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French prostitutes oppose reopening brothels

One French lawmaker wants to open pleasure houses to protect sex workers.

PARIS, France — A French lawmaker wants to reopen brothels, outlawed in France since 1946, in order to protect prostitutes from predatory pimps and exploitation. But the sex workers say no thanks.

“All of the prostitutes are against the reopening of the brothels,” said Janine Mossuz-Lavau, a sociologist and expert on sexuality and prostitution. 

A 2003 law introduced by then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, which made passive public solicitation a punishable crime, is partly to blame for the impasse. Criminalizing activities around prostitution, which itself is legal for anyone over 18, sent workers underground to massage parlors and bars, but also away from the city centers, to peripheral areas, the woods and the internet. It “rendered exercising this profession much more dangerous” since workers found themselves isolated, Mossuz-Lavau said.

Almost seven years to the day that parliament adopted that law in March 2003, Chantal Brunel, a member of Sarkozy’s UMP party who had voted for it, announced she wants to change the government’s response to prostitution. She envisions reopening the brothels as spaces where workers would be safe from human trafficking and violence, treated with dignity and would even receive medical care. An estimated 59 percent of French citizens support the idea, according to a poll released last month.

But the sex workers’ union, which represents more than 250 prostitutes in France, is adamantly opposed to government meddling in its business and would rather maintain as much independence over its members' livelihoods as possible.

Reached by phone, Tiphaine Besnard, a union spokeswoman, said it had been a while since she heard any news from government officials one way or another about how the matter was progressing. In any case, the workers rarely participate in political discussions or decisions involving them.

“Our elected officials … are doomed to repeat the same failures if they do not consult the people who live prostitution daily and know all the consequences of their policies,” the union said in a March press release. “We alone possess the expertise on our lives.”

Among the reasons the union cites for opposing the government’s proposal is the fear that brothel keepers who want to receive a cut of their proceeds would exploit the workers. Plus, the union argues, mandatory testing for sexually transmitted diseases could lead to discriminatory policies that might bar those infected from working. Instances of HIV in the pornography industry has led politicians to ask if they should be doing more to police that industry — a scenario prostitutes would like to avoid. They are also against a system that might divide workers into camps of regular brothel workers and others who refuse to work within that system.