‘Open Houses’ – French MP calls for the return of Brothels

Reopening brothels seems ideal, but
French sex workers have fought hard to remain independent from pimps and state


Tuesday 23 March 2010 13.00 GMT




The French MP Chantal Brunel recently called for the country
to bring
back brothels
. Her compatriots seem to agree: a poll
that 59% of French people supported the idea while only 10%
opposed it.


As a result, many French media have pitted the rightwing Brunel against
anti-sex work organisations: the former a pragmatist, the latter ideologues.
French sex workers’ voices tend not to be heard as much – probably because their
demands are not as simple as the debate seems to be.
The Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (Strass),
the French sex workers’ union, met Brunel three weeks ago. They agreed that the
passed in 2003 by Nicolas Sarkozy, when interior minister, had failed.
This law was supposed to crack down on pimping. Because of it, street sex
workers have to work in remote areas where they can escape police repression.
Unfortunately, some workers now find themselves in dangerous areas and have to
accept pimps’ protection.
Since soliciting was criminalised, HIV organisations have noticed an increase
in the number of STDs among sex workers. This is a real concern because the law
makes it more difficult for outreach programs to reach the workers. The fact
that police use the possession of condoms as evidence of soliciting hasn’t
helped: if police cars follow prevention buses, the workers refuse to accept
The human rights organisation, Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (LDH) released
a report in 2006 about police violence against sex workers and human rights
violations. It denounced the confusion between the fight against soliciting and
the fight against prostitution. The new concept of “passive” soliciting gives
the police power to arrest whoever they want merely on the suspicion that
someone is a sex worker. This leads to all sort of abuses.
In 2007, five police officers were convicted of raping an Albanian sex
. Despite agreeing to testify against them, she was deported after the
trial. It is almost impossible for sex workers to persuade the police to log
offences against them. Two weeks ago another woman working in Nice reported a
rape committed by three police officers. The men acknowledged they had sex with
her, but said that she was consenting. How many other cases go unreported?
To many, Brunel’s proposal to reopen brothels seems the ideal solution. But
like most French sex workers, I remain sceptical. On one hand, brothels could
bring a certain safety and guarantee police protection instead of repression,
but on the other, it means more control over our lives. I doubt our community
will easily consent to working in brothels when traditionally, French sex
workers have fought since the beginning of the movement in 1975 and the occupation
of churches
to remain independent from pimps and state control.
Instead of brothels (called “closed houses” in French), Strass proposed the
idea of “open houses”. I think this is a good idea. It means that sex workers
could work indoors like doctors or lawyers without working for an employer. In
France sex workers don’t want bosses. UK sex workers and activists from other
countries tend to speak only in terms of decriminalisation versus legalisation.
We want to keep the choice of our clients, hours, practices and in particular
prevention practices. The latter is a serious concern, because Brunel’s idea of
medical control is unclear and we wonder if she means mandatory testing.
The main problem is that clients are never tested, and are more likely to ask
for unprotected sex. Prevention relies on the principles of shared
responsibility and medical data confidentiality. Only condoms protect against
HIV transmission. When empowered, sex workers can prevent the transmission of
After she met Strass leaders, Brunel started to use the term open house, but
she also says that outdoor sex work will remain criminalised. This is clearly a
form of blackmail. Either we accept the control of the state, or we continue to
be criminalised. It will only divide sex workers between legal and illegal
workers and we know migrant workers will probably still risk being deported.
Open houses would enable us to choose to work. We are part of society. We pay
taxes, so we should be heard seriously and allowed to organise ourselves how we
want. We need to be included in the negotiation with local powers about where we
work, not imposed bad solutions.
French sex worker unionists are unhappy that they haven’t been invited to
parliamentary working meetings on the question. Politicians will only repeat the
same mistakes if they don’t listen to us.
On 24 March, Strass and its allies are organising “Assises de la
“, which will take place in the French senate. But very few
politicians support us openly. Politicians can be our clients and vote against
us at the same time. They are afraid to vote for sex workers’ rights by fear of
being identified as sexist by feminists who oppose prostitution.
This year, the annual “Pute pride” demonstration will start
from the senate after the conference. Visibility is the best way to fight
against stigma. When we claim to be proud, it doesn’t mean that we all love our
job. It means that we refuse to be shamed to death. We need to use coming out as
a political strategy like other sexual minorities did before us. I hope Strass
will receive more political support. In the UK we can join the GMB, a national
mainstream union, but we don’t have the same recognition in France.
EU countries have very different laws and models: the Swedish government is
pushing for the criminalisation of clients. If France changes its policy it will
probably influence other countries. That’s why, although I now live in London, I
keep an eye on what my friends and colleagues experience across the Channel.
Whether new laws will improve sex workers’ lives remains to be


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