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mardi 9 avril 2013

Prostitution, STRASS and the senator - When opacity becomes relevant

par La Fondation Scelles

Écrits d'Élaine Audet

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French Val-de-Marne Senator Esther Benbassa (EELV) has published on her website, on February 6, 2013, a list of associations to which she allocates funds this year, on behalf of the Parliamentary financial reserve that is dedicated to “local projects”. In the presentation that is made of this funding, the emphasis is squarely placed on the concept of transparency, including in its choice of title ("Parliamentary Reserve 2013 : solidarity, culture and transparency ”(1).

The various groups funded include 7 associations subsidized to produce cultural workshops and events ; 3 to put in place of symposia or meeting places ; 2 to create workshops for women’s groups ; 1 for food assistance to the most needy ; and finally one such allocation for STRASS, the “Syndicat du Travail Sexuel” (trade union of sex work). This organization, created in 2009 in Paris at the “Assises de la prostitution”, brings together a set of individuals, most of who engage in prostitution, and who campaign for its recognition.

Deciding to fund STRASS means that this group is deemed akin to other funded organizations, such as the “Association of Malian women in Montreuil : Establishment of a sewing workshop” “Restaurants du Coeur in Val-de-Marne : food aid to disadvantaged Val-de-Marne families” or “Le Cinéma s’expose : creating educational records for students on film history and cinematic trades.”

In the present article, we will be try to ascertain whether this is the case, and to understand the functioning and the motivations of STRASS, beyond the margins of the picture painted of it by its members, using three main axes : a brief study of STRASS himself, assembling what little public information exists about it ; the statistics used by STRASS and how it obtains them ; and finally, the communications strategy of STRASS – before concluding with a few words about this organization’s very nature.

1. Is STRASS a trade union like any other ?

The Syndicat pour le Travail Sexuel (STRASS) is an organization primarily concerned with promoting the speech, obtaining recognition for and carrying out activities in favour of what its supporters call "sex workers”, a category which includes both "prostitutes (street-based or indoors), pornography actors and actresses, erotic masseuses and masseurs, professional dominatrixes, erotic telephone/webcam operators, strippers, erotic models, sexual companions, etc.” (2). This type of activities being generally negatively connoted by society, their practitioners are allowed few occasions to speak out, to the extent that they wish to do so. It therefore seems legitimate that they would wish to reconquer that speech.

The main ambition of STRASS is to do so in their behalf. They claim that "STRASS represents sex workers, regardless of their gender or category of sex work” (3). It presently claims 500 members (4) – an unverifiable figure since no data are reported on their website in this regard – and this at the national level. However, prostitution in France is already estimated at approximately 20,000 persons (5). How can STRASS represent an activity so multifaceted, inconspicuous and whose ramifications and practitioners are no doubt much more numerous than what can be imagined ?

The positions of STRASS in this regard are somewhat blurry : it wishes to represent the speech of “all sex workers”, but nuances this assertion by condemning what it calls “forced” prostitution. STRASS claims rights for “volunteer” prostitutes ; all others, which represent 90% of street prostitutes (6), are left at the discretion of public authorities. There exist therefore a “good” prostitution and a “bad” prostitution.

But how does STRASS decide whom is prostituting “voluntarily’”or not ? On what criteria is this determination based ? If the idea is simply to separate pimped prostitutes from the others, this is tantamount to disregarding all the determinisms to which every human being is subject, as social sciences and humanities have shown for many years now. This is not to argue that no one can exercise free choice ; it is simply that such speech ought to be considered in its appropriate context, like that of Ulla (7), for example, famous for having campaigned actively for the rights of French prostitutes in the mid-seventies, before admitting, some years after exiting the trade, that she had not been in prostitution of her own free will. “She had boasted of being independent, but confessed much later that, like many, she was being manipulated.” “How could you have believed me ?” was her reproach to feminists (8).

Thus, it appears difficult - if not impossible - to determine who freely chooses this activity. Incidentally, this is one of the contradictions of STRASS ; this trade union defends those people who wish to freely exercise prostitution without either explaining how they effect this differentiation, or denying that certain determinisms weigh heavily on the prostituted, including those who claim they are acting voluntarily. It does this even as the voluntarist attitude of these same individuals is affirmed — sometimes in the same interview, as in the following excerpt :
“- The important thing is that it remains a choice.
 Abolitionists argue that prostitution is never a choice. What do you think ?
 It is obviously a “coerced” choice – it is probably not done merely for pleasure [...] (9).”

