What attitude should we take to sex work? One approach is that of the “Nordic model” which criminalises those who buy sex, very largely men, rather than those who sell it, most of whom are women. Sex workers, however, object that the rhetoric behind such laws about improving the social position of women doesn’t match the reality. In practice, they make life worse for women who sell sex. Colin Wilson spoke to Thierry Schaffauser, a sex worker activist based in Paris.
What changes has the new law made? Is it the case now that sex work is no longer a crime?
Basically, the national soliciting law has been replaced in the new law by the criminalisation of clients – but many laws still criminalise sex work. Street sex work is controlled by many local laws, often adopted even by politicians who want to abolish sex work altogether and claim that sex workers are victims who shouldn’t be criminalised. In some places, there are local laws which take away our vehicles – in one North French town there’s a law against indecent clothing.
Procurement laws criminalise indoor sex work or brothel keeping, so that we can’t share the same workplace – which many women prefer to do, so as to be safe. Helping each other or any act of solidarity is banned as promotion or facilitating of prostitution. We cannot advertise our services and our landlords are regarded as pimps, which means we end up having to pay higher rents in the underground market. The new law also plans to ban access to websites based abroad – so far, only national websites could be banned. Of course undocumented migrants are still at risk of being arrested and deported. So it is not correct to say that sex workers are no longer criminalised in France.
What is the government’s goal? Does it aim to eradicate sex work entirely?
Initially the women’s rights minister talked about eradication. Now they talk about “abolition” – to make this campaign, which is about prohibition, seem a progressive struggle, like the abolition of slavery or of the death penalty. They are not that naive and know perfectly that we will still exist, but they say that their aim is for the law to send a message, to establish a norm – that prostitution is bad, and that it is bad to buy sex.
The unofficial aim, I think, is to push sex workers into hidden places, so street sex work becomes less visible. That way they can better gentrify the streets and help housing businesses and landlords to speculate. There are also racist aims in the background. The women’s rights minister said that France was not a welcoming land for prostitution, implying that migrant women should not come to France for sex work. They say that all migrant sex workers are victims of trafficking so as to justify what they call “rescue operations”. In fact, these are the usual police raids arresting migrants, who end up deported most of the time.
It’s ironic. Officially all migrants are victims, but when they are real victims of trafficking they have to prove it to get a 6 months residency permit. The new law changed the conditions to get this permit. Victims no longer have to denounce a trafficker, but they have to quit sex work. I think it makes getting the permit more complicated, because most of the sex workers involved can’t find a job within such a short period. They don’t speak French and don’t know anyone who will give them work. We demand documents for all migrants – especially for those who have been victims of trafficking. The right to stay shouldn’t depend on leaving sex work.
How will the new law affect sex workers, for example those working on the street or those meeting clients through websites?
Our main fear is more precarious working conditions. If we have fewer clients it means we earn less money. It creates a power dynamic in favour of the clients, because we will have to accept those we refused before. It means more exploitation. I know many Chinese sex workers in Paris in particular who have already accepted that pimps organise their work to meet clients more discretely in exchange for a percentage of their income. We notice that clients who contact us on the phone have already started hiding their numbers. Escorts used to demand that clients give their phone numbers so they could trace them in case of a problem. This is no longer possible and things are less secure. It is more and more difficult to negotiate and impose our conditions. The law aims at punishing clients, but it actually gives them more power. They risk a fine, but we lose our livelihood.
When laws of this kind were originally passed in Sweden, the government justified them by saying that sex work demeaned women. Has the French government made the same arguments?
Yes, of course. They speak only about women, they erase other sex workers. They present the ban as a feminist law to hide their lack of a real feminist programme. At the same time, they are passing a new law against workers’ rights. It makes all workers more precarious, and actually pushes women into sex work by increasing poverty. The government refuses to give documents to migrants or to allow trans people to change their ID. Then they tell sex workers we should do a “real job”. I find it very hypocritical to talk about human dignity when they don’t have to do the jobs young people and working class people have to do.
The Swedish government didn’t consider the effect of such a ban on the lives of the women most directly affected, women who sell sex. Has the French government taken those issues into account?
No, the French authorities have refused to look at the evidence. France is a very ideological country. It’s not like in the UK where evidence matters a little when politicians make laws. In France, they don’t care about that – they already know the truth about everything. They pretend that 97% of sex workers are victims of trafficking, when research showed the figure is about 7%. 98% of sex workers oppose clients’ criminalisation but the government claim it’s there to protect us. UNAIDS, Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation, all the HIV/AIDS organisations, le Planning Familial and Médecins du Monde – all these organisations were ignored. They listened only to some state-funded feminist groups very close to the government, and to the Catholic rescue organisation Mouvement du Nid. France loves to say it’s a secular country when it’s about stigmatising Muslims, but on sex work they don’t mind funding and supporting Christian groups.
Sex workers are concerned the law will make their work more dangerous. Is the government going to monitor what effect the law has? Does it take those claims seriously?
An amendment was suggested by a Green MP to have an independent academic review of the law but it was rejected. They don’t care about the impact of the law on sex workers. The aim of the law is not to improve sex workers’ conditions but to attack prostitution.
The law was brought in by a government which calls itself socialist but is attacking workers. Is there any opposition to the law inside the Socialist Party? What are the positions of other left parties like the Communists or the NPA (the New Anti-Capitalist Party), and of feminist and queer organisations?
Most of the French left is terrible on the issue of sex work. Only the Green Party, Ensemble, NPA and the PRG oppose the criminalisation of clients. The Left Party and Communist Party take the same position as the government.
We have a problem in France with acceptance of the French state, what people call the “universalist republic”. The left thinks that France created “the rights of man”. We gave the Enlightenment to the world with the Revolution. We forget about our colonial past which was also legitimised by the idea of “spreading civilisation”. So the left is just educating the people about what kind of sex is acceptable – like the socialist women’s rights minister telling Muslim women who wear a headscarf that they are alienated like “American negroes who defended their own slavery”. She said that and Jean-Luc Mélenchon supported her. In France officially nobody is racist except Le Pen. We are all equals, and minority groups who organise for their rights are accused of being “communitarian” – divisive, only concerned for our own group.
The feminist movement is divided but in the media we hear only mainstream feminist organisations close to the government. Queer groups are much more in favour of sex workers’ rights.
How well organised are sex workers in France? Are sex workers unionised? Have you been able to organise protests, get your voices in the media and so on? Have you been involved in the nuits debouts protests or the marches?
We have a trade union called STRASS. We have about 500 members, including members in all the big cities. We have staged lots of protests, done media interviews and written petitions and articles. People know about us, but many continue to libel us by saying we’re a “pimp lobby” to invalidate what we say. We are currently taking part in nuits debouts in Paris and Toulouse, as well as all the demonstrations against the new law against workers’ rights.
Is there anything else you want to say?
I hope Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister and decriminalises sex work in the UK, as he said he would last month. It could be an example to the world.
Sex workers are part of the working class – every time there’s a revolution, sex workers are part of it. Prohibition only hides problems. There are many issues with the sex industries, but it is only through labour rights and trade union organising that we will collectively be able to reduce exploitation, forced labour, violence and so on. I believe that the emancipation of the sex workers will be the task of sex workers themselves. We don’t need the police or the Christians to rehabilitate us. We want labour rights, not pity.