After two years of internal parliamentary conflict, French MPs passed a controversial law on 7 April which makes paying for sex a criminal offence. First offenders are to be fined €1500, and second-time offenders will be charged €3750 and have the infraction marked on their criminal record. MP Maud Olivier, a proponent of the Bill, claims the goal is to ‘reduce [instances of prostitution], protect prostitutes who want to leave it and to change mentalities’. Notably, the new legislation will also reverse another controversial law, passed in 2003 during Nicolas Sarkozy’s term as interior minister, which criminalised so-called ‘passive soliciting’ in public places. In practice, this made it illegal for women to wear revealing clothes and loiter in public places where prostitution was known to be rife — effectively banning soliciting. In France, prostitution itself has historically not been a crime, but everything associated with it is, including pimping, human trafficking, and brothels.
France is not the first country to take steps toward changing prostitution laws. This new legislation follows similar reforms in Sweden, Iceland, and Norway in recent years; the ‘Nordic Model’ is based on the idea that there exists an inextricable connection between prostitution and sex trafficking. As Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, said in support of the new law, ‘What marginalises prostituted women is prostitution … This law focuses on the buyer of sex who undeniably participates in the exploitation of another person’s body’.
According to a recent survey, the new legislation has the support of 73% of the French population — a statistic which jumps to 78% amongst women and 82% for the under-35 age bracket. In many ways, the law has noble intentions: by handing the blame from sex workers to their clients, it aids the pursuit of gender equity and gives crucial legal protection to sex workers, who can now file complaints more easily. Further, the law has the additional benefit of aiding foreign sex workers by granting them temporary residence permits if they agree to switch to a new, aboveboard, profession. As Olivier notes, ‘The most important aspect of this law is to accompany prostitutes and give them identity papers, because we know that 85% of prostitutes [in France] are victims of trafficking’.
Yet the law is catalysing dissent from many human rights organisations and advocacy groups, who are rightly concerned about how this idealistic legislation will play out in real life. The French sex workers union, Syndicat du Travail Sexuel, or Strass, has publicly opposed it, arguing that it is ‘dangerous’. In a statement on their website, Strass wrote that the legislation, under the guise of protecting sex workers, will actually expose them to more violence from both clients and from police, and will effectively distance them from accessing the aid which this law is meant to render accessible: healthcare and screenings, and legal rights. As Strass argues, shifting criminality from sex workers to their clients may be an admirable idea. In reality however, it can, will, and in fact already has been proven to force prostitution underground, leaving sex workers — already a vulnerable group — at risk of increased and unregulated risk. Amnesty International has stated that similar lawmaking to prohibit the buying of sex, as in the Nordic states, has led to sex workers being compelled to ‘take more risks to protect buyers from detection by the police’ and notes that it has received reports from sex workers who have been asked to meet in clients’ homes rather than in safer, more public environments, in order to evade police.
Violence against sex workers is already a significant problem, one which is often swept under the rug by a society wary of expressing sympathy toward the participants of such a polarising and stigmatised métier. Studies continue to show an indelible link between prostitution and sexual violence. As a marginalised group, sex workers are at risk of unwelcome sexual advances as well as physical violence or even death at the hands of pimps, clients, nightclub owners, and others. In attempting to account for the rights of sex workers and offer them the protection of the law, the clumsy new legislation may in fact have the opposite effect. Forcing business underground — to private residences and the internet — will make it more difficult to police prostitution, which means that in turn it will be more difficult to account for violence committed against sex workers.
As Michelle Goldberg wrote in the Guardian in 2014, the question of what sort of legislation is appropriate is tricky. ‘Supporters of the Swedish model say that in countries like the Netherlands, where pimping and brothel-keeping were legalised in 2000, trafficking has increased and the welfare of prostitutes has suffered. They are right,’ wrote Goldberg. ‘Opponents of the Swedish model, particularly sex worker advocacy groups, say that the law has increased the stigma on sex workers, with occasionally grave repercussions. They are also right. Deciding which model works better is as much an ideological as an empirical question, ultimately depending on whether one believes that prostitution can ever be simply a job like any other’.
France’s Parliament has spent the past 2 years wrestling with this ideological tug of war, and the result is altogether unsatisfying. It is undeniable to thinkers on both sides of the aisle that some sort of legal reform is needed, but the new legislation is an untenable, surface-level solution. If previous statistical patterns hold true, France will most likely follow in the footsteps of the Nordic states and experience an uptick in violence committed against sex workers in the coming months and years. Ultimately, the law reeks of the hypocritical gauche caviar mentality endemic amongst the French liberal elite: socially-conscious and idealistic in theory, yet unwilling in practice to dip more than a toe into a messy and complicated issue and ameliorate it with equal parts empathy and pragmatism.