In the same manner, STRASS’ main spokespersons frequently insist that they suffered no childhood trauma, an occurrence that could explain – partly, at least – their life choice, and that is the case of a number of “voluntary” prostitutes.

However, if one considers, for example, the findings of a study by A. Roxburgh (10) who conducted personal interviews with no less than 72 prostituted women, one observes that a full third of the interviewees exhibit “[...] current symptoms of PTSD [i.e. of post-traumatic syndromes, such as for example the soldiers who survived war], i.e. a rate ten times higher than that in the general population. The descriptive analysis of the data revealed that 87% of women showed symptoms of depression, and 42% of them had attempted suicide at least once. Almost everyone in the sample (99%) mentioned at least one traumatic event in the past. (11)”

This study is not the only one to pursue this line of analysis, regardless of its locale. One can quote, for example, the work of Dr. Melissa Farley (12), wherein she argues that “[...] the very nature of sex work has a traumatic and humiliating component for women who practice it, explaining high prevalence rates of post-traumatic stress syndromes (two thirds of the sample) among female sex workers, regardless of the countries of reference (South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, USA and Zambia) (13).”

2. Regarding data transparency

STRASS challenges the statistics produced by various institutions (14) as to the number of prostituted persons in France. It is undeniably true that there exist to this day in France merely speculative estimates as to these numbers (and data are based on relatively small samples), to complement police statistics, and the absence of a more thorough investigation at this stage is regrettable.

However, STRASS does not advance any official figure either. It gives out a few in interviews or offers estimates. Yet, STRASS calls its statistics “scientific” in opposition to those of its detractors, as discussed later in this article. However, it never reveals its counting method or its sources.

“The Union claims 200 members [this from a 2009 interview ; today, according to its members, they would number 500], that is 1 per cent of the 20,000 full-time acknowledged sex workers.” Mistress Gilda explains : “I do not include in this guesstimate the mother who prostitutes to make ends meet at the end of the month, nor the women who are exploited, but only the self-defined sex workers who make their living from prostitution.” (15)

Even if one was to accept as realistic these undocumented membership data, how could 1% or even 3% of a population be deemed representative of persons in conditions as diverse as those permitted by an absence of controls and the very low visibility that characterizes prostitution ?

“The majority of sex workers are not victims of human trafficking”. (16)
This statement is not about data. The individuals who present this type of estimations while practicing prostitution themselves are leveraging a personal position to give legitimacy to their claims. This naturally influences the reader, often poorly informed on the subject and therefore not able to contextualize these estimates, in the same way that she or he would probably take at face value a dentist’s statements about his or her profession.

“Vallaud-Belkacem chooses to ignore the reports of independent researchers relying on scientific evidence in order to only take into account a parliamentary report written by politicians and devoid of any scientific value”. (17)

The document being deemed scientific evidence is a single study conducted by two radical feminist Swedish activists who have for many years been advocating for the normalization of prostitution, without being identified as such in the aforesaid document, where only their names are disclosed. This 38-page report is funded by the Nicis Institute, as well as by the cities of Rotterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Vienna, and the University of Leiden. So if one classifies funders by nationality, they are : five Dutch organizations and an Austrian one. It is interesting to note that all of these are countries with réglementariste policies, whose legislation allows prostitution, and, in some cases, specific prostitution establishments, which in France would be considered a form of pimping (18).

In the light of these contingencies, is it still possible to call this study “independent” ? Is it more so than the study assembled under the aegis of the French National Assembly (which runs 383 pages with attachments, and has auditioned 200 stakeholders and professionals from the associative, legal, police, scientific, medical, and other environments, doing front-line work on prostitution, including two people from STRASS and several associations/individuals closely linked to it, as well as 5 formerly prostituted persons) ?

In the same manner, it is impossible to assess the origins or the administration of STRASS’ funding. Its website only specifies the organization’s membership fees (€10 for the "sex workers", €20 for supporters), along with the fact that the association accepts donations. This is the only information made public on this subject. However, STRASS organizes several events, and does much litigation, sometimes taking on the role of plaintiff in support of prostitutes, sometimes suing individuals whom it claims to have defamed it (for example : Mrs. Zoughebi (19), for the symbolic sum of one euro, proof that its objective is not financial).

Similarly, very little is known concerning the various spokespersons of STRASS (of whom Thierry Schaffauser and Morgane Merteuil are currently the most visible). Their antecedents, journey, socio-professional category, and interests remain shrouded. For instance, the only biographical notice exceeding three lines concerning Mr. Schaffauser is published on Wikipedia (whose articles are, notably, written by anonymous individuals), and starts at age 18. He is inexistent previous to that.

