France could soon make dressing sexy in public a criminal offense

As of now, prostitution is technically legal in France. But under a new law that just passed the Senate, looking sexy in public is not.

The French law criminalizes prostitution—specifically, the ‘passive solicitation’ of prostitution, which means, according to the UK’s Mirror, it can be used to arrest women for wearing skimpy outfits.

“Our association has reacted very angrily to the introduction of passive soliciting, and denounced it,” Fatima Benomar from the French feminist group les efFRONTé-e-s told the Daily Dot via email on Wednesday, “Prostitution is a phenomenon that affects all women. We are all worried, insulted, harassed when we wear skirts, with the famous insult ‘slut.'”

The law still needs to pass the National Assembly, so French women don’t have to cover up their shameful, filthy bodies just yet. But if the anti-sex work legislation is enacted, the passive solicitation provision could mean serious trouble for any woman in France wearing a short skirt and heels, waiting for a bus, or making conversation in public with a strange man.

The law also makes it a criminal offense to advertise online. Advocates say such laws drive sex work underground and send sex workers into the street, which can create a far more dangerous environment for them.

Soliciting has been illegal since 2003, according to French sex worker union Strass. But when this new law was proposed in 2013, it repealed the offense of soliciting and replaced it with criminal charges for clients. On Monday night, in a move that shocked politicians and women’s rights advocates as well as sex workers, a mostly male Senate majority suddenly reversed the law’s language and voted in a bill that put all of the burden on sex workers. 

“In theory prostitution is legal as a private activity between two consenting adults,” Thierry, a Strass member, said in an email to the Daily Dot. “In practice, we have no right to advertise, to solicit clients, to rent a place where we can accommodate clients, we can’t work in groups and associate with other sex workers for our protection, and any person who works with us or helps us to work becomes a pimp. We call that hypocrisy since we pay taxes but everything is made impossible to work in good conditions.”

France’s Minister of Social Affairs, Marisol Touraine, called the decision “incredible and regressive.”

“What happened that night is absolutely amazing and contemptuous of women,” said Touraine in an interview on France 2, a national public television channel.

An anti-prostitution activist, Grégoire Thery, also bemoaned the decision to place the onus on sex workers rather than on their clients. He told France24 that 75 percent of female senators voted to criminalize clients, while 75 percent of male senators voted against it.

“The only explanation for this opposition is that it is a macho Senate,” Thery told France24.

Other anti-prostitution abolitionists harshly criticized the Senate vote as well. The group Osez le Féminisme (Dare Feminism) issued a statement on its website on Tuesday saying that “Machismo continues to reign” in the Senate and that the law punishes what they see as victims who need alternatives.

Anne-Cécile Mailfert, a spokesperson for Osez le Féminisme, told the Daily Dot that the fight is not over, and that she hopes the bill will be reverted to its original intent as it moves through the assembly.

“Indeed the crime to ‘passively solicit’ is affecting all women. How do you prouve such solicitation?” said Mailfert in an email to the Daily Dot. “Police argue it’s not wearing panties, the size of skirts or having too many condoms in a bag. All this is extremely discriminating for women, and dangerous for all–should you not carry condoms?”

Even in North America, sex worker advocates expressed concerns that the law will be applied too broadly to women in general.

Melissa Ditmore, editor of the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, told the Daily Dot that ‘passive behavior’ soliciting laws usually refer to acts as simple as standing on a sidewalk or sitting in one’s own car.

“I worry that this would be used to harass people who police see as undesirable in public spaces,” Ditmore said, “The law could make it risky for women, and perhaps anyone, to speak to people in public spaces like parks, sidewalks, and more.”

Ditmore also said that the law would likely be used to crack down on sex workers that advertise online, since advertising would count as soliciting.

Until Monday, it was presumed that the Senate would approve the part of the law that criminalizes clients. Much of the controversy revolved around whether France would adopt what is sometimes called the “Swedish” or “Nordic model,” which criminalizes buying sex rather than selling it. Such models are often referred to as “End Demand” policies. 

Earlier this year, the Seattle chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) released an “Open Letter to Policy and Law Makers” that cited End Demand policies, which are popular stateside as well as internationally, as a law enforcement failure. The letter also called for more sex workers to be consulted during the legislative process.

“Legislation that governs sex work without consulting sex workers themselves and sex worker advocacy organizations such as ours, inevitably falls short of understanding the complex nature of the adult industry,” read the SWOP statement.

In France, the struggle over the law continues. Strass told the Daily Dot that sex workers continue to protest and that public opinion is against the law, but it still has to be reviewed at the National Assembly.

“We don’t want a law against prostitution,” said Strass member Thierry, “We want a law for sex workers’ rights that decriminalizes all parts of sex work and guarantees us all labor rights like other workers.”

Photo via Dana Voss/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara

Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.