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ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation): “Face Veils and Miniskirts: Whose Interests are Served in France’s Republic of Men?”

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When France enacted its 2010 ban on face veils, rare were the voices that questioned whether criminalising alleged victims of “misogynistic pressures” – as pundits dubbed the women – would actually be helping them.

One of a handful of experts who actually interviewed women who wear the face veil, suggests the law has had the contrary effect, in actually hampering women’s sense of autonomy.

What is more, contrary to the cliche of oppressed illiterate immigrants, sociologist Agnes De Feo found that a majority of women who wear the face veil are born in France, educated and declare doing so voluntarily.

Yet despite ideological imperatives being allowed to trump facts in the discussion over the face veil, the same paternalistic impulse has emerged in a debate currently dividing the French political stage – this time involving prostitutes.

In March this year, France’s socialist government sought to reform a ruling which came into force in 2003 under former president Nicholas Sarkozy, criminalising “passive soliciting” of sex. The law placed the onus for stopping an industry predominantly run by men for the financial and sexual benefit of men, on typically vulnerable women, something the proposed amendments aimed at rectifying.

But instead of overturning the law, the French Senate – dominated by the Right – has rejected the penalisation of “clients” and instead could outlaw “the act of publicly soliciting another person for paid sex, by any means, including passive behaviour.” In a nod to the Republic’s overbearing logic, police officers in France could soon be required to monitor women’s hems at both ends of the spectrum – face veils and miniskirts.

Marisol Touraine, the French minister for Social Affairs, described the move as “unbelievable and regressive” and bemoaned the criminalisation of prostitutes, rather than seeing them as victims. Critics of the proposal argue it could lead to the targeting of prostitutes in order to meet policing figures, distract officers from more pressing concerns and is ultimately more about “cleaning up” the image of certain districts, rather than concern for women.

Debates on prostitution in France are divided between “abolitionists” and those who prefer to see less criminalisation of prostitution, such as the STRASS, the French sex worker’s trade union. STRASS argues that the penalisation of clients exacerbates a climate of criminality around prostitution – ultimately harmful to women working within it – but both groups support decriminalising “soliciting,” viewed as punishing already vulnerable women through fines and possible jail time.

But just as the debate in France chose to ignore the voice of women who wear the face veil, in favour of ideological debates over the meaning of laicite and integration, the current stance among French conservatives is led by a moralising discourse concerning the moral abhorrence of prostitution. Criminalising soliciting sex, it is claimed, helps the police identify prostitutes and maintain a sense of the gravity of the crime, an essential aspect to countering it.

However, evidence from studies underpinning the Swedish approach, which since 1999 has seen the criminalisation of clients, not sex workers, suggests otherwise. Based on grass-roots discussions with women working in prostitution, the Swedish model has led to a decrease in street prostitution and prostitution networks have come to view the country as a “dead market.”

The hypocrisy of the sanctimonious line towed by French conservatives is all the more glaring when one considers the emergence of several controversies highlighting the widespread use of prostitution by the French elite. In 2013, a coalition of French intellectuals, authors and philosophers came together to put forward a petition entitled “Hands off our prostitutes” outlining their belief in their right to access prostitution. The title was all the more egregious in that it played off a historic petition launched by women in the 1970s demanding the legalisation of abortion, and echoed an anti-racism slogan Touche pas a mon pote (“Don’t touch my friend”). Apparently for a certain class of French men – typically quiet on actual issues of discrimination – campaigning for the right to sexually exploit women is the new anti-racism.

Not to mention the case of former chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who along with 13 others, was charged in February this year, with aiding and assisting prostitution. Much has been made of DSK’s lascivious “elite sex parties” involving prostitutes and multiple accusations of sexual assault, ruining his political career. Much less has been written about DSK’s alleged victims – “Mounia” the prostitute, Nafissatou Diallo, the hotel maid – Arab and black women subjected to the violent whims of a powerful French politician. The parallel is a fitting one for a system in which the full humanity of a sub-class of women fails to register and where racist overtones bleed most evidently into the treatment of minorities on the fringes.

