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Morgane Merteuil: Sex work can be emancipatory only as a collective process

source: la voix du nord
Strass on strike for sex workers’ rights. Source: la voix du nord

Note of the LeftEast editors: On April 13, 2016, the French government promulgated a law that makes it illegal to pay for sex after MPs finally approved new legislation on prostitution following more than two years of rows and opposition by senators. Under the new law, anyone caught purchasing an act from a sex worker will be fined and required to attend classes on the harms of prostitution. Six months on, according to the French union of sex workers STRASS, the law has made the nearly 30,000 sex workers in France more vulnerable. The union has further accused Maud Olivier, Socialist MP who is behind the bill, of furthering an “essentially repressive” reform. Prostitution groups who fight hard against the change in the law argue that it simply make life more dangerous for sex workers by forcing them to work in more secluded locations. Few are more appropriate to explain such developments, along with forms of struggles by the sex workers than the French activist and ex-secretary of French sex workers’ union, Morgane Merteuil . Her long-life political activism in the side of French workers and her systematic interventions in the French public sphere has given her a penetrating insight on today’s political moment in France and its broader meaning for the left. In this interview, George Souvlism a PhD candidate in History at the European University Institute in Florence, speaks with Mertuil, among others, about her experience as the spokesperson of the French union of sex workers and their struggles, the idea of the abolition of prostitution, recent feminist debates about the sex work and issue of the forced (especially migrant) sex labour. LeftEast and George would also like to thank Kathryn Keating, a researcher at the Equality Studies at University College Dublin, for her help.

George Souvlis (GS): Would you like to present yourself by focusing on the formative experiences (academic and political) that strongly influenced you?

Morgane Merteuil

Morgane Merteuil (MM): I’m not sure my academic experience really influenced me: I passed my A-levels by correspondence, so I was not really aware of the orientation possibilities. I did not know for instance of the existence of sociology, or political sciences, so I went into Literature, since it was the field I felt the more at ease, and then became very disappointed cause I hoped it would be much more political, while it was actually very conservative and mostly stood upon the idea of separating literature and politics.

But I had the opportunity to meet comrades during the social movements, especially during the LRU and pensions reform movements. So I became influenced both by student’s unions groups and more autonomous ones. Concerning feminism, I must say I was not really concerned about it further than the abortion issues.
Then I began sex work, and begun to read stuffs about it, and so discovered the strong polemical issue it was among feminists, but also among leftists. When I was accused by (male) comrades of supporting capitalism and patriarchy, I joined STRASS (the sex workers union), and begun to read a lot on feminism, in the aim to become able to response to all the delirious stuff circulating about sex work and sex workers. Doing that, I also became more conscious about women’s oppression and the necessity to bring feminist issues into the left movement. I then discovered Silvia Federici, and had been pushed into marxist theory by my comrades Stella Magliani-Belkacem and Félix Boggio Ewanjee-Epee. The discovering of marxist feminism have thus been a revelation, since traditional materialist feminist were anti-sex-work, following their conception of male domination, while pro-sex work feminist were rather liberal. So the finding of a theory that allowed me to theorize sex work as work, in the perspective of the class struggle, has been a major step in my formation, that allowed me to reconcile my feminism and my former interest for anti-capitalist issues.

GS: In the period June 2011-June 2016 you were the General Secretary of the French union of sex workers (Strass) and then its spokesperson. Would you like to tell us about this experience? What were the main political stakes of the period that you fought for as a union? What were the main wins and defeats of the period for the union? How many members are you in this union – what is the relation of the union with other unions within and outside the country? What are the issues that you have to deal with from now on?

MM: I joined STRASS in 2011, at a time when the union was quite weak in terms of leadership. It was also the time when the idea of criminalizing the clients was beginning to emerge as a concrete proposition in the political debate, since a government report had just been published that proposed this measure. This was in line with the stronger and stronger voice of abolitionist movement, and especially those of the newly constituted institutional feminist groups such as Osez Le Féminisme! which made, in collaboration with abolitionist organizations, a huge lobby in view of the next presidential elections, and continued after Holland was elected. But while they were advocating for such a criminalisation, with the emerging support of prominent members of the Socialist party who spoke of prostitution as violence against women, we witnessed every day the continuing arrests of these to-be-saved women. The arrests were on the behalf on the law that forbids soliciting, and police harassment especially targeting undocumented workers. So we had to deal with many arrests, and also, this context was very propitious to many kinds of violence against sex workers, from thefts to murder, through rape, including by the police.

