Sex workers in France are in our hearts and minds today as the French National Assembly passed a law to criminalise clients. This law will be a disaster for sex workers by forcing women to work in more isolated areas and make them more vulnerable to attack.
At a time of economic crisis when poverty among women and children is rising throughout Europe and more women, particularly mothers, are working in the sex industry to survive, for the French government to increase criminalisation in this way shows a complete disregard for the lives and safety of women.
Criminalising clients will not stop prostitution, nor will it stop the criminalisation of women. But it will make more dangerous and stigmatising for sex workers.
After a similar law was introduced in Sweden, stigma and discrimination increased. Many sex workers are still prosecuted for working together in premises in safety. Landlords have been pressured by police to evict sex worker tenants under threat of being prosecuted themselves. Police have also been known to report sex workers to hotels and – most devastatingly – sex work is frequently cited as a reason for refusing child custody. Research by Rose Alliance, the sex worker organisation in Sweden, found 63% of sex workers said that the sex purchase law had created more prejudices.
We call on governments everywhere to follow the example of New Zealand where prostitution was decriminalised in 2003 with verifiable success for safety and rights.
The law in France had previously been rejected by the Senate after it received compelling evidence that clients, anxious about being fined, could force sex workers into isolation where they would be at increased risk of violence. The French police association said that criminalising clients would make it more difficult to dismantle pimping networks as clients would not dare to speak out.
The law goes against Amnesty International which recommended decriminalisation because of the harm caused by criminalisation, specifically the ways in which it puts sex workers at greater risk of violence, including police violence; denies sex workers access to justice and police protection; and encourages discrimination in the provision of housing, health and immigration status. It called on states to provide resources in the form of “state benefits, education and training and/or alternative employment” to help sex workers leave prostitution if they want. AI also recognised that women, transgender people and migrants are over represented in sex work because of discrimination, and demands that states take action to improve and support their situation not “devalue their decisions, compromise their safety and criminalise the context of their lives”.
Selma James, our first spokeswoman, wrote recently about our common history with sex workers in France:
“The famous prostitutes’ strike launched the modern sex workers’ movement in the west: women had occupied churches first in Lyon and then all over France to protest police arresting and fining them while doing nothing to stop murders and rapes. They formed the French Prostitute Collective and proclaimed: ‘Our children don’t want their mothers in jail.’ Their actions inspired sex workers here to form the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP).”
English Collective of Prostitutes – 020 7482 2496 – firstname.lastname@example.org