In April 2018 we co-authored a report, now translated into English, on the French Prostitution Act of 2016. This act introduced the ‘Nordic model’ to France, which targets the demand for commercial sex by criminalising its purchase (the clients) rather than its sale. Our report drew on data from over 70 interviewed and 580 surveyed sex workers to assess the law’s impact so far. We revealed that the lives of sex workers have worsened considerably since their clients became criminals, with their working conditions, health, rights, security and overall living conditions all suffering as a result.
This spring we consulted NGOs and grassroots organisations across France to follow up our analysis. The situation has not improved. Repression resulting from the criminalisation of clients continues to negatively impact the lives of sex workers. It reinforces marginalisation and increases violence and stigma, exposing them to financial precarity and threats to their health.
Equally concerning are the disappointing results to date from the act’s much lauded ‘prostitution exit programme’. The programme has so far only reached a limited number of people across the country and its existence has further reinforced stigma against those who do not wish or are not able to stop sex work.
The closed entrance of the ‘prostitution exit programme’
On the face of it, the exit programme holds some promise. It contains provisions that, in many cases, could respond to the expressed needs of sex workers. These include temporary residence permits, access to housing, and help with looking for other forms of employment. However, the mechanism has come in for harsh criticism in terms of its implementation and the images of sex work it conveys. Furthermore, as our report showed, within implementation committees there is a strong tension between the government’s and local authorities’ approach to fighting irregular immigration, and providing tangible support to the people wanting to stop sex work.
More than half of the sex workers we interviewed at the start of 2018 were unaware of the exit programme. One year later, according to the organisations we consulted, the number of individuals who have successfully applied to the programme remains relatively small. The local authorities that have validated the highest number of applications appear to be the Haute Garonne region (Toulouse), where eighteen applications had been successful as of April 2019, and the eight local authorities in the greater Paris region, where 57 applications had been validated as of the November 2018. Other regions, including those with large cities, have accepted few to no applications.
One likely reason for this is that sex workers are asked to quit sex work before presenting their applications to the exit programme committees. The organisations we consulted repeatedly emphasised the problem with this, namely that it leaves open the question of how applicants are expected to financially support themselves and their dependants in the interim. Waiting for a decision on an application can take a very long time.
While it is unclear how committees apply this criterion or how they intend to control what sex workers do for a living whilst being in the programme, giving up sex work immediately and entirely remains a requirement for accessing the exit programme’s provisions. This administrative demand does not leave room for gradual changes that could lead applicants to an eventual exit from sex work according to their needs and possibilities. The exit must be hard, and it must be now.
Exit programme committees: selection criteria and structural suspicion
The problem is complicated by the many different actors involved in administering the programme. These range from the committees presided over by the regional prefect, to the many organisations active in the field, to the social workers following up on sex workers’ applications. All of these are potential gatekeepers. The prefect, for example, selects who will be accepted based upon the recommendations of accredited organisations. This not only gives the prefect discretionary power, but turns accreditation into a powerful tool for choosing which groups have a say in the process. This means that sex workers’ ability to choose the organisation that supports them is restricted. The selection process also takes time. Entering the exit programme often involves a wait of several months between the date a committee deliberates and the date their response is given to applicants. Sometimes, as was the case in Marseille and Nice, the dates of the committees themselves are pushed back several times.
Local authorities may choose which entrance criteria they emphasise, and this can lead to contradictory approaches. Some focus on the most precarious groups, in particular Nigerian women. Others have systematically refused applications from Nigerians, their arguments resting on stereotypes that present Nigerians as both victims and ‘profiteers’ of the mechanism. On the one hand, members of some local committees pigeonhole them as victims of human trafficking and refuse their applications on the basis that international criminal networks might take advantage of the system. Other committees suspect these racialised women migrants of instrumentalising the system themselves. They have argued that Nigerian women apply to the system only to obtain temporary residence permits, thus systematically questioning their motivations. NGOs and grassroots organisations have also reported on the use of racist and sexist language and stereotypes by members of the local committees during their deliberations.
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Sex workers and organisations alike have also observed that, within some exit programme committees, the criteria for applicants’ to be eligible have multiplied: they must not be subject to an order to leave the territory (deportation order); they must not be seeking asylum in France or another European country; they must provide a birth certificate, evidence of their housing situation or health status; they must be proficient in French, and so on. In some regions, applicants were even asked to prove that they had filed a complaint for pimping.
Further contradictions include the fact that some committees have accepted applications from people who have already stopped sex work for several years. Our analysis shows that most sex workers who change careers and find other employment do so by their own means or with the support that organisations already provided without recourse to the exit programme. The immediate advantage of changing work autonomously, or asking for support outside of the exit programme, is that people don’t have to suddenly break with their previous lives. The exit programme requires them to do so. This precipitous break, without sufficient means to provide for one’s basic needs, means that some sex workers must choose between their willingness to find other work and the necessity to earn a subsistence income.
Despite the contradictory criteria and the time consuming configuration of such a system, it is important to note that in a few French departments the committees went smoothly and they cooperated well with the NGOs involved. This, however, has occurred in regions where the number of potential applicants is very small. A small victory perhaps, but organisations stressed that, for these few women, the mechanism provided respite by allowing them to regularise their statuses and enabling them to seek other work and new life opportunities.