When I first listened to Morgane Merteuil, general secretary of the Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (STRASS) (French Union of Sex Work) commenting on the new project of law currently being examined in France to criminalize sex workers’ clients, I had to admit I was intrigued.
There she was, strongly condemning the prospective law, and she used an argument that stuck with me: We would like people to stop thinking of us as victims, as persons to be pitied, we are sex workers and our rights deserve to be respected. The current law in France makes prostitution legal but doesn’t regulate it, leaving sex workers with no adapted and appropriate legal protection to speak of, while pimping and soliciting are forbidden, leaving street sex workers in a great state of vulnerability. Merteuil based her statement on human rights, and more precisely, on the Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, a document signed by more than 200 sex workers and like-minded organisations. The declaration underlines the WHO and UNAIDS statements that criminalizing sex workers only drives the activity underground, allowing all kinds of violence and harmful practices on sex workers, preventing public health policies (especially with regards to HIV and AIDS prevention and STIs) to be correctly implemented. The message of the declaration is two fold: first, that sex workers are citizens and as such should be treated as equally before the law as the rest of the population, which is currently not the case, and that sex work is work and that as such, it should be regulated by labour laws.
The debate is being fiercely held in Europe as some feminist groups and anti-trafficking organisations support the abolitionist stance, stating that a body is not a good that can be sold, while other feminists and public health associations answer back that abolitionists make a confusion between trafficking and pimping networks and non forced prostitution, stating that their bodies is their own and that they should be allowed to do whatever they please with it.
Outside of the ownership of the body debate and whether it can be sold or not, the question that nagged me was the point of trafficked women forced into prostitution. Looking at it superficially, and when I heard Merteuil’s statement, I instinctively thought: very well for women who go freely into prostitution, but I bet the woman tricked into sex work will be glad her clients are prosecuted. Such a trail of thought lasted for just about long enough until I looked into the issue a little deeper and that discrepancies in the law and its application emerged. Indeed, foreign sex workers arrested for soliciting do not benefit from the same procedure as French ones or people holding a residency card, and the issue of their trials often results in them being re-conducted to their home country, where the vicious circle of trafficking can start all over again, or the result can even be a pure and simple interdiction to be on French territory. The same goes for several European countries such as Sweden. Besides, in France, a trafficked sex worker can only be seen as a survivor of trafficking if she cooperates with the police and denounces her pimp, which is basically conditioning a right to an informing system, something that might be very dangerous to do, pimps often threatening sex workers to attack and beat and rape them and their families back home. Sweden, one the first countries to criminalize sex workers clients, boasts that street based sex work has now decreased in half and that the country is not a destination for trafficked sex workers anymore: first of all, I’d like to know the percentage of clandestine sex work now taking place in the country, and I’m just wondering how exactly shifting the problem to another destination actually solves it.
People who freely go into prostitution and their claims are often dismissed because they’re seen as a privileged minority with no sense of the terrible realities trafficked sex workers have to face. However, such a statement is only made to silence their voices and is yet another product of a moralistic and judgmental stance. Rather, solidarity with trafficked women is high on their agenda, as exemplified by article 5 of the Declaration on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe that stipulates at point 11 that ‘Measures should be taken to provide appropriate assistance and protection to victims of trafficking, forced labour & slavery like practices with full respect for the protection of their human rights. Provision of residency permits should be provided to ensure effective access to justice and legal remedies, including compensation, irrespective of their willingness to collaborate with law enforcement. Trafficked persons must not be returned to situations in countries that will lead to their re-trafficking or result in other harms’.
Protecting trafficked women from forced sex doesn’t reside in criminalizing clients or sex workers: if the primaries concerned, sex workers, tell us so, then it’s probably time we listen to them. Besides, criminalizing and preventing and outlawing will only worsen the already high rate of violence and murder sex workers have to face by making the whole industry go underground, allowing organised crime to take over. The issue of smuggling human beings under false pretence and trafficking is a global, systemic one: to efficiently tackle it, economic systems and policies have to be rethought, non-discriminatory policies, laws and procedures have to be put in place in all relevant countries to ensure an appropriate response respectful of each person’s human rights and broad campaigns have to be made available for victims to know where to safely seek help if they need it.
After all, I don’t know why I even pondered on the populist nature of the abolitionist law: I should have known, me the Lebanese whose country doesn’t have a proper legal regime regulating sex work, thus allowing horrific folders of rows and rows of women abused by their pimping networks for the sex tourist to choose from, these folders only the tip of the underground abusive sex industry iceberg.