If charging for a given service is a crime, then surely paying for it should be illegal too? That's the basic argument behind the French Socialist Party's (FSP) plan to criminalise those who patronise prostitutes, as well as individuals of negotiable affection themselves. It's widely believed that most countries' prostitution laws are sexist, prosecuting mostly the women who sell their bodies, while leaving the largely male clientele untouched by the legal system.
The FSP's plan is part of a broad ranging attack on foreign pimping networks, as well as provisions of support for sex workers who want to leave the industry. But many argue that plans for 1,500 euro fines for 'Johns' on their first infringement (increasing to double that for repeat offenders) and legally mandated awareness courses (akin to those on the dangers of drink-driving seen by alcohol offenders) will only drive the inaccurately named 'oldest profession' (if the first profession was prostitution, how did the first clients pay?) deeper underground, putting prostitutes in even more danger. For Christians taking a position on this issue, a familiar dilemma is faced. Do we strive for the ideal, or do we act on the reality as seen in practice?
The most vocal opposition to the new law comes from a group who previously ignored such debates. Last week a group of men calling themselves the "343 Salauds" ("Dirty Swine" in English) signed a petition entitled "Touche pas a ma Pute!" ("Hands off my Tart!"). Lead by the writer Frederic Beigbeder, whose book 99 Francs deals directly with the question of hedonism, this group claims they represent a love of freedom and a desire to resist intrusive government control.
"We believe that everyone has the right to freely sell their charms - and even to enjoy it," says the group. "We love freedom, literature and intimacy. When the state starts taking charge of our private parts, all three are in danger… In opposition to the sexually correct, we intend to live as adults."
Despite the overtly masculine nature of their protest, they appeal to a broad history of feminism and anti-fascism. Their 343 Salauds name comes from the 343 Salopes (Dirty Cows) movement from the 1970s, a a group of women who signed a manifesto claiming they had an abortion, and the "Touche pas a ma Pute!" slogan is a reference to the "Touche pas a mon Pote!" ("Hands off my buddy!") rallying cry against the far right National Front in the 1980s.
While it is difficult to take seriously this group's claims to support the rights of sex workers more broadly, since they only came into existence once the mostly male clientele of prostitutes were threatened, there is an important point raised here. Namely that this argument, the idea that people should be free to buy and sell sex like any other service or commodity, appeals to an ideal situation.
In an ideal world, prostitution would be a matter of choice and people who choose to partake should be left alone to do so, and those who do not should equally not be pressured to do so. Both sides would exist in parallel, and while there might be discussions on their respective values and morality, this would not result in criminal enforcement. The actual act of paying for sex, as long as both parties engage in the contract consensually, ostensibly harms no one. And if no one is harmed, what business does the state have in restricting anything.
The problem comes when reality's rubber hits the idealist's road. Women are frequently brought into the sex trade against their will. Coming in often from outside the EU they are promised jobs, a home, and a future, and are instead delivered a life of abuse, imprisonment, and sexual servitude. In order to ensure loyalty to their owners, many of these women are dosed with highly addictive drugs, sometimes with lethal results. In 2003 a study by eight researchers from the group 'Prostitution Research and Education' based in San Francisco investigated prostitution in nine countries. After interviewing 854 people involved in the sex trade, they found that:
• 71% had been physically assaulted in prostitution
• 63% had been raped
• 89% wanted to escape prostitution but did not have other options for survival
• 68% could be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Idealists argue that these kinds of things are the result of criminalising prostitution, but the experience of countries with legalised prostitution doesn't offer much solace. After the state of Victoria in Australia legalised prostitution in the 80s, there was a 300% increase in the number of illegal brothels, and in the Netherlands legalisation has seen an increase in illegal trafficking. There, it has been reported that legal prostitutes are not joining the government-organised union for them because they are too scared to complain. Legal brothels in the American state of Nevada have been likened to 'little jails' and there have been reports of pimps starving prostitutes who they thought were too fat to be attractive to clients. A woman with experience of life inside one of these facilities is quoted as saying: "No one really enjoys getting sold. It's like you sign a contract to be raped."
Much as we as Christians know that God's commandments on sexual morality firmly condemn prostitution, we also know that Jesus commanded us to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. We cannot advocate criminalising anything purely because it's a sin. If we do, we would have to commission thought police since Jesus talked often about some mental moves being at least as sinful as physical acts, not to mention the fact that any resulting obedience would be more fear of man than love of God.
But what we can do, what we are called to do, and what was modelled expertly by the life and works of William Wilberforce, is to call for the law to change when it is clear that it's leading to a situation of deep hurt and pain. Wilberforce's challenge to slavery was less to do with a legalistic understanding of the book of Philemon, and much more about compassion for people's suffering.
With this perspective in mind, it is difficult to do anything as a Christian but support what the FSP are planning and to go further and ask for the same thing in their own countries. The idea of a legal demand that is illegal to supply is absurd, and anyone with a basic understanding of economics will tell you that in a situation like that, you will get suppliers, willing or otherwise.
This is not to say that mere criminalisation is enough. Critics of the FSP's plan point out that it might stop street trade prostitutes, but those who are based online will clean up where there is a gap in the market. To be comprehensively defeated, prostitution has to stop being the last resort, and to reach that goal people need to act. Governments and Churches alike should be putting institutions in place to provide a safe and secure exit route from the sex industry, and individual Christians should work hard to create an uncondemning environment for anyone leaving such a horrible world. Only when desperation drives people to the Church rather than to the brothel will we see the change we really want. We also need to stand up to the sexualisation of our culture, in entertainment, art, and advertising. If sex is something used to sell, it shouldn't surprise us when sex is something packaged to be sold.
If we are going to object to prostitution on either moral or compassionate grounds, we cannot afford the possibility of being incomplete or unthinking in our response. To do so would not only be hypocritical and a failure to solve the problem, it would also be very far removed from the standards God demands. Biblical admonishments regarding sexual immorality are given out to men and women alike. Samson's choice of a wife purely based on lust is disastrous, and Jesus tells the adulterous woman to go out and sin no more. In taking a stand against both the sin and horrors of vice, we have to do so condemning and comforting both parties in the equation equally. Only then can we really make the kind of difference that's expected of us.