STRASS submission to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission Inquiry into the Reform of Prostitution Law

STRASS – Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (France)

c/o Act Up-Paris, 8 rue des Dunes, 75019 PARIS

Wednesday, May the 16th, 2018

To the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission,

Dear Madam,

STRASS is France sex workers’ trade union with more than 500 sex workers members all over France from all backgrounds. We are also in contact with thousands of colleagues through our presence in different work settings around the whole country.

Since April 2016, France has adopted the so called “Nordic model” that criminalises our clients. As a result, our incomes have decreased, especially for those of us who were already in the most precarious situations and who struggle the most to adapt to the new context. Indeed, due to the loss of some clients and working scenes displacements, clients’ bargaining power has increased and it is more and more difficult to impose our conditions such as good rates and condom use. The law that was supposed to support women has actually increased male power and domination over our lives.

Many of us are pushed to take more risk for our health and safety and we have already documented an increase in HIV infections, especially among migrant transgender women. Our friends and colleagues who have become HIV+ say that they no longer imposed condoms to clients because they didn’t want to starve and had to pay their rent. Another colleague committed suicide because she was desperate not being able to pay back debts she had accumulated.

Contrary to what prohibitionists claim, sex workers are still criminalised in France. Only soliciting laws have been removed but we haven’t seen the benefit of it because many other laws are used to prevent us from working or to repress us. Many municipalities have adopted local laws banning sex work to replace the repeal of the national (passive) soliciting law. The police are increasingly using other offenses such as “travail dissimulé” which is very ironic when politicians say that we are not workers. Procurement laws, brothel keeping laws, or anti-third party laws are all still used against sex workers who share a flat, a vehicle to work, or just help each other for their safety.

Violence is still a very big issue. We noted an increase in attack reports after the law in particular from migrant sex workers. We explain this increase by different factors: the need to move to more remote areas and to hidden workplaces, the decrease of solidarity and support between sex workers due to the higher competition, the bigger difficulty to select clients and to negotiate, a more stressful working environment, and the fact that many attackers know sex workers’ vulnerability after the law and tend to pose as clients in order to steal or have sex without paying.

We continue to distrust the police because they have not suddenly become feminist or pro-sex workers. Police officers continue to have sexist and racist prejudice against sex workers and do not protect us since their main aim is to dissuade us from working. Many sex workers say that they preferred the previous system because although we had to spend nights in police stations for soliciting, we were resisting repression and went back working on the streets the day after, whereas when clients are targeted they are afraid of the police and without clients there’s no point in staying in an area without working. With the previous law, at least we could maintain our level of incomes and were not scared to lose our homes or for the future of our children.

The law’s defenders pretend to help us but it is implemented in practice to chase away sex workers from city centres and areas where are enforced gentrification politics. It is especially the case against migrant sex workers and sex workers of colours due to complaints from local residents who want to make economic gain from property speculation and see us as a “public nuisance”. In addition, when sex workers report crime to the police, they have to give their address, which leads the police to arrest landlords for pimping and sex workers being evicted from their homes. Most of us hence prefer not to report anything.

When we complain about the increase of violence, the prohibitionists say that we lie or that sex work is always violence anyway. When we complain about the increased health vulnerabilities, the prohibitionists say that we lie or that sex work is always harmful to our health anyway. When we say that sex work has been driven even more underground, the prohibitionists say that we lie or that sex work was already underground anyway. When we complain about the loss of our incomes, the prohibitionists say that it proves the law is a success because the aim is not to improve our living & working conditions but to incite us to “leave prostitution”. They believe that by “ending the demand” we would have no other choice but to do a “real job”. We are sorry but we don’t see this as helping us.

In fact, the number of sex workers has not decreased since the law. Only our incomes have. The number of victims of trafficking has actually increased and the law has had no effect in terms of reducing forced labour or human trafficking. There are many more Nigerian women who have been victims of trafficking who are now working in France big cities after the law. The police are even now talking about “proxénétisme des cités” to explain the fact that many sex workers are now working in suburbs far from city centres. An organisation such as the “Bus des femmes” in Paris have noted 50% more victims of trafficking among the sex workers they help from 2016 to 2017.

We believe that clients’ criminalisation has increased the reliance on third parties and thus the risk of exploitation. We noted that Chinese sex workers for instance are increasingly paying third parties to write adverts online and answer the phone for them while they used to be able to communicate with clients on the streets with some words in French or English. Clients are now too scared to talk to them directly and waste time if they can’t understand quickly what they say.

