Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Repressing sex work in France in the name of women’s rights and migrants’ control

France’s shift to the Nordic model of sex work is a sign of deeper issues lurking just beneath the surface.

Calogero Giametta Charlène Calderaro
22 November 2019, 8.00am
A women's rights march in Paris.
Jeanne Menjoulet/Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

The 2016 French law criminalising sex workers’ clients reveals larger political concerns about the national context in which it was drafted and implemented, including political anxieties around women’s rights and migration in the name of public order. What we discuss here is based on 25 in-depth interviews with migrant sex workers in France as well as 15 interviews with different actors involved in the drafting of the 2016 law to end sex work demand. These include MPs, gender equality officers, sex work prohibitionist activists, and lawyers.

France began to prohibit sex work in the 1960s when it signed the UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. Trafficking back then, however, was not the headline political agenda item that it is today. It rose to prominence in the 1990s, when activists and politicians linked the concept of trafficking to the increasingly visible presence of racialised migrant women doing street-based sex work across French cities.

Nicolas Sarkozy, as minister of the interior, took steps to curb this presence when he introduced the 2003 domestic security law (Loi Sécurité Intérieure). This law upgraded the penalty for soliciting from a fine to an offence, and broadened its scope to include not just “active soliciting” but also “passive soliciting”. Both passive and active soliciting thus became offences when Article 225-10-1 was introduced into the penal code, a shift that was strongly influenced by political anxieties around trafficking issues and new urban policies at the time.

By linking sex work to women’s rights, anti-trafficking advocates have been able to frame all prostitution as violence against women.

The question of how to deal with prostitution returned to the national political agenda in 2011 when two socialist MPs presented a new report on sex work to parliament. This used a discernible women’s rights angle and a discourse of rescuing sex workers to argue for changes to the 2003 law, which framed sex workers as delinquents. It recommended ending the criminalisation of soliciting and instead placing the onus on clients by criminalising the purchase of sex. This is what is known as the Swedish or end-demand model.

Scholars and activists have repeatedly demonstrated that the Swedish model does not deliver on its promise to eliminate trafficking, yet it remains popular because it has been successfully presented as a solution to the problems of prostitution and gender inequality. Our research respondents confirmed this. They stressed that by linking sex work to women’s rights, anti-trafficking advocates have been able to frame all prostitution as violence against women. This appears to have been a key reason why the law was adopted in France.

A sign of anxiety around women’s rights and migration

In order to understand the underlying logic of the implementation of the end-demand model in the France, we have to look beyond the moral arguments that French politicians were expressing about gender equality and human trafficking. We have to see how gender and sexuality issues have been increasingly connected to racial questions in the French public debate since the early 2000s. This goes beyond sex work. During the debates around banning the veil in schools 2004, for example, gender equality concerns were directly conflated with racial issues in the context of laicité (republican secularism) and Islamophobia.

The racial dimension of the debate on the 2016 law can be found embedded within the discourses on migration control and public order, particularly directed at poor areas across the country. The representation of the pimp (or trafficker) was of a man coming ‘from outside’, generally from Eastern Europe, or an African woman, often from Nigeria. When the exploiters are considered as being from ‘inside of the nation’, they are of foreign origins, especially from French suburbs and poor areas where migrant communities and racialised people are overrepresented.

Pre-conceptions and prejudices feed a rescue discourse that has allowed the government to adopt repressive policies in the name of gender equality.

As some of our interviewees stressed, recently there has been a focus on the phenomenon of ‘prostitution de banlieue’ (prostitution in poor suburbs), which shines a light on certain people and places, racialised men and working class neighbourhoods. Yves Charpenel, president of the prohibitionist group Fondation Scelles, told us: “these women are used by their own communities, generally these are ethnic minorities in the banlieues, they’re often raped in gangbangs (tournantes), they’re socially declassed, becoming completely silent and invisible, and they can be sold to the gangs in the nearby banlieues.

Meanwhile, poor and working-class clients of sex workers are pathologised as ‘bad’ sexual subjects who have no place in the civilised space of the republic. By patronising sex workers they are seen as not living up to the ideals of French citizenship. When the clients are migrants or from an ethnic minority, they are often also racialised as regressive sexual subjects who are disrespectful to women and likely to exploit ‘their’ women by pimping or trafficking them. In mainstream media, people who live in quartiers populaires (working class neighbourhoods) are stigmatised for their sexist attitudes towards women and gay men. These pre-conceptions and prejudices feed a rescue discourse that has allowed the government to adopt repressive policies in the name of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Gender equality and rescue narratives alongside racially-tinted concerns about migration were used to justify the 2016 law on sex work. For the most part they went unchallenged because those most affected by the intervention were largely absent from the public and institutional debates. Parliament consulted sex workers only at the very end of the drafting process. Morgane Merteuil, the then secretary of STRASS, the French sex workers’ union, told us: “the MPs’ objective was to set up a situation where words could be used against us; they needed our arguments to finish their report and to legitimise what they’ve been saying since the beginning.”

In other words, the decision to ‘end demand’ had already been made. The 2016 law discarded sex workers from the debate, and their eventual inclusion was orchestrated to delegitimise their voices and experiences. The special committee in parliament had to invite them so as not to “appear sectarian, partisan or not objective”, as one MP from the committee told us. Their invitation to talk in front of the committee was a formality. All the organisations opposed to the law were invited on the same day, whereas the abolitionist groups had been involved in the debate throughout the entire drafting process.

Sex workers as collateral damage

This prohibitionist framework seeks to redefine the ‘problem of prostitution’ through the prism of women’s rights and presents the end of prostitution as a necessary step towards gender equality. This has produced collateral damage; sex workers’ working conditions and livelihoods in terms of safety, health, earnings and overall living conditions have deteriorated since the 2016 law. Sex workers and their organisations have repeatedly expressed strong scepticism and opposition to the law, but policy and lawmakers – as always – have shown little interest in hearing them.

Sex workers’ exclusion from the political debates results from them being construed as ‘socially deviant’ through the prism of gender and race and is situated within the framework of larger national anxieties about public order, security, and immigration control. Repressive laws on prostitution not only consolidate ‘deviant categories’, but they also put them in the service of broader strategies of state control.

A longer version of this article was published in April 2019 for the Anti-Trafficking Review.


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