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Serreau, Legardinier, Mourani
Prostitution - Three Women and a Debate

3 février 2007

par Élaine Audet

The Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle (CLES), taking advantage of the passage of film-maker Coline Serreau and of journalist Claudine Legardinier in Ottawa for a week symposium about prostitution ( 1 ), organized in Montreal, on January 27, an afternoon of reflection on "the isolation in prostitution". The projection of the film Chaos ( 2001 ), in the presence of its director, Coline Serreau, was followed by a conference by Claudine Legardinier, author with Saïd Bouamama of the book Les clients de la prostitution - l’enquête (Presses de la Renaissance, 2006), by the communication of Maria Mourani, criminologist, deputy of Bloc québécois, and author of La face cachée des gangs de rue, as well as by exchanges with the public. Michèle Roy, activist of the Regroupement des CALACS and of the CLES, invited everyone to be extremely vigilant concerning the follow-up that will be given to the report of the sub-committee on solicitation laws ; and that of Status of Women Canada about trafficking for purposes of prostitution ; to the Pickton trial of which certain lobbies are taking advantage to justify the complete decriminalisation of prostitution, including that of prostituters and pimps. Here is a report of this meeting.

One night, while driving though town, a bourgeois couple witnesses a violent scene : Malika, a prostitute, is being chased by her pimps. The young girl calls for help and tries to find shelter in the couple’s car, but the husband locks the doors. Malika is then hit and left as dead on the pavement. The driver hastily cleans his car to get rid of any trace of blood while his wife, Hélène, tries to find out what happened to the young girl. She finally finds her in the reanimation department of a hospital in Paris and she supports her through her recovery. But, the pimps who had aggressed Malika do not want to let her be.

Thus is the subject of this movie, distressing by the violence and domination it shows and yet comforting by its affirmation of the triumphant strength of friendship and support between women, as well as its unforgettable last plan on Goldberg’s Variations theme. A strong work, dramatic, funny, accusing, tender and admirably directed in its slightest details by Coline Serreau. (3)

Living without prostitution is no utopia

This movie, both poignant and lucid, is an extraordinary tool for making us conscious of the causes and consequences of prostitution. In this film, everything has its echo, the North African father from the Maghreb who wants to force his daughter into marrying an old man and the pimp who scoops her up when she ends up in the streets with no money, the French macho father and son alongside the Maghreb macho father and son. The director works on two realities which are always much debated - the Muslim family traditions and prostitution - while daringly revealing the humanitarian organisations that fight racism and yet forget about sexism. "In the eyes of these organisations, when a man is oppressed, it is a crime, when it is the case for a woman, it is tradition. To keep on shutting our mouths on this problem is to insult the progressive powers of the Maghrebian people and to be a conscious accomplice to the perpetuation of slavery". The director is convinced that "a democratic debate between equals allows and even forces one to speak out. To not reveal problems and to keep one’s dissensions to oneself about the motives for tolerance in the name of the freedom of others is not a sign of respect but one of contempt".(4) In the director’s view, "we live in a system that manufactures prostituted persons". Prostitution is endlessly fed by forced marriages and poverty as well as persistent inequality between men and women.

During the debate that followed the movie, Coline Serreau spoke about the 2006 World Cup of football where the pimps in all countries drove tens of thousands of women that could be prostituted into Germany. "Women need to be formatted in camps, hundreds of camps. It is an industry. It takes 3 weeks to format a woman. She is locked up, raped, drugged and beaten."

The reasons are clear to this activist film director. Prostitution is born from violence and barbarism, from the neo-liberal market world and from patriarchy. The profits from prostitution being enormous, it is difficult to put a stop to such a lucrative market. The film director accuses those collabos who pretend that they like being prostituted, that it was their own choice. She thinks that there is no choice. Between dying of hunger and being prostituted, one can only be prostituted.

When addressed about the Pickton’s trial, she says that serial murders proceed from a similar logic as in marital violence. In France, marital violence leaves a woman dead every other day. The same procedure and impunity applies to marital violence as to the killers of prostituted women. "Your body belongs to me, you are my wife" or "you are not a human being but a prostitute".