Concerning our wins and defeats, we can say that we had a big defeat, since the law criminalizing clients has been voted last April. At the same time, the discussion constituted an occasion for us to be heard, even if it was not in the terms of our proper agenda, so that our analysis of the sex workers’ situation has been able to be heard in parts of the social movement, which allowed some lines to move, even if there’s still a lot to do. We have especially contributed to the emergence of an alternative feminism. We have here to be reminded that that, for more than a decade now, women’s issues have also been used a lot in order to stigmatize muslim people (in the line with what Sara Farris calls femonationalism), and muslim women have begun to be the target of a strong criminalization through the banning of the veil. This islamophobia was also strongly supported by large parts of institutional feminism, so that many feminists outside of these mainstream groups really felt the necessity to build another feminism, that would stay along “inclusive” lines: supporting sex workers, supporting muslim women, and supporting trans women. So the fact that now a main part of the feminist movement is supporting our struggle is a big victory. Unfortunately, we can’t say (yet) the same regarding the left. Actually each sector of the left is very divided on this question, so that when they talk about it, it’s always very ambiguous (maybe excepting the communist and the left party who are very clearly anti-sex work). For the left indeed, the appeal to criminalization cannot appear as an ideal solution, but in the same time, the existence of sex work is considered so much as a degradation for the involved workers that something has to be done. Of course, they do not recognize sex workers as workers, but only as victims that need to be saved. So from this perspective, the criminalization of clients appears both as a victory of feminism and anticapitalism. In this context, our relations with the unions are not so good. Actually, many working class people, and unionists from the base, do support us, as individuals. But the lines inside their organizations are very difficult to move, since this question is the area of feminist commissions which are generally managed by anti-sex work feminists.

So, concerning the issues we’ll have to deal with now, we can “hope” that since the criminalization of clients has passed, and thus that abolitionists have obtained their claim, we should be able to relaunch the discussion on sex work in terms of our proper agenda. We especially need to talk about the effective reintegration of sex workers this law does (not) allow, the problems they continue to face especially when undocumented, and the problem of the pimping law that forbid us to rent flats or to share a workplace.

GS: Prostitution in France (the exchange of sexual services for money) was legal until April 2016, though several surrounding activities were illegal like operating a brothel, living off the avails (pimping) and paying for sex with someone under the age of 18 (the age of consent for sex is 15). On 6 April 2016, the French National Assembly voted to punish customers of prostitutes by a fine of €1500. What is your take on this change? Do you consider this change progress for the interests of the sex workers?

MM: With STRASS we opposed this change, given it does not bring an answer to any needs expressed by sex workers. Indeed, even if we consider the abolitionist paradigm, according to which most sex workers are victims of trafficking, then how is the criminalization of clients going to help them? If we consider the reality now, that is, that a majority of sex workers did decide to do this job, in a context in which they rarely had other options, then how will this measur have any effects on the situation that brought them to sex work? Many sex workers are people who faced great discrimination in the “classic” job market, because they are (trans) women, single mothers, undocumented migrants, because they have contracted debts that a “classic” could not pay for, etc. We always think, when talking about debt bondage, about the trafficking networks talked about a lot in the media. But we never talk about the border closure policies upon which such networks build their business. We never talk either, in this context, about debts more and more contracted by students in Western countries. These situations are created by neoliberal States which, then, vote in the laws against prostitution. Sex workers’ needs, like everybody: money. They need papers. They need a public health and education system. They also need the right to self organize in the context of their work, in order to be able to protect themselves. They do not need police harassment on their workplaces. This law, however, only provides this, and nothing of what is really needed. The supposed “social program” is only one more control dispositive, since sex workers will have to stop sex work to be able to benefit from the (meagre) benefits provided.

