Prostitutes Give French Brothel Proposal Red Light

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GlobalPost's Mildrade Cherfils examines a French proposal to reopen brothels after more than 60 years.


PARIS -- 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.

For Alain Plumey, a 62-year-old erotic art collector whose Museum of Eroticism contains substantial documentation on the brothels of the 19th and 20th centuries, it is no surprise that the debate over reopening the pleasure houses is resurfacing, as it does every few years.

"The more difficult life is, the more prostitution is practiced," he said, "and right now, life is difficult."

Surrounded by memorabilia from the permanent exhibit detailing the history of brothels in France, Plumey spouted out facts while pointing to a register from the early 1940s that itemized how many clients or "passes" one prostitute had in a day. When the description of "Jewish" was noted in the log, he said it meant that a Star of David the client wore was used to identify him. Most houses had one black prostitute or a woman who walked with a limp -- exotic qualities to clients. By 1946, the brothels had closed indefinitely after experiencing years of stricter police controls.

Plumey's 13-year-old museum, located in the heart of the red light district near the Moulin Rouge cabaret, is also filled with phallic artifacts and sculptures from all over the world, vintage pornographic films as well as modern art with a sexual theme. But the permanent exhibit on brothels, which occupies the entire second floor of the seven-story museum, is an essential feature because the subject fascinates, he said. "Tariffed sexual relations equally belong to the domain of fantasy and eroticism."

The government proposal to reopen the establishments is problematic on many fronts, Plumey said.

He called it "total nonsense" that the simple act of idling too long in a certain location can land someone in jail for solicitation. But stepping in to run the brothels would put the government on the wrong side of the law, since pimping is illegal.

No government has ever been able to eradicate prostitution, a profession most people practice out of necessity and not out of choice. Stamping out poverty or at least devoting more time to analyzing the subject in the press might be a step in the right direction, he said.

"We have to treat the causes, not the effects," Plumey said. "Politicians pretend to treat the effects without taking care of the causes."

Click here to view a photo essay from the Museum of Eroticism

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