Liberté, egalité, prostitué?

Liberté, egalité, prostitué?

The French government has proposed criminalising clients of prostitutes, following the example of Sweden. What is the goal of this controversial policy reform, and what can be expected of its effects?

In December 2013, the French National Assembly voted in favour of a bill reforming the country’s approach to prostitution. One of the bill’s most remarkable aspects is a measure making it an offence to pay for sex, imposing fines of 1,500 to 3,750 euros on clients of prostitution. With this legislation, France sets out to follow the example of Sweden, a country that criminalised buyers of sexual services in 1999 and whose policies on prostitution are known worldwide as ‘the Swedish model’.

However, this summer a committee of the French Senate threw a spanner in the works of Parliament by removing this particular measure, arguing that penalising clients would not work as a means to reduce prostitution and that it would make the life of prostitutes more dangerous. This move led to fury among members of the governing French Socialist Party who backed the bill and among feminist pressure groups supporting the fines. The government could reinsert the measure when this coming fall, the full Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill. The question arises as to whether this would be wise, since the proposal has proven highly controversial in France.

Prostitution in France

Currently, prostitution in France is neither lawful nor prohibited de facto, but soliciting is illegal. The offence of soliciting is very broad: it includes passive soliciting (‘racolage passif’), defined as standing in a public place known for prostitution, dressed in revealing clothes. This legal reality forms a paradox causing prostitutes, but not customers, to be vulnerable for prosecution. With the new bill, lawmakers want to remove the misdemeanour of passive soliciting and impose fines on the buyers of sex, thus shifting away from criminal responsibility for prostitutes towards criminal responsibility for clients.

“Keep your hands off my whore”

Prostitutes organised several demonstrations trying to convince politicians to cancel the proposal. Slogans such as “Whores without clients are looking for a government job”; “You sleep with us and you vote against us”; “France, what about liberty?”; and “Penalised clients = assassinated whores”, show the anger at politicians for proposing the bill and the concerns for severe negative side-effects for prostitutes. However, other pressure groups, mainly formed by feminist organisations, have organised demonstrations in favour of the bill.

Potential clients also joined the debate. A group of male prominent figures signed a petition in the magazine Causeur, titled “Touche pas à ma pute” (“Keep your hands off my whore”). They state: “when Parliament gets involved in adopting rules on sexuality, everyone’s freedom is threatened”, and emphasise that "everyone should be free to sell their charms, and even to love doing it”. This petition sparked heavy criticism in return, stressing that there is no such thing as the right for men to buy sex.

The goal of the law: suppress prostitution

This heated debate shows that the issue of prostitution invokes strong emotions, driven by moral beliefs on sexuality and the acceptability of selling and buying sex. People’s views on prostitution differ strongly within society, but also between societies: countries have very different approaches to prostitution: from legalisation to criminalisation and many versions in between. Also, a society’s dominant view on prostitution, inspiring its policy approach, is not fixed – it can change over time. Ronald Weitzer, an American sociologist, signals that the oppression paradigm – the idea that sex work is “institutionalised subordination of women, regardless of the conditions under which it occurs” – has become increasingly popular over the last decade. This can be seen in France, but also in other countries such as the Netherlands and even in the European Parliament.

Najat Valaud-Belkacem, the French Minister of Women’s Rights at that time (now promoted to Minister of Education) was the main politician pushing for the reform. During the parliamentary debates, she held a powerful speech on the necessity of the bill, in which she argued that every form of prostitution is violence, mostly directed towards women, and that it is time to challenge the “archaic view” that a woman’s body is for sale. The penalisation measure is meant to serve a higher goal: to suppress prostitution altogether.

Even after the Senate committee threw it out, Valaud-Belkacem insists that penalisation is essential to “effectively fight prostitution”. She is convinced that the law serves a powerful symbolic function as well, especially to younger generations, that exploiting the bodies of others is not normal.

The French government also pointed to the rise in human trafficking as a key reason for more restrictive legislation on prostitution, claiming in a recent government plan that 90 percent of France’ estimated 20.000 to 40.000 prostitutes are foreign and that most of them are victims of trafficking networks.

A legitimate proposal?

The fact that President Hollande’s government, after winning the presidential elections in 2012, installed a Minister of Women’s rights, after decades of absence of the post, shows that France is now committed to address violence against women and gender equality. These are legitimate goals for law makers to try to attain. Within her mandate, Valaud-Belkacem certainly had the political authority to propose the policy to criminalise clients, and with Members of Parliament voting 268 in favour and 138 against on the bill, she seemed to have quite strong democratic support for it.

However, it is questionable whether the majority of the French public really supports the penalisation. A recent survey indicates that, although a large majority of respondents supported the idea of responsibilisation of clients, only 22% supported fining them, with more support for educational programmes and public awareness campaigns. Furthermore, both prostitutes and (potential) clients have protested that the policy violates civil liberties.

Will the policy work to reduce prostitution and sex trafficking?

The presumed working mechanism of the law is a simple economical idea of supply and demand: if demand decreases, because potential clients are deterred out of fear for sanctions, supply will also go down, and sex traffickers will start to perceive France to be an unattractive market. Is this a plausible mechanism? In Sweden, the government has claimed that it worked. However, one should bear in mind that it is extremely hard to come up with good empirical data on the size of the population of prostitutes and the number of trafficking victims within this population. Any claim that a policy has worked to reduce these numbers should be subject to high scrutiny.

Indeed, the Swedish government has been criticised for presenting a far too positive picture. For example, in their argument that the law has caused street prostitution to drop by 50% since 1999, the actual cause-and-effect relationship is impossible to ascertain. Another possible explanation would be that, since the 2000s, Internet has risen as a major platform for prostitutes and clients to meet each other, reducing the need to solicit on the streets.

Moreover, many critics, such as academic scholars and experts on the fight against human trafficking, warn for negative side effects of the Swedish model. Criminalising prostitution, whether it happens through the prostitute or the client, drives prostitution and trafficking even further underground, which reduces social services’ access to victims and law enforcement’s sight on traffickers. Clients, anxious to avoid police attention, might push prostitutes to work in isolated spaces, which could increase dangers for their interactions to get out of control. Also, clients can be an important source of information in human trafficking cases: together with the pimps, they might be the only ones with access to exploited girls. If clients need to stay hidden, they will not be willing to work with the police to report suspicions of forced prostitution.

Politicians should be realistic about the goals that they can achieve with their policies. “Suppressing prostitution altogether” might sound like a noble goal, but it is unattainable. A better question might be how, as society, we can keep it under control and make life for sex workers as safe as possible, while at the same time encouraging them to choose other jobs. We can also educate the public, and clients in particular, that they have a responsibility to report suspicions of human trafficking. Penalising clients is not the best approach to reach these more realistic goals.

Will the French government reinsert the measure when the full Senate votes on the reform? Proponents might insist that penalisation is “essential” to target prostitution, but the high controversy over the bill and the very plausible arguments against penalisation, leading the Senate committee to eliminate it, show that it might be wiser for them to reconsider.


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