The Oldest Profession in COVID-19 France

by Olivia McGhie

“We will stand strong when we stand together. Long live the Republic. Long live France”. This is the rallying cry emanating from a historically unpopular President who has divided opinion throughout his nearly three-years in the Elysée. These words come from his Presidential address to the nation prior to locking it down completely in an effort, replicated around Europe, to minimise the effects of the coronavirus. COVID-19 has swept across Europe, crept up on the Western world, silently growing in the background of the everyday; for too long being something that was “over there”, and is now suddenly upon us in the most dramatic fashion. In his speech Macron is urging France to reignite, in particular, one phrase of the 1789 Revolution that is so present in the collective imaginary: “fraternity”, to suppress, in the short term, “liberty”, and to forget about the third: “equality”. For whilst Macron and his treasury has promised a €300bn relief package which includes €8.5bn for two months of state payments to workers temporarily laid off, there is one group of workers in France that will slip into the shadows of the warm protective glow of the enlarged French state.

It is thought there are around 40,000 sex workers in France. Ninety percent of these workers are estimated to be trafficked, and thousands of them thought to be minors. Of course, the very nature of their work requires these people, of which the vast majority identify as female, to come into close contact with others. Close social contact with those outside of your immediate household has been outlawed by the government in a bid to stop the disease spreading. However, stopping work completely is not possible for the majority of prostitutes. Only a minority have registered as “self-employed” and can therefore claim the government grants of €1,500. However, to claim these grants you have to have declared yourself as “self-employed” for at least one year. Thus, it can be said that these workers, made redundant through no fault of their own, will receive nothing from the state and be forced into precarity; operating in a society whose understandable tunnel vision with regards to the virus, means that many will be governed by the emptied streets of the cities instead.

Independent organisations have begun, since the lockdown, raising money to be distributed to the workers who won’t receive any government aid. The Instagram page “Tapotepute” has raised nearly €14,000 in just a few short weeks. Nevertheless, for 40,000 workers, a much greater sum will be needed to cover even the most basic living costs. So, the women and men in this profession will be forced into more dangerous, more out of sight, and more violent settings and situations. Amar Protesta talking to HuffPost France said that since her work on the streets has all but stopped, she found herself breaking the cardinal sin she made for herself: emailing her clients to ask for work. This immediately puts her clients into the negotiating position which they have not failed to abuse: asking for sex without condoms, calling for half her fee, and saying they should meet a long way from her home. Another woman, interviewed by Le Monde, said that she has to take risks amidst the lockdown as seeing two clients a week will at least allow her to have enough money for food.

Yet, the problem of sex workers not being able to receive government aid during this indefinite period of uncertainty speaks to the wider problem of how prostitutes are treated in society. In April 2016 the French government passed a law that criminalised the act of paying for sex, imposing a minimum fine of €1,500 on perpetrators. This piece of legislation ushered in what is called an “end-demand model” of prostitution. For the policy makers who worked closely with abolitionist activists, prostitution is an innately oppressive profession and they believed they were liberating women through this law. However, making something illegal doesn’t decrease demand; it merely drives it underground. Sex workers operating after 2016 have said that they have been exposed to more violence and some clients have become more aggressive.

Of course, the question of prostitution is a grey area and whether it is or is not inherently oppressive is not the topic of this article. Yet, in passing this act, prostitutes argue that the French state has made them victims in the eyes of the law, rather than workers operating within a market. The binary view of the prostitute being a victim, or a delinquent has fallen on the former in recent years. Yet, for a state that deems these workers passive victims, it does little to manoeuvre the paternal hand of intervention to help them in a time of genuine crisis. The right to life, the right to a decent quality of life, during a national emergency should not be decided by a state that with one hand deems you a victim and with another deems you invisible.

The problem of visibility is a paradox within the prostitution system as well. For there are always those women who have enough agency to declare that they are freely entering into sex work. However, there are many silent voices within the industry, even belonging to those who are not trafficked. Unsurprisingly, women of colour and transwomen are the most vulnerable. Sex-trafficked women often have no voice at all. So, whilst all people working as sex workers should get government aid, those who have the agency to demand it is slim. The intersections of race and class are as prominent in the prostitution profession as they are in the wider job market and it is worth remembering that those who call for the legalising of the system are in a position lucky enough to enjoy it. These women should be championed and taken seriously as workers, but their silent sisters who do not enjoy this privilege, should not be forgotten.

 

Study Abroad Columnist: Olivia McGhie, 3rd Year BA History Undergraduate. Currently studying abroad at University Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, Paris.