It is as though the men in power allow the breeding of slaves for their compatriots’ comfort and maybe for their own... It is not surprising then that the film is so distasteful to machos, to fundamentalists and to pimps ! According to the film director, the only solution is to fight for a legislation like the one in Sweden where both the clients and the pimps are criminalised. In Coline Serreau’s views, a world free of prostitution is no utopia. In the past, voting rights for women or the abolition of slavery were called utopia and yet both became a reality. (5)

"Allowing prostituted women to speak out"

The conference given by the journalist and writer Claudine Legardinier who is a specialist in women’s rights and equality of the sexes, made one get to the root of the many questions that arise from the movie. While prostitution is mostly being introduced as a modern and liberated life style, the lecturer sees it as a retrograde and traditional institution that wants to put women back "where they belong". In the face of a global system of exploitation such as prostitution, all questionings should be made globally. In Claudine Legardinier’s views, it is high time we questioned the structural causes for resorting to prostitution ; it is high time we questioned why girls and boys go through different models of socialization. It is undeniable that prostitution highlights the deep disparity in men-women relationships.

Legardinier cannot understand our blindness to this extreme form of violence made to women ; a violence which we claim to fight against when it happens in other contexts. In our society, men keep on being completely unaccountable for violence done to prostituted women. All is done in hiding, behind walls and no one wants to see or know about the life of the women trapped behind those walls.

The men or women who defend the vision of prostitution as a simple social service attempt to separate the trafficking of women and the prostitution of children from prostitution itself. But reality shows us that, where there is no trafficking to feed it, there would be no local prostitution and that, conversely, the response to the accrued demand for bodies that are younger and younger is entirely part of the prostitution system. Legardinier says that prostitution is compost for racism and for colonialist stereotypes where men find food for their fantasies about, for instance, the strength of African women or the submission of Asian women.

Journalist Legardinier insists on the fact that, in order to intercourse, prostitution is basically driven by simulation. A prostituted woman has to look strong even if she wants to cry or throw up. Johns enjoy describing her as a sex beast who likes "it" and she has to play the game even if she feels nothing but hatred and disgust for them whose physical contact she resents. In fact, she’ll spend hours in the shower trying to get rid of their marks and odour. Years after having extracted herself from that world, a woman kept on cleaning herself with detergent.

Claudine Legardinier says that all prostituted women agree on the fact that their first client was the one who counted the most. The first who paid for rape opens the way to all the others. At first, the women think that they’ll stop as soon as they’ll have put money aside, but the amount of drugs and alcohol they need in order to be able to hang on makes it impossible to stop. Although they say that they get paid a lot of money, most of them are in debt.

They all talk about how they split personalities and dissociate in order to withstand repeated violence and contempt. They change names so as to have the illusion that it is not them but their alter ego who is being aggressed and humiliated. They talk about the insults and the offences they have to endure. "I, for my part, do not feel that I am a prostitute" says one of them "but they make it their duty to remind you that you are one and it is actually for the privilege of calling you a "slut" that they have paid in the first place." (6)

We rarely hear of the considerable amount of money made by the pimps, yet prostituted women are stigmatized with indignity and rejected into the muteness of shame. Legardinier has collected many evidences to this end : "If I talk, I’ll be listed as a former prostitute ; people will not take me as a human being anymore. My head bursts from the urge to speak out and reveal what I have lived through." To which another prostitute adds : "If my son ever hears of my being a prostitute, I’d deny it with all my might." A recent article on this subject in newspaper Le Monde (7) says that a report made by Germany’s Family Ministry claims that only 1% of its prostituted women have enlisted in the legal market, thus claiming that 99% of the women have refused to do so. This is a far cry from the pride of being a prostitute and the feeling of power some of them claim to have.

Prostitution is an experience that is physically and psychologically devastating. Today, priority is given to helping prostituted women speak out and survivors emerge. The lecturer realises that, in recent years, prostituted women react and file a complaint faster than before, because some feminists have helped them talk about, analyse and decrypt all the mechanisms of violence. We must realise that legalising prostitution will abort our fight for equality of the sexes, dignity, autonomy, access to creative jobs, acknowledgement of women’s competences and fairness in the social, economical and political domains. Women will once again be trapped into providing the same sexual services to men, paying with their sex for the right to live in society.