GS: What is your take on the idea of the abolition of prostitution? Is it a progressive development or not?

MM: I must say, after years participating in this discussion, I still do not understand how one can seriously talk of the “abolition of prostitution” as a specific object. Especially if you consider, like each part of the discussion except the liberals, prostitution as a consequence, a symptom, of patriarchal capitalism, then what is the meaning of talking about “abolition of prostitution”? I just cannot conceive what it means to “abolish” prostitution. I understand the idea of abolishing capitalism, the class structures, the gender and racial dynamics, all kinds of exploitation. On the other side I understand the unionist perspective aiming at making the working conditions of those exploited, including sex workers of course, more favorable to them. Surely, it can make sense to “abolish” a specific industry – like the nuclear, or the weapons ones – in the sense you stop the production of those goods. But in what concerns sex work, given its specific sexual dimension, given the fact that it participates not to the production of a commodity, but to the reproduction of humans, in the sense it deals with emotional/intimate work, it’s really difficult to imagine how it could not be commodified given the actual organization of society, especially concerning these areas much dominated by class, gender and race dynamics.
Marxist feminists who have worked upon the “social reproduction” indeed highlighted how even the most private and intimate activities actually do participate in the reproduction of capitalism and contributed to capital accumulation, even, and especially, when they are not paid. Given also the way the “sexual liberation” discourses have been reinvested by neoliberalism, and homo/femonationalism, I’m really not optimistic about the success of this idea of “abolishing prostitution” on the behalf of women sexual emancipation.

GS: Catherine MacKinnon, an American radical feminist, in one of her articles equated prostitution with rape by saying “prostitution in and of itself is an abuse of a woman’s body.” Do you think that such a comparison is legitimate?

MM: In relation to my last answer, I would say “probably.” Probably, because it’s unfortunately highly probable that a sexual relation between a man and a woman is based on the abuse of the woman, or will be the final step of an abuse process, or a pretext to an abuse. Sexuality is a difficult area for women. It’s not only that, of course. It’s actually a very contradictory area, in which women can also find a kind of power they are deprived of in other areas. Sexualization can be a way for a woman to express a release from oppressive conditions that assigned her to a socially depreciated position. It’s also through this sexualization that many working class women can access some higher social status. But the competition is hard, and the rules very strictly defined.

So, to come back to Dworkin, if I do not agree with her very pessimistic, determinist, consideration on sex work, I however recognize a coherence in her thought, since while she compares sex work to rape, she actually considers many forms of heterosexual sex, based on a certain form of hegemonic masculinity, as a form of abuse. This is very much different from what today’s abolitionists promote. They question the constraints to heterosexuality much less, they question sexuality very little actually, but only divide it in easy categories: free/commercial, enthusiastic/rape that participate in a liberal fiction. But most women’s experience can actually not be summarized in such words, the borders are much more blurred. Probably it is not a coincidence that the queer movement, which does question a lot the question of masculinities and its relations to abuse, usually supports sex workers rights.

GS: Could sex work potentially have an emancipatory content?

MM: What can be emancipatory for women is to get the money they can earn through sex work. Sex work is actually probably the only area in which a working class woman, having no capital at all, no social relations, can earn more than in the other jobs available to her. At the same time, sex work can be very alienating, due to the strong personal implications needed in order to provide sexual services. It can be very harmful, physically, and psychologically, due to the vulnerable conditions in which most women exercise, the danger they face doing this job, and the stigmatization of sex workers. Saying that, I do believe emancipation is to be thought as a collective process. So we have to think of two processes. First, the collectivity of sex workers. Due to hard working conditions, the organization of the industry itself, and criminalization, workers are placed in competition towards each other, and a first step is then to develop the feeling of belonging to a collectivity of workers sharing common interests. Secondly, sex workers’ emancipation must be thought in relation to the emancipation of the global working class. But to make this feeling of belonging to a larger collectivity sharing the same interests towards emancipation, then, relies not only on sex workers, but on the workers’ movement, who has to make efforts to include sex workers in their struggles. We’re unfortunately far from that.

