Why laws that decriminalize sex workers by framing them as victims is the wrong thing to do.
The migrant crisis that has exploded across Europe has gained substantial media coverage internationally, but the spike in sex trafficking that has accompanied the epidemic has remained largely in the shadows of public life.
According to International Organization on Migration (IOM), female migration out of Nigeria into the ports of Italy has increased 600 percent in the last three years. It is thought by experts in the field that the vast majority of female migrants are victims of sex-trafficking.
This year, I spent a month in France reporting on a court case where 16 victims of sex trafficking helped put their traffickers behind bars. France is one of the most heavily affected by the migrant crisis has of the largest populations of sex workers and trafficked victims. Over 90 percent of France 30,000 sex workers are foreign, and according to advocates most were transported illegally, coerced, or forced into the sex work industry from countries including Nigeria, Romania and China.
While life for sex workers in France has never been easy, two years ago a law decriminalizing sex workers and shifting the blame to clients with a hefty fee things far more difficult, and often more dangerous. Just ask Penka, a 30-year-old Bulgarian woman who has been working as sex worker in Paris for the last 10 years. She claims she wasn’t trafficked here, but that many girls she works with were. Sitting under a tree on the side of the road where sex workers are known to frequent, she says, “There is no money or work in Bulgaria, there is a big economic crisis there. You can’t do sex work even there. So I came here after a Romanian girl told me it was better.”
She says sex work has always been a challenge because there is much competition and little protections for sex workers, but since the law passed two years ago, it’s practically impossible to survive. “It has been three or four days and no work. I used to have a lot of clients, but not anymore,” she adds. “When the clients come they say ‘ I can’t, the police will catch me.’ We try to tell them ‘don’t worry, there is no police here,’ but still they won’t come.”
The decline in clientele puts Penka and thousands of sex workers like her in a grave position. Some report they have to negotiate condom usage because clients know they are more desperate for cash. They are also forced to be more discreet about their activity and perform their services faster and for lower rates. “We have to work more quickly so that they feel less nervous about getting caught. But that means we charge 30 euros for 10 minutes instead of 60 euros for 20 minutes. It makes life harder.”
While the law was passed with the intention of stamping out sex work, lawmakers also made promises of pathways to new lives for sex workers looking to leave a diminishing industry. But those working in the industry and advocates for their safety say such plans don’t exist in reality, leaving them scared, stuck, and unsafe.
Francoise Gil is one such advocate who has worked to keep sex workers safe in light of the law change. “France doesn’t really help get women off the streets,” she says when asked about how the government plan is helping. “I work with 7,000 sex workers a year, not one has said this of the law change.”
She works at Les Amis du Bus des Femmes, which translates to Friends of the Women of the Bus, possibly the only organization left in Paris that takes a bias-free stance on sex work. While they have become a one-stop shop for sex workers for everything from emergency housing to legal aid, they are famous for their white bus that drives the streets of Paris by night offering services to those in need. Stopping in areas where sex workers are known to frequent, they become a makeshift coffee shop for girls to take a break, get free condoms, and take free HIV tests if they have concerns about their health.
The bus sees over 100 women a night from countries all over the world. This includes transgender sex workers who have consistently experienced higher rates of violence as sex workers. However, since the law change, reports ranging from harassment to violence resulting in death have been on the rise.
“We never got much respect here because of who we are, but because we now much perform our work in the shadows, it’s harder to feel safe,” says a transgender sexworker from Brazil who preferred not to be named. “Just last week they burned my friends car,” she adds, pointing to black marks on the pavement several feet from where she stood.
Advocates for trans sex workers say they have long fought for the recognition of their rights and state of unsafety in France. Last month, the murder of a transgender sex worker cast a much needed spotlight on their plight. Vanesa Campos, a 36-year-old from Peru, was fatally shot in the chest while trying to prevent a gang of men from robbing one of her clients. Five people are in custody charged with her murder, and major outlets including The Independent, France 24, and BBC News have covered the news and related protests as the the LGBT community has taken to the streets demanding justice.
Meanwhile, women like Penka often feel making a living has turned into a punishment. While the law change was designed to stop sex workers from being seen as unsympathetic criminals and instead sympathetic victims, they remain powerless either way. When asked what she sees for her future, her words become inaudible and she looks as if she may cry. “This is all I have, I have no other options. I see no other life.”