Meet Thierry Schaffauser, French social activist, sex worker, adult actor, and writer advocating for sex workers’ rights and the destigmatization of the industry. As a stigmatized industry, sex work is still misunderstood today, especially within politics, meaning that most of us might unfortunately not see how much sex workers’ rights are hindered. In 2003, the Loi Sarkozy II (LSI) laws in France outlawed passive solicitation. In other words, someone being present at a place known for prostitution while wearing revealing clothing would not be able to get off the hook. And not much has improved since then, as sex workers are still being exploited, while the government contributes to this exploitation instead of alleviating it.
As a key figure in the sex worker rights movement, Schaffauser is constantly working towards dismantling these issues—in nearly two decades, he has co-founded Les Putes, a Paris-based organisation defending sex workers rights in opposition of the LSI laws, founded Hackney Pride, wrote and published a series of articles educating the general public on sex workers rights, and is now working with STRASS, the French sex workers’ union. Screen Shot spoke to Schaffauser about his work, political affiliations within the sex work industry, and what he believes its future will look like.
1. How did you embark on your career within the industry?
I officially started sex work at age 20, (…) I was young and wanted to experiment things sexually, as well as logistically, and doing sex work was a good way to make more money and work less, have more freedom to study as I also managed to go to university at the same time, and it gave me more time to do activism. I started sex work activism in 2005, when I went to the European sex workers conference in Brussels.
2. In 2006, you co-founded the organisation called Les Putes. Could you tell us a bit more about it, as well as what inspired you to create it?
I visited the sex workers conference in Brussels, and at that time, I was also part of ACT UP, an HIV organisation, and I thought that maybe we could use tools from the queer movement around the ideas of pride, because one of the main issues was stigma—at least it is something common to all sex workers. I wasn’t alone, we were a small group and we were thinking of doing a sex worker pride in Paris, in March 2006 as it was the anniversary of the Nicolas Sarkozy laws. We thought we should demonstrate every year to remind the public and the media that sex workers are opposing this law. It attracted a lot of attention, the concept of ‘Hooker Pride’ was probably shocking to some people, and by marching in ‘sexy’ clothes we really wanted to dismantle stereotypes around what the media sees as sex workers. We tried to reclaim the discourse and have our own say on who we are and what we demand, and be quite clear that the French political idea to abolish prostitution, the idea that we are ‘helpless’ and need to be ‘saved’ by the state, meant more police intervention, and would end up in more exploitation. We tried to shift the narratives to the sex workers’ perspective.
3. Tell us a bit about Out East. What inspired you to organise Hackney Pride and why was it the thing to do at the time?
I moved to the UK in 2007 or 2008 and joined the GMB Union. I think they used to have Hackney Pride in the 70s or 80s. I was living in Hackney at the time, and I was attacked on the street while trying to get on the bus. [Some guys] beat us up so we couldn’t even get back on the bus, and it just drove, leaving us beaten up. I thought we needed to do something, which is how pride started.
4. In 2010, you published a series of articles on the Guardian, aimed to educate the general public on sex workers rights. Would you say that they have improved since then?
I can’t really say it has improved—there hasn’t been any positive change, and in France, it actually worsened. There have been local public orders and new policies in the UK, but not any kind of improvement in terms of rights. Only sex workers’ unions have improved. The communities are growing, especially with online platforms, online forums, and sex work organisations, which creates an increase in visibility for sex workers. On a political level, I don’t think it has improved. There are some sex workers pushing for motion within the trade union and within the labour party. We have the opportunity for these with a new leadership from Jeremy Corbin, who’s a long-time supporter of decriminalisation, but I can also see that it isn’t their say to discuss these publically. So, no, sorry, can’t really say that there has been a great improvement in sex workers’ rights.
5. Do you think social media is helping dismantle stigma around sex work?
I can see new generations talking about the issues of stigma or rights, using the right terminology, even in the feminist movement, seeing young feminist talk about SWERF’s, or talking about intersectionality and inclusion—that is quite new because ten years ago, few people would have. Social media helped people talk to workers. You can keep your anonymity online, and actually be able to write in forums, on various Facebook groups or on Twitter. It created some visibility where people could relate to sex workers, who have previously been erased from the public space. Decriminalisation is also acting as a consequence of getting us banned from the rest of society, because the idea behind it is also that when talking to a sex worker, you can be perceived as a client, and you can be criminalised for doing that. The internet gets rid of that, and creates new spaces for people to speak to us.
6. Do you think the porn industry is shifting towards the right direction in creating a space that is safe and stigma-free? What do you feel still needs to be done?
The porn industry is no longer controlled by production companies. Now, you have a global system and a lot of free content, so most of the porn produced is not paid. The issue is that you have big corporations that own websites, manage to get free content either by piracy, when people put content that they stole online, or through some agreements between porn production companies and websites to get users to try and click on the productions’ website and sell the video directly to the viewers. But most content is free, and actors are now paid much less than what we used to be 10 or 15 years ago. We don’t even know who is behind these websites. There is a lot of money, and it’s very far from the actors that are actually doing the work.
7. And how can we improve this?
Sex workers should own the means of productions. There are platforms such as OnlyFans, where fans can go on the website, access the page of the performer, and pay the performer directly. People watching you are not obliged to pay you, but if they want more, then they have to pay. A lot of people manage to get money through this system, and people are increasingly going freelance and self-employed within this industry, so you no longer work for a production, you work for yourself, but you still have to work through a platform. We are no longer workers, but clients for a third party that will help us access our clients. There are no labour rights, and everyone is an independent entrepreneur, but there is still a form of exploitation. To me, the solution is not shaped in terms of a legal approach, because we can see that the porn industry is perfectly legal, it is also about how laws can be favourable to the workers, how they should all have access to social protection. But I think the most important thing is how workers can organise themselves to be as independent as possible, without having to rely so much on third parties.