Gregoire Thery, secretary general of Mouvement du Nid, which campaigns against prostitution, points out that in the special commission established to investigate the issues at hand, 75% of senators who voted against the penalisation of clients were men, while an overwhelming majority of women voted for the law. The Senate – overwhelmingly in favour of criminalising prostitutes – is 76% male.

The Conservative UMP’s stance of condemning prostitution affords a facade of moral righteousness to an argument for the criminalisation of women, by the very men recent scandals suggest regularly exploit them. Whether when talking about women in face veils or women working in prostitution, concern appears less about women’s needs, and all about men’s sense of entitled access to female bodies.

For professor of French politics at the University College London (UCL), Philippe Marliere, the issue stems from the very conception of the French Republican ideal: “the so-called ‘republican’ stand (UMP or PS) is hypocritical and relies on pseudo-universal morals.” For Marliere, these policies – whether in relation to prostitution or Muslim women’s dress – “are not meant to be fair and effective, but to criminalise and to discriminate against minorities in France.”

In the case of women in face veils, the law has hardened an already tense climate in which Muslim women are increasingly the object of vigilante-style attacks and day to day discrimination. Criminalising already vulnerable women – by virtue of their profession or otherwise marginal status in society – only entrenches prejudice. This is all the more worrying when one considers that 90% of women working in prostitution in France are foreign nationals, at a time of steepening racism and Far-Right led anti-immigrant rhetoric.

While restrictions on Muslim women’s dress have often been justified on the grounds of the “uniquely problematic” integration of Muslims, current debates highlight the exclusionary function of the Republic’s universalist claims. Those who do not conform to a narrow and reified conception of French values are ostracised and policed by an entitled elite which views women’s bodies – particularly those of black and Arab women – as property of the Republic, and chattel for some of its representatives.

This hollow republicanism and its politicised principles, from laicite to women’s rights, functions less to serve the interests of women and more to cement the sexist and racist logic of a prevailing class of men.

You can read the original piece on the website, here


Written by Myriam Francois

April 27, 2015 at 09:27

Porn-ing sex

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In a week in which a school teacher turned porn star is claiming no conflict between his different ‘professions’, the dissident voices which should be decrying the porn industry’s attempt to gain public credibility in order to further expand its cash driven debauchery into our daily lives, need to make themselves heard. Selling sex is dehumanizing. Glamourizing the sale of sex in the minds of young people who have yet to forge solid personal positions on their sexual views, is a travesty and a desecration of the powerful and intimate union which sex can potentially represent.

In “Living dolls: the return of Sexism”, Natasha Walters picks apart the modern myth that there is something empowering about selling sex, a la “Belle-de-Jour”.

Despite the fact statistics paint a rather bleak picture of women involved in the sex trade- 85% of prostitutes have reported physical abuse in the family, 45% familiar sexual abuse and a majority of prostitutes are lured into the industry before the age of 16- there has been a recent glamorization of prostitution in the mainstream. All the women in the surveys reported in Walters’ book have a problem with alcohol and a majority used hard drugs, with 84% citing drugs as their reason for going into prostitution. Mortality rates for prostitutes are six times higher than the general population. (p. 57-58) A world away from Miss S’s “confessions of a Working girl” with its allegedly “enjoyable” account of a prostitute’s life, packaged in a pastel covered paperback or Billie Piper’s sanitised account of a prostitute’s escapades, minus the inherent violence involved in an industry in which women are paid to put up and shut up while men enact their fantasies on silenced female bodies…

That prostitution or being a porn star are just another “career move”, made by sassy and smart women, in control of their lives who just happen to have a voracious appetite for sex, is just another of the necessary myths which fuel the exploitation of women. There is some irony in the fact the women paraded on the front cover of magazines as the height of female emancipation have spent a life time dedicated to the preening of their bodies to fulfil an elusive sexual ideal which demands starvation, surgery and discomfort.

