In December 2013, French MPs voted for new laws to make the buying of sexual services a criminal offence and subject to a minimum fine of €1,500.
The new law, which is still to be passed by the French Senate, is based on the so-called “Nordic model” (i.e. originating in Sweden), where clients rather than sex workers are heavily penalised and where sex work remains, in theory, legal. The policy is aimed at abolishing sex work altogether.
In France migrant sex workers who “give up” sex work will be given exceptional “leave to remain” in France. They will also get 336€ a month.
The architects of the French law (including the Women’s Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem) say they want to disrupt foreign “pimping networks”. They claim 80-90% of France’s sex workers are migrants; they strongly imply all migrant sex workers are “victims of trafficking rings”.
They argue any sex worker who opposes the laws (and there have been many protests) are an “elite” who do not suffer the terrible slave-like conditions of migrant sex workers.
The abolitionists in France, as indeed everywhere, say they are human rights activists, as well as feminists.
The counter-argument (including from sex worker organisations) is that this law is patronising, based on shoddy data, reproduces a false picture of the sex industry, ignores the needs and opinions of sex worker migrants and will make life more dangerous and precarious for all sex workers.
According to Laura Augustin (author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry) the law is the result of years of politicking inside the EU. The framework is that of the campaign ‘A Europe Free from Prostitution’, set up by the European Women’s Lobby. As a transposition of the Nordic model to “mainland Europe” (where prostitution is in many place legal and regulated) it is a “game changing shift”.
At the heart of the debate is the idea of consent. One may accept (though the abolitionists don’t) that ordinarily sex workers consent to sell sexual services and, as long as nobody gets hurt it is not the state’s business to obstruct and ban it; sex workers need legal protection like any other worker, and perhaps more specific protections, but that is all. But can one accept that trafficked migrant sex workers consent to the work?
The problem is that the reality and meaning of “trafficking” is highly contentious. One conscientious 2008 academic study concludes, “Accurate data on the extent of trafficking in human beings does not exist.” The figure bandied about by French politicians of 80% is based on UN estimates which are unverified and unverifiable. There are many reasons why it is difficult to find an accurate picture of numbers of “illegal” migrant workers, including sex workers.
Migrants in sex work who come into contact with authority may “under report” their situation (for fear of reprisal) or “over report” their situation (to gain some leverage in the system).
It is also difficult to separate out people who have been “smuggled” (by individuals or “gangs”) into another country because they want to, or at least knowing that they will, be involved in sex work and people who have been “trafficked”, that is, forced into sex work.
Forced sex work should indeed be outlawed, but that should be done using appropriate laws, not ones aimed at all migrant sex workers.
There are many grey areas. Migrants rely on “criminals” to get from one country to another — that is the reality of modern migration. Conditions for migrant sex work can be appalling, that is the reality of a lot of sex work. But neither of these realities cancel out, or should be used to deny the consent of sex workers.
The realities demand legal protections — from all coercion, including state coercion of threat of deportation and the right to work in a safe environment.
The French government’s answer of simultaneously cracking down on migration and “stamping out” all prostitution is both utopian and dangerous.
Utopian, because as long as we live in a fundamentally unequal world and as long as that gets worse the numbers of people who decide to migrate will continue to rise. Whilst we fight for economic justice everywhere, we cannot, and we should not deny people the right move to find a “better off” life. We may be appalled at their lack of choice — that this means working four cleaning jobs, standing on a street corner selling pirate DVDs, and selling sexual services on the internet — but all of these crap choices are essentially the same from the point of view of the migrant.
Dangerous because “stigmatising” migrants in general and sex workers in particular as these laws do (despite the charitable concern of the legislators) will lead to bad conditions, a green light for exploiters and malign individuals to beat up sex workers, or worse.
The policy itself will lead to sex workers and clients going to less accessible and more dangerous places.