What do sex workers have to say about DSK's trial? Photo: Getty
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The Dominique Strauss-Kahn courtroom drama has put prostitution on trial

The former IMF chief's pimping trial sees abolitionist views well-represented in the courtroom, but will sex workers be ignored?

For weeks, the French public has been gripped by the trial for pimping of the former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Nicknamed the Carlton trial, after the Lille hotel whose public relations manager was suspected of having introduced business men and sex workers, it’s got some compelling ingredients: a powerful man fallen from grace, whose initials DSK are now synonymous with scandal; a gallery of eccentric characters, including a notorious brothel owner nicknamed Dodo la Saumure (“Dodo the Brine”); and sex workers on the witness stand. For the wider audience, the trial has also been an occasion to discuss prostitution.

A week ago, while having lunch with a friend in a restaurant close to the Arc de Triomphe, I couldn't help but overhear a posh elderly lady sitting at the nearby table. Gesturing excitedly, she said of Strauss-Kahn: “Il est obsédé, obsédé, obsédé sexuel” (“He is obsessed, obsessed, obsessed by sex”). She seemed strangely happy, revolted and fascinated at the same time. Many French people share those feelings and like them, I avidly followed the Storify pages created by Le Monde to cover the most important days of the trial. What was happening in the courtroom came to life, through tweets, drawings and the vivid reports of the best French courtroom reporters.

The case began in 2008 as an investigation into Dodo la Saumure: he runs brothels in Belgium, where it’s legal, but French police wanted to know if he was also facilitating prostitution in France, where it’s not. They discovered that a group of men, including Lille Carlton's public relations manager, a highly-ranked police superintendent and an official from a construction company called Eiffage, had been introducing sex workers to Strauss-Kahn, in the hope of furthering their business interests. DSK was a leading figure in the Parti Socialiste, and some of his supporters alleged it was a plot to discredit him as a potential candidate in the 2012 presidential election, but 13 people now stand trial.

Four of the key witnesses are former sex workers. They came to the stand to describe the conditions in which they had entered sex work, how they had met the accused and what their encounters had been like. Some of their statements suggested Strauss-Kahn had failed to make sure he had the women's consent (particularly during anal intercourse). A great deal of time was spent trying to determine whether DSK knew the women were sex workers.

For feminists who campaign against prostitution, this was a good opportunity to be heard. On the day DSK took the stand, at around 9am, three activists from Femen jumped on the car that was taking him to court. On their bare torsos they had written “pimps, clients, declared guilty!” and chanted the words out loud. (The police arrested them and charged them with indecent exposure.)

An hour later, in Paris, members of various feminist groups that oppose prostitution, as well as Rosen Hicher, a former sex worker who made a 700km march through France to raise awareness of the cause, protested in front of the French Senate. In France, these groups are called abolitionnistes. They were demanding that the Senate bring forward a proposed law on prostitution and reinstate a clause that criminalises the purchase of sex, mirroring a law that has been in place in Sweden since 1999. The following day they seemed to have got what they wanted: the Senate announced the bill would be examined at the end of March.

Abolitionist views were well-represented in the courtroom. Le Mouvement du Nid, an organisation with links to the Catholic Church that “seeks to fight the causes and consequences of prostitution” was supporting two of the witnesses who took the stand. Bernard Lemettre, a 79 year-old former deacon and member of Le Nid, explained to the court that prostitution was “an unspeakable shame”, that a woman's body was “not meant to be penetrated, five, ten or 20 times a day”. Talking to me on the phone later, he expressed satisfaction that the trial had exposed the true face of prostitution in a country that sometimes glamourises it. “A trial is an occasion to wash oneself,” he said. “This should have repercussions in the corridors of the Senate,” he added, hopefully.

The anti-prostitution feminists I spoke to seemed to agree. Claire Serre-Combe of Osez le féminisme!, which has been instrumental in the campaign to criminalise the purchase of sex, said the trial had revealed that “prostitution is inherently violent, a succession of paid rapes”. Rosen Hicher, who told me about the isolation and the shame she experienced during decades spent as a sex worker, was convinced that the criminalisation of clients would “protect prostitutes, enable them to call the police.” Elvire, one of the Femen activists who jumped onto DSK’s car, was similarly enthused by the opportunity the trial seemed to offer.

But when I spoke to organisations made up of current sex workers, they had very different things to say about the trial. Morgane Merteuil, a spokesperson for the French sex workers’ union Strass, told me there was a discrepancy she didn't understand: why had these men been charged with procurement when the women’s own statements described acts of outright violence, such as forced intercourse?

Marcia Burnier, member of the Collectif du 8 mars pour toutes, which supports groups who feel excluded from mainstream French feminism – not only sex workers but women who wear the hijab and trans people too – had an explanation for this apparent inconsistency: “If you equate prostitution with rape then it doesn't matter if sex workers are raped. It's seen as being part of their job.” In 2012, a potential rape charge against DSK was dropped, after the woman involved said the sex had been consensual.

Both the abolitionists and the pro-sex workers' groups were shocked by the violence the witnesses described in court, but they interpreted it in radically different ways. The abolitionists saw it as further evidence that prostitution is inherently violent, a symptom of the inequality between men and women. They thought it was important that the details of this violence were widely shared. Members of sex workers' rights groups saw the violence as being partly caused by the fragility of the women’s status. They see sex workers as isolated and subjected to a stigma that makes them more vulnerable to violence and less likely to report it to the police.

Merteuil told me that trials like this happened every day yet weren't covered by the press because they didn’t involve defendants as famous as Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Marcia Burnier confided how troubled she was by some of the media coverage. “It seems that acts of violence described by these women are only used by news outlets to generate traffic or to demonstrate that what happened to these women is caused by prostitution,” she said. At least for one of these women, taking the stand was costly: an irresponsible media leaked her identity.

If clients were criminalised, would that have helped women like the ones who gave testimony in the Carlton trial? “Absolutely not,” says Merteuil. “If these women ended up in such a vulnerable position, with little to no negotiating power, it's already because of repression and stigma. Further repression won't help.”

Some abolitionists don’t seem to mind if prostitution is driven further underground, however. “Will the criminalisation of clients make prostitutes more vulnerable?” asks Lemettre. “Of course it will! I am not scared to say it. But think of the abolition of slavery, it also made life bad for some former slaves. We need to think about the future!” Other abolitionists say a change in the law will actually destigmatise prostitutes and encourage them to report violence.

Merteuil believes that legislation is less important than helping sex workers organise collectively. “Movements, unions or even just discussion groups will stop sex workers feeling ashamed of what they do and help them to regain some power over their clients – even a client like DSK.” Paris has recently seen the emergence of its first Chinese sex workers organisation, called les Roses d'acier (“the roses of steel”), which represents a group of women doubly at risk as many are also undocumented migrants.

Meanwhile, sentences uttered during the trial keep replaying in my head and I bet they will continue to haunt me for a while. “Prostitutes in swinging clubs are like flying fish,” testified DSK, “they exist but they're quite rare.” And another, slightly sinister one: “I like it when it's party time.” The latest development is that the case for procuring against him has slowly collapsed. It's likely that he will walk free. What chance is there that vulnerable women like the ones who gave evidence will be listened to in the future?

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French freelance journalist. She reports on social issues and contributes to the LRB, the Guardian, Index on Censorship and French Slate, with a particular interest in France and Russia. She is on Twitter as @valeria_wants.

 

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.