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?