French sex workers demand open dialogue on proposal to fine clients

Opponents of the measure say it would create unprecedented risks for the workers

The proposal, up for debate in France’s parliament on Nov. 27, would allow police to fine sex workers’ customers.

A proposal to fine sex-trade customers in France, set for debate in parliament late this month, would create unprecedented safety risks for the very women the law aims to protect, according to sex-worker advocates.

“It’s going to be very dangerous for prostitutes if this law passes,” Manon, a French sex worker and spokeswoman for French sex-industry advocacy group Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (STRASS), told Al Jazeera.

“The prostitutes will be forced to hide,” she said. “When the police see a man approach a prostitute, they will fine the client. It’s going to be complicated. It will change everything.”

Manon, who declined to give her real name, explained that on the street, sex workers are able to survey their customers and negotiate terms of service. “At least on the street, we can see the customer, we can negotiate with them,” she said.

But if the clients are penalized, prostitutes will be forced to find customers online or through ads and receive them at home, said Manon. “When you are in an apartment alone with a man who you know nothing about, who is coming directly to you — that’s what will happen” if the law passes, she added.

Manon said STRASS is slated to hold an open meeting with legislators Thursday. Until now, sex workers have not been consulted by French lawmakers like Women’s Rights Minister Najat Vallaud Belkacem, who proposed the crackdown in in 2012.

Belkacem’s staff indicated to Al Jazeera that Socialist Party member of parliament Maud Olivier was involved in the writing of the proposal, but neither Belkacem nor Olivier responded to interview requests at the time of publication. 

Sex work is not illegal in France, but the industry exists in a legal gray area. Police often crack down on prostitutes on suspicion of trafficking and soliciting sex in public.

“At what point do they consult the people most affected by the law — the sex workers?” asked Melissa Gira Grant, a journalist and the author of an upcoming book on the sex industry, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work.

“They say we are victims, and apparently we don’t have the liberty to speak,” said Manon. "We are ignorant. They don’t take us into consideration because we are supposedly not intelligent.”

Grant said that by not consulting sex workers, French legislators have ignored a number of logistical problems with criminalizing patrons. In places where sex work is illegal in the U.S., she added, vague ads online and in newspapers “create opportunities for misunderstanding and possibly violence.”

Sex workers like Manon, Grant added, will be forced to move their businesses into their homes, the homes of their customers and hotels — without getting any sense of who they are or if they have any concealed weapons.  

The law would also increase the role of police in the day-to-day life of a prostitute, said Grant. "Historically, the police have been violent to sex workers in France," she said. In the 1970s, French sex workers occupied churches in Lyon to decry police harassment.

Increased risk of harassment by customers and police “is what happens when you don’t ask sex workers about these laws,” she said. “I look at this proposal, and I think, Do French lawmakers actually believe they know what’s best for these people?”

On Saturday, 70 French celebrities, including Catherine Deneuve, famous for portraying a high-class woman-turned-sex-worker in the film “Belle de Jour,”  came out against the proposal in an open letter.

“Without cautioning against or promoting prostitution, we oppose the criminalization of people who prostitute themselves and those who receive their services, and we ask for an open debate without ideological prejudices,” the letter read.

Manon said she appreciates the celebrities’ efforts but hopes sex workers will be included in the dialogue.

“I’m happy that we have supporters outside of prostitutes themselves, but (the lawmakers) have to listen to us.”

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