In regions close to the border, sex workers travel to work abroad. The owner of the Paradise club, a brothel in Jonquera, Spain, welcomes France law saying it is good for his business. About 10% of our members are now working in neighbouring countries, complaining that they often have to work for an employer or a landlord when they used to be fully independent.

In our point of view, the so called “Nordic model” means more violence, more exploitation, more poverty, more danger and risk for our health. It doesn’t help us in any way and is only an ideology pushed in order to send a message to the rest of society, even if it means sacrificing our lives.

Our voices are never heard. Any sex worker who speaks up against the law is called a pimp, or manipulated by pimps. Our pain and suffering are always used against ourselves to further silence us and deny our capacity to make decisions as adults. Our voice is confiscated by Christian organisations that now claim to be secular and feminist. These organisations receive more funding to “save us from prostitution” and claim that most of us were trafficked without any scientific evidence to support their claim, but nobody dares challenging them by fear to be called accomplice of crimes against women and children, such as slavery, rape, and torture.

The so called “parcours de sortie” that is presented as the great success of the law has “helped” only 56 sex workers to date while many others have entered the industry in the same time. 15 millions euros have been spent to “help” exiting sex work. But sex workers have seen nothing or very little of this money. In France, everyone over 25yo without an income can obtain a social right called Revenu de Solidarité Active (RSA) that gives you about 550 euros a month. The allowance from the “parcours de sortie” being much lower, most sex workers are not interested in it. Mostly undocumented migrants who can’t get the RSA may be interested but the current government doesn’t want to give them papers and help them. All this explains why the majority of sex workers who may have been interested in the “exiting programme” have been refused the “help”.

We don’t see this as “help” anyway because it is conditioned to the fact to stop sex work. Often, sex workers have to prove that they have already stopped sex work for several months, speak fluently French, do not have criminal records or haven’t received a deportation order. Probably, the government fears a high rate of failure showing that this exiting programme is useless and thus impose such strict criteria to enter the “parcours de sortie”. The prohibitionists and the police fear that sex workers will try to get the financial “help” while continuing sex work, which is what most people would do since the allowance is not enough to live properly.

Most sex workers who want to quit the sex industry do it without any “help”, so that they are not controlled and watched by the police and prohibitionist organisations in charge of checking that they have actually “left prostitution”. The facts show that it is certainly preferable in order to avoid any risk of deportation. For example, in Nice, most of the Nigerian sex workers were refused the “help” by fear of what the politicians call “appel d’air” which means that helping migrants may encourage more migrants coming to France. Instead of getting a six months residency permit and an allowance, those sex workers were sent to detention centres.

Human rights organisations and institutions have criticised the situation where access to rights is conditioned to the fact to stop a job that is legal and subjected to taxes. They say especially for the sex workers who were victims of trafficking that such a system creates a discrimination against those who don’t want or were not able to quit sex work and who should receive protection without condition. We sex workers call it blackmail.

On the 12th April new evidence was released about the impacts of the law. Key findings of the most recent study include:

– 63% of sex workers have experienced deterioration of their living conditions, more isolation and greater stress.

– 78% of sex workers have experienced a loss of income due to decrease in number of clients and fall of rates.

– 42% of sex workers are more exposed to violence.

– 38% of sex workers find it increasingly hard to demand use of condom.

– 70% of sex workers observe no improvement or deterioration of their relations with the police.

As a sex workers’ trade union, we share the same demands of our colleagues in the UK and all over the world which are the full decriminalisation of sex work, the recognition of sex work as labour, and the respect of our human rights. We believe that prohibition doesn’t help us to fight exploitation or forced labour as it is a waste of police resources, criminalise those who may help us such as other colleagues or good clients, and is aimed at stopping us from working instead of protecting us. For instance, third party laws and brothel keeping laws mean that we never call the police when we suffer exploitation since none of us want police raids on our workplaces that end up in closing sex venues and losing our livelihood. None of us want our clients arrested when we want their money.

Only decriminalisation, labour rights, and a strong trade union movement can help us to defend ourselves against the abuses that exist in the sex industry. This is the strategy developed by the workers’ movement during the last centuries and there is no reason (apart from bigotry and discrimination) why sex workers should be excluded from this labour framework.

We demand our labour rights. We don’t want Christian charity nor scornful pity. We are workers and are proud to be part of the working class. The victim status offered by the state and the prohibitionists is not empowering. Only our struggles are.

Solidarity with all sex workers in the UK and in the world.

On behalf of STRASS,

Mylène Juste, General Secretary