3. On the importance of speech

If there is a constantly recurring criticism emanating from STRASS spokespersons, it is an accusation of stolen speech. The vast majority of the articles signed by STRASS members claim that the words of “sex workers” are kidnapped by “[...] other actors presented as subject matter experts (doctors, Catholics and other moralists, abolitionists...).” (20)

“We demand that our speech be taken into account in decisions relevant to ourselves”, says Morgane Merteuil”. (21)

“‘Debates’ on sex work are often excuses for an onslaught of violence on the part of those who have understood that, in order to eliminate a category of the population, one must start by finding the means to shut it up, to discredit its speech.” (22)

This statement calls for three significant corrections. First, based on a sample of 388 articles published in 2012 (23), it appears that of the individuals criticizing any abolition/penalization project, the most represented in terms of speech are members of STRASS, and particularly T. Schaffauser and M. Merteuil. Indeed, out of 88 articles critical of the wish to abolish or criminalize prostitution, 29 were written by or consist of interviews with members of STRASS, i.e. one third of these published pieces. The other articles are mostly written by individuals (not necessarily specialists of this issue) intervening only once on the subject, and by various other people posting repeatedly on this theme, but never approaching the number of STRASS interventions.

Within this same group of critics, prostituted persons intervening in their own behalf (not affiliated with STRASS or, at any rate, not declaring as such) are present in 17 articles out of 88, or 19%. One can therefore wonder, in the end, who is stealing whose speech ?

“The sex work trade union wants to be received at Matignon like the others", reads the title of a Midi Libre newspaper article dated June 1st, 2012 (24). On July 18, one month and 17 days later, STRASS representatives were indeed hosted by Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem. Yet, this trade union which, as we have seen, complains about not being allowed to speak out, chose to end this meeting itself, on the pretext that it “was turning more and more into a masquerade” (25). Isn’t such an attitude contradictory at the very least ? It seems particularly so when contrasted with that of Nathalie Bordes-Prévost, president of the “Association pour les droits, la reconnaissance et la protection des prostituées et prostitués” (Association for the rights, the recognition and the protection of prostitutes). Bordes-Prévost left her own meeting with Minister Vallaud-Belkacem (at its natural end) by announcing : “She listened to me, this is a woman who has a big heart” (26), and this despite the fact that these two women’s views were also divergent.

Secondly, a closer study of the articles and interviews of STRASS members reveals a well-honed communication strategy, employing a different tone depending on circumstances. For example, when members of STRASS publish an Op-Ed, their tone is extremely aggressive (here are a few random examples : “We, sex workers, refuse to be victims sacrificed to your moralistic ideal !” (27) ; "You are neither really respectful of ALL women, nor in real class struggle approach. Your feminism is bourgeois : it consists in allowing women access to class privilege. Our feminism is revolutionary : it aims to abolish these classes. You are speaking at us from a privileged island (or one you imagine as such), telling yourselves that we would be pleased to join you : but the truth is that we have preferred becoming whores that becoming you.” (28)

The use of a derogatory vocabulary, capitals and scare quotes – among other stylistic strategems – works to imply that the individuals being addressed have no credibility (e.g. : “psychologists and ‘experts’...” (29) ; “During a debate with a Luxembourg Minister, for example, a self-alleged expert said...” (30) ; “For months, you abolitionist ‘feminists’...” (31).

However, when STRASS spokespersons interact face to face with individuals, their tone is completely different. This is especially apparent in the case of M. Merteuil, frequently described as smiling, relaxed. A Libération interview is interspersed with notations such as “...she lobs with a smile”, “Smiles”, “She laughs.”, “She hesitates a moment, sighs.”, “expresses sorrow”, ”When they try to demean us like that, it is hate speech. It kind of hurts.” “Disappointed sigh.”, “She hesitates” (32). Her tone of voice is described as relaxed, humorous, sometimes playful sometimes sorry, depending on whether she is describing her activity that she loves or the offensive attacks of pro-abolition feminists.

It is an excellent communications strategy. When there is no physical vis-à-vis, the idea is to act provocative, very committed, rabid even. Critics are not in the line of sight and using an extremely virulent tone to attack them is an efficient way to sway public opinion. As an added bonus, no one is targeted by name, so no one can effectively respond to attacks waged in this manner.
Moreover, feminism has long tried to rid itself of common mainstream representations which paint it pejoratively as the speech of bitter and sexually frustrated women, a factor explaining their aggressiveness (a critique taken up in so many words by M. Merteuil, who calls herself feminist and says : “Are you only able to experience sexual pleasure by denying pleasure to others ?” (33). Attacking STRASS critics in this manner is a clever strategy, since it can be seen that answering such arguments in the same register would be detrimental to the very image of feminism.

