Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

What gives them the right to judge us?

Chinese sex workers in Paris demand respect from those who had no right to take it away in the first place.

Roses d'Acier
1 March 2016


The Steel Roses sweep the streets in Belleville. Photo by author. All Rights Reserved.

Roses, they’re a symbol for femininity. Steel is to express that we are strong.

Our organisation, Les Roses d'Acier (Steel Roses), was established in Paris in November 2014 by Chinese sex workers in the area of Belleville. Its name comes from a popular feminist Chinese song. The flower is a leitmotiv in our imaginaries and everyday life. Most of the Chinese women here in Paris dream of a journey to Holland to see the tulip fields. Since we are irregular residents, we cannot go to Holland. But one of our first initiatives in 2015 was to organise a trip to the southern part of France to see the lavender fields.

We try to promote a collective voice for the Chinese sex workers without denying the diversity of our trajectories, lives and projects.

One year of mobilisation against discrimination


Visiting the lavender fields. Photo by author. All Rights Reserved.Our NGO partner, Médecins du monde - Doctors of the World, meets with about 1000 Chinese sex workers every year as part of its outreach activities. They mainly work in the area of Belleville. Like many other sex workers we are the target of a large array of everyday violence: the fear of diseases, the cold glimpses from neighbours, abusive and repetitive controls by the police, the fear of expulsion, precarious jobs and housing, precarious work conditions, physical violence, rape, and even fatal violence. More than anyone, we endure discrimination, humiliation and intimidation from strangers, criminals, and even public institutions.

Les Roses d'Acier was created to discuss work conditions, to better access common rights, to fight against discrimination, to try to prevent violence, to develop solidarity among sex workers, and to encourage interaction between sex workers and the rest of the society. We are an officially registered organisation with a six-person board and 90 members. Since 2014, we have mobilised, along with other sex workers, against the criminalisation of soliciting in France (introduced in 2003 by the Domestic Security Law). We have also fought back again against a new bill to criminalise clients, including by participating in a senate hearing prior to the vote. We cooperate with Doctors of the World to disseminate health messages, to organise trainings on French law, and on self-defence. Within one year we also have developed community activities: courses of French language, karaoke gatherings, and our trip to the lavender fields mentioned above. This trip was a real success, one that allowed 60 participants to take a break from the everyday difficulties. Finally we have tried to open communication channels with the inhabitants of our neighbourhood, as we discuss below.

A quest for voice

We want this organisation to create some homelike feelings among Chinese sex workers, some warmth and solidarity. It is not an easy task; other women do not often understand our aim and involvement. It is sometimes discouraging, but we do not want to judge the other women. The core of our battle is precisely to fight against homogenised judgements, against any judgement that tends to deny singularities and thus tends not to consider us as human beings.

They told us that because of us, Belleville is not beautiful anymore, because we are ugly, we are dirty, and we are ignoble. But who are they to judge us?

When we ask for encounters with local or national political representatives, we do not have concrete demands. We simply want them to try to understand us in our diversity. Our organisation aims at creating communication with the society in which we are taking part. We too often feel that we are despised, that we are not given the opportunity to express ourselves because we are prostitutes, that our voice has no credibility. It is like doing this job is losing our humanity, is distorting our lives. What gives them the right to judge us, to create a hierarchy between them and us?

We know that we cannot represent every Chinese sex worker. The only thing we can do is to fight against our dehumanisation. We reject the premise that the personal trajectories of every sex worker can be generalised. Each of us has our own way of living, working and earning money. Some use sex work to fund their daily lives. But there is no reason to criticise their choices any more than those of the sex workers sacrificing themselves for the education or the health of their children back in China.

As a Chinese expression says, there is one way to be happy and a thousand ways to be unhappy. Chinese sex workers start this job for many different reasons. Who from outside can understand their choices? Who can understand what is happiness and unhappiness in their lives? What is important is to fight against simplified images of who we are.

Sweeping the streets of Paris because it is where we live

One of our key initiatives was to literally sweep the streets in the area of Belleville, where most of the Chinese sex workers live and work. We started in June, since at the end of May the police intensified control operations targeting the Chinese sex workers in Belleville area. We swept the streets again in July and September.


The Steel Roses sweep the streets in Belleville. Photo by author. All Rights Reserved.

Sex work is a job that is very visible in the public space. It is not easy to be so visible and we know that some inhabitants are irritated. But we also have our families, and we do not want to annoy others' families. Going once more in the streets and sweeping the ground is an opportunity to enter in dialogue with our neighbours. We needed lots of courage to go down the street, each with a broom in our hand, to be able to tell everyone that we still manage to carry on today because we hold within us not fear, nor shame, nor the ridicule of others or the helplessness of life, but the responsibility of being a mother, of being a girl, of being a woman!

Sweeping the ground is a very basic gesture. It is easy to make the connection between a woman and the floor that she sweeps. A woman sweeps the floor because she keeps a house, a family, and at home she is, free, secure, and satisfied. But for us today it is difficult to keep a house, a family, between there and here.

By sweeping the ground here, we take our responsibility. We live here. We laugh here, we cry here, we work here, do the shopping here, and take the sun here. Some of us here are married, have children, form families. We want to show that we are part of this neighbourhood.

What is Belleville (beautiful city) the name of?  They told us that because of us, Belleville is not beautiful anymore, because we are ugly, we are dirty, and we are ignoble. But who are they to judge us? Are they more beautiful than us, cleaner than us, nobler than us? Solving social issues with violence is trying to humiliate us, insult us. To ignore our voice is to ignore our existence, to ignore our lives.

This article is published as part of the 'Sex workers speak: who listens?' series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance' (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution.

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