These days, French political culture appears to be retreating from its stereotypical liberalism on one of its best-known “vice” industries: the sex trade. Controversial new legislation in the country would criminalize paid sex—and sex workers see the proposed law as an assault on their dignity and safety.
The legislation—which just passed a vote in the Assemblée Nationale and is slated for a Senate vote soon—does not explicitly outlaw the act of selling sex, but it penalizes its purchase: A prostitution client may be fined up to 1,500 Euros. This penalty would build on a number of existing French constraints on sex work-related activities, such as pimping or running a brothel, that stop just short of outlawing prostitution altogether.
The aim of the legislation, which mirrors a widely praised model policy originating from Sweden, is to “reduce demand” by criminalizing the procurement of sexual services. But the ostensible moral purpose of the law—to protect women, especially underage girls, from exploitation and violence—obscures broader questions of economic agency, sexual prudence and social stigma. And that’s why many of its opponents are the very same people the law purports to “save.”
“What’s proposed with this law is actually not to protect these people. It’s just to increase the criminalization,” says Morgane Merteuil, general secretary of STRASS, a Paris-based national network of sex workers and their allies. STRASS, along with other critics of the legislation, including health experts and human rights groups, has argued that though the legislation does not exactly criminalize the act itself, criminalizing the purchase of prostitution services will still alienate sex workers from law enforcement, the healthcare system and other social supports. Read the rest of this entry →