GS: What are the relationships of your Union with the traditional left parties? Do you they share and support your demands?

MM: Left parties are very divided on the issue. The Communist Party, as the Left Party, are officially abolitionist, and supported the criminalization of clients. Ensemble! is more hypocritical, officially abolitionist, and ambiguous on the issue of criminalizing the clients. This official position holds that clients must be held responsible, but they might not promote repression as the best approach from this perspective. Only the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste has officially taken a position against the criminalization (not without harsh internal discussions), and some members of the NPA have participated in our mobilizations, but they were quite marginal. Actually, what is happening is that this issue is despised really much by left parties. It is usually relegated, as a question of “gender and sexuality stuff,” the concern of the feminists’ commissions only, and what stands out from that is that positions resulting from the work of these commissions are mostly taken into consideration “as a matter of form,” It does not result from a true commitment of the parties’ directions to feminism. Furthermore, I would add that I think it is quite an error that this issue only is relegated to feminism, given the fundamentally racist dynamics that command the application of the anti-sex work laws. By the way, I guess now that the demand for criminalizing clients has been passed, and the work is considered as done, it will be even more difficult to raise the issue inside left organizations.

GS: Melissa Gira Grant makes the argument, in her book Playing the Whore, that the separation of sex work from the “legitimate” economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. Which is your take on this issue? Is sexual labor the same as any other form of labor?

MM: I do agree with Melissa Gira Grant. Actually, what is happening, is that according to the anti-sex work movement, trying to fight the whore stigma means a “glamorization of prostitution” that should be fought against: what they mean is thus that they do actually need sex workers and public opinion to agree on the legitimacy of the whore stigma in order to make their arguments effective. This is certainly harmful for sex workers, but also for all the people who might, given their life experience, be “close” to sex work, or into the sex industry, and who’ll feel bad, maybe less because of the job itself, because of the perception they then get of themselves.

Saying that does not mean that sex work is only harmful because of the stigma attached to it. I don’t want to enter into the discussions about what sex work might be: is it a labour as any other ? Is it harmful per se ? Is it emancipatory ? Is only sexual exploitation harmful, whereas “free” / “independant” sex work is freedom? But I think, from this question we can go in different interesting directions.

Firstly, I think there have been a huge mistake from some sex work advocates, consisting of denying the fact that sex work, even when “chosen,” can be physically, and psychologically harmful. Actually, we can, and we must, recognize the possible damages inherent to these jobs, as each job may involve specific health damages. This is an issue to be considered, in an occupational health perspective. This is, for instance, the stake raised by Johanna Brenner in her article “selling sexual services: a socialist feminist perspective”. I quote her:

“The meanings given to bodily boundaries and sexual exchanges vary within human cultures. In the social location of most of the protagonists in the feminist debate (and in many contemporary societies) our bodily boundaries are constructed as an inviolable locus of personhood. Further, body parts most closely associated with sexual arousal are central to the psychological sense of a private self. Many feminized service workers have intimate contact with other people’s bodies and with the “dirty” sides of life. Yet, their own bodily boundaries generally remain intact. Not so in prostitution. Here, “intimate” parts are used in the service of someone else’s pleasure, and not one’s own. This poses real psychological risks—of alienation from one’s own desire, of dissociation from one’s body, of dulling down of feeling, depression, and so forth.”

So, given the way sexuality and intimicy are constructed in our society, it would be really idealistic to believe one can really exchange her sexual labour power the same way labour power is generally exchanged, with no different consequences. The fact is that the consequences of our (bad) sexual experiences are experienced as traumatic experiences. Sex work does not escape from this context.