The truth of the matter, as Walter’s books highlights is far removed from the myths perpetuated by the fastest growing industry in the world, which relies on people’s gradual acceptance of sexual imagery in the public sphere to normalise its product and expand its market reach.

With a reckless disregard for the women who make up its fodder, the porn industry is a money making machine which requires us to be duped into thinking women make free and informed choices about the sex trade in order to be able to counter the shrinking dissenting voices which challenge its claim to be an ‘acceptable’ industry. “The highly sexualised culture around us is tolerated and even celebrated because it rests on the illusion of equality.” (p119)

In order to convince us of the worth of porn, the industry has had to remove any emotion from sex, reducing it to mechanics, a calculated physical exchange for which cash can be traded. No talk of love, of union, of intimacy, of tenderness.
This reduction of sex to an act, rather than a state of love, is partly done by presenting empowering sex, as sex without emotional connection, devoid of feelings, so that “the way that absolutely uncommitted sexual encounters are spoken about now suggests that in order to become liberated, a rather cold promiscuity is the order of the day.” (p. 98)

It is also done by desensitising people to pornographic images through exposing them from younger and younger ages to increasingly lurid and violent sexual images. One survey in 2006 found that 40% of men had viewed pornographic websites in the previous year and more worrying still, a survey in Canada found that 90% of 13-14 year old boys and 70% of girls had viewed pornography. “More than one third of the boys reported viewing pornographic DVDs or videos ‘too many times to count’.” (p107) Speaking to porn addicts, Walters discovers that much of what they view appears to depict women in pain, being brutalised and dominated. In effect, sex as a form of violence against women, is the way in which an increasing number of men are gaining their sexual highs: “I think that kind of violence associated with sex lodges in your mind and you never forget it, however much you want to. It’s always there,” explained Jim (p. 115)

And this reductivism is also promoted through the fallacious argument that since women cannot eliminate porn due to its proclivity in the modern media, they ought instead to enter the porn industry and begin to make demands within it as consumers, which the argument goes, will shift their status from victim to consumer ( and hence empowered?! Only neo-liberal rhetoric could devise such a misguided connection between consumption and liberation…)

Giving voice to young women, Walters indicates that many “feel that their lives have been impoverished by the devaluation of sex into exchange and performance rather than mutual intimacy.” (p. 101) She also highlights feelings of inadequacy as young women’s bodies are compared to those in porn material and a growing dehumanization of sexual partners, viewed only as the sex objects portrayed in what has become the measure of a “normal” sexual encounter: “….too much pornography does still rely on or promote the exploitation or abuse of women. Even if you can find porn for women and couples on the internet, nevertheless a vein of real contempt for women characterises so much photography.”

That capitalism’s uniquely cold approach to profit over people has seeped into the most intimate part of our lives, our sexual relationships, is indicative of a grave sickness. Ultimately this comes down to a very simple economic equation. A billion dollar industry which continues to grow requires an increasingly large market for its goods. Moving from the fringes to the mainstream requires a cultural shift, acclimatisation to what makes us feel intuitively uneasy about porn, the market-value of sex, the cold mechanics devoid of the meeting of minds, which makes so many shudder. Sex as a calculated exchange must become normalised for the porn industry to expand its tentacles. And as in other industries, the younger you get’em hooked, the more likely they are to be lifetime consumers.

The real tragedy in the discussion we have today over sex, is the overarching materialism which permeates the debate. If we are mere animals, where’s the problem? If nothing is sacred, everything can be sold and bought. As talking heads discuss the banalities of an absurd ‘debate’ over the acceptability of porn, the fat cats running the industry must be cackling at all the free publicity. In placing so much market value on our bodies, we necessarily detract from the emphasis on the internal, the self, the person. The sex industry is in effect the epitome of materialism, the body has worth, the person has none. Sex has always sold, but how many of us realised the price was in fact our soul.

Written by Myriam Francois

September 1, 2011 at 21:22