Why Criminalizing Johns Won't Be Good for Sex Workers

The French National Assembly’s decision earlier this month to pass legislation criminalizing the clients of sex workers and restricting sex trafficking groups was a significant triumph for Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the Minister for Women's Rights. But will the legislation really help the thousands of women forced into prostitution by sex trafficking rings in France?

The protest was organized by the sex worker union STRASS, which called the law "nothing more than an attack on prostitutes." According to their analysis of the law, it would lead to "even more stigmatization and repression."

In accepting her ministerial position last June, Vallaud-Belkacem said that making prostitution in France "disappear" by prosecuting the clients of sex workers was her priority. She is the first Minister for Women’s Rights to be appointed since Jacques Chirac's term as the president of France ended in 2007. She is also a spokesperson for François Hollande's government. A 36-year-old Muslim with dual French and Moroccan nationality, her appointment was seen as the symbolic "face" of the new Socialist government. She is one of three Muslims in Hollande's cabinet. At the time of her appointment, the far-right questioned her commitment to the French state due to her dual nationality.

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Up to 90% of France's estimated 20,000 sex workers are immigrants and most are caught in sex trafficking rings, according to government figures. However, STRASS has also questioned this estimate. They call attention to the potential bias of figures based on street arrests of sex workers, who are the most visible but not the only type of sex workers in France.

The Swedish government is proud that criminalizing sex workers' clients has seen the number sex workers go down by half.

However, "data from Sweden show that the main effect of criminalization of purchasers is to drive sex work underground and out of sight, which is not the same as 'eliminating' it," contested Vance. The impact of equivalent legislation in France, a more populous nation with a higher number of sex workers, could be even more problematic.

"Whether criminalization is initially effective or not, the issue is now firmly on [France's] public agenda," Susan H. Perry, a professor of politics at the American University in Paris, explained to me. "Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has established herself as a champion of women's rights, and eventually one or two big name politicians will be caught in the snare."

Barbara Pompili, the co-president of the Green Party, was willing to take a side on the issue. On the day of the vote, she spoke to the National Assembly on her decision to oppose the legislation. She opened with the statements, "I am a woman. I am a feminist. I have fought for years against all violence against women."

It seems that Pompili is well aware of the political pitfalls of publically opposing reform that promises to prevent violence towards women. "I do not doubt the intentions of the authors and defenders of the text," she continued, before describing the risks associated with such criminalization.