"From our very marginalised position, we have challenged the mainstream discourses of state feminist organisations or trade unions and their narrow idea of what a (free) woman is, or what a worker is."
Marie is the General Secretary at the Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (STRASS), the French union for sex workers. In this interview, the sex worker leader talks about her activism, labour rights for sex workers and current developments in sex worker rights activism in France.
Hello Marie and thank you for taking the time to do this interview! Can you start by telling us how you got involved with the sex workers’ rights movement?
Bonjour! Yes, of course. My journey started, like many workers, when I discovered the trade union movement. I was working as a hostess in a so-called “American bar” in Toulouse, a big city in the South West of France. In these bars, you get clients to spend as much as possible on drinks, and then you can go upstairs with them and get paid for sex. You get a percentage of the amount spent on drinks and the full amount for the sexual service.
I saw my work as a hostess in a bar as very similar to any factory worker or shop employee and for me it was logical to join a trade union, so I became a member of STRASS very quickly. In a bar, you have a boss, a strict schedule that you must respect and not much freedom in comparison to working as an independent escort, which is how I operate now. However, the stigma is the same.
In that bar, I never mentioned I was a member of STRASS. We were not allowed to talk politics. We were under permanent pressure from our boss to behave correctly: smile and shut up. If your behaviour didn’t please her, you would get fired and returned to your previous situation: unemployment, poverty… Like many bosses, she was skilled at making us feel that we were lucky to have this job and should therefore be grateful! All my colleagues felt the same way, and now that I am more involved in STRASS I think we need to really work with our colleagues in these kinds of establishments and challenge their work practices. The economic crisis that has hit France and the rest of the world has been very beneficial for some, including managers of sex work establishments who have used the reduced choices of many women to further exploit them. However, this is not limited to the sex industry; it extends to lots of workplaces, especially those with limited recognition of labour rights…
Thanks to STRASS, I stopped feeling isolated. I started getting involved in activism, both locally and nationally. The isolation of sex workers due to criminalisation and stigma is a huge obstacle to our self-organisation, but our trade union helps bring us together. When I was working in that bar, I would read books written by sex workers like Griselidis Real, Thierry Schaffauser or Morgane Merteuil. Well, I wasn’t reading them at the bar itself, of course! It was a revelation. Finally, I could read in other people’s words what I was experiencing every day. That really helped me and allowed me to quit my job in the bar and become independent: it was a real jump towards more freedom, and more freedom means more time and strength to advocate and organise with STRASS for the revolution, not only of whores but of all workers!
Can you tell me more about your activism? Are you involved in other groups?
I am also a service user and volunteer with the organisation Griselidis, a community-health project in Toulouse. STRASS and Griselidis often work together when we organise demonstrations, meetings with local politicians or in our outreach to sex workers.
In September 2013, several colleagues and I created the Toulouse branch of STRASS. We started discussing this possibility as the debate about criminalisation of clients was intensifying. For all the good words and promises of abolitionists, we knew that the criminalisation of clients would be just another brick in the wall of our oppression: fines, arrests, deportations would not stop… Only now, some of our clients would be fined too. That’s Swedish Progress for you!
So, after several meetings with other sex workers, we planned a “solidarity party” as a way to collect some funds and launched the Toulouse branch: we held meetings to train ourselves about our rights using the know-your-rights sheets developed by STRASS so that we could explain to our colleagues the different laws and by-laws that criminalise our activity. With the new branch of STRASS and Griselidis, we organised our first action in November 2013: a public demonstration against the proposed law to criminalise clients of sex workers.
We also do lots of work in trying to make people understand the realities of sex workers’ lives so that more people support us. I often participate in public debates and we often challenge or disrupt meetings where issues concerning sex workers are discussed without us. The fact that so many meetings and events about sex work are held without us is really infuriating and by speaking there, we really counter the idea of the voiceless sex worker, who is a victim and unable to have an opinion on her own life. This is also what pushes us to establish alliances with other groups and organisations in order to develop solidarity and understanding.
Talking about solidarity, can you tell us more about how STRASS Toulouse includes different sex workers?
I think the stigmatising of sex workers means that we all appear as "one" – a faceless, voiceless victim with no identity other than "prostitute". However, reality is much more complex. We all face diverse types of stigma and exclusion; we all have different, complicated (or sometimes simple) lives… and our movement can only achieve its goals if we include all sex workers. As a union, we need to be very careful that the word "solidarity" keeps its real meaning: we should not exclude each other because of our differences, and those differences need to become our strength. It is important that we learn to look after each other. One member will suffer from racism from the police, another will be insulted by passers-by because she is a trans woman… We need to take these issues into account so that our movement is really a popular movement.
What are the biggest political achievements for you in STRASS?
