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An Ambiguous Compassion: Policing and Debating Prostitution in Contemporary France


Since 1960, prostitution is defined by the French law as incompatible with human dignity. Prostitutes are considered as victims of social maladjustment who should be rescued by social workers and protected from pimps by the police. Major changes in prostitution policies have nevertheless been introduced in 2003, without fundamentally changing the law. Extended means have been given to the police to repress street prostitutes, and, crucially, to arrest and expel those prostitutes who are undocumented migrants. Surprisingly, this coercive turn has not been perceived as contradictory with the former compassionate approach, as repression is deemed to guarantee the protection of prostitutes' human dignity. This paradox stands at the core of the article that explores the public controversies on the issue—and especially the new project to criminalize the purchase of sexual services—among social movements, politicians, government agencies, and intellectuals, as they are expressed in the media and in parliamentary debates.

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  1. The article also draws from the author’s 20-year long study of French prostitution (especially in Lyon) and of public debates, social movements, and public policies related to the issue (see Mathieu 2004, 2007, 2011).

  2. Marthe Richard (herself a former prostitute) was a member of the Paris municipal council that first voted a ban on brothels; this position was, a few months later, extended by the Parliament to the whole country.

  3. Each professional group administers its own fund within the Sécurité sociale. Wage earners have their subscription deducted from their monthly pay and sent by their employer to the Sécurité sociale that is administered both by employers' organizations and trade unions.

  4. This alliance between French Christian and feminist organizations is in some respect similar to the formation of the US anti-trafficking coalition studied by Bernstein (2010).

  5. In Lyon, for example, weekly and monthly newspapers such as Lyon capitale and Lyon mag soon started to regularly publish articles on the topic.

  6. This protocol defines trafficking in persons as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. It aims to organize the cooperation between countries in order to repress traffickers and to facilitate victims’ return to their country.

  7. Sarkozy explained that “These unfortunate girls are prisoners of Bulgarian, Albanian, Ghanian (sic) networks. They were not told they would be prostitutes. They were told anything: that they would be models, without warning them that in reality they would be beaten and put on the sidewalks”, discussion of the law project before the Senate, November 14th, 2002;



  10. Despite the fact that most of these intellectuals identify as feminist and reject the law, they were grounded in different academic traditions. One camp was dominated by jurists and feminists who are attached to the protection of civil liberties in the morals field (some of them had previously participated in a recent debate on the rights of gay and lesbians). The opposite camp was dominated by older feminists who had previously been active on abortion and violence against women; contrary to the first camp, they do not consider sexuality as a field for personal liberties, rather as a dangerous zone where women are exposed to violence.

  11. Since 1999, a Swedish law defines prostitution as violence against women and criminalizes the purchase of sexual services.


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Correspondence to Lilian Mathieu.

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Mathieu, L. An Ambiguous Compassion: Policing and Debating Prostitution in Contemporary France. Sex Res Soc Policy 9, 203–211 (2012).

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  • Prostitution
  • France
  • Migration
  • Soliciting
  • Abolitionism
  • Public order