The defense of sex workers in France : a long battle against the State & a redefinition of feminist solidarity
photo – Léa Michaelïs
The defense of sex workers in France : a long battle against the State ; a redefinition of feminist solidarity
Mid-august 2018 in France, in “Bois de Boulogne” a forest famous for the presence of both sex workers and clients, Vanessa Campos Vasquez was murdered. She was a transgender woman.
In February 2020, at night, Jessyca Sarmiento was working in the same place and was hit by a car. She was an immigrant trans woman.
Both women came to France seeking something. Both were proud to be sex workers and both were working unprotected, may this protection come by the state or the police or the surrounding environment.
For building this piece, I have been helped by the generous participation of the STRASS (Syndicat du TRAvail Sexuel – Sex workers Union, national group). This organization was born in 2009 after the colloquia “Assises Droits et Prostitution”. The union saw its creation in reaction to an observation made at the time by a union of sex workers participating this meeting : in France, regarding sex work, French laws are repressive. Sex workers need a union by and for sex workers.
The Strass is the first official sex worker union in France. Their goal is to enforce sex work in common labor law, whatever may be the conditions of practice, gender identity or sexual orientation of the workers. Since 2016, their fight is structured around decriminalization of the clients as well as the reclamation for rights and access to health care and protection. The Strass works tightly with non-profit organization such as Acceptess defending trans people rights, AIDS and Doctors Without Borders amongst others.
Before going further, Amar, my source at the Strass, questions the fact of being a white woman and being able to talk about sex work with your face uncovered. “This is a privilege that Latina women or trans sex workers don’t have”. For this interview, I also asked a friend of mine, Rose, who is an escort in Paris to tell me about her work and testify about the realities she lives daily. She also is a white woman and supports others sex workers who don’t have the privileges to talk out loud about their professional lives the way she does.
In France, there is a reality of transphobia and racism perpetrated by the State. The fear and rejection of sex workers is what we call here “Putophobie” or “whorephobia”. In French, “Pute” = whore. This word is the most used to speak about sex workers ; it comes from the old-school insult “putain” also a very common swearword. In the Larousse dictionary, the definition of “pute’ is Vulgar, offensive. Synonym of whore. ‘Putain’ according to the same dictionary means “Prostitute. Debauched woman, without morality.”
The construction of the french myth : from control to invisibilization
“Putophobie” was conceptualized by Marianne Chargois, sex worker, festival initiator (artwhoreconnection) and activist. She uses the word ‘whorephobia’ to designates the systemic oppression lived by the sex workers, may they be transgender or not, may they be immigrant or not, may they be women or not.
Firstly, according to Amar, my contact at the Strass, the most important to know when we think about sex work is to recognize the term ‘whorephobia’ as well as recognizing what it means in the collective, as well as in the feminist collectives.
In her words, the main issue in France is the institutional systemic oppression regarding sex workers. More precisely, “In the French legal system and the media, the prostitute figure is the one of the victim. There is a language/semantic code referring to the absence of choice (…) This implies that we are not capable of thinking and commitment to ourselves”.
“There is this idea that our bodies don’t belong to us, that they belong to a system. The body becomes merchandise. The concept of ‘paid rape’ becomes the main vision of what we do.”
In an ideological system where whorephobia is still practiced by the state, the possibility of choice by sex workers does not exist. In that sense whorephobia as a tool for oppression, influences the representations. Furthermore, the construction of this still-image of what is and what should be the prostitute has been fixed for several centuries and pushed towards an even more stereotypeds canvas in the latest years. Amar, talking about this tells me about the image of the prostitutes in “high heels in the car, garter belt, obscurity”. This representation, in itelf, is whorephobic. It can be said and written now that the institutional feminist discourses have been for decades reinforcing this “typology of the sex worker as an exoticized victim”.
The point here is: the hypocrisy living well and strong in France in regards to the presence of sex workers in all the territory and their conditions of work has been denied by the successive governments. This state of ignorance of reality is continuously harming sex workers. Moreover, and it is not the least to say, agressions of this kind not only come from the authorities but also from within the feminist ranks. During the confinement period in France (from march 16th to may 11th 2020) sex workers became targets for some of the most radical abolitionists out there. The Strass received threats and some sex workers were personally cyberattacked by other women on the fact that they were taking risks in working with clients during a pandemic period.
Colonization of langage by white feminists: a whorephobia issue
Even if this is a badly promoted reality, as much as whorephobia exists, there is also a mechanism of erasure of sex work existing in the French feminist mainstream movements. Amar explained to me that during the quarantine time in France, a wave of violence directly targeted the sex workers community in France. A specific group called “Abolition Porno Prostitution” used this quiet time to organize a harassment campaign on social media. As Amar told me, this kind of cyber-violence was not knew, those feminists have been strongly fighting against any improvement for sex workers labelling themselves as “feminists heroines fighting prostitution”. This argument highlights the well-spread idea that sex workers cannot help themselves, that they are once again victims that need to be saved by the only feminists that matter: white, privileged, close to power structures.