I was elected as STRASS General Secretary in June 2014. I think this was a really positive moment for our organisation, as it means we are not focused only on the capital but that we are really working to develop branches in other cities. Several experienced activists will go to 5 main cities and train local sex workers in understanding legal frameworks, documenting and reporting violence, setting up branches and working in solidarity with other social movements and trade unions when possible. It is very inspiring to see more and more sex workers joining STRASS and trying to change things at a personal level. All our individual efforts: campaigning, engaging with the media, calling or meeting members of parliament, reaching out to other sex workers … this is our real strength, and I believe this is partly why the law on criminalisation of clients has been put on hold (for now).
STRASS has also changed the political landscape, not only regarding sex work, but also regarding feminism, LGBT rights and the labour movement. From our very marginalised position, we have challenged the mainstream discourses of state feminist organisations or trade unions and their narrow idea of what a (free) woman is, or what a worker is. I think, for many, “whore” is the ultimate insult. "As Gail Pheterson says “The menace of the whore stigma acts as a whip holding females in a state of subordination. Until that whip loses its sting, the liberation of women will be in check.” By reclaiming this word and identity, by confronting the social shame and rejection, by forcing society to face its hypocrisy, we shake the foundations of patriarchy. This debate about women’s rights and work is ongoing but the abolitionist movement, by supporting the criminalisation of our clients (and by extension sex workers ourselves), has shown its true colours as a repressive movement that prefers to side with the state, the police and the church against women.
As Gail Pheterson says “The menace of the whore stigma acts as a whip holding females in a state of subordination. Until that whip loses its sting, the liberation of women will be in check.” By reclaiming this word and identity, by confronting the social shame and rejection, by forcing society to face its hypocrisy, we shake the foundations of patriarchy."
This was very apparent on several occasions during their lobbying effort. Though they keep repeating that they were strongly against the infamous “passive soliciting” law introduced by Sarkozy 10 years ago (which makes it an offence to just stand on a street corner and which is overly used against street workers), we never saw these abolitionists demonstrate or lobby when local politicians introduced new by-laws criminalising street work in several cities. They even called for a boycott of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi, and Trans Pride in Lyon because the organisers were calling for sex workers’ rights. This happened just after the massive demonstrations against gay marriage, where hundreds of thousands of people - conservatives, religious people, fascists - took to the streets to “save French civilisation” against sin and decadence. Homophobic crimes rose sharply, but nevertheless, these state feminist organisations thought it would be radical to attack LGBT groups supporting sex workers. “Le masque tombe” (‘the mask slips’) as we say in France.
You mentioned earlier that the criminalisation of clients was temporarily defeated. What are the next steps for STRASS and what are your hopes for sex workers in France?
In light of the very large amount of evidence against the Swedish Model, the Special Committee of the Senate has withdrawn the article on criminalisation of clients from the Bill proposal. The Bill will now probably be forgotten, as its main aim was to “end demand”. A bill without this paragraph is pointless in the eyes of those who want to save us. Other aspects of the bill, like the repeal of the passive soliciting offences, will sadly also be forgotten. You don’t hear many abolitionist cry about this though….
Meanwhile sex workers are more criminalised than ever. The whole debate on criminalisation of clients has really increased stigma and the precarious situation of sex workers. We have fewer clients, which means we have to stay longer on the streets, or in forests, massage parlours etc… to earn the same amount of money. Client numbers might have decreased, but we are working more and longer. It’s a bit paradoxical to see that as an achievement when the aim was to abolish prostitution…
Many cities have also implemented new municipal by-laws which bar sex workers from public spaces in the city center of Toulouse, in the small towns of Albi, Bezier, Colombier, Nissan… Though a few cities, like Lyon, have had policies like this for many years, we have experienced a new wave of repressive anti-sex work measures. Policy makers have felt empowered to discriminate against sex workers because of the toxic debate that has taken place for the last two years on the abolition of prostitution. If the criminalisation of clients fails, then local mayors have to take matters into their own hands and expel sex workers. STRASS is currently contesting some of these by-laws because they very clearly discriminate against sex workers. In Toulouse, many sex workers have been repeatedly fined.
So, although our victory against the criminalisation of clients has strengthened our determination, there is no doubt that on the ground, things are getting worse for sex workers.
And to conclude this interview, is there any message you want to pass on?
Solidarity works both ways. We cannot ask for the support of other workers if we are not ready to support their struggle. It is time for sex workers to join the protests and strikes of our comrades. Only through shared resistance and mutual solidarity will we obtain respect and rights!
Profile by Regional Correspondent Europe. Photo at top: Demonstration in Toulouse 8th of March 2014. Marie (leftt) with Sonia (right), nurse at Griselidis. Image provided by Marie.