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France: The ‘human rights’ sex trade case that will harm women

Monday 21 June 2021, by siawi3

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]


The Observer
The ‘human rights’ sex trade case that will harm women

Julie Bindel

A European court judgment this week could reverse laws that protect the vulnerable and abused

Photo: A demonstration in Paris last year by sex workers who want to see prostitution decriminalised. The European Court of Human Rights is hearing an appeal against 2016 laws that made it illegal to buy sex in France. Photograph: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

Sat 19 Jun 2021 19.26 BST

Last modified on Sat 19 Jun 2021 19.27 BST

A case to be heard in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg this week could have disastrous consequences for those campaigning to eradicate prostitution.

The hearing is the first step in determining whether France’s laws on prostitution – which criminalise paying for sex – are constitutional, or whether they contravene the human rights of self-titled “sex workers”.

France introduced the legislation, known as the abolitionist model, in 2016, joining a growing list of countries (Sweden, Norway, Canada, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Israel) where it is illegal to buy sex, shifting the criminal responsibility to the buyer, who is fined if caught.

It was controversial from the start, with sex workers’ rights campaigners arguing that a better solution would be to decriminalise the entire sex trade, including pimping, brothel owning and kerb crawling.

But prostitution is dangerous and degrading for the vast majority of women involved. Removing laws pertaining to pimping and brothel owning, and legitimising men paying for sex, results in a further entrenchment of the view that prostitution is an inevitability, and, as has been said to me countless times, “the oldest profession”. I prefer to use the phrase “the oldest oppression”.

In December 2019, a challenge to the law in France was lodged before the French constitutional court, but the law was upheld. In its ruling the judges said that the law helped protect women “by depriving pimps of their profits” and that it “fights against this activity and against the sexual exploitation of human beings, criminal activities founded on coercion and enslavement”.

The claimants – 250 individuals involved in prostitution, supported by 19 French NGOs – are now taking the case to the ECHR.

The fact that the applicants are using human rights legislation to argue for the “right” of men to pay for sex is staggering. Prostitution is a human rights violation of the women involved, and men have no right to pay for sex. In this case, the so-called “human right” of women to sell sex is being used as a smokescreen to protect the men and their right to sexual access to the most vulnerable women.

The oldest profession? I prefer to use the phrase ’the oldest oppression’

The applicants claim that the law contravenes three articles in the European convention on human rights: the right to life; prohibition of inhuman and degrading treatment; right to a private life. One of the arguments is that the law puts women’s lives in danger by driving prostitution underground; that they are more likely to face violence from sex buyers because only “bad” punters will take the risk; and that women have the right to make autonomous decisions to sell sex.

There is no evidence for these claims – on the contrary, research in those countries that have adopted the abolitionist model has shown that rates of violence and homicide perpetrated on women by pimps and punters is far lower than in decriminalised regimes.

The implications are huge – if the plaintiffs win, all the other countries with a similar law will doubtless be challenged by pro-prostitution lobbyists. If, however, they lose, this will further entrench the legality and highlight the successes of the abolitionist model. A lot is hanging on this case in terms of the direction that other countries take when dealing with its own sex trade.

What are the alternatives to curbing the demand? Blanket decriminalisation or legalisation, as adopted by Holland, Germany, and Switzerland.

But legalisation has failed miserably. Under this regime, demand for sexual services, trafficking of women and girls, and illegal brothels have increased. There is no evidence of a decrease in violence, HIV rates or murders of women in legal sex trades, but there is evidence that the rights and freedoms promised by lobbyists for legalisation and decriminalisation were transferred to the brothel owners and sex buyers.

Space International, a feminist NGO founded by sex trade survivors that campaigns for the abolitionist model, has applied to intervene in the case and will submit evidence about the benefits of the law. For example, that the law includes provision for exiting services for women who wish to leave prostitution, and protection from pimps and other exploiters.

If the applicants are successful, the judgment will become case law to be relied upon in the future and could lead to pimps funding big campaigns to repeal sex buyer laws in other countries to protect profits.

Let’s hope that the judges see sense and understand that a repeal of the abolitionist model will lead to more misery for women, and amnesty on sexual exploiters.