France’s New Approach to Curbing Prostitution
Published: December 8, 2013
The lower house of the French Parliament overwhelmingly passed a bill last Wednesday that would impose stiff fines on anyone paying for sex, while offering assistance to prostitutes to leave the sex industry. The law, which is expected to be passed by the Senate by summer, has been bitterly debated. But it would bring France more in line with a growing consensus among European and American governments that it makes better sense to treat prostitutes as exploited and abused victims rather than as criminals. That has become increasingly true in Europe with the increase in the trafficking of foreign women, including underage girls, to work in richer countries.
In shifting much of the legal onus from sex workers to their clients, France plunged into the heart of a debate that has sharply split Europe for years. The debate has been between those, most notably Sweden, who argue that prostitution is a form of predatory violence against women and must be punished, and those, like Germany and Denmark, who maintain that criminalizing prostitution only drives it underground and exposes sex workers to greater dangers. These and other arguments — the right to sexual freedom, the hypocrisy of punishing clients but not the prostitutes, the danger of driving sex workers farther from city centers — sounded loudly across France.
In the end what pushed the French National Assembly to act — and what may soon compel Germany to follow suit — is the growing number of prostitutes from poorer countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Nigeria, China and Thailand. Nine out of 10 prostitutes in France are reported to be of foreign origin, and many are presumed to be victims of sex traffickers.
The French law is intended to reduce the market by fining those who pay for sex up to 1,500 euros, about $2,000, while providing programs for sex workers to train for different work. It would also set up a fund to offer protection to prostitutes who want to leave the sex business, including short-term residence permits for foreigners.
The law will not eradicate prostitution; no law ever has. But governments around the world are increasingly guided by the idea that sex workers are victims themselves, and should be helped rather than punished.
New York State and several American cities have created specialized criminal courts that help accused prostitutes get safe shelter, medical and drug treatment, immigration assistance, and education or job training. If the French law can help those who have been coerced into prostitution to escape their bondage and forge new lives, it should be welcomed.