The new Socialist government’s determination to abolish prostitution has the whole country in debate. But what do the sex workers think of the plan?
In a parking bay on a deserted industrial estate in Lyon, Karen, in her late 40s, sat in the passenger seat of her second-hand Ford Transit van wearing only black underwear. It was 7.30pm on a Friday night. She lit a pink lantern on the dashboard. Soon, a steady flow of cars was circling the car park – Mercedes, jeeps, old bangers — their drivers slowing to peer at the women in corsets sitting alone in a dozen parked, white vans, arms folded, candlelight flickering across their faces. “Some men drive round for hours just staring,” she said. “Then they’ll stop, ask the price, and demand a discount. I’ll say, ‘What, for all that petrol you’ve wasted?’”
A silver car slowed. “20 euros for a blow job, 40 euros for ‘love’,” she smiled. “Too expensive,” said the man, accelerating. A 60-year-old agreed to sex for 40 euros. Karen climbed into the back of the van, which she had decorated with a bed, a heater, purple curtains and a chest of drawers. Three minutes later the man walked out into the night. Karen laid out a clean sheet of paper-towel on the bed, spruced her blond hair. “See, it’s all very quick,” she said. Most of the evening was spent sitting waiting. Then in 15 minutes, three clients paid for sex, including a Spanish man in his 20s in designer clothes. Each took less than five minutes. She had made her daily quota of cash needed to pay her bills.
A former secretary from the southern naval city of Toulon, three times married, with two daughters, Karen first started selling sex in the 1980s: a brief stint on the street near a Lyon station, working mainly in clients’ cars, “which is very uncomfortable”. She quit and got married, but in 1992, divorced and with a young child she suddenly needed to “put food on the table”. She returned to sex-work, first in a hostess bar, then meeting clients at her home via a newspaper small-ad. For seven years, she has worked on the street in her van, Monday to Saturday from 7pm to around 1am, paying tax as self-employed. “‘No pimp, no boss’ is my motto. I’d rather do this than an office job, getting shouted at by a boss for a pittance.” Her strict rules include condoms for everything and no kissing clients. “You have to hit rock bottom to do this,” she said. “It’s not an easy job, but it’s a job where you can make money quickly. People try to say we’re victims, say that we’re alienated, that there’s a sex attack in our childhood history, but I’ve never been raped by anyone. This is my free choice.” She never looks into a client’s eyes in the moment of a sexual exchange – “I look anywhere but” – and they rarely tell her their names. But in her top drawer beside the condom supplies is a petition signed by several of them: in neat writing, stating their profession: such as “public works” or “driver”. It’s a protest against the new French government’s war on prostitution.
Sex work was hardly a priority in the French election campaign, yet it has become one of the defining social issues of Francois Hollande’s new Socialist government. In June, the women’s minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, made the bold announcement that she wanted to “abolish prostitution” in France and Europe. “My objective, like that of the Socialist party, is to see prostitution disappear,” she said. The previous French parliament had already adopted a resolution aiming for a “society without prostitution”. But can a government rid society of paid sex? The debate is raging among French intellectuals. Sex workers have taken to the streets, accusing the government of moralistic paternalism, saying Socialists are using the issue to distance themselves from the pariah Dominique Strauss-Kahn. DSK, once the Socialist hope for president, is under official investigation in France over complicity in a pimping operation after sex workers were allegedly procured for his orgies. He said he didn’t pay and didn’t know the women were sex workers. “I challenge you to distinguish a naked prostitute from any other naked woman,” his lawyer told the press. The inquiry has been extended to examine alleged group rape over the question of whether one sex worker was forced. Strauss-Kahn denies any violence.
The “white van women” selling sex on Lyon’s industrial estate in Gerland embody the French state’s difficult attitudes to prostitution. As in the UK, prostitution itself – receiving money for sex, or paying for sex – is not a crime. But activities around it are. Laws prohibit pimping, human trafficking, buying sex from a minor and soliciting sex in public. Brothels were outlawed in 1946.
The government is planning a major consultation on the abolition of prostitution. One idea under consideration is to criminalise the client, meaning anyone who buys sex from a sex worker would face prison and a fine. There are only a handful of European countries where clients of sex workers face prison. In 1999, Sweden became the first, followed by Norway and Iceland. But it is far from certain that France will put it on the statute books. The French Socialists would like their abolitionist stance to be mirrored in Europe, namely in the country they see as closest in its attitude to prostitution: the UK. Other neighbours have radically different approaches: in Germany, prostitution is legal and municipally regulated; in Spain, vast borderland brothels in places such as La Jonquera in Catalonia are frequented by French clients.
There is fierce debate in France over whether all sex workers should be considered victims, or whether “independents”, without pimps and beginning to be unionised, should be viewed as separate. Pro-abolition feminists say the act of paying for sex is always an act of violence, forcing the sex worker to anaesthetise themselves and cut themselves off from their own body to endure it. “Slavery hasn’t been eradicated, but it has been abolished. The same choice for prostitution would be an advance for civilisation,” said the feminist Sylviane Agacinski. Another high-profile feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, co-wrote a counter-argument saying talk of abolishing prostitution was based on “two debatable assumptions: that charging for sex is an affront to women’s dignity and that all prostitutes are victims of their bastard clients”. She said a woman selling sex was “not necessarily a victim of male oppression”. And not all clients were “horrible predators or sexual obsessives who treat the woman as disposable objects”.