On 13 April 2016 France approved the Law N° 2016-444 ‘against the prostitutional system’ which is characterised by the neo-abolitionist approach expressed in the Nordic Model. The main aim of the law is to decrease the number of sex workers by shifting criminalization to clients (through fines) and abolishing the previous criminalisation of public soliciting through its ‘repressive’ component. At the same time the ‘social protection component’ of the law instituted an exit programme (parcours de sortie) for people who no longer wanted to do sex work, providing them with a monthly financial aid of €360 for social and professional reintegration, and with renewable (three times) temporary residence permit of six months.
In France, SEXHUM focused on the impact of the law on the lives and rights of migrant sex workers by undertaking 46 qualitative interviews with migrant sex workers including Latina transwomen (20), Asian (14) and Nigerian ciswomen (12). These groups were prioritised by the purposive approach of the research as they were the most targeted within public debates and social and law enforcement interventions because of their supposed vulnerability to violence, exploitation and trafficking (in the case of Asian and Nigerian ciswomen), or marginalized by such debates (trans Latina women). In France SEXHUM collaborated with Médecins du Monde in the undertaking a large community-based study on the impact of the law that produced 70 qualitative interviews and a survey with 583 sex workers qualitative questionnaires (Giametta and Le Bail 2018).
Overall the data gathered specifically by the SEXHUM project and in the context of our collaboration with Médecins du Monde data show that the law exacerbated the precariousness of migrant (and non-migrant) sex workers. People belonging to the most disadvantaged and racialised groups, such as the ones we have prioritised, have been struggling to meet their basic economic needs even by spending considerable more time working. Most research participants felt that they had less control over their working conduction. They had to accept working with clients and in places they would have refused before the law came into effect because of the falling number of clients.
In many cases our participants felt pressured by the police to report clients. When they were undocumented they also experienced threats of deportation if they did not comply with these pressures. Finally, our data confirm research on the impact criminalization of clients on Sweden in the 1990s (Svedin & Jonsson 2012) in showing that 2016 law increased rather than reduced the stigma associated with sex work. The increase of stigma acts as a catalyst for the vulnerabilities to violence associated to sex work because it silences sex workers and further discourages them from referring to law enforcement when they are victims of violence.
Most importantly for the main aim of SEXHUM, the implementation of the 2016 Law coincided with the hardening of migration controls responding to racialised and gendered criteria of vulnerability targeting Chinese and Nigerian cis-women and neglecting Latina trans women as victims of violence, exploitation and trafficking. Although French sexual humanitarian rhetoric frames Chinese and Nigerian women as ideal, silent victims of male-dominated mafias and criminals from their respective communities, they did not have a preferential treatment in relation to their allocation of social protection.
Chinese women tend not to report having been victims of theft because their work and living arrangements with other colleagues can be constructed as controlling for gain and pimping (proxénétisme) according to French law. In a parallel fashion, although Nigerian women in France are portrayed by racialised political and media discourse as the main potential recipients of the exit programmes for being ideally naïve and innocent victims they tended to be rejected from such programmes, as they were not considered genuinely willing to stop sex work.
The realities of Chinese and Nigerian women expose the racialised and gendered nature of the criteria of victimhood operationalized by sexual humanitarianism, which deny the authenticity of racialized subjects and the credibility of their ‘stories’ (Giuliani et al. 2019) These same racialised and gendered criteria of victimhood marginalised the experiences of violence and abuse of Latina trans women, who were not supported by sexual humanitarian concerns or interventions.
Although they were respectively over-targeted and neglected by sexual humanitarian concerns, Chinese and trans Latina migrant women have been paying the consequences of the criminalization of clients with their lives, as they are forced to work in further isolated locations in order to escape police control. This paradoxical situation exposes the politics of bordering that shaped the implementation of the 2016 law.
Despite its rhetorical aim to abolish the French ‘prostitutional system’, it actually made such system worse for the most vulnerable strata of the sex working population. Most racialised migrant sex workers were excluded from its planned benefits while the neo-abolitionist celebration, or neglect, of their supposed and real vulnerabilities to exploitation ended up by legitimising anti-immigration and anti-prostitution discourses and interventions.
Full-time sex workers are excluded from accessing state benefits during the COVID-19 crisis, migrants are particularly targeted by police controls and fines for breaching COVID-19 measures, and the only financial support available to sex workers is provided through fundraising by peer community organisations and the national sex worker Union.