The French have a long history with prostitution. From Madame du Barry to the paintings of Degas and Picasso, prostitution has been celebrated as an inherent, and even glamorous, part of French culture.
But in 2016, the reality of the practice is starkly different. Now, the majority of prostitutes are trafficked, often immigrants fleeing political or economic hardships only to find themselves at the mercy of an often abusive sex trade.
In response, France has criminalized sex work. The law takes a more modern approach: the guilty are no longer the workers, but the clients. Someone caught buying sex can now be fined a whopping $1,500 euros (USD $1,700) and repeat offenders can be slapped with a $3,750 (USD $4,260), according to Vocativ.
Criminalizing the sale of sex is a moral minefield. On the one hand, the women’s empowerment movement advocates a woman’s right to do whatever she wants with her body; that means the right to say no as well as the right to say yes, for compensation or not.
Sex workers are protesting the decision, publicly rallying with signs declaring that their work is legitimate, and the new law will have negative consequences for their safety and social standing. Indeed, in other countries, criminalizing sex work has pushed it to the darker underground, and legally working prostitutes now face a hard decision about staying or continuing in their field.
At the same time, the problem of human trafficking is so widespread and devastating that it is difficult to oppose efforts to cripple the market that drives it. Lawmakers have been clear that the main motivation behind the bill is to curb the sexual exploitation of women. France’s thriving sex trade has increased demand for a steady stream of sex workers: willing and unwilling.
“As a teenager, I worked in Germany’s legal sex industry. I was, like many girls in the club, underage; most of us were immigrants, nearly all of us had histories of trauma and abuse prior to our entry into commercial sex. Several of us had pimps despite working in a legal establishment; all of us used copious amounts of drugs and alcohol to get through each night.
Violence is inherent in the sex industry. Numerous studies show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of children and women who end up in commercial sex were sexually abused prior to entry. No other industry is dependent upon a regular supply of victims of trauma and abuse.”
There are no easy answers to problems of violence against women, and no one way to empower women. France is taking a holistic approach, not stopping at punitive measures, according to Thomson Reuters. Those caught soliciting prostitutes will be required to take a course which raises awareness of the sex trade. Additionally, prostitutes who want to leave the profession will be given temporary residence status and financial support.
At a time when Europe is struggling with the moral and financial implications of taking in refugees and citizens are increasingly hostile, it is heartening to see France embrace not only the rights of its women, but every woman.
Feature photo: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Picasso