French sex workers fear Senate vote will push prostitution underground

A placard calling for an end to abolition legislation for sex work at a demonstraion in Paris ahead of the Senate vote.
A placard calling for an end to abolition legislation for sex work at a demonstraion in Paris ahead of the Senate vote. AFP/Lionel Bonaventure

After France’s right-wing-dominated Senate voted against a Socialist government proposal to punish clients of prostitutes, analysts and sex workers told RFI they fear prostitution will continue to be pushed underground, with negative long-term consequences.


The Socialists’ 2013 proposal to punish the clients of prostitutes with fines of up to 1,500 euros has been scrapped and replaced with a counterproposal to reimpose prison sentences for soliciting.

It carries on a long-term argument between French polticians on how exactly to deal with prostitution.

The Socialist government proposal was intended to replace legislation passed in 2003 under proposals by former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who was interior minister at that time.

Under that law, paying or being paid for sex is not in itself illegal but a sex worker soliciting is a punishable offence.

In practice, the legislation has been used to target organised pimping.

Hundreds of prostitutes demonstrate in Paris

Critics complain it is also used to target certain behaviour, including standing on a street corner dressed a certain way.

Many French sex workers tend to disapprove of abolitionist approaches in general, saying that any such legislation pushes prostitution underground.

They want France to take a more pragmatic approach, like that of the Netherlands, where paying for sex is legal under certain circumstances and highly regulated.

“There are cases of violence, because the police very rarely protect sex workers,” a male prostitute told RFI during a march of several hundred people for sex workers’ rights in Paris on Saturday. “There are also many attacks against migrants, because the police want to deport migrant sex workers.”

Common among virtually all sex workers and supporters is their fear of being seen soliciting.

“We’re asking for the French parliament to move towards decriminalising clients and sex workers because that’s the only way to ensure sex workers can work in safe and healthy conditions,” says Tim Leicester, programme manager of the Lotus Bus, which supports Chinese prostitutes in Paris and is operated by French NGO Doctors of the World.

Others complained prostitution was a taboo subject, including one man who described himself as a citizen who joined the march to support sex workers.

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“We as citizens should try and speak of this subject and be in touch with sex workers in a normal, respectful serious way, without stigmatising them, without being afraid, and without being mal à l’aise [uncomfortable] as they say in French,” he said.

Others familiar with the issues pointed out that penalising soliciting means sex workers are under pressure to negotiate the terms of relations quickly and so are less likely to take measures to protect from disease.

“Traditionally, prostitutes would discuss with [clients] until they agree to wear a condom but that changes with the fear that police will arrive and tell them that they have been soliciting,” sociologist Marie-Elisabeth Handman, who has advised governments on prostitution legislation, told RFI on Tuesday. “As a result, we have seen in France there has been an increase of sexually transmitted diseases ever since the law of 2003 passed.”

However, even if the Senate’s vote means there is no change for the moment, the bill will go back for more debate in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, where the Socialists and their left-wing allies still cling to a majority.

It remains to be seen what changes will happen but the government has already slammed the Senate’s vote.

According to the constitution, when the two houses of parliament do not agree, the National Assembly has the final say.

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