To Claudine Legardinier, the Swedish law on prostitution has nothing to do with prudishness. It is the result of thirty year of committed debate in the country on a corpus of laws called "Women’s peace" and it is supported by an exposed political wish : to attain equality between the sexes. What is unique in the Swedish law is that the light is taken off the prostituted woman - who is traditionally considered as guilty - and shed onto the Johns, making them accountable for the human and social consequences of their acts. If fathers and Church and husbands have been deprived the right to dispose of a woman’s body, it certainly was not in order to give it up to neo-liberalism and the laws of the market. Prostitution reinforces the old order through which men were given the power of determining the fate of women. "We must rebel" concludes this feminist whose thinking is clear and stimulating and who, ever since she wrote her first book in 1996 (8) has devoted her time to fighting for a world free of prostitution.

Defending equality of the sexes and justifying prostitution ?

Maria Mourani, the third speaker of this meeting, asserts that the current status quo is unacceptable and that it is necessary not only for the debate to be made within the authorities in power, but also in the citizen space, because it is the people who can change things. According to her, the arguments justifying the decriminalisation of prostitution do not hold the road. Not only it would not extract the lucrative market of prostitution from the hands of organized crime, but it would allow the "business" to develop.

In Holland, where prostitution is legalised, the illegal market of minors has grown from 5000 to 15000 persons while the number of women foreigners who are victims of trafficking passed to 80%, among whom 70% have no identity papers. Whether legal or illegal, prostitution - like drugs or arms dealing - is indissolubly linked to organised crime and underground activities. The allegation that decriminalising prostitution would reduce violence done to prostituted women is false because prostitution is in itself violence. It is as though one claimed that in order to reduce violence, murder should be legalised !

All solutions have their flaws but, to Maria Mourani, one should go to Sweden to study its law and adapt it to our Canadian reality, our own dynamics. It takes time, education and sensitization. By criminalizing the customers, we would reduce the demand and the offer. Customers being everywhere, even among politicians, we must heighten their awareness and refute the arguments pretending that prostituted women are happy, that they have a lot of money and that by criminalizing prostitution we would be taking the food from their mouths. Reality is completely different.

The criminologist insists that we are currently spreading two contradictory messages : Prostitution is legal but solicitation, brothels and pimping are illegal. Bars with dancers, escort agencies and massage parlours are legal. Their licences are provided by the municipalities. At the same time, prostituted women are arrested. This is a hypocritical and cowardly discourse. We must clearly say that prostitution does not favour equality between the sexes, that it is based on violence. We must take action for the protection of women and children who are not to sell.

Today, some people use the Pickton affair to bring about the decriminalisation of prostitution in the name of the safety of prostituted women. Some journalists use the word "sex workers". Pro-decriminalization lobbies are very powerful and wealthy. They are granted subventions, Maria Mourani carries on, for holding forums and they go in universities to make propaganda for sex work. We must not be silent anymore nor accept that a minor part of a minority decides for the majority (8).

It is now time to say what we want as a society. If, in the Canadian Parliament, we hear about "sex workers", it is because some deputies, who sat at the sub-committee for the solicitation laws, made decriminalization their key issue and are granted an attentive ear from the Canadian Parliament. We must find a new balance of power on this question, concludes Maria Mourani, and show that there is another way possible, that of the equality between men and women.


1. Colloque sur la prostitution, Université d’Ottawa, janvier 2007.
2. Cette cinéaste, qui ne craint pas de se dire féministe et abolitionniste, n’en est pas à ses premières armes avec Chaos. Son premier film, en 1975, s’intitulait Mais qu’est-ce qu’elle veulent donc ?, suivi notamment par Trois hommes et un couffin en 1985 et La belle verte en 1996, sorte d’Euguélionne sur l’environnement, où Serreau se met elle-même en scène dans un rôle d’extra-terrestre découvrant une planète saccagée par les excès de la société de consommation.
3. Entrevue avec Isabelle Alonso, 2 octobre 2001.
4. Entrevue avec Dominique Poirier, Radio-Canada, le 26 janvier 2007.
5. Claudine Legardinier et Saïd Bouamama, Personnes prostituées : ce qu’elles disent des clients.
6. Cécile Calla, "Allemagne : le renforcement des droits des prostituées n’a pas amélioré leur situation", Le Monde, 25 janvier 2007.
7. Claudine Legardinier, La prostitution, Toulouse, éditions Milan, Coll. "Les Essentiels", 1996.
8. Élaine Audet, Une victoire camouflée en défaite, 10 janvier 2007.

Translated for Sisyphe by Sylvie Miller.

Read the original in French.

On Sisyphe, February 12. 2007.

Élaine Audet

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