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343 scoundrels, many moralists and the French prostitutes

To say that this post is about unusual sex is a bit of a stretch, since today’s topic is prostitution – which may not really be «the oldest job in the world» as aphorisms say, but sure gets close and is a normal part of our society. I’m writing about it because the French critical thought magazine Causeur published an article that stirred a raging debate not only under the tour Eiffel but also in many other countries.
Let’s start with some context: France has been discussing for several years now a law proposal geared toward hitting the clients of prostitutes with very heavy fines. It isn’t really a front page topic, but more a trump card of sorts, often used during election campaigns and political debates, to obtain the sympathy of certain classes or to misdirect attention from more worrying institutional problems. Either way, the proposal is slowly moving on toward its approval.

France also was the home country of Simone de Beauvoir, a feminist intellectual whoseManifest of the 343 played a key role in the fight for women’s rights and abortion legalization in 1971. Finally, France is the nation which in 1985 launched a historic anti-racism campaign based on the ‘touche pas à mon pote’ motto, or ‘don’t touch my friend’. Knowing all of this makes it easier to understand the impact this month’s Causeur cover had, stating: ‘touchez pas à ma pute – le manifeste des 343 “salauds” ’ (trans. ‘don’t touch my whore – The manifest of the 343 “scoundrels” ’). Voilà, indeed.
The reactions were just as explosive, with insults against the magazine and its editor in chief Gil Mihaely coming even from the Parliament, and many embarrassing arguments all over the media. All of this, of course, without any of the “indignant” – all of them right-leaning and/or devout – having actually read the actual article. Two enraged factions with opposing theories are now facing off.

Let’s see the orthodox side first. In short, their reasoning goes: «prostitutes are victims forced to live a degrading life by violent and criminal men. Since they cannot free themselves and sentencing them only worsens their condition, we tackle the problem from the opposite side imposing heavy fines and possible imprisonment on the clients. They will be so scared of buying sex that the pimps will end up jobless and their reign will automatically vanish».
Causeur (and Strass, the French prostitutes union) retort with: «many prostitutes are helpless victims indeed, but only because they cannot land other jobs and they cannot enforce their civil rights. Prostitution has always existed, and criminalizing it will only push it even more in the hands of organized crime, exactly as it happened with drugs. Legalizing it the girls could instead work in official places, be defended by the law, pay taxes and for their pension. The worst cases would be more efficiently taken care of, while the many women who freely choose this job instead of insecure and underpaid jobs on the so-called normal market could do it safely».

The ongoing debate in France is being closely followed by many other countries in which prostitution is currently in a legal grey area of sort. In Italy, in example, it is legal to be paid for sex but not to bill for it; prostitution is accepted but only if you do it alone (thus without the possible support and protection of colleagues); it is forbidden to practice it on the streets, but the owners of building allowing prostitutes are punished.
Understanding what the best course of action is would be infinitely easier if you could see actual figures from the countries where prostitution is legal, such as Germany or the state of Nevada. In two days of searching, however, I only came up with extremist and partisan statements suggesting excessively positive estimates («if all prostitution was taxed, Nevada will earn $146 millions per year!») or unsubstantiated opinions («since Germany legalized it, all sex workers suffer more violence!»). In doubt, I tend to believe the most informed are the prostitutes themselves – and if they want their profession to be legalized, they sure will have their good reasons.

Beside all of this, however, I would like to suggest a simple thought experiment. Try to substitute the word ‘prostitute’ with any other job, then tell me whether this discussion still has a sense. To make an example: «lawmakers want fines and jair for those caught at the dentist’s». Or: «clandestine car mechanics beg to be able to work in safe shops like their foreign colleagues do, to pay taxes and earn a pension». And again: «Church and feminists rise up: beauticians, your life choices disgust us and we’ll do everything we can to make you change them». Hmm.
My impression is that this is the umpteenth case where, since sex is involved, people automatically think that normality (of laws, civil sense, sensibility…) no longer applies. This is the scary effect of the collective lack of education to sexuality. Until we will believe it to be something strange, forbidden, immoral or dangerous we will be condemned to live it as a tragedy. A real shame, since it would take so little to make it just a pleasure again – ok, not in this specific case… – and to use all this energy for overcoming much more serious hurdles.

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