2 Dec 2011

Yesterday's Times reported that French parliament are to consider legislation which would make it an offence to use a prostitute, resulting in a maximum sentence of 6 months in prison and a €3000 fine. This announcement throws up a lot of issues that have been endlessly debated in the arguments for and against prostitution. Those who support the 'Nordic model', practised in Sweden, whereby it is the clients and not the prostitutes themselves who are criminalised, will welcome this as a step in the right direction. Those who believe that the Nordic model simply pushes prostitution and its accompaniments of trafficking and exploitation into neighbouring countries, may disagree. I still find it very hard to ascertain where I truly stand on the issue, but I do support anything that turns public focus onto those who create the demand for prostitution - i.e., the male 'punters', and removes the stigma of shame from the women who work as prostitutes. As a French MP in support of the Bill puts it, if you really are against prostitution, then "it would not be stupid to penalise those who help it to flourish, that is to say the clients."

That, for me, is the heart of the matter. I do believe that it is a failure to question the attitude that men should have unfettered access to the female body, which allows prostitution to thrive, and which convinces law-makers to turn a blind eye. The belief that the male sex drive is huge, constantly aggressive and in need of satisfaction, and will manifest itself in violence if not satiated, means prostitution is seen as necessary and inevitable. If you think I'm overreacting or imagining that this is what people think, examine the words of another French MP quoted in the article, who argued against the Bill saying "It's the oldest profession in the world and it's something of a necessity. It would be better to regulate it. I think it's better to give some people that possibility than to see them engage in sexual assaults.

Wow. Just wow. You could be forgiven for thinking that this chap was participating in a 'how many tired, unfounded cliches for justifying prostitution can you fit into one soundbite?' competition. Where to start? I can barely type the words 'It's the oldest profession in the world' without my fingers yawning, but really, when will people give that up as a justification? I've always liked the sarcastic riposte that no, agriculture predates selling sex, but joking aside, what other social phenomenon is justified in terms of 'It's always been done, therefore it always will be done, and there's no point trying to change it?'. Paedophilia? Strangely, no - people are still trying to eradicate that, bless them, even though we know child abuse and sex with minors has been taking place since time immemorial. Racism? Nope, that's not a tradition we're going to just lie down and accept simply because it's always happened in the past. War, violence, poverty? Curiously us quaint old humans have a tendency to try and change things that we deem harmful, exploitative and a detriment to our dignity as people, and we don't let the lazy justification of historical persistence stop us. So why do so many commentators love to do this when it comes to prostitution? Is it because they resent the erosion of their own power that a robust approach to eradicating prostitution would constitute? Because they know that a society where the sale of women's body parts is no longer tolerated could only be a society where women are truly equal and respected, and that scares them? Considering it's often male mouths that the 'oldest profession' argument emanates from, I think there's some evidence to suggest that.

As for 'something of a necessity'? PUH-LEASE. In the same way that food, water, shelter and oxygen are necessities? Uh, noooo. In the same way that secondary but still important things like family, education, employment and healthcare are necessities? Sorry, still no. Sex is not a necessity. Nor is it a right. No one ever died from lack of sex. They may have become extremely crabby, irritable, and prone to finding pictures of Michael Buble overly arousing, but lack of intercourse is not a fatal condition. Yet we still buy into this idea that men NEED sex, they MUST have it, and if society refuses to bend over backwards (no smutty pun intended) in ensuring there's a plentiful supply of it, well then society will just have to reap the terrible consequences of refusing to allow the sale of women's vaginas, anuses and mouths to meet this unstoppable male demand.

And that's the most sinister part of the MP's words - where he seems to equate stopping prostitution with a rise in sexual assaults. Apparently if men aren't allowed to purchase sex, they will go out and obtain it by force. By this way of thinking, men who visit prostitutes are basically all potential rapists, only prevented from going out and committing sexual violence by the 'release' provided by the sale of a woman's body. That incredibly simplistic line of thinking fails to consider that men who visit prostitutes still do commit rape, that men who have wives, girlfriends and have regular sexual intercourse commit rape, and that prostitutes themselves are often, disproportionately, the victims of rape and sexual assault. And these attacks are extremely underreported because of the stigma placed upon prostitutes by the law, which treats them as criminals and the men who visit them as blameless. So, how prostitution is meant to decrease incidences of rape I'm not sure - to me it goes hand in hand with a culture that encourages or at least turns a blind eye to sexual violence, as tolerance of prostitution and tolerance of rape originate from the same roots - a total lack of respect for women's bodily autonomy.

I would hope that the men of France feel as insulted by their MP's words as French women should, because his words imply men are unevolved creatures ruled by the urge to possess and use the female body, who demand either an unchallenged supply of sexual services or immediately resort to sexual violence. That's a pretty unflattering picture of one's gender, and I hope not reflective of the speaker's own attitudes. If it is, perhaps he shouldn't be in parliament representing the interests of the French people, but should be on a therapist's couch - or trying his luck as a rent boy, and seeing just how much of a 'necessity' he still considers prostitution to be after having a stranger's penis in his mouth.

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