Prostitution isn't illegal in France but since the so-called Sarkozy II law of 2003, soliciting is. And it's made life for prostitutes tougher and more dangerous. With a fact-finding mission on prostitution underway at the National Assembly, many are hoping for a change in the law.
“France has a dreadful legal system concerning prostitution, full of contradictions. Because prostitution is tolerated but soliciting is a crime. […] It’s made the milieu of prostitution and the work itself a lot worse.”
Françoise Gil, sociologist and founder of the association Femmes de droit, Droit des Femmes representing prostitutes, echoes the views of campaign groups, and both the Socialist and Green party, that the law needs changing.
The Internal Security law of 2003 included an article making passive soliciting a crime, punishable with up to a fine of 3,750 euros and a two-month prison sentence.
“Just standing in a place known for prostitution, at night, means you can be arrested for soliciting,” says Gil.
To escape arrests and fines Gil says women have increasingly moved off the streets and into places such as woods or industrial estates where they’re less visible but far more vulnerable.
“They’ve slashed their prices and are doing acts they used to refuse like unprotected sex, kissing on the mouth.”
The number of women with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) has increased since the law was passed she adds.
Ethnologist Marie-Elisabeth Handman, co-author of a major report Prostitution à Paris says the law has actually increased the number of pimps.
“The young men who live around [the woods] found it very easy to become pimps of these women. If the morality of all that was to get rid of the pimps, then, no, it’s made it worse.”
The law defines pimps as anyone helping prostitutes or benefitting from their revenue. It’s therefore prevented women from working in groups, sharing flats and looking out for one another, since they’d be accused of “reciprocal pimping”, says Handman.
Sophia, a former prostitute, now a volunteer with the ANA - Avec nos ainés (With our elders) - group which helps prostitutes over the age of 60, says women are taking more risks with their health.
“The clients choose to have sex without protection. The women accept because they don’t have much freedom of manoeuvre. They’ve got to get out in time, hide, do it quickly and so on, before the police come. They have no tranquillity or security any more.”
The Internal Security law wasn’t actually designed to deal with prostitution but to clamp down on illegal immigration, says Handman. It allowed police to check foreign girls working the streets, see if they had documents and if they didn’t deport them, often to their east European countries of origin.
The way the law was applied illustrates how France has treated prostitution as a law-and-order issue rather than as a social one. Some previous calls from UMP parliamentarians such as Françoise de Panafieu to reopen brothels came from this perspective. It was about “cleaning up the streets,” says Handman.
Socialist MP Danielle Bousquet, head of the National Assembly’s multiparty fact-finding mission on prostitution, says she feels the law must be amended.
“It has made prostitutes into criminals, that’s unacceptable. They are not delinquents, they are victims, imprisoned in a no-choice situation […] because they need the money.”
For Bousquet, like the majority of French feminists, prostitution is a form of violence against women. But a minority, including philosopher Elisabeth Badinter and lawyer Marcela Iacub, have defended a woman’s right to dispose of her own body.
This view is shared by French sex workers’s union Strass, which has some 600, mainly female, members. Their spokesperson Maîtresse Gilda says they make a distinction between sexual exploitation – a crime which has to be fought - and those who’ve chosen to work in the sex business, whose right to do so must be respected.
“They should recognise our jobs as work and give us a proper status […] We’re declared as streetwalkers, we pay taxes, but our work isn’t recognised so it’s not a salary and gives us no rights at all. It’s totally hypocritical.”
Strass is pleased the parliamentary working group is taking a closer look at such questions, hearing “sex workers themselves not just lobbyists or those defending various interests on moral grounds”.
But it warns against the danger of replacing the passive soliciting article with a law penalising the client which it says could be “far worse”.
The Socialist Party has already proposed a bill which would penalise the client along the lines of the pioneering “sex-purchase” law in Sweden. It means selling sex is legal but buying it prohibited. Clients, not prostitutes, are fined.
Danielle Bousquet says it would send a clear message that “you cannot buy someone’s body. We have to make this forbidden, as it is in Sweden.”
While research shows street prostitution in the Swedish capital has gone down by half since the law was introduced in 1999, both Strass and Handman warn of the dangers.
“Girls who were traditionally in the streets and did it freely, are now […] working on ferry brothels in international waters, going backwards and forwards between Sweden and neighbouring Denmark. They’re under the control of the mafia,” says the Strass spokesperson.
Handman’s research showed that the majority of prostitutes working in France were not in the hands of criminal gangs, but had their own economic reasons for becoming sex workers.
She feels the championing of the Swedish model, which seeks to re-educate the male client, shows a puritanical approach to sexuality.
“It would be much better to have good sexual education in schools, it’s so low and bad,” she says. “But there are some men who will never be able to have a good sexuality all by themselves. All this interaction is not only sexual, some prostitutes have a high level of knowledge, many men come to prostitutes only to talk. This sordid vision of prostitution that the abolitionists have is incomprehensible to me.”
The cross-party fact-finding mission is auditioning a wide range of people including police, social workers, the judiciary, prostitutes and associations. Its report is due to be published in March 2011.