A very public argument over a proposed law between a male feminist group and prostitutes' unions is raising issues of gender, law, and desire
French sex worker union members demonstrate in front of French Assembly in Paris / AP
The last time French gender relations made international headlines was in the spring; accusations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn proved fertile ground for discussions of a French-American culture divide, especially after -- in contrast to perhaps overreadiness in the American media to believe the assault allegations -- several French public figures immediately suggested there might be a conspiracy.
This time, the story is potentially more feminist-friendly: a move to ban prostitution. "Potentially" more feminist-friendly, that is, because though ban advocates are eager to end exploitation, the tricky dynamics of the prostitution debate often have some feminists on the side of keeping prostitution legal.
In the French case, the debate has in at least one case pit a male lobbying group against a predominantly female one. The ZeroMacho group of feminist "men against prostitution" are for abolition. The prostitutes' unions are not.
Currently, prostitution is legal in France, though both pimping and soliciting come with heavy fines and possible jail time. Tuesday, a preliminary vote in France's National Assembly set events in motion to change this: a bill will now be brought to criminalize prostitution itself, though it seems likely to follow the Swedish model in criminalizing the buying rather than the selling. That's in sharp contrast to the United States, where states almost universally punish prostitutes themselves as well as their clients. In Louisiana, convicted prostitutes are not only considered felons, but registered as sex offenders.
The move to increase stigmatization, both social and legal, regarding the buying of sex is one heavily championed by this ZeroMacho men's group. "Every man," they write in their manifesto
, "can claim his own rights without denying others theirs, and can empower himself without dominating others." They continue:
Paying for access to the most private parts of the body of a person who feels no desire has nothing to do with a business contract based on freedom and equality. In those circumstances, freedom is an illusion and equality is trampled. Together, let's build a world in which no one would dream of buying access to another person's body, and the pleasures of sex won't be tied to money or violence!
In keeping with this target-the-men policy, the group recommends among other points for action that society refuse to call the buyers of sex "clients," calling them instead prostitueurs, i.e. "prostituters."
In an interview
with the French women's site Terrafemina, quoted only partly in a BBC writeup
, ZeroMacho member Jean-Sébastien Mallet said that, "indirectly," the DSK affair and recent allegations of DSK's contact with a prostitution ring had "brought to light crucial questions, like the place of desire and sexuality in humanity, addiction, [and] the need for limits when power and money allows one to buy everything."
But what might be even more interesting to international observers with prostitution debates in their own countries is the way in which Mallet deals with the feminist objection to banning prostitution. What immediately becomes apparent when reading this interview, particularly if one comes from a punish-the-client, punish-the-prostitute culture, is one rhetorical strength of the client-focused anti-prostitution approach: the feminist personal autonomy objection recedes from the debate somewhat.
"The principal of the right to make choices about one's own body remains valid," Mallet says in response to the feminist challenge. "The question is 'does one have the right to make choices about another person's body?' and there we clearly say no." To him, it's the most consistent way of dealing with human rights: "We don't kill, we don't rape, we don't torture, we don't establish ownership over another person's body." The idea is that sexual relations in a prostitution setting are inherently unequal, as "it's a relation dominated by money. If the client were not to pay, the prostituted person would not have the sexual relation with this stranger who she neither desires nor loves. If she did desire or love him, there wouldn't be an exchange of money for sexual relations." Fundamentally, Mallet sees prostitution as a "machismo"-related problem.
Of course, that doesn't mean French prostitutes agree with the position. Take, for example, the riveting profile
of call girl Morgane Merteuil presented in French paper Libération
. An activist who got into prostitution while "searching for a job to pay for [her] studies" of "Camus and the nihilists," Merteuil presents the sort of problem for progressives not unlike that seen in season one of the West Wing,
when a character befriends
a call girl who wants him to know that she wasn't abused as a child, likes her job, is putting herself through law school, and makes more money than he does. Speaking of the anti-prostitution advocacy groups, Merteuil says "they think we're alienated, that whatever we say is distorted, biased, and that there's nothing to be gained from debating us." That's hateful and "hurtful," she adds. Merteuil is one of the sex workers preferring the word "whore" to "prostitute," seeking to reclaim the former slur the way, in her words, "the gay and lesbian movements have reappropriated the terms 'queer.'"
Though the anti-prostitution advocates in fact only want to punish clients, not the prostitutes, Merteuil and her union are against that, too. Some feel it will drive prostitution further underground, to where the truly, unambiguously ugly exploitation is more likely to take place. But Mertueil simply doesn't like having people "dictate [her] conduct."
Right now, Merteuil and the prostitutes' unions look likely to be disappointed, as there seems to be sufficient political will at present to pass anti-prostitution legislation. That may make Mertueil's life a bit harder, and who knows what it will mean for coerced sex work. On the other hand, at least neither Merteuil nor the archetypal immigrant in the underground brothel is going to be labeled a sex offender anytime soon. Compared to Louisiana, France is a feminist paradise in that regard.
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is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic