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Because we speak
1 Jul 2010
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“Thankfully we don’t need to be raped to denounce rape. We do not need to be prostituted to denounce prostitution as violence. It’s enough to read, to hear, to open eyes, to open ears, to speak with these people. I have met prostitutes who told me their path, their life, their distress. And see, I invested myself in that.”

Fondation Scelles.  A foundation created in 1994 that combats sexual exploitation, especially pornography, sexual tourism, and the sex trade of human beings. Their primary work is to lobby before decision-makers and to support those working on the ground against the problem. They collect and disseminate information in order to help the broader community understand and fight the phenomenon. Interviewed July 2010.

Because we speak

There is so much money in prostitution. Sex trafficking is the third criminal network in the world after drugs and arms, arms first and drugs next. A trafficker who wants to enter into a network of drugs or of arms, it’s necessary to already have money. When you don’t have money, what do you do? You create a network of trafficked women because women are free. Women can be taken.

The women, next, earn the money. That money is reinvested in drug trafficking or arms trafficking, but at the beginning, when one does not have money, all the traffickers begin with women. The women, they kidnap them; they manipulate them. Then, they mount their networks.

Given that there’s so much money, after, it’s invested in other forms of trafficking that are more lucrative, but they begin with prostitution.

They drug women, of course, or they kidnap them. They also lure them with little ads for nannies, for hostesses, for dancers. There could also be a boyfriend who says, “We will never find work; we must go to a country where there is more money.” This boyfriend is going to prostitute the young girl, or he will sell her to a trafficker on the spot. It could be a member of the family who sells her. That’s typical in Eastern Europe.

In African prostitution, it’s more subtle because there is the fear of the evil eye. The mamas, who are ex-prostitutes, recruit these young girls in the villages, and they say to the villagers, “I can take your daughter if you want. I will bring her to the city, I will find her work, and then you will pay me. She will get money, and she will give me a little as well.” It begins like that. The people in the villages are very naïve. They don’t know how it works, so the young girl is sold by her family.

The marabout, the evil eye, is a rite that normally protects a person, except the mamas turn the rite against the girls, saying, “You will prostitute yourself for me and if you say anything about what you do here, if you complain to the police or otherwise, bad luck will fall on your family. You will all die.” That is very, very serious. The belief in this marabout in Africa is so strong that the young girls do anything and say nothing. There, it is a moral pressure and control, and it’s not physical.

In Eastern Europe, they will starve them; they are going to mutilate them; they are going to rape them; they are going to degrade women really to the lowest so they have no self-esteem. It’s so horrible that they say to themselves, “Stop the suffering. Stop the violence. I agree. I’ll do anything you want but stop, stop beating me, stop hurting me. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll be docile.”

In Africa, it’s more complicated. There, it’s simply the marabout. It’s simply the beliefs themselves that are turned to manipulate the young girls to say to them, “Watch out, the bad luck will fall on your whole family.” They don’t speak. The young African women, they never give away names; they never tell. They’d rather die than to speak. That method of pressure is so, so, so strong.

There are also French women who fall into trafficking, not necessarily on French territory. Notably, in Cannes, there was the testimony of a French person who took a trip to Belgium and was locked up in a clandestine brothel where she was raped and beaten. They starved her so that she would be nicer and more polite with the clients. She was imprisoned.

It exists, the trafficking of young women in France. Young people, youth, high schoolers, students are in danger.

Prostitution itself in France is not illegal. In the text of the law, France is abolitionist. Abolitionist means, “Against all regulation of prostitution and all organization of prostitution.” That does not mean that they are against prostitutes. They are against the whole system that revolves around the prostitute. That means no exploitation of the body of others. That means no trafficking, but equally, no regulation and no organization of prostitution, contrary to the Netherlands, which is a regime of regulation.

In the Netherlands, they consider prostitution a profession. There are brothels; one must organize. The state regulates prostitution with health codes, police codes, and zones.

France, we fought against that. Until 1946, we had brothels and after strong reflection, we deemed prostitution in brothels not sufficiently safe for women and prostitution not a profession in itself. It became necessary to stop organizing prostitution and fight against the exploitation of prostitutes. 

Abolitionism is a social goal to help prostituted people to quit the activity of prostitution. They are free to their choice but they are also free also to decide to stop prostitution. Abolitionism aims, above all else, to help prostituted people to find another occupation.


We had many cases last year of French students prostituting themselves. Education in France is very expensive. Not as much as in the United States but it’s very expensive all the same. The students who arrive from areas outside of Paris have to find housing, pay the registration fees, must eat, must live. Many students temporarily decide to work at a bar à hotesses.[1] It’s not prostitution at first but it can become that. When it is no longer sufficient to be only an escort at the bar, students sometimes start to prostitute themselves. 

French prostitutes, however, comprise at most ten percent of the entire population of prostitutes in France. We have primarily young women from Eastern Europe. We have many young African girls. What is developing as well is many Chinese women. We can count between fifteen and twenty thousand prostituted people in France, visible, in the streets. However, we don’t see all of it.

There are also the bars à hotesses. There are escort agencies. There is the Internet. What are condemned equally are massage parlors. We have many massage parlors in France. In all the massage parlors, it is massage. Except often there is what they call the “détente complete.” That goes all the way to ejaculation. Massage with ejaculation, paid for, is prostitution. It’s a sexual relation under financial terms.

The women in these massage parlors are not condemned but it is the manager of this massage parlor or the webmaster who creates the website to publicize this massage parlor who can be considered responsible for the prostitution. If it is the prostitute who creates her own massage parlor, who herself does the massages, and in addition has her own site to do the publicity, gives packets, all that, she is pimp. She is no longer a victim of prostitution, herself; she becomes a pimp and could be condemned for trafficking.

So the trafficking. We have the best laws in the world against trafficking. There are also several organizations in France who aim to stop trafficking. There is an organization that was created fifty years ago that is called Office Central pour la Répression de la Traite des Êtres Humains. We call it OCRETH.[2] It is police, commissioners, lieutenants of police, and they fight against all the trafficking networks, be it in Europe or in the world.

The specificity of OCRETH is that they can act on French territory and equally on territories abroad. It is they who chase the vast trafficking networks, which pass from border to border. They work to dismantle all the networks.

There are still not many pimps that fall. There are many prostitutes one could arrest with very little results on the level of traffickers. But when traffickers fall, an entire network falls. In these cases, one saves also the lives of dozens of young women.

There are policies around prostitution in place. A few years ago, a law for internal security was passed. It deals with passive solicitation. In active solicitation, a prostitute approaches someone to give them a price, saying, “Are you interested in a sexual relation?” That’s active solicitation. Now, with the law, passive solicitation is equally condemned. Passive solicitation is the simple act of being on the sidewalk, dressed suggestively. Any young girl who is waiting for her boyfriend on the sidewalk, for example, could be considered a potential prostitute and can unfortunately be stopped, arrested, and given a fine if a policeman wants to.

This law indirectly tries to reach the traffickers and pimps behind the prostitutes. For the pimps, it is horrible to have women on the sidewalk; they get nabbed by the police all night; they pay fines; and at the end, there is not enough revenue.

What’s happened with this law, instead, is that many prostitutes have disappeared from the streets. That’s not to say, they have stopped their activity. That’s not to say, the traffickers freed them all. That means simply that they’ve been displaced. They are no longer on the grand boulevards of Paris, no longer along the big crossroads.

Instead, they take trains at night to the suburbs or as far as Orléans, about two hundred kilometers around Paris. Prostitutes are displaced from the city centers, be it to the exterior, be it even further. That doesn’t mean prostitution has diminished.

The goal of this law was actually to convince the prostitutes to speak, to denounce their pimp. We know, in fact, that this law does not work because the prostitutes do not speak. Those who are victims of trafficking, they don’t always know their trafficker. They know the interloper who watches them but that isn't necessarily the chief of the network.

Instead, we punish the prostitute with this law for internal security. Then what develops is that women or traffickers take a small apartment and do the prostitution in this apartment with only a sign “massage parlor." They go to the Internet to do their publicity and make appointments with clients. Then, clients familiarize themselves with the phone number of the women. What happens after is directly between the client and the masseuse. It no longer happens on the Internet, or otherwise. It’s very, very hard to counter and track. 

All of that is developing quite simply, due to the law against active and passive solicitation in the streets. The law makes it harder for the pimps, but they find other ways to organize.

One must also reflect: if we want to succeed at combating prostitution in general and help women stop this activity, especially if they are under the control of a pimp, one must think about how the client is a part of this prostitution triangle.

It’s true that the client, he is never bothered. There is only one law in France, a law of 2002 that condemns the clients who have sexual relations under financial terms with minors. Otherwise, the client is free.

What we see with this law on active and passive solicitation, logically, it’s the prostitute who goes to the client.  It’s often the prostitute who we arrest and say to the client, “Don’t worry, you can go.” She is the criminal in the eyes of the police. She is a criminal because she solicited. The client, we let him be. But it can also be the client who goes to see the prostitute.

In France, we should make a law that holds the client responsible. In my opinion, if you attack the client, there would be less prostitution. Prostitution will never disappear, but it is possible to reduce it. If you condemn the clients, you also make them responsible for their actions. You also need to explain to them that they never know if a prostitute is free or forced.

I often hear people who prostitute themselves and don't have a pimp say that they are free to prostitute themselves. They say, “Respect the client. I’m making a living. It’s my client.” I respond, “Yes, you are free, but the client doesn’t make the difference between a woman who is victim of trafficking and a free prostitute.” For the client, everyone is the same. What interests him is the physical; the girl interests him, whether she is free or not.

He should know that more than 80% of prostituted people in France are victims of trafficking, controlled by a pimp, and are never free. There are maybe 20% who are free to do this activity. Still, that liberty is very limited.

Take the Chinese. These women leave their own country because economically they can no longer provide for the needs of the family. She arrives in France clandestinely, so she paid traffickers. She has an immense debt to reimburse because the tariffs are horribly expensive. She says to herself, “I’m going to find a job. I will manage. I am well-brought up. I am well-educated. I will find work.” The problem is that she doesn’t speak the language. She has trouble finding work. She cannot return to her country because she left clandestinely. Even though she has a visa, the visa will expire. She also has a huge debt to repay.

Here, she’s cut off from everything, resources, social networks. She knows no one. She cannot live; she cannot house herself. She must find lodging, so she becomes close to other Chinese. She approaches others to find an apartment.

While, in the beginning, this woman is not at all in a path toward prostitution, she becomes trapped upon arriving. Systematically, she is trapped then by pimps in order to pay her debts. She may not have the same trajectory that the young African girls or the young girls from Eastern Europe have, but in the end, regardless, she is going to be in prostitution.

A student who needs to pay for her studies decides to go into a bar à hotesses to work because she earns more money and after she falls into prostitution, is it a choice? It is not necessarily a real choice. 

Very few prostitutes are free, and there is often a pimp.

Here, we also have a lot of difficulty with pornography. There were studies done by Richard Poulin, a Canadian sociologist, who explained a link between pornography and prostitution. Certain young people might want to do a type of sexual relation from a fantasy but not ask a girlfriend. So he is going to see a prostitute to do that act.

Equally due to pornography, young people imagine that there are no condoms in sexual relations anymore. We hear prostitutes say that there are more young people who want to pay more to have a relation without a condom. That seems all the same serious because in terms of prevention, they are at risk of getting HIV or STIs without a condom. 

The more years that pass, the more young people approach sexuality in a way diverted by pornography, which completely distorts relations between men and women. One speaks of the domination of men over women; it’s often that. There are porn producers who call themselves feminist and who say that in their scenarios the woman has as much importance as the man. But globally, that type of pornography is still quite rare.

Pornography is also everywhere without our asking for it. The young have more and more access to pornographic images on digital cameras, cell phones, blogs. In fact, because of pornography, the body of the woman being everywhere, one is no longer shocked to see young girls in tiny skirts and sexualized. Except, we are not yet in a generation where parents talk about sexuality. Sex is taboo, and it is everywhere. 

There are studies that say 60% of boys interviewed between eleven and thirteen had already seen a pornographic film. There are more and more kids who know already what a blow job is at eleven years old. It then becomes more and more complicated to distinguish between a normal sexuality and deviant sexuality. When boys and girls have a deformed image of sexuality, it’s necessary to balance with awareness and prevention, to say to them, “Watch out for pornography. It may be good but it often does not reflect normal sexuality between a man and a woman.”  

There are many NGOs now that do programs on prevention and sexuality. They explain that pornographic images are not always the image one can have of a woman in order to respect her. There is a serious problem with respect for the body of others, man to man but also man to woman. Those NGOs do little skits and theatre plays on violence and on the image of women. They talk about how boys speak to young girls, how girls speak to boys. They communicate with young people. They have different programs for training on sexuality; they approach the topics of pornography, sexual abuse, respect, the relationship to the body. They speak more about young people, risk behaviors, wearing a condom, sexuality, and self-esteem.

Normally social workers and other professionals in contact with young people don’t talk a lot about prostitution. They speak of drugs. They speak of AIDs. We do trainings in order to make these professionals aware of the risks of prostitution, in case one day they come across a young person who has fallen into prostitution. 

In these trainings, I explain how traffickers organize, who are the victims, what we can do, and what resources can be used to help these people. It’s my role to explain how prostitution is organized in Europe and who the victims of trafficking are.

Training is part of what I do, and my path here is quite atypical in fact, compared to my colleagues. My path was, above all else, random.

I have a Master’s in Business Communication, and I did not have a voice in humanitarian work. I was in a communication agency, quite simply, and this agency decided to open a humanitarian conference in Paris. This was a huge humanitarian conference where they brought together stands, filled with NGOs, filled with associations, on all subjects, about women, about children, the rights of women. In fact, I was responsible for putting this conference together. 

I was in touch with many NGOs to put together this conference, and one day, I met the president of this foundation, Philippe Scelles, the nephew of the founder. At the time, he was the vice president of the foundation. In fact, the foundation didn’t exist as it does now. It was just the office. There was nothing established. There was just a computer, a phone, a few pencils. 

The founder was very old and was very sick. He had already created an association in the 50’s, which was called the team against trafficking. He was very aware about the subject of prostitution, and he wanted to start a foundation with his wealth. 

In fact, during the war, he had been put in prison because it was war, and he was imprisoned with a trafficker. During his entire stay in prison, the trafficker explained to him how he pimped girls, how he was able to manipulate the young girls so that they could be prostituted. The founder had been so shocked by the method of this pimp that he had said, “If one day I get out of this prison, I will do everything to combat this trafficker.”

He wanted to create a foundation to denounce trafficking and to be a voice for these victims who cannot speak. He wanted to put a structure in place to gather information, to have the victims in focus, and to able to say, “See what we have heard, see what we see.”

When I met the founder's nephew, I was aware of the rights of women but I was not really invested in it. He told me, "You should work as a permanent secretary at the foundation.” He explained to me in fact what he wanted to do. He gave me a number of documents about the issue.

I spent the night reading the documents. I knew nothing about prostitution! I didn’t know it. I didn’t see it. I lived in a village. I didn’t live in Paris. I did not have an opinion on prostitution. I read all the documents he had given me. They were editorials on prostitution, news articles on pimps arrested, how they manipulate girls. Finally, it clicked. I said to myself, I absolutely must act, even if I am not in direct contact with the victims. I must speak for them.

The next day, at the conference, he said, “What do you think?”

Thankfully we don’t need to be raped to denounce rape. We do not need to be prostituted to denounce prostitution as violence. It’s enough to read, to hear, to open eyes, to open ears, to speak with these people. I have met prostitutes who told me their path, their life, their distress. And see, I invested myself in that.

At the beginning, I did not have any ideas about prostitution but after sixteen years, I have read so much information; I have heard so many testimonies. My role for sixteen years has been to manage the center of international research and the documentation of sexual exploitation. In sixteen years, I’ve had time to collect a lot of information. The more years that pass, the more it reinforces my fight.

I have seen many, many evolutions in prostitution. I have not seen it diminish. I have seen it develop, transform.

