La vie en rose
« I’d rather sell my ass than my soul, it’s harder but much cleaner » Claudette told me on one of our first meeting. How can one not write a book about her?
I had been working for a few months on a documentary project about sex work in Switzerland, seeking to understand why this country considers that prostitution can be a job as any other as opposed to the french state which stipulates that every form of prostitution is a violence against women. By meeting Claudette, listening to her talk about her life that only she doesn’t find extraordinary, by getting to know her family, her friends, her clients, I was able to enter a world with so many contradictions that it seemed impossible to summarize it. This book does not attempt to explain this job, which has as many sides to it as it has persons practicing it. The book seeks to give a voice to Claudette, to let her tell her story and express her views. Because one of the reason that explains the differences in legislations between Switzerland and France is that in France one rarely hears the opinions of the ones for whom we make the laws. We think we know better than they do what they need and we refuse to believe that a priced sexual relationship might sometimes be desired by a woman. A prostitute is unhappy, and if she claims the opposite it’s because she is not aware of being miserable. This generalization that abolitionists often use is as reducing as it is false.
This documentary offers a different point of view on an issue that is often reduced to a serie of clichés. This insight into Claudette’s life is not however an appeal to generalize her situation to every worker in the sex industry. Such an action would be just as damaging to the recognition of the diversity of the sex workers’ situations.
Working on this subject I have discovered some surprising women and those encounters have swept away the preconceived ideas I had been confronted to. They were funny, made fun of their clients, men in general, they were determined. In control. They had money issues, were here because they did not have too many choices, but they were here by choice anyway, to remain in control of their lives without asking for forgiveness or charity. This impression was all in all very remote from the image of manipulated victims that is the standard in France.
To stipulate that every prostitute is a victim is to deny them the right to speak by stating that they are incapable of making choices for themselves.
Surely they are too stupid, or traumatized, for that.
That some women are victims of prostitution is undeniable. Laws must do everything to protect the persons taken by human trafficking. But current legislations are