A little know aspect of French culture, amidst all of this love of the good life and pleasure, is a tendency to scold. Not like S&M-y sexy scolding, but disparaging scolding. American parents with children in the French school system are the first to notice and deplore it (the former Paris correspondent of Time magazine, Peter Gumbel, even wrote a whole book about the scolding of poor schoolchildren).
But for the French it is second nature, they like the principle of a little admonishment. Which is why it’s so interesting that the latest people to object to this inherently French scolding are actually French men. Who are irate about being scolded…for seeing prostitutes.
At first impression, this kind of “scolding” might seem relatively legit: when are men actually encouraged to go see prostitutes? But the facts are a little more complex. A big debate has arisen in France in recent weeks surrounding the proposal of a new law, to be debated in parliament today, that would penalize the clients of prostitutes. In other words, penalize men for paying to have sex with women.
Prostitution in France is not illegal. And a law passed a few years ago that made the act of soliciting illegal is most likely about to be repealed. The idea is to sanction not the prostitutes, but their clients: to fine men 1500 Euros if they are caught paying for sex (and twice that if they are caught again). There is also some discussion about other sanctions, like mandatory sensitivity training on the abusive nature of prostitution.
So what exactly is the law targeting, if it isn’t looking to make prostitution itself illegal? This particular measure is a good illustration of the age-old debate about the age-old profession in France (and lots of other places). On the one hand, the prohibitionists, people who support criminalizing clients and prostitutes, and essentially prohibiting the practice of prostitution, not unlike the way prohibition in the US sought to suppress the use of alcohol. On the other hand, the abolitionists, those who support criminalizing the clients and not the prostitutes, whom they consider victimized enough already, with the idea that if no one is buying—if there’s no demand—then prostitution will disappear.
But the idea of targeting clients has got quite a few men (and some women on behalf of men) quite angry. These men are indignant because they think they’re being gratuitously scolded for simply enjoying the freedom of having whatever kind of consensual sex—paid or unpaid, with their partners or with prostitutes—they want. They see this measure as demonizing all male sexuality. A number of male celebrities and high-profile men in media signed a petition denouncing the proposed law, claiming that it turns men into “sex-starved perverts and psychopaths,” and that it’s a campaign of “repression disguised as a feminist cause.” They say that penalizing the male desire to possibly pay for sex implies—scoldingly!—that male sexuality is brutish and essentially uncontrollable unless penalized by a fine.
The petition’s jaunty-slash-belligerent tone caused some controversy, but then a highly-respected French feminist and intellectual, Elisabeth Badinter, known for her often singular positions on feminist issues, quite spectacularly flew to the defense of these men who feel unfairly admonished. In an interview with the newspaper Le Monde, she said the proposed law is “a declaration of hate against male sexuality,” and that government has no business “legislating on the sexual activity of individuals.” She too thinks the measure amounts to arbitrary scolding and disparagement.
Which, ironically, is just so terribly French to begin with. And in fact, in some ways, this whole affair does feel like a bunch of schoolboys bristling at being unfairly chided. The men think they’re being preemptively punished for something they’re not guilty of, being deprived of fun they’re perfectly entitled to have. As those who signed the petition said, “Whether we actually do occasionally pay for carnal relations or not, we would never under any circumstances do anything without the consent of our partners.” They’re free, prostitutes are free, and everyone should be free to consent to the kind of sex they want.
Except that it’s completely unrealistic to think that, but for a very small minority of women, there is anything truly free about prostitutes choosing to have sex with clients. I understand the principle of personal liberty underlying the men’s petition and Badinter’s objections. And in principle, they’re right: the state has no business, really, telling men what kind of sex they should or shouldn’t have. But the idea that prostitutes are just as free in their consent as male clients is ridiculous.
In France, it’s estimated that up to 90% of prostitutes are foreigners, for the most part caught up in mafia-controlled networks and often victims of human trafficking. Prostitution isn’t exactly a choice for them. These women aren’t actually free to dispose of their bodies as they wish—this freedom being one of Badinter’s arguments for objecting to this kind of legislation—in the first place.
Because even if they were free of the pimps who control them, and free of the economic circumstances that probably drove them to this kind of lifestyle, they would never be free from scrutiny and judgment. The notion that prostitutes and clients are entering into a freely consensual compact is an illusion; there is an absolute asymmetry of power. Everyone may be “free” and “consenting” in theory, but ultimately the women the johns pay to screw will only ever be whores, in their eyes and in everybody else’s. That’s not freedom.
I think that there are other, better, reasons to object to this measure. Like the possibility that it will actually make prostitutes worse off by pushing prostitution out of sight, away from city centers, and making the women even more marginalized and vulnerable (a position taken by another more moderately worded celebrity petition that has circulated). But if men here are feeling unduly scolded right now, I actually think that this is one instance where it’s not just the French being arbitrarily disparaging. It’s not a bunch of schoolmarmish French feminists rapping on knuckles because they can.
It’s about a few lawmakers trying to unveil a nasty reality that even the loftiest French principles of sexual liberty can’t hide.