French Prostitutes Bemoan Strauss-Kahn Trial's Effect on Sex Industry

Former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaves his hotel to attend the trial in the so-called Carlton Affair, in Lille, February 17, 2015. Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

The 'pimping' trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn has "generated confusion" about the sex industry, the general secretary of a French sex workers union and a feminist activist says, accusing those championing its criminalisation as having the ulterior motive of arresting migrants.

Now in its third week, the trial in Lille, northern France, is expected to reach a conclusion by Friday. Former chief of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Strauss-Kahn, along with 13 others, are charged with aiding and assisting prostitution and face up to 10 years in prison and fines in excess of €1.5 million if found guilty.

Former sex workers stories about Strauss-Kahn's "brutal" sexual antics and his own admission that his sexuality is "rougher than the average man" have generated press attention and have drawn protests outside the court by self-described 'sextremist' group Femen.

However, Morgane Merteuil, a former prostitute and general secretary of the French sex worker's trade union Strass, says she believes the trial has increased the stigmatisation of the sex industry and has presented a skewed view of the profession.

"There is a confusion with abolitionist organisations between when a client respects a contract and when he does not. [DSK] didn't respect the contract. He committed some rapes against sex workers, and organisations want to use rape to show all prostitution is rape, which is incorrect.

"It creates the impression in the media and public spheres that sex work is violent, but not all clients act like him."

Strass was established in 2009 to defend the rights of sex workers, should they be arrested or victims of violence. It receives funding from a women's rights organisation, collaborates with numerous health and HIV organisations and now boasts more than 500 official members.

Merteuil says she believes the trial may result in the criminalisation of the sex industry, which she strongly discourages. She has concerns that the authorities' ulterior motive for criminalising prostitution is so they can arrest and deport more migrant workers.

"We know criminalisation is for police to specifically arrest migrant sex workers," she says. "Illegal migrants can be deported if arrested for sex work, so some legal migrants could also be arrested, and if they cannot prove that they're there legally this can be problem."

She says criminalising sex work would make women in the industry more vulnerable to violence, STDs and trafficking, as they would have a smaller pool of clients and thus would be forced to comply with their demands.

She also disputes European Parliament motion made in February 2014 that says prostitution is an obstacle to equality between men and women. "For women to have less business possibilities is not in favour of gender equality," Merteuil argues.

However, Femen activist Inna Shevchenko disputes this, arguing that the nature of the sex industry is one of oppression and one sex dominating another.

"In 2015 we should think about erasing the idea that one sex can be submitted by another, and that women are a product that people can buy and use whenever they want," she says.

She acknowledges that some women do work as prostitutes by choice, but says they are in the minority. She feels the DSK trial is a "turning point" and an opportunity to return to the discussion about criminalising the sex industry.

"The nature of the business is violence and male domination," she says. "Take into consideration the testimony of the prostitutes who explained the level of violence they experienced. They spelt out why they were doing it. She said she was taking part in these elite sex orgies, she had to do it, because she needed the money to survive. This is the philosophy of the sex industry. Men - pimps and clients - they get the best part: earning money and getting pleasure."

Shevchenko emphasises that "no one is talking about criminalising prostitutes", and that it should be the "people coming to buy them" who should be targeted. "We should criminalise the oppressors, not the oppressed," she says.