French Prostitutes Protest Proposal to Legalize Brothels

French Prostitutes Protest Proposal to Legalize Brothels
French Prostitutes Protest Proposal to Legalize Brothels

Poor France. The land of "Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité" has long been renowned for its love of sensuality and its support of the lowly worker. But these two passions recently came into conflict when Chantal Brunel, a member of the National Assembly, proposed a law that would legalize brothels. According to her, this would improve the plight of sex workers by offering them safe, regulated places where they could work, receive medical attention and be protected from predatory pimps.

A poll conducted by Le Parisien newspaper suggests that Brunel's proposal is quite popular: 59% of respondents approved of reopening regulated bordellos, which have been illegal since 1946. Men were particularly effusive, with 70% in support of the plan, but women were also fairly positive: 49% agreed that it was a good idea and only 13% were actively opposed. In fact, the strongest criticism came from a surprising quarter: Earlier this week, French sex workers took to the streets to show their anger, claiming that legalized brothels would trample on their rights.

According to the protesters, the new law would forcibly change their work status. Under current laws, pimping -- which the Code pénal classifies as "procuring" -- carries penalties of up to seven years' imprisonment and a fine of 150,000 euros (about $200,000). The law is also very explicit, barring "helping, assisting, or protecting the prostitution of others; making a profit out of the prostitution of others; sharing the proceeds of or receiving income from a person engaging habitually in prostitution; hiring, training or corrupting a person with a view to prostitution or exercising ... pressure to practice prostitution or to continue doing so." While the anti-procuring laws haven't eliminated pimping, they go a long way toward protecting sex workers.

If the new law passes, sex workers claim, they would be required to work in bordellos, limiting their autonomy and putting them under the control of others and potentially encouraging pimping. As one sex worker stated, "Doctors ... can work for a company or they can be independent. I think the importance is to let people choose how they want to work." While Brunel hasn't completely delineated her plan, she notes the effectiveness of licensed brothels in the Netherlands and Switzerland. According to her, a "boss" or pimp would not be necessary.

Drawing the Legal Line Between Soliciting and Flirting

Adding to the streetwalker's dilemma, which Brunel's proposal seeks to ameliorate, is a 2003 law that makes it illegal to "passively solicit" customers for sex. This basically translates into using any means, "even a passive attitude," to encourage another person to have sexual relations in exchange for money. The trouble is, passive solicitation is very difficult to quantify: women who congregate in an area known for prostitution while wearing revealing dress can be charged with the crime; then again, so can women who make eye contact or smile at strangers. Given the famous flirtatiousness of la belle France, this contradiction can be more than a little troublesome. Although the definition of passive solicitation is somewhat vague, the punishment is not: the crime carries a fine of €3,750 ($5,000) and two months in prison.

Taken to its extreme, the 2003 law could make prostitution (and, arguably, risqué clothing) illegal in France. In reality, it has pushed the trade out of city centers and into more obscure -- and dangerous -- areas. On the bright side, this has cleaned up city centers in France; on the down side, it has also pushed sex workers into the hands of pimps, who are more easily able to operate in obscure, less-policed places. This has led directly to a rise in pimping.

According to sex workers, the best way to protect them would be to decriminalize sex work by repealing the 2003 law. But this could also encourage prostitutes to begin plying their trade again in town centers, a move that would likely reduce public sympathy for sex workers and push the pendulum back toward heavy regulation, police crackdowns, and a rise in pandering. As France tries to navigate the narrow strait between protecting sex workers and protecting public morality, it will need to call on its reserves of yet another famously Gallic virtue: finesse.