Sixteen years ago, we spoke a lot about French prostitution. Seventy percent of prostitutes were French or Western European. Now, the landscape has completely evolved. With the wars, with poverty, it encourages women to immigrate. Prostitution grew to be comprised of 80-90% foreign women in France.

It is also the methods that have changed. Prostitution occurs much more on the Internet. Sixteen years ago, we didn’t talk about the Internet. It evolved. The massage parlors emerged.

Fifteen years ago they talked about sexual tourism in Asia, Thailand, Philippines. Now, they speak much more about sexual tourism in Eastern Europe. They speak about sexual tourism in the world all around. 

Fifteen years ago, they spoke only of child prostitution. The evolution is that also more and more they denounce all prostitution.

We only have not raised enough awareness that people believe prostitution is violence and not a profession. In France, there are polls that say 80% of the French population is for the reopening of brothels. In their mind, it’s better to put these poor women in brothels to prevent us from seeing them on the sidewalks. She makes me uncomfortable on the sidewalk. I would prefer to put her in a brothel. That suits me. They do not ask, “Who are these women? How did they get there?” That has not changed.

There is all the same an evolution of mentalities among young people. There are more and more young people who contact me or who contact the foundation and are already convinced that prostitution is not something that allows women to flourish.

This new generation has an air of concern. They are motivated toward women’s rights, toward the situation of women, even young men. We can see there are many who ask themselves, “Is prostitution ultimately something good for women?” They are not entirely sure, but they ask themselves all the same. 

I think two, three generations must pass before prostitution is really understood as violence. It will be better understood in thirty years, forty years. We are not yet there. 

Now, there’s more and more talk about the client. Fifteen years ago, you didn’t talk about the client. Now, we speak of the client as an accomplice in this system of prostitution.

We talk of them, but even so I have never seen the word “client” in a single text or study in France. I have seen them but in studies from Sweden because they are progressive, but in France, no. 

 The positive side is that we’re speaking. Awareness develops in general because we speak.

It’s like incest. Fifteen years ago, they didn’t speak much about interfamilial sexual abuse, sexual relations in general, domestic violence. It wasn’t spoken of at all.

The activist, feminist women in France who are even more engaged than me for an even longer time, it’s because of these women that we can talk about these subjects.  Twenty or thirty years ago, it was hard. It’s still hard to talk about prostitution, but now, we listen a little bit more. Year after year, we notice that the subject is approached more and more. That is motivating and we’re going to continue.

We must always hope and continue. With all the subjects connected with the rights of women, there are many things to say.

With the internet also, one finds much more information; there are more press clippings; there are more reports and studies. Prostitution is no longer a subject brushed to the side. More and more, people want research and information on this subject. Then, mentalities change, young people become aware.

I work here with many interns, many young people who voluntarily come here, not because it’s not a requirement but because the subject concerns them and they really want to make change.

We meet people every day who want to have information about prostitution. At first, most people who come here don’t have a tenth of an idea of what prostitution is, of what the daily life of a prostitute is. They have an idea of the person who says, “It’s great. I make ten thousand Euros each month because I am an escort girl.” But there is also the prostitute who does not speak a word of French, who is completely lost, who does not know what is happening. 

When they come here, they have access to books, access to studies, access to news articles. There are no other documentation centers specialized in commercial sexual exploitation in Europe. In fact, we are a huge center of documentation. We have more than 400 books, more than three hundred television broadcasts, more than six thousand documents on the subject of prostitution in the world.

I work with many networks in the world, in different countries, who supply me with information. We also have the press. We have more than ten thousand articles on prostitution. We have more than four thousand reports in PDF format. We have a website that is open to the public. We have all the information.

When people come here, I always have an answer. I don’t necessarily have the documents, but if I don’t have the documents, I refer them to someone. We also receive calls from people also who say they want to help a prostituted person. There is a synergy that emerges between the NGOs on the ground, between us, between other NGOs who are like us, who do awareness-raising, and it’s that which is interesting—when we all work together. When we are able to work all together, the goal is not our ego; it’s not our personality, “Oh, I am super hero.” It’s to say, “At the end of the chain, there are people who are victims, and we must succeed at helping them to get out.”

