Why France is changing tactics on battling the sex trade

A growing movement in the US is trying to shift toward treating prostitutes as victims and their customers as the criminals. France's new law shows this shift in action.

Thibault Camus/AP
Sex workers hold signs reading 'Prostitutes are angry. Don't touch to our customers' during a protest against new bill against prostitution and sex trafficking, in Paris on Wednesday. France passed a law against prostitution and sex trafficking that bans buying sex, not selling it.

France just legalized prostitution, but its practitioners are not celebrating.

A law passed Wednesday makes prostitution legal but makes it illegal to pay for sex, a dramatic illustration of a growing shift to fight the sex trade by criminalizing its customers and treating prostitutes as victims, France24 reported. 

"The goal is to diminish [prostitution], protect prostitutes who want to quit, and change mentalities," Socialist MP Maud Olivier, who has made prostitution a legislative priority, told France's Le Monde newspaper. 

A similar approach is gaining ground in the United States mostly in the treatment of children, but France follows four other European countries that prosecute prostitution clients: Sweden, Norway, Iceland, and Britain. If US law follows this model, the response might look similar to that of France. 

The controversial law took over two years to pass, and a group of prostitutes protested in the square Tuesday outside the final legislative debate. Advocates said this would stop clients from helping report and rescue women being trafficked, the BBC reported.

"Sex workers have to take more risks to protect buyers from detection by the police," Amnesty International told the BBC.

Helene de Rugy of Amicale du Nid, which has worked with prostitutes since 1946, said the prostitutes she knows work because of coercion or economic desperation, France's The Local reported. 

"The bill will give essential support to people who want to get out of prostitution and help them reintegrate into society with jobs and accommodation," she told The Local. 

Roughly 30,000 women are prostitutes in France, and 80 percent of them are foreigners. Some of those prostitutes complained the law would push them further into the shadows and make seeking help from police more difficult, France24 reported. While they debate its impact on women, sex workers agree that it will change the business model of the sex trade, which will probably move to the Internet even more quickly than before.

"Prostitution on the street is already starting to disappear because of the Internet," Mylene Juste, a prostitute in Paris, told France24.

In the US, states are beginning to shift how they fights the sex trade. Last year in California, the state with the highest number of reported human trafficking cases, law enforcement officials are trying to stop even using the phrase "child prostitute" and treating the girls as "child victims and survivors of rape" rather than criminals, The Christian Science Monitor's Molly Jackson wrote:

The shift echoes a national trend to better understand the problems that underlie crime and, where appropriate, swap punishment for healing – including for drug users, where rehab is often replacing prison sentences.

The sheriff department's new policies come on the heels of a similar step by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, part of a county-wide effort to crack down on the demand side of prostitution: tougher sentences for johns. 

France's new law fines clients $1,700 for first offenses, which can escalate to $4,300, and can require them to take classes about the lives of women in the sex trade, Alissa Rubin reported for The New York Times. It also repeals a law against solicitation by prostitutes to try and protect women who were driven to solicit in dangerous neighborhoods by fear of arrest. 

The law also allocates money to provide job training to prostitutes who want to quit, and foreign women receive a temporary visa if they leave the sex trade. Some sex worker advocates said the $4.8 million euro commitment would not meet the demand. 

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