8. What are you working on now?
I’ve been working with STRASS since I moved back to Paris in 2012. I am working on the evaluation of the French law and the decriminalisation of clients.
9. Finally, what does the future of the sex industry look like in your opinion? Is it bright?
I think it can change very quickly. I can’t really predict what’s going to happen in the next ten years, but I can see more diversity than before. The good thing that happened in the last few years is the increase in visibility for some sex workers through the internet. But on the other hand, it’s very hard for migrant sex workers at the moment. Because of the human trafficking crisis, we have more and more laws affecting migration and sex work, but these are creating conditions where these people get even more exploited. I can’t see European governments trying to understand the problem, because they conflate sex working and trafficking. In the end, it will be the migrant sex workers who will have to pay the higher price.
This summer, Peruvian-born Vanesa Campos was murdered at the hands of five men in the streets of Paris. Who was to blame? According to the activists and sex workers who rallied together following her tragic death, it’s less a question of “who” and more “what”. Namely, the finger was pointed at legislation in France which seeks to curb prostitution by targeting sex workers’ clients.
Implemented in April 2016, the laws threaten customers with fines of up to €1,500, and sees France adopt the Nordic model already in place across Scandinavia and other countries like Canada, Iceland, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Clearly, the thinking behind these measures is that such a system can curb prostitution whilst also avoiding the legal persecution of sex workers. However, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry—and that’s certainly the case here. Sex workers’ rights advocates have convincingly argued that the measure has made working conditions significantly less safe. According to them, clients now pressure and coerce sex workers into riskier situations due to concerns about being discovered by the police.
Furthermore, while the legislation may gesture in the direction of a more humane attitude toward sex workers, it ultimately perpetuates their marginalisation by maintaining the illicit status of their work. The law basically feeds upon the kind of rhetoric which classes all sex work as forms of violence against women, heavily stigmatising those who purchase prostitutes’ services. It’s important to recognise that arguments like these only serve to belittle sex workers and are nothing more than an attempt to minimise escorts’ sexual and professional agency. Yes, there are many sex workers who are subject to abusive labour conditions, but more often than not these are a direct result of the precarity produced by illegality.
Whenever we see a salacious headline about another male celebrity “caught” with an escort, it only serves to harden attitudes against sex work and, by extension, sex workers. Demonising those who purchase sex is just another tactic to stir up moral panic and ensure that those who offer their services are never able to do so in safe environments or unionise to fight for better conditions. Criminalising the purchase of sex is still just another violent measure against sex workers, one that threatens their livelihood and puts their lives in danger, all whilst pretending to have their best interests at heart.
Concerningly, however, despite its many downfalls, the Nordic model appears to have hopped over the pond to take root in the U.K.. Earlier in the year, the London borough of Redbridge implemented new rules which give plain-clothes police officers the power to distribute fines of up to £1,000 to those found trying to buy prostitutes’ services. Rightly enough, advocacy groups have been keen to speak out about this matter. One of these is Organisation National Ugly Mugs (NUM), a group which aims to end violence against sex workers.
Speaking to local newspaper the Ilford Recorder, a spokesperson from the group said, “We feel that such action could lead to sex workers being displaced and working in areas in which it is less safe for them to do so. This increased vulnerability means that sex workers are more likely to fall victim to dangerous offenders, as was Mariana Popa, a 24-year-old woman who worked in the borough and was murdered in 2014 during a period of similar heavy enforcement from police.”
At the end of the day, legislation which seeks to fine or punish punters but seemingly spare prostitutes is still just another form of criminalisation, and one which is notoriously negative for sex workers. As Dr Holly Davis, a professor of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh who specialises as a researcher in the field of sex work, puts it, “We must exercise caution in supporting carceral approaches to sex work. Criminalizing purchase does not achieve safer conditions for sex workers rather it can have a profound negative impact; the further marginalization of workers leaves them more vulnerable to violence, harassment, and stigmatization. The Nordic model ultimately doesn’t address the larger patriarchal cultural, social, economic and political systems which perpetuate and support violence against women and/or more specifically violences towards sex workers.”
As Davis convincingly argues, the Nordic model doesn’t offer an “ethical” framework for criminalisation, because ethical criminalisation just doesn’t exist. Operating under the shadows of illegality, sex workers are currently denied basic workers’ rights—and this definitely won’t stop, even if the weight of persecution falls on the person buying rather than selling.
Moreover, arguments that the Nordic model combats sexual exploitation could not be further from the mark. Reasoning such as this rests on the dangerous conflation of sex trafficking and consensual sex work, one which leads to paternalistic policing rather than any effective measures to help trafficking victims. Legislative frameworks such as these do little to prevent trafficking given that they in no way constitute an attack on organised crime. Ultimately all that it does is make working conditions considerably less safe.
It’s time to wake up to the fact that the Nordic model is nothing more than another moralistic effort to clamp down on sex workers’ livelihoods. If legislators truly want to make escorts safe, they need to avoid all forms of criminalisation and ultimately recognise sex work as a valid form of work. We need to stop tinkering with a broken system and start taking decisive action. It is vital that we push for the only solution to improve the lives of sex workers: complete decriminalisation.