By Morgane Merteuil*
After almost 3 years of discussions at the Parliament, the National Assembly finally voted on the 6th of April the legislative proposal for “aiming to reinforce the fight against the prostitution system and to support prostituted persons”. This was voted against the recommendations from sex workers, health, human rights and feminist organisations. Certainly, some feminist organisations were very supportive of this law, because it introduces the criminalisation of clients. However, weather we support this measure or not, the whole law cannot be considered as a success neither for women nor for the emancipation of the sex workers.
Let’s make a point first about the situation of sex workers before the passing of this law. In France, sex work (that is, the act of selling sexual services) is not forbidden in itself. What was forbidden is to solicit clients in the street, and pimping. The definition of pimping is very broad, since it actually does not only criminalise the exploitation of sex workers or abuses towards them, but anyone who participates in one’s sex work, including sex workers themselves. For instance, sex workers cannot legally rent a flat, nor share a workplace; the websites where escorts advertise are also regularly shut down and their webmasters thrown in jail.
This penal system makes sex workers very vulnerable, since, as they cannot work in the streets of the city centre, they work out of sight, in more isolated areas, where there are less clients, and they are encouraged this way, to take more risks in order to earn their living. Of course they also remain vulnerable to police repression, which regularly organises raids in sex work areas, even outside the city centres, for instance in the woods. Because of the criminalisation of pimping in such extensive way, sex workers are also forced to work alone, and are in a very difficult situation when they need to complain about their work conditions, since the sole thing they can get is the shutting down of their workplace: this really gives an unconditional power upon their bosses, flat owners, and other third parties, since the workers often, legitimately, prefer to work in bad conditions than not working at all. Moreover, as many sex workers are also migrants, sometimes without documents, they also fear a lot that if they complain against their exploiters they will be deported.
So, the law that has just been passed pretends to shift from this repressive paradigm against sex workers, by decriminalising soliciting, and criminalising our clients instead. Of course, this new paradigm is an absolute nonsense, since the activity is still repressed, whether the repression targets the seller or the buyer, it still needs to happen away from visible areas, so that sex workers still have to hide themselves in order to work. Moreover, it’s absolutely untrue to say that sex workers are no more criminalised, since more and more cities have local legislation that criminalises the sole fact of being a sex worker in certain areas. Finally, the new law does not remove any of the acts of supporting sex work from the pimping legal definition, so that sex workers continue not being able to rent flats or work together in order to improve their working conditions. The first article of the law also introduces the administrative blocking of the internet website on which we put our ads. This measure takes as a model the very repressive laws passed in order to fight terrorism, which already is very controversial.
It is abundantly repeated that in order to compensate for this repressive measure that will undoubtedly harm sex workers, the law contains a social dimension, the famous “exit program”. We, sex workers, are very sceptical about it. Indeed, this social axis does not answer to any of the sex workers’ needs. Firstly, the admission in this exit program will have to be authorised by the local state representatives. As they are under the orders of the Interior minister, its objectives are mainly to regulate migration and security in the area. We then have no hope of massive aids towards sex workers through this program. Then, all the help that is supposed to be provided is conditional to the admission in the exit program, which then will reinforce state and charity organisations’ control upon sex workers and exploitation victims.
The control committee is presumed to be composed of State representations, anti-sex work organisations members, and medical specialists. So, if the committee approves, migrant sex workers might receive a residence permit for 6 months, potentially renewable, again, by a committee decision, if they agree that the people concerned deserve it and have effectively engaged in an exit program. At this point it must be reminded that during the discussions at the parliament, some amendments had been proposed, highlighting that a 6 months residence permit was certainly way too short to allow people to get a new life, given all the structural difficulties they will be facing. But the defenders of the law, including the socialists, thought that providing too much help would give a very bad signal to traffickers, and might actually attract trafficking networks, encouraging people to come in France in order to get papers and benefits. Of course, this rhetoric does remind us of the insulting and racist one that is being used regarding the refugees and more specifically migrants who would only come in France in order to get financial benefits. However, when talking about sex workers, this kind of argument does not seem to shock anyone, including those in the left and feminist organisations. Neither do they express any contestations against the support of such strong hypocrisy of a government which pretends to help migrant and precarious women, while deploying tear gas daily on refugees. Nor do they highlight that nothing could be proposed from them for these women, since nothing is proposed to women in general and especially to working class women. The recent labour reform proposal indeed, only proves that rather than exit programs for exploited people, this government much certainly prepares entrance programs not only with regard to sex work but to all ways that people can be more and more exploited.
*Morgane Merteuil is a sex worker and activist in the french sex workers’ union[STRASS], of which she has been a general secretary and is now a spokesperson. She is based in Paris.