However, many jobs do involve areas of life that can be bounded to traumatic/psychologically harmful consequences (people working with injured or dead bodies for instance). A difference is that the skills the worker will use to distance his/herself from his/her labour object will be valued, whereas these skills, used by sex workers, will be considered as a supplementary evidence of their pathological attitudes.
Finally, another way to consider the question of sexual labour’s relation to other kinds of labour is to consider the sexual dimension involved in many jobs, and how part of the labor power a worker has to sell is constituted by his/her gender performance or others personal, subjective, qualities. The research on emotional and digital labour addressing how we are asked more and more to concretely sell ourselves, and not anymore our sole labour power, opens to a renewal of the reflexion upon alienation and social reproduction, and how we can think about it as a main site of resistance. Thus, if we consider the contemporary sex workers’ struggles, but also all of these struggles which are built from the necessity to survive as communities, as human beings, such as the anti-racist/anti-imperialist struggles, struggles against detrimental projects, against police violence, etc., they certainly indicate that we must think about issues the “classic” workers’ struggle could not bring into the discussion, but which can constitute inspiring starting points for a recomposition of a radical struggle towards emancipation.
GS: The trend of conflating sex work with trafficking has led to a support for prosecution-focused approaches to sex work that further marginalize and endanger the groups these approaches claim to protect (particularly, vulnerable migrant workers). ‘Rescue-narratives’ attempting to help ‘victims’ have attracted widespread public appeal, but they have justified bodily control (especially of minorities e.g. muslim women and women outside mainstream groups). You also mention criminalisation of clients being presented as a victory for feminism. How might the discursive dominance of ‘rescue narratives’ be challenged and what do unions do in the media sphere to subvert it? How can the discussion be re-launched with migrant/workers’ rights in the forefront?

MM: The trafficking paradigm has indeed been challenged for long by many researchers, and by sex workers targeted by anti-trafficking programmes, for the harm these policies cause to migrant sex workers, and the anti-migration agenda they serve. From this perspective, sex worker unions can allow sex workers to organise against these policies, to denounce them, and to build solidarities with other people these kinds of policies could harm. Migrant sex workers organizing to denounce the police harassment they experience is probably the most powerful way to challenge the rescue narrative that tries to reduce them to voiceless victims. Also, I think the actual refugee crisis can contribute to questioning this anti-trafficking paradigm, highlighting some similar issues relating to smuggling and exploitation, and the need precisely to open the borders and welcome both “economic migrants” and “refugees” if we want to fight against these kinds of exploitation.

GS: You mentioned the racist dynamics that support the application of anti-sex work laws. Could you speak more of your experiences of this from your work with STRASS?

MM: I have plenty of examples, unfortunately. Actually, almost all cases of arrest of sex workers are related to migrant sex workers. Especially in the streets, police harassment is continuous. Until the passing of the new law, we had the “soliciting crime,” criminalizing a sex worker for her sole presence in the street. So for instance, Chinese women once identified as sex workers were arrested even while going to the supermarket. They were also victims of many types of police violence, from insults to physical violence. In the woods, they used to use the “anti-storm” by-laws to criminalise those who work there. Now that the soliciting crime is removed, the harassment is still strong, though they do not even need the soliciting justification anymore: they just control the papers, and undocumented women are sent in detention centres.

GS: You speak of the difficulty to frame sex-work in terms of ”choice.” What have been the ways STRASS has addressed the disparities between cases of choice and cases of forced (especially migrant) labour when it comes to sex work? Have many migrant sex workers joined the union and the struggle? For our readers it would be especially interesting to know how this dynamic plays in France with women from Eastern Europe, who form a large part of the migrant sex-worker force, are often pressed to do this job out of economic necessity, but sometimes have – because of the specific history of state socialism, a degree of disbelief in the power of trade unions?

MM: From the moment we talk about workers’ rights, there’s no need to divide workers between those who chose and those who did not: to fight for sex workers rights means both fighting for the right to work in the best conditions possible and the right to stop working in the sex industry.

Many migrants have joined the union, yes; and many more have joined the struggle. For many people, joining the union is not always very significant, in the sense strong community networks already exist outside the union, so they can join demonstrations and other events, without always feeling the need to be affiliated to the union. We had big movements from Chinese workers, and Latina America workers – mostly trans women – too. Some women from Africa, especially Nigeria, also participate more punctually in events. Concerning women from Eastern Europe, STRASS has not succeeded in reaching them in Paris, but they are very active in Toulouse for instance. Here, also, they might not directly join the union, who can appear as far from their everyday survival needs, but they do come to the demonstrations, and can get involved in community health organisations.