists who argue both for and against legalising prostitution, Valeria Costa-Kostritsky asks whether legalising it would benefit both those who want to leave prostitution, and those who feel it is their only way to earn a living.

French Minister of Women's Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, sees prostitution as an intrinsically violent act. “My objective, like that of the Socialist Party, is to see prostitution disappear,” she said in a June interview with French weekly Journal du Dimanche.

“Obviously, we don't want to make prostitution disappear in one day,” Maxime Ruszniewski-Bryner, press adviser to Vallaud-Belkacem, told me when I spoke to him by phone in December, “but to make it recede as much as possible and to help prostitutes who should be considered victims in the first place.”

Why victims? I ask. “For the minister,” says Ruszniewski, “prostitution is to be considered mainly as a violent act, and that matters more than the unconditional right to exercise this profession. More than 8 out of 10 women aren't practising this  profession freely. More than 8 out of 10 women are controlled by prostitution networks. They are, in their overwhelming majority, foreign, often undocumented, threatened by organised crime networks – which explains why, in the vast majority of cases, prostitution is a violent act against women.”

As for the “women who say they exercise this profession freely”, Ruszniewski adds, “there's a real question to be asked about what charging for a sex act means." On this subject, the position of the minister is clear: for her, allowing a sex act to take place for money increases inequality between men and women because the relationship is characterised by the domination of men over women.”

For the sceptical, Ruszniewski adds: “People often tell us that we are naive, that prostitution will never disappear, but in Sweden, where clients of prostitution have been criminalised since 1999, prostitution has decreased by half.”

Is there such a thing as independent prostitution?

Not really, according to police superintendent Jean-Philippe Lenormand, second-in-command of Brigade de Répression du Proxénétisme (the Parisian anti-procuring squad), based in Ile de la Cité. His squad covers street prostitution as well as the 'discreet prostitution' that takes place in apartments and hotels, via the Internet. His job is to build lengthy cases against pimps; the prostitutes themselves are considered victims. He tells me that most street prostitutes working in Paris are migrants from Africa (mainly Sub-Saharan countries), China, the Balkans and South America.

“There are very few independent prostitutes,” says Lenormand. For him there is a wide circle of responsibility around the 'victimisation' of prostitutes. “One shouldn't stick to the well-known cliché of the pimp, who controls a ring of prostitution through second fiddles,” he says. “ Anyone receiving rent from a prostitute while being aware of her activity can also be accused of pimping. The client who falls in love with a prostitute and drives her from her home to her place of work can be considered guilty of help and assistance given to a prostitute and he becomes a pimp too.”

This is how French law on pimping works. Here, even the child of a prostitute can be accused of pimping if prostitution funds his or her higher education. According to this very extensive definition, the only way of being a truly independent prostitute is to have no ties – be it with a landlord, friends, lovers, family.

When I meet France, an ex prostitute who created Les Amis du Bus des Femmes (Women's Friends Bus)  NGO in 1990 to fight the AIDS epidemic within the community of prostitutes, she describes prostitution in significantly different terms: “On one side, you have the traditionnelles ( old school prostitutes) who are disappearing, on the other, you have forced prostitution, which we strongly condemn and don't even consider to be prostitution. But in the middle, you have a vast grey zone with prostitution that is neither traditional nor forced – which encompasses occasional prostitution, student prostitution, prostitution by women who face extreme poverty and need to survive...”

Forced prostitution and migrants' prostitution – a confusion

In fact, the French Union of sex workers, the STRASS (created in 2009) claims that anti-prostitution campaigners deliberately cultivate confusion between prostitution by illegal migrants and forced prostitution. Superintendent Lenormand described extremely violent forms of trafficking – generally associated with gangs from the Balkans – where women are forced to work as prostitutes. But what about the Nigerian women he spoke about – the ones who migrate illegally to France and work as prostitutes to pay a smuggling debt? “Do they know that they will be working as prostitutes before coming to France?” I asked. “Yes, they generally do,” said Lenormand.