In response to these attacks, the Strass and their allies have reported a complaint to the police for psychological violence. The hope that they will be heard stays but the relationship between the French judiciary system and the union of sex workers is unfortunately not in the best terms.
Racism and transphobia in the French public sphere : a sex work issue
This issue also relates to what goes on in the feminist mainstream discussions in France where most of the time, migrant women, trans women and women of color overall are excluded.
The Strass, as Amar tells me firmly, positions itself strictly against these feminist groups for one main reason : sex workers feel unrepresented. “There are trends that are getting stronger. In France, the biggest movements are whorephobic, transphobic, Islamophobic and negrophobic”
For example, this year, on March 8th, the movement NOUS TOUTES organized an enormous gathering all around the country in order to celebrate the fight for women’s rights. This collective is part of the problem in the fact they underrepresent what makes women in this country and what those women which they don’t represent need, and ask : colorful, diverse in their goals, in their gender identities and sexual orientations, in their economic statuses and in their recognition in the country. Intersectionality is yet to be used as a real tool for representing and giving the voice of all women the space they deserve.
Lately, groups calling themselves “radical feminists” have been taking more and more public spaces and power in the feminists movements in France. These groups easily communicate with the state because they represent the same fringe of people that institutionalized mainstream cis-centered white feminists in the government. Even though some of them, in all their radicality aim at shaking up the public opinion, have anchored their biggest success in the exclusion of sex workers and transgender women. The feminism of these groups is mainly universalist and abolitionist, as well as – and I hate to say it – whitely supremacist. Even the ‘official’ numbers supposed to give informations concerning the situation of sex work in France don’t play out the reality. The number of transgender migrant women who are sex workers are inflated in the official news. The idea that most migrant women automatically enter prostitution networks and same for trans women aims at reinforcing the “BAD etiquette” on sex work. Moreover, this inflation creates a distance between what happens really on the field and the direction that the government could actually take regarding helping ALL sex workers and guaranteeing them legal status and health care rights”.
By virtue of Amar’s word, “There is a need to reinvent the movements. Something strong is happening behind the scene. FeminismS in the plural forms will have the space they deserve with accordingly spread discourses, expertises from a militant point of view. Women, from the street, need they realities recognized”.
Advocating for autonomy : sex workers in France want self-organization and their voices heard
In the public debate in France, a lot of people (most of them who don’t know much about the realities of sex workers) think that the best thing to do (how ironic right ?) would be to reopen the ‘maisons closes’ or brothels. According to Amar, this would be “a deletarian solution allowing the State to control the bodies, hence suppressing our self management”.
Re-instaurating ‘whorehouses’ in France, according to the Strass’ representant, would imply sanitarian control from the state. For migrant women, the situations would be even more difficult ; they would not be able to work because of the immigration statuses and the length of the process, slowing down the access to work permits especially because of the illegal aspects of prostitution.
One solution would be to organize cooperatives. Through them, sex workers could self-organize without depending on the French government and allowance for work. Rose (escort in Paris) who is independent sex workers, tell me that in this way of working, she found self-sufficiency, autonomy and a sense of freedom that only this frame of work can provide.
“If we don’t self-organize, we become each other’s pimps. It’s a hypocrite vicious circle” explains Amar. As collective initiatives, the idea would be to create ‘Common places of work” in order to guarantee the security of everyone. The history of prostitution in France has shown through time that having a matron didn’t help women have financial security and that every bump in the political spheres has them on the first line of conflict. Police, historically too, has not been the first help nor facilitator for sex work to do their job peacefully.
Police and sex workers: the need to highlight realities of conflict and negligence
“We’re not really friends with the police” To say the least… Amar stays polite but says very clearly that things got even more difficult during the 2020 confinement period.
Indeed, the police stigmatizes, gives fines, and shames sex workers. They will keep doing it and have been doing it for centuries. Why ? There is this return of the 19th century imaginary culture (also thanks to tv shows and mainstream media) brothels fantasy, daily mundane police brutality for those working in the streets. In other words, even though prostitution in itself is not illegal, there is a process of re-criminalization in action, that is unjustified, directly coming from the police forces.
When it comes to official complaints to the police regarding aggressions or rapes, may it be by clients OR NOT, may you be a sex worker, a woman, transgender or not, “either they don’t take the complaint because you’re a prostitute, or because you were looking for it”. Amar insists on the fact that the majority of sex workers in France do not trust the police. There is a reality where in case of harassment, rape or any kind violence (also psychological), appropriate and efficient help rarely comes from these authorities which are supposed to protect rather than intimidate.