Finally, it may prove interesting to consider some of the insults lobbed at the individuals who have criticized STRASS ; for example, in response to a sentence of author Claudine Legardinier (34) quoted on Twitter by M. Merteuil with no reference given (so there is no way to verify accuracy), here is what Merteuil writes (translated verbatim) : “Legardinier : “even if the police were to go challenge a customer in a dark corner, the prostituted person will no longer risk anything herself”, a quote that Merteuil sarcastically comments on as follows : “Yes, because being forced to go practice in « dark corners » is not a risk. #selfavowedcriminal #dumbcunt.” Or, talking about a Netizen interested in issues related to prostitution, she writes : “Oh yes and then the spermufle who came by to say hello. Lol. He really looks as dumb as he is.” (35) These illustrations signal STRASS members’ attempts to slander or even intimidate their critics in order to silence or discredit them.

Insults are not the only harmful actions leveled at individuals having criticized STRASS. Its members adopt a provocative attitude towards those who do not abide their agenda, including crashing private events to which they are not invited, and gleefully parodying (not always in good taste) productions of these same groups. For example, one recalls an anti-VAW demonstration held in Paris on November 25, 2012, during which members of STRASS covertly mingled with the abolitionist contingent of the march before brandishing placards with slogans reading “PUTOPHOBES” (whore-phobes) and the like. (36)

Thus, through a hodgepodge (and often awkward) mixture of contradictions, divergent discourses, attacks and seductive allures, perpetually substituting their speech to that of all prostituted persons (and often others), by constantly hammering away at the same factoids, unsubstantiated but voiced with apparent conviction, STRASS cleverly manages to produce a speech that speaks to a vast population having little or no knowledge about prostitution.

STRASS is therefore more akin to a lobby than to a trade union group, as already noted with much relevance by the authors of an article entitled “Anatomy of a lobby pro-prostitution - case study : le STRASS, in France” (37). At any rate, STRASS does not qualify as a trade union : article L2131-2 of the French Trade Code (Code du Travail) states that “les syndicats ou associations professionnels de personnes exerçant la même profession, des métiers similaires ou des métiers connexes concourant à l’établissement de produits déterminés ou la même profession libérale peuvent se constituer librement.” (Trade unions or associations of persons exercising the same occupation, similar or related trades contributing to the establishment of specific products or the same profession may freely associate.) Prostitution not being a profession, it is therefore by definition impossible to classify STRASS as a trade union.

In addition, the “Loi du 28 août 2008” states that the representativeness of trade organizations is determined by a number of cumulative criteria, including that of financial transparency, which, as we have seen, is not either a condition met by STRASS.

This group chooses a communication and action strategy designed to maintain the pipe dream of a prostitution that would be chosen and desired, thus flattering both prostitution clients and some politicians’ thirst for liberal/libertarian ideals, all of this to ensure its financial livelihood.

Moreover, this is probably only the visible part of the iceberg. Our paper has not addressed, for instance, the terminology used, the representations put forward, the amalgam of lexical registers that blurs reflection and leads to a globalising relativism that destroys any concept of values, and STRASS’ demagogic talking points and actions, nor has it addressed the links of STRASS with power figures.

Indeed, STRASS’ connections with influential people are often nearly invisible ... Such is the case, for example, of an Op-Ed written by Stéphane Bribard, Advisor to the Mayor of the Paris 10th Arrondissement, co-signed by a hundred elected officials or political operatives (mostly from the Socialist Party and the Greens), a piece which reflects typical STRASS ideology but without once quoting that group. Looking up the social network of the article’s author reveals that he is friends with Morgane Merteuil.

As for Senator Benbassa, although she has openly defended STRASS and its positions, including in a Huffington Post article dated November 12, 2012 (38), maybe she ought to look a bit closer into the profile of the groups that she funds, if she wants to be able to make appropriate use of the fashionable expression of “transparency”...

First, because in the words of the Senator herself, these monies were allotted to fund local projects - indeed, all other funding is attributed to such local projects. However, STRASS is being funded on the basis of “Organizing a national meeting of sex workers”. Second, because the only figure made public is the average amount paid to the various funded groups (€4,785), so that it is impossible to know exactly what amounts are given to each of the said organizations. Finally, because, as has been evoked in the present article, STRASS itself remains a group whose profile is very obscure, and this at all levels.

