In France, A Risky Business May Get Riskier

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Given French society’s reputation of unbridled sexual attitudes and libertine habits, it’s probably not surprising that a new proposal to combat prostitution is provoking considerable push-back. On the face of it, the initiative appears to be generating heat by sending two pillars of French life clashing in conflict: France’s self-assigned mission to defend the human rights and dignity of the victimized and abused; and the nation’s traditional respect for the liberty of consenting adults to engage in any variety of intimate acts without third parties—or society—butting in with moral judgment. Yet beyond Gallic social values, the measure is proving most controversial in this enduringly machismo country with its calls to punish the mostly male clients of prostitution, rather than targeting the predominately female population of sex workers.

That drive to attack the “demand” side of prostitution began April 13, when a bipartisan parliamentary report proposed legislation punishing people who pay for sex with a maximum six month prison sentence, and fines of up to $4,350. That criminalization of the customer, the report said, would help battle the trade by forcing clients to realize they are “the central actors in prostitution”, and make them to rethink “the implications of their acts” on sex workers and themselves. The authors made it clear their aim is to protect the rights of women denigrated as a matter of course in prostitution by impressing upon clients that—intended or not—their actions “engage (them) in a form of exploitation.”

To back that up, the report’s authors cite studies by the abolitionist association, Nid des Femmes (Women’s Nest), which found that while around 80% of the 18,000 to 20,000 prostitutes in France are women, virtually all clients in the trade are men (37% of whom live with a partner, and 50% of whom are fathers). The report also maintained some 80% of women prostitutes in France are forced to work by human traffickers, pimps, or other people, economic, or lifestyle factors beyond their control. “There is no such thing as freely chosen and consenting prostitution,” French Social Affairs Minister Roselyne Bachelot said in supporting the proposals. “The sale of sexual acts means women’s bodies are made available for men, independently of the wishes of those women.”

Not true, contend groups representing prostitutes, who claim 90% of women working in France’s sex trade do so of their own volition. They argue greater freedom and visibility—rather than repression—is what’s needed to rid the activity of its worst abuses. Brothels have been banned in France since 1946; paying for sex with minors is also illegal. But other kinds of prostitution inhabit a gray zone of legal tolerance that makes it as a passive, shadowy activity. Bawdy and lascivious initiations of clients—or formal advertising of sex services — are illegal, for example, but more discreet offers and transactions aren’t prohibited under existing laws. Those obligations to remain scarcely visible at the margins of society, the associations representing prostitutes charge, leave sex workers more vulnerable to manipulation and abuse by criminals—and clients—than if the activity were as fully legalized and regulated like any other self-employed profession.

Criminalization of clients’ activity, these groups predict, will cause the income of prostitutes to fall as customers become fewer or demand lower prices to compensate for the risk, and expose sex workers to even greater threats of violence as contacts and encounters are pushed even farther from public and police view. Backers of the proposed law dismiss such protests as shortsighted, misguided, or coerced, and say penalization is necessary to defend the rights of the very women denouncing them (a “we know what’s best for you” attitude last adopted by legislators in legally prohibiting Muslim women from wearing burqas and niqabs).

The report’s authors cite previous measures in presenting their own case, notably Sweden’s ground-breaking 1999 law that created prison terms and fines for clients of prostitution (replicated in 2009 by Iceland and Norway). Recent studies in Sweden show penalties targeting customers reduced the number of street prostitutes in Stockholm and other cities by 50%, and radically slashed the trafficking of women into the country to supply the trade. Meanwhile, public support of the Swedish law has risen from 30% in 1999 to 75% today—thanks to results obtained without having inflicted prison terms on the 650 clients punished under the measure.

Still, recent Swedish studies indicate the law has been effective only with the most visible forms of prostitution. By contrast, online soliciting—especially by teenagers—escort services, and other more hidden types of prostitution have skyrocketed (though Swedish officials note that increase has not been greater than in countries without client-targeted laws–nor any less). French opponents also note Scandinavian societies have very different attitudes and practices on gender-equality and sexual relations (as Wikipedia founder Julian Assange now knows) than more Latin nations like France. A Le Monde editorial argued that, while Sweden’s “penalization may be conceivable in puritanical democracies, [and] prospers most in authoritarian or even totalitarian states”, proudly randy France is altogether more free-spirited.

Members of France’s government seem to agree—but for decidedly more technical reasons. For example, French Interior Minister Claude Guéant sounded his skepticism of the proposed legislation in seeking to grapple with only one part of a troublesome trade–a bit like trying to battle illicit drug sales by going after consumers while leaving dealers a free, legal hand. “It’s difficult to make the client’s activity an offense, Guéant noted, “when the activity of prostitution itself is not.”