“In 99% of the cases, we cannot say to the police ‘I’ve been attacked while doing my work’ and that is why we mostly go to specific associations helping sex workers”. The solution seems, for now, to seek help inside communities, in between workers. Amar repeats, sadly “The police cannot do anything for us”.
In 2018, Rose went to the police to file a complaint against a client. In the 13th precinct of Paris police, Rose simply got rejected when she said she was a sex worker. Finally, she met a police officer who took the complaint for hours. For a complaint that’s supposed to take no more than an afternoon, she felt unsafe, had to justify herself several times and in the end, the complaint was classified as a cold case on the principle that she may have lied because the client didn’t pay. In fact, this was an aggression and the fact that the last one was classified was used against her when she filed a complaint for rape against the father of her child in summer 2019. This testimony shows the harshness of the situation for sex workers when it comes to reporting aggressions, the fact that the police simply do not believe victims most of the time. Specifically for sex workers, we cannot undermine the difficulty for them to trust the police and the absolute necessity of alternative networks of solidarity to help one another survive gender violence in the practice of work or in the personal spaces.
Outside of Paris : a solidarity all over the French territory
In France, the reality of sex work is that everybody works. There is this very famous cliché of the Parisian prostitute but the real world is significantly different. The question is : what are the specificities of every places of work ?
The federation Parapluie Rouge aims at gathering associations of sex workers all over the French territories in order to create a cartography of sex work in France. This mapping of sex work and its mobilizations shows a panorama of how sex workers evolve. Their work is necessary also to help defend their cause in front of the court when it’s time to defend the sex worker’s cause in front of the government, amongst other necessities.
Amar, whilst telling me about the realities outside of the Parisian sphere, highlights a very important point “Everybody has to work together” meaning that the solidarity has to be real and efficient. In some places in France, where women work in rural areas, the danger is sometimes bigger than in the cities and the police forces even more small-minded. All over the country, the community fights for the same goal: rights, protection, heath care and labor equality.
No feminism without the ‘whores’
Outside of the known: what going on for those working online?
Most people think that sex works occurs in dark places with clients that are violent and rough, visions are full of clichés and realities mainly very different than the lambda citizen thinks. Rose for, example, tells me explicitly “I love my job, I get to choose who I meet or not. I have a very flexible way of working, specific websites where I feel safe.”
Some sex workers work online, others work in the porn industry, may it be feminist or not, the scenes all happen to have their own personal issues. Rose adds, regarding the specificities of escorting : “When we work online, it’s very important to find girls to speak with. We find each others and remind ourselves we’re not alone, we’re very real people with our love life, struggles and it is necessary to be in touch with networks of sex workers.”
Regarding the internet, France and sex work, it is very recently that things got worse.
La LOI AVIA (The Avia LAW) passed in France on June 24th 2020, stipulates that any content that could harm children or heinous content could be censored in 24 hours. On paper, this could be a positive thing, for protectors of the morale, it is. But for minorities, or and here, sex workers, it is a direct call to hate. It is a means to and end : silencing and stopping and sex work activities outside of the street where the police can actually fine and stop the clients from going to get their service. More over, this law was passed forcefully in two times. Firstly, the deputee Avia asked for any escort ad online on the French web services could be suppressed. This amendment was not voted. Secondly, and in the voted version, Amar resumes the law as such “It is as if they want to supress soliciting but online. They penalize what is legal on the street”.
Rose, in regards to this law, could not be clearer: “This is bullshit. It is hyprocrite, unsane. They want to unable us to work pretexting to protect us. In fact, we are even more stigmatized, erased. Our jobs, our voices are being erased, our legitimacy, our status that is supposed to be tolerated. In France, a police officer can hear you if you file a complaint (which means we are not illegal) but this law puts us in great danger.”
The Avia law directly aims at cam girls and cam boys, escorts and anyone working in the sex industry and online. This is state censorship and officialised surveillance. “They impeach us from working in normal conditions.” Twitter accounts are being supressed, ads on escorting websites, in other words “we can’t work. Porn is bad, explicit is bad, sex is bad” (Amar).
Overall in France, there is a lack of consultation by the state to the concerned populations. Sex workers and the Strass have been trying to reach the government but Marlene Schiappa, the former minister delegated at the gender equality ministry has repeatedly refused to meet anyone from the Syndicate. The French government keeps using oppressive rhetorical mechanisms to confirm repressive laws and authoritarian practices enforced by the police. Sex workers as collective form a part of the feminist thought in France and have been for decades. Now, the challenge is that the feminists in power, those who have a sufficient length of arm to reach out the poles of decisions finally open their discourse and doors to those who need it most.