Najat Vallaud-Belkacem
France's Minister of Women's Rights and government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has undertaken the task of abolishig prostitution in her country.

The French Socialist Party was elected into power in April with a full mandate, winning the presidency as well as majorities in both houses of parliament, and now it has put part of that political capital to work for an unconventional goal: abolishing the “world’s oldest profession” in France.

Prostitution is a form of violence against women, according to the Socialists. “My objective, like that of the Socialist Party, is to see prostitution disappear,” France’s Minister of Women’s Rights and government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said in a June interview with French weekly Journal du Dimanche. “I’m not naive, I know it is a long-term project.”

As it currently stands, prostitution itself is not illegal in France, provided that it is not conducted with a minor under the age of 18. Brothels and pimping have been outlawed for decades.

More recently, in 2003, under the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) administration of then-President Jacques Chirac, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy – who later became president himself -- introduced a more controversial law criminalizing “passive solicitation,” essentially making it a crime for a woman to wear “revealing” clothing while standing alone in a public place “known for prostitution.”

The result has been that prostitution has moved from street corners to parking lots on the edges of cities, where women sell sex out of vans equipped with mattresses in the back, as documented in an article by the Guardian.

The Internet has also allowed prostitution to circumvent the ban on public solicitation, though using the Web is considered more dangerous than street prostitution because it is difficult to screen clients before an encounter.

The Socialists would like to repeal the public solicitation law, which they say is a violation of civil rights and contributes to the stigmatization of prostitutes, forcing them out of public view and placing them into more vulnerable circumstances.

They do, however, see eye to eye with the conservative opposition on criminalizing clients, which Vallaud-Belkacem has discussed as the next step in abolishing prostitution, rather than taking punitive measures against those soliciting sex.

In April 2011, a cross-party parliamentary commission chaired by Socialist MP Danielle Bousquet and National Assembly member Guy Geoffroy of the then-governing UMP, published a report on prostitution in France and suggested fines of up to €3,000 (around $3,800) and six months of jail time for clients of prostitution, France 24 reported, similar to laws already in place in Sweden, Norway and Iceland.

Vallaud-Belkacem, working with Interior Minister Manuel Valls, intends to implement such a law. But for advocates who work or have worked in the sex industry, the proposal is a nonstarter.

Hidden Prostitutes

“Toughening laws against the sex trade will only drive prostitution further underground. It will be bad for the prostitutes and it will be bad for society at large,” said France Arnould, head of Amis du Bus des Femmes, an organization that provides health services for prostitutes in France, according to France 24.

Morgane Merteuil, general secretary of Stress, a French prostitutes’ union, told France 24 that criminalizing clients would not make things safer for prostitutes. “Prostitutes will be hidden from organizations that can help them, as well as from health services, and they will be more susceptible to being victims of violence," Merteuil said.

Their argument is that criminalizing clients does not deter them from buying sex, but instead it forces them to do it illegally and under more dangerous circumstances for those selling sex.

In essence, their opposition to the client criminalization law is based on the same principle as the Socialists' opposition to the public solicitation ban.

Both prostitution abolitionists and advocates will point to data supporting their arguments, but the reality is that in an industry that is largely underground, such data is hard to find.

The French government estimates that there are roughly 20,000 prostitutes in the country, 90 percent of whom it claims are foreign and 80 percent victims of sex trafficking, according to the parliamentary report.

And In The Rest Of Europe…

Addressing prostitution also entails a host of other issues, including human trafficking, transmission of HIV, sexual violence, drug abuse and access to housing and education. Other countries, which have taken a regulatory approach, are mostly concerned with addressing those issues associated with prostitution, and not so much with changing social attitudes about it.

Sweden is known for its abolitionist model, which criminalizes the purchase (but not the sale) of sex, while several other countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany have taken regulatory approaches based on keeping both the sale and purchase of sex legal.

Sweden enacted the Sex Purchase Act in 1999, becoming the first country to criminalize clients but not prostitutes.

The immediate impact was a decline in prostitution on the streets. The Swedish government reported a 50 percent decrease from 730 street-based prostitutes in 1998 to around 300 to 430 in 2010, concluding that they had ceased selling sex. In a 2012 paper, Ann Jordan, Director of the Program on Forced Labor and Trafficking in the Center on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at American University, questioned the claim. “[T]he (Swedish) government assumed that this reduction is real -- that the women did not move to the Internet or indoors, and that the reduction was caused by the law,” Jordan wrote.

“The government also agrees that selling sex over the Internet is increasing, but it cannot state who is causing the increase -- new sex workers or former street-based sex workers.”

“[T]he government does not have any evidence of a decrease in sex buyers since the law went into effect,” Jordan added. “They do not know how many men were soliciting on the street before or after the law. They do not know if men moved from the streets to indoors and online, or out of the country. They have not collected such data and so cannot prove any success in achieving the primary goal of the law.”

Looking at other factors like human trafficking for sexual exploitation, the data is scarce, but the Swedish government has cited its police force’s analysis “that the ban against the purchase of sexual services works as a barrier for human traffickers and procurers to establish themselves in Sweden.”

According to government figures, there were approximately 400 to 600 persons trafficked into Sweden in 2004, a relatively low number compared to neighboring countries, though more recent data is not available.

So, at least in regard to sex trafficking, it seems Sweden’s policies have been successful.

At the same time that Sweden cracked down on the demand side of prostitution, Denmark legalized it in 1999. Pimping and brothels remain illegal, and only legal residents can work as prostitutes.

There are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 prostitutes in Denmark, the vast majority of whom are foreign, coming from Eastern Europe and Africa. Many of these women are believed to be victims of sex trafficking.

What has become clear is that pimping is still widely practiced, and often by other older prostitutes who have shifted toward managing new arrivals.

“We thought that these women would be trapped and kidnapped and they wanted to be saved and rescued and they wanted to go back home," Anne Brandt-Christensen of the Danish Center Against Human Trafficking told CNN. "But what we found out is that this is a much more complex phenomenon."

Abolish Or Accept?

Both approaches aim to better the conditions for prostitutes and combat the issues associated with them, but it is the abolitionist approach that fundamentally rejects the concept of prostitution, while the regulatory approach accepts it as a part of society.

Norma Ramos, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking Women, which is based in New York, believes that the majority of women engaged in prostitution are victimized and rejects arguments that a woman has the right to choose selling sex for a living.

“Human sexuality is not for work,” Ramos said, adding that it is the responsibility of governments to set “social justice standards.”

Prostitution advocates argue that governments have no right to dictate what they do with their bodies.

“We no longer have a choice in the matter,” said Catherine Stephens, an activist at the International Union for Sex Workers, based in London. “Our consent is handed over to the state.”

Ramos counters this notion, arguing that the majority of women enter into or are forced into prostitution because of social and economic inequities, and that policies should be based on helping those women overcome them rather than defending the rights of what she views as a minority of women who willingly enter into prostitution.

“It is a small percentage of women, maybe one percent,” Ramos said. “We have to base our policies on the 99 percent.”

Stephens criticizes countries like Sweden, and now France, for making policy decisions on prostitution without consulting prostitution advocacy groups, and thereby missing the perspective of how those policies might actually affect sex workers.

While abolitionists debate those who support tolerance, sex workers on the ground have a more pressing dilemma. For the estimated 20,000 prostitutes in France, the new law will be simply about the other choices they have if the government intends to make prostitution disappear.