Thus, precisely in terms of transparency, despite what suggests the flashy acronym of STRASS, the dominant feature here is its most complete opacity.

"When opacity becomes relevant" (“La pertinence de la transparence”),
Fondation Scelles.

 French version.

 Translation : Martin Dufresne.


1. estherbenbassa.eelv.fr
2. Site du STRASS, , onglet « A propos du STRASS ».
3. Ibid.
4. Interview de M. Merteuil (secrétaire générale du STRASS) « Elle travaille au corps », Libération, 06/12/2011.
5. According to OCRTEH, the French Office Central pour la Répression de la Traite des Êtres Humains, whose main mission is to fight against pimping. This figure is disputed by T. Schaffauser, one of the founders of STRASS, who feels it is an underestimation (see his article “Combien de travailleurs du sexe sommes-nous ?”, Le Monde, 02/06/2010)
6. OCRTEH statistics.
7. Ulla’s main claim to fame is having led the occupation of Saint-Nizier Catholic church in Lyon (France),in 1975, on behalf of the rights of prostitutes.
8. Mondialisation de la prostitution, atteinte globale à la dignité humaine, ATTAC, Mille et une nuits, Barcelone, 2008.
9. Interview of M. Merteuil, “Morgane Merteuil : "Je préfère être "escort" plutôt que travailler en usine" », danactu-résistance, 04/12/2011
10. A. Roxburgh, L. Degenhardt and J. Copeland, "Posttraumatic stress disorder among female street-based sex workers in the greater Sydney area, Australia", 2006, BMC Psychiatry 6:24
11. G. Bugnon, M. Chimienti, L. Chiquet et al., “Marché du sexe en Suisse”, Repromail, Genève, 2009, p. 24.
12. M. Farley, I. Kiremire and U. Sezgin, “Prostitution in five countries : violence and post-traumatic stress disorder”, Feminism & Psychology 8(4) : 405-426, 1998.
13. G. Bugnon, M. Chimienti, L. Chiquet et al., “Marché du sexe en Suisse”, op. cit., p. 23.
14. Especially OCRTEH.
15. Article « Avec le Strass, le travail du sexe a désormais son syndicat », Rue 89, 26/03/2009.
16. Article by T. Schaffauser, “La majorité des travailleurs du sexe ne sont pas victimes de la traite des êtres humains” (Most sex workers are not victims of human trafficking), Le Monde, 05/01/2012.
17. Article by T. Schaffauser, “Madame Vallaud-Belkacem, vous devez écouter les travailleurs du sexe” (Ms. Vallaud-Belkacem, you must listen to sex workers), op. cit.
18. The French legal regime is abolitionist : pimping is condemned, prostitution as such is unregulated.
19. Press release posted on the STRASS website, 03-02-2011
20. STRASS website, onglet « A propos du STRASS »
21. Interview of M. Merteuil, “Sexwork... is work !", Seronet, 05/06/2012.
22. Op-Ed by M. Merteuil, 26/08/2012, on the Minorités website, « On est des putes, et vous êtes quoi ? »
(We are whores, so what are you ?)
23. In a forthcoming article within the next World report on prostitution of the Scelles Foundation.
24. www.midilibre.
25. STRASS website
26. « Cahors. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem interpellée par une prostituée », La Dépêche, 22/09/2012.
27. Op-Ed by M. Merteuil, “Discours abolitionnistes : les premières victimes sont les putes” (Abolitionist discourses’ first victims are the whores), op. cit.
28. Op-Ed by M. Merteuil, “On est des putes, et vous êtes quoi ?”, op. cit.
29. Interview of M. Merteuil, “Oui, on peut être pute et heureuse », soutient-on au Strass” (Yes one can be both a whore and happy), Rue89, 19/09/2011.
30. Ibid.
31. Op-Ed by M. Merteuil, “Discours abolitionnistes : les premières victimes sont les putes”, A contrario, 04/02/2012.
32. Interview of M. Merteuil, “Elle travaille aux corps”, op. cit.
33. Ibid.
34. C. Legardinier is a freelance journalist. She addresses women’s rights issues, and particularly the issue of prostitution and trafficking, especially within the French “Mouvement du Nid”.
35. Comments from M. Merteuil’s Twitter account, once again very numerous and that make for an uplifting reading, classified by the author of the sousleparapluierouge website, at the address sousleparapluierouge.wordpress.com/
36. See a video account of this event on Youtube
37. An anonymous, very interesting article that provides further insights into the mechanics of STRASS, posted at sousleparapluierouge.wordpress.com/
38. Link.

On Sisyphe, April 10, 2013

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