Naël Marandin, who volunteers for the Lotus Bus – an NGO providing assistance to Chinese prostitutes in Belleville – tells me that most Chinese women who work as prostitutes in this Parisian neighbourhood come from the North Chinese region of Dongbei and suffer discrimination from Chinese migrants who have been established in France for longer, who generally come from the Wenzhou region. Upon arrival, these women find out that, in the closed French labour market, most jobs available to them are live-in positions with families from Wenzhou where they are expected to work long and hard for very little money. Prostitution, despite its risks and the stigma that is attached to it, offers them a better income and greater independence. In fact, for many women migrants facing the closed French job market, prostitution is one of the few available options. Although it results from economic necessity, migrant prostitution does not necessarily equate with forced prostitution.

Prostitution as violence – meeting with a Catholic French anti-prostitution NGO

One of the leading voice speaking against prostitution in France emanates from Le Mouvement du Nid (The Nest Movement), an organisation created in the 1930s by a Catholic priest named André-Marie Talvas to help women leave prostitution. 28 year-old Anne-Cécile Mailfert leads its Parisian branch while also being on the board of Osez le Féminisme (“Dare Feminism”), a feminist organisation that has gone from strength to strength since its creation in 2009 and has close ties with the new Ministry of Women's Rights, with one of its founders, Caroline De Haas, working as an adviser to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem.

As part of her involvement in Le Nid, Mailfert visits locations where prostitutes work in Paris, but only on foot and empty-handed. “We are not there to give them cake, coffee or anything like that,” she says. (The Mouvement du Nid has always refused to distribute condoms, not wanting to seem to encourage prostitution.) “We are there to create a non-mercantile link, as humans, as citizens, to tell prostitutes that some people in France are not indifferent to what they are experiencing.” Women can also come to Le Nid's headquarters and receive help, if they announce their intention to stop working as prostitutes. On the Internet, one can find some edifying stories of redemption showing Le Nid's action, like this video named 'A flower in manure'.

“Prostitution,” says Mailfert, “is a sexual act desired only by one of the two partners involved. Being penetrated by a man in your mouth, in your anus or in your vagina when you don't desire him means not wanting his smell, his skin, his penis. It's very serious violence which has long-term traumatic consequences. For prostitutes, it implies a dissociation, a decorporalisation, that is to say an anaesthesia of the zones that are penetrated and also a psychological anaesthesia – so that they can stand what they are experiencing.” The term 'decorporalisation', Mailfert tells me, was coined by Dr. Judith Trinquart, in her PhD dissertation, entitled Decorporalisation in prostitutional practise. Trinquart, I later find out, now works as a forensic scientist.

Mylène and Sandra (nom de guerre), both in their late forties, work as prostitutes on rue Saint-Denis. This street, which used to be the most notorious street for prostitution in Paris, is dying slowly, as the police chase newcomers working there without owning a flat. Soon, the whole area will be gentrified. When I tell the two women about Trinquart's concept of decorporalisation, they're both greatly amused. “Look at me,” says Mylène, touching her arms, “I'm very much there. I can feel my body.” She's less amused by Le Nid's existence: “No, really, can somebody tell me what their legitimacy is? Why do they speak for us? I hate them, they're so insidious– they'll only help you if you say and do what they want.”

Protecting prostitutes against violence

While some French feminists are busy condemning prostitution as a violent act, they show less interest in fighting alongside prostitutes to defend them and improve their life. Yet, for historian Esther Benbassa, a senator and member of the EELV party (Europe Ecology – The Greens), supporting prostitutes is a matter of urgency. Benbassa has campaigned to abolish the law on 'passive soliciting', established in 2003 when Sarkozy was Interior Minister, which makes it illegal for prostitutes to solicit clients in the street, even 'passively' (that is to say, waiting to be approached). The law - which was part of an Interior Security Law, which, incidentally, also targeted travellers - contributed to clearing French town centres at night. Prostitutes, fearing arrest, moved further out, to more isolated locations, like woods, forests and roads. “The law has caused an increase in sexually transmitted diseases,” says Benbassa, “and made prostitutes suffer more violence and more precarity. It's also made it harder for NGOs to reach them. It really needs to go.”

During the presidential campaign, Hollande announced his intention of suppressing the law on passive soliciting, but when Benbassa tried to put a repeal on the Senate's agenda, she was required by the president's assistant and by Vallaud-Belkacem to withdraw it. I ask her why. “Don't be naïve,” she says. “They want to repeal the law on soliciting and pass the law criminalising clients at the same time, to make a good move and a hurtful one at once, as a way to sweeten the pill.” Benbassa is opposed to the law criminalising clients. “It won't work,” she says, before adding: “I went to Sweden with Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. There, we were given figures by officials showing that the measure works but these results are, in fact, extremely contested.” For Benbassa, “it is not the place of a Socialist government to moralise society. We know how hurtful dreams of a perfect society can be.”

