France holds its first festival for sex workers in Paris

Documentaries, photographs and a "full service" performance tent were on display at the weekend at France's first festival for sex workers aiming to promote their rights and criticise a prostitution law.

France holds its first festival for sex workers in Paris
Documentaries, photographs and a "full service" performance tent were on display at France's first festival for sex workers. Photo: AFP
The Paris “Snap!” festival's militant approach sought to increase political visibility for prostitutes with exhibitions and performances with titles such as “Whores and Feminists” and “Sex Work Is Work”.
“We are trying to create our own discourse as artists and sex workers,” said Marianne Chargois, whose documentary “Empower” tackles the precarious lives and discrimination faced by three prostitutes.
“Self-proclaimed specialists constantly make laws on our behalf and want to 'save us' from our activities as sex workers.”
A French law in April 2016 introduced harsher penalties for clients of prostitutes of up to 1,500 euros ($1,700) and more than double that amount in the case of repeat offenders.
Photo: AFP
“This law has lowered the income of sex workers and increased the violence against them,” said Thierry Schaffauser, a spokesperson for Strass, the sex workers union and one of the organisers of the festival in Point Ephemere, north Paris.
Violence against sex workers made headlines in France in August when transgender sex worker Vanesa Campos was killed in Paris's Bois de Boulogne.
Schaffauser said the law had forced sex workers to meet clients in more isolated places away from police where they are more exposed to attacks.
“As long as there is no decriminalisation of sex work, nothing will change,” said Maia Izzo-Foulquier, curator of the photo exhibition at the festival.
Strass and other associations and sex workers have filed an appeal questioning the law's constitutionality. The request will be examined on Monday.
But beyond legal questions, the festival also reflected on the nature of sex as work.
Swiss performer Daniel Hellmann set up his tent at the festival entrance with a sign promising “full service”.
“It can range from fellatio to writing a poem or some spiritual advice. We agree in advance on the price and the delivery of service,” he said.
“The idea is to question our relationship to work, and I am not talking about only sex work.”
“Talking about sex work makes us more visible said Mia, a sex worker from western France. “This festival shows we are not just sex machines.”

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French prostitutes demand their clients be free to pay for sex

French sex workers have lodged a constitutional challenge to a 2016 law making it illegal to pay for sex, reopening a debate on whether people should be free to sell their bodies.

French prostitutes demand their clients be free to pay for sex
Sex workers hold placards reading "Stop the decrees. Not our customers" during a 2018 demonstration in Paris. Photo: AFP
On Tuesday, around 30 sex workers backed by nine associations, including a medical NGO, went to the Constitutional Council to argue the law infringed their sexual and commercial freedom and made them more vulnerable to attack.
The law, which punishes people caught paying for sex with fines of up to 1,500 euros ($1,800) for first-time offenders and 3,750 euros for repeat offenders, took years to make its way through parliament after fierce debate. 
Inspired by Sweden, it makes it a crime to buy sex but not to sell it, shifting the criminal responsibility to clients.
Hailed by many feminist groups at the time as an advance for women's rights, the law was assailed by sex workers as an infringement of “constitutional rights to personal autonomy and sexual freedom, respect of privacy, freedom of contract and freedom to do business.”
The sex workers also argued that by criminalising their clients the law has eroded their earnings, forcing them to take ever greater risks to earn a living.
These include agreeing to engage in unprotected sex or to have sex in isolated environments where they are more vulnerable to attack.
In August a Peruvian transgender sex worker, Vanesa Campos, was killed in the forested Bois de Boulogne park west of Paris. She was shot dead while trying to stop a group of men robbing a client.
“It's the client who dictates his conditions and we have no choice because we have fewer clients than before but still as many bills at the end of the month,” one sex worker, who gave her name as Anais, told AFP after Tuesday's hearing. 
'Schizophrenic situation'
Many rights groups argue women do not engage in prostitution freely but are forced to do so by hardship or other circumstances.
They accuse clients of exploiting their vulnerability.
Issuing a robust defence Wednesday of the law, France's High Council for Equality Between Men and Women argued prostitution was “the opposite of sexual liberation” and “oppresses all women” by enshrining the notion of male domination.
The council pointed to a poll showing that 78 percent of French supported the ban as proof of widespread support.
“We don't want a society where it is possible to buy someone else's dignity,” a lawyer for the abolitionist camp, Cedric Uzan-Sarano, argued before the Constitutional Council.
But a lawyer for the sex workers' camp, Patrice Spinosi, countered that by making it a crime to buy sex but not to sell it the state had created a “schizophrenic” situation and “infantilised prostitutes.”
“Who are you to forbid me from doing what I want with my body?” he asked.
The Constitutional Council will publish its decision on whether the law is compatible with France's basic charter on February 1.