We are in touch with lawyers; we are in touch with associations of social workers; we are in touch with ambassadors; we are in touch with many. Each individual should be saved, should be helped when they ask for help. We cannot give them our help if she doesn’t want help but at least every person who asks for help, me, I can do something. I can put them in touch with such and such person and we are able to work to try to help people who really need it. It’s our goal. It’s that.

Our role is truly to inform, to take stock of the maximum amount of information on the situation of prostitution in the world, man, woman, child, transgender.

Especially, we talk about prevention, about awareness-raising. It is our role to say, “Come here, read, look, listen.” With the ensemble of documents we have here, I can tell you that it’s not only me who is speaking.

All these writings, all these papers, all these people who express themselves, all people who analyze, these are people who are speaking up. For example, a student came from Colombia and did a study for us on prostitution and the trade of human beings in Colombia. I told him, “Describe the Colombian situation. What is the economic situation of the country? Analyze the situation of a country to see what pushes these young women to prostitute themselves." Because he was that nationality, he was able to analyze the phenomenon from the point of view of a Colombian. At the same time, at the end, he told me, “I never imagined it could be like this. Even though it’s my country, I never had truly scratched the surface of the situation, delved into the phenomenon, and once I did the study, my point of view changed completely.”

I know now he left for Colombia and he works with the UN on drugs and criminality. He is specialized a little bit in human trafficking. It really changed him. It’s there, the interest. It’s that we are not here to brainwash people but to give voice.

It’s the way of fighting. When I research a subject, I realize there are a lot of documents, and I tell myself, it’s not an insignificant subject. That is energy for me.

Also when you are in an environment where there are really motivated people, you don’t feel alone. We meet many people here. We meet students, we meet journalists, we meet social workers. I am in touch with quite a few associations in Europe, in Brazil as well, in Israel. We meet more people who are presidents of associations, small African associations, who come to France. We discuss the situation with them. At the level of the foundation, all the executives are more than sixty years old but they are activists.

We meet politicians who have decided to put their foot down. They say, “I’m going to make a working group with other MPs to analyze the situation of prostitution.” When I hear a MP say, “The client is an accomplice in this system of prostitution, we must be able to make France understand,” even if it’s only one MP, I say, “At least there is one who really wants to try to change things.”

I also had a director who said once, “Here is the Auberge Espagnol.”[3] Everyone brings something; everyone can come; everyone can debate, be it young people, the not so young, men, women, be it decision-makers. We try to make a difference altogether.

I am at the head of a little team that tries truly to make a difference. Volunteers tell me, “I talked about the foundation at a dinner.” It’s tiny, but at least I motivated them to speak. It’s not a subject that one talks about at dinner, in general, but they are able to.

Me, I am able to speak of it too, and I tell myself, well, it’s a little pebble, but it’s part of it.

When people tell me, “Sandra, it’s great your documentation center,” I know I've succeeded at interesting them. Afterward, they go out and they talk about the subject. It’s little by little, like that.

We feel that there is energy. We feel there is synergy. The role of the foundation is to be at the service of others. We are partners of networks, down the road, in the world. It’s what wakes me up every morning and tells me that we progress. I don’t know who I am going to meet tomorrow. Maybe I am going to meet someone from Sierra Leone. After tomorrow I am going to meet an Albanian political refugee who will tell me the situation in Albania.

It’s true that to collect all this information, it’s alarming. You say to yourself, “Whew, it’s hard every day to hear testimonies like that.” There are times when it’s difficult, but we tell ourselves we must not give up. We must not lower our arms. We must advance. We must continue.

See, that motivates us every morning and we are all likewise motivated. We don’t save lives directly, but we stand up. Me, I would say I have contributed something.

[1] Bar à hotesses: Clubs known for hiring beautiful women and selling expensive drinks. 

[2]OCRETH: Central Office for the Suppression of Trafficking of Human Beings.

[3]L’auberge espagnole (Spanish Inn): A potluck; a place where one only finds what one brings ; a communal space where one can find what they want. 

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Community Justice Activism Advocacy
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