Giving prostitutes legal status

25 year-old Morgane Merteuil is an escort and the first secretary of the STRASS, the French union of sex workers. (Unlike the British-based International Union of sex workers, which is part of the GMB, the STRASS hasn't been recognised by a bigger union.) Merteuil, whose nom de guerre recalls the name of a character in Choderlos de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons, has quickly become one of the leading voices speaking for prostitutes in France. As such, her legitimacy is constantly called into question by anti-prostitution advocates – who regularly accuse her of not being representative of prostitutes (because she is young, University-educated, and doesn't work on the street) and of defending the interests of pimps, clients, and any men who exploit women through sex work.

“What do we want?” she asks, as I meet her in a café in Place de la Nation. “We call for a complete decriminalisation of sex work, because today, even though in theory, it's legal to work as a prostitute in France, there's a whole set of measures that prevent you from doing so. You can be a prostitute but you can't say so, otherwise it's soliciting. You can't be in contact with anyone because they could be accused of pimping. You can't work anywhere and you can't do anything with the money you earn.”

For Merteuil, prostitution needs to be viewed in a wider social and political context. “Why are there lots of migrant women who work as prostitutes?” she asks. “Because without residence and work permits, they are not allowed to work in France. Moaning about migrant women forced to work as prostitutes is of little use – we need to remember that the French state doesn't allow them to do anything. And why do so many transgender people work as prostitutes?” she asks. “Because it is extremely difficult to acquire a new birth certificate in France.” And indeed, having ID that doesn't match your new gender makes the job interview process very tough, and getting a job next to impossible.

“A discussion about violence at work could be interesting”, adds Merteuil, “if it wasn't exclusively about violence linked to prostitution, in order to legitimise banning it.” She believes that a law criminalising clients will only make prostitutes' lives worse, exposing them to more dangers, making it more difficult for them to negotiate with clients. “Do [anti-prostitution] feminists really believe that their proposals will be heard by this government – which is only socialist by name? Let's remember that we have Manuel Valls as an Interior Minister. The planned law on prostitution will only bring more repression, the social side to it will soon be forgotten, like it has been in the past. And I will never forgive anti-prostitution feminists for being complicit with that, just because they badly want a law criminalising clients of prostitution.”

Prostitutes, to be protected, need to be given legal status, argues Merteuil. Like Mylène and Sandra, she is not for the Dutch-style regulation that a small number of French right-wing politicians seem to favour (“The Dutch model, which allows brothels but bans any other kind of prostitution, just sounds like capitalistic exploitation to me,” she says). But she's interested by the Kiwi model: in New Zealand, prostitution is completely decriminalised and brothels are allowed, as well as small cooperatives of prostitutes who share a flat where they can receive clients. 

While researching for this piece, sipping tea with rue Saint-Denis traditionnelles, talking with members of various NGOs or hearing the great stories that cops tell when they speak off the record, I have learnt more about the wide range of difficulties faced by prostitutes working in France. Violence, arrest, deportation, police brutality, inadequate health care and overwhelming social stigma are all material conditions of this form of work. I have come to realise that giving prostitutes legal status seems to be the right thing to do if we really want to improve their life. Interestingly - and this should be noted by anti-prostitution feminists – legally recognising prostitutes is probably the best way to ensure that those who want to are able to leave prostitution. Legalisation would also bring benefits to those who currently have no other option but prostitution, allowing them perhaps to access training, apply for French nationality after years of working the Paris streets, or put their work experience on their CVs without shame or blame.

As for feminism, shouldn't it do more to include prostitutes in the discussion about prostitution? Some of them have important things to say, like Mylène, who tells me: “Mrs Vallaud-Belkacem doesn't realise that opposing women who want to earn a living being prostitutes goes against her fight for women's rights.” Could she be right?

About the author

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. She writes about politics, women's rights and society for French and English publications including the New Statesman, The Independent, Vice Magazine and L'Express Styles.