NOS ENFANTS NE VEULENT PAS LEUR MERE EN PRISON. - Banner hung on the front of St. Nizier’s, June 2nd, 1975
Contrary to the perceptions of Americans and others, the French have been unusually intolerant of lower-class prostitution for centuries. About the middle of the 16th century a moral panic over the new venereal disease, syphilis, swept across Europe; then, as now, prostitutes were blamed for diseases spread mostly by promiscuous amateurs, and despite arguments from theologians and philosophers that prostitution was a necessary social safety valve, French moral crusaders demanded that it be “abolished” by closing brothels and arresting streetwalkers (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!) Since they catered to the needs of the upper class, courtesans were naturally ignored; it was only the whores who were available to the middle and lower classes who were suppressed. Streetwalkers were periodically rounded up and thrown in jail (or even deported to the colonies), while brothels owned by the wealthy and/or well-connected arranged private deals to be tolerated, becoming the maisons closes which characterized French prostitution up until the aftermath of World War II. Brothels owned by poorer madams managed to stay open by bribing the police with money and sex…and I need not tell you that venerable system is still alive in many countries to this day.
Things went on like this for over 200 years, until the Revolution and its consequent social upheavals drove huge numbers of women into prostitution for survival. The bourgeois had fits and demanded that “something be done”, so under the Code Napoleon police were given the power to “control” the trade. In Paris, the world’s first vice squad (the police des moeurs) was organized; its job was to register all whores and to require them to submit to monthly health inspections (at the women’s cost, of course); if a woman was found to be infected, or failed to show up on time, or was unable to pay her fee, or had failed to pay whatever bribes or provide whatever sex was demanded by the cops, she was confined to a “prison hospital” until the “authorities” decided to let her go. Registered prostitutes were oppressed by an ever-increasing number of rules about where, when, how and with whom they could work; by 1830 these regulations had become so stringent there was literally no way to obey them and still make a living, nor was there any right of appeal for any cop’s pronouncement because there were no actual laws on prostitution (just police rules made up by the police and enforced at their discretion). The only way to avoid all this was to work in one of the maisons closes, but they were just as bad because one of the conditions for a license was that any cop had unrestricted access to any occupant of such a house at all times. Furthermore, the police demanded such huge bribes and fees from the madams that they in turn had to extract more money from the girls.
Unsurprisingly, most women preferred to risk working illegally than to submit to this regime, so the police took it upon themselves to decide which women were prostitutes; any lower-class woman seen walking alone, or noticed in the company of different men at different times, or accused by an enemy, was arrested and forcibly registered as a “known prostitute” for the rest of her life. This was the soil from which the modern pimp first sprung; since men could move about freely, they could seek clients for women who wanted to steer clear of the police. A whore accompanied by a pimp in public could pass as a “respectable” woman, and male lookouts could warn groups of streetwalkers to hide when the police approached. Whores learned to move in and out of different brothels, to change residences, cities and even names, and to employ pimps to avoid detection; by the dawn of the Social Purity Era in the 1870s the French system was moribund, and panic over “clandestine prostitution” fed on the same white middle-class Christian women’s frustration over their inability to control everyone else’s sexuality that soon gave rise to an avalanche of anti-prostitution laws in the United States.
But while the moral crusaders of America and Britain imagined they could completely abolish prostitution, the French would not succumb to that delusion for several generations yet. Instead, they became obsessed with an “epidemic of lesbianism” in the maisons closes and blamed police regulation for the ills of prostitution, demanding that the system be dismantled. In 1907 that was indeed done, but the police maintained surveillance of whores under the pretext of “maintaining public order”; this was accomplished in part by using threats to secure the cooperation of cheap hotels (maisons de rendezvous) where streetwalkers took their clients. Thus the public believed that the regulation system had ended, when in fact it had merely become sneakier. This state of affairs continued until World War II, which as I have previously explained resulted in a wave of anti-whore propaganda culminating in France’s being declared officially “abolitionist” in 1960. The old registries were destroyed, but as always the police became even worse with increased criminalization.
By 1974, the embattled French hookers had enough; the police had (as usual) done nothing about two mutilation murders of prostitutes in Lyon, so a group of whores and supporters (including lawyers and journalists) called a protest meeting to demand an end to the various anti-prostitute laws and police repression which was endangering their lives by forcing them to work in dark, sparsely-trafficked areas. The police responded by harassing the protesters with three or four fines per day each, and the French tax authorities made ridiculous estimates of the number of clients each protesting worker saw, then presented them with tax bills exceeding their entire incomes. When they appeared on television to tell the public what was happening, they were sentenced to prison in absentia for the unpaid fines and taxes. Recognizing that dramatic action was called for, on Monday, June 2nd, 1975 a group of over 100 prostitutes occupied the Church of St. Nizier in Lyon with the cooperation of the priest; they hung a banner across the front of the building stating in French, “OUR CHILDREN DON’T WANT THEIR MOTHERS IN PRISON.”
When the government responded by threatening to take their children away if they did not leave immediately, there was a public outcry; many women of Lyon joined them so the cops would be unable to tell which were the prostitutes. Furthermore, the demimonde of Paris dispatched a delegation to assist them, groups in other parts of France also occupied churches, and a “prostitutes’ strike” was organized in several provinces. The protest went on for a week, and ended predictably: at 5:30 AM on Tuesday, June 10th, cops tricked the priest into unlocking a door which they then forced open, allowing dozens of thugs in riot gear to invade the building. All of the occupying whores were beaten and arrested, and similar actions were carried out that day and over the next few at all the other protest sites; by Friday the 13th it was over.
But if the “authorities” imagined their brutal suppression of a peaceful protest would teach the lesson they had intended, they were sadly mistaken; the whores began holding regular meetings and soon formed the French Collective of Prostitutes, on which the English Collective of Prostitutes was later modeled. Women in a number of other countries were also inspired to form groups, and a number of these came together with Margo St. James’ COYOTE to form the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights (ICPR), the organization whose work and example helped to win prostitution law reform in a number of European countries and provided an example which inspired similar campaigns in many other parts of the world. In a way, the modern sex worker rights movement was born on that June 2nd in Lyon, so we celebrate it now as International Whores’ Day. Many victories have been won in the 37 years since that first lost battle, but we still have a long way to go until our profession is recognized as legitimate and governments cease to treat us as cattle to be herded and milked as they please. In the past decade the prohibitionists have succeeded in forcing us into a defensive posture via their “sex trafficking” mythology and tyranny wrapped up in “feminist” garb, but all moral panics inevitably end and the majority of young women are not threatened by sex as the current feminist establishment is. The tide of history is toward greater individual and sexual rights, and those who would restrict others’ sexuality, no matter what propaganda they employ, will eventually be swept away.
One Year Ago Today
“June Updates (Part One)” features stories on PIPA (a previous version of CISPA) and a sex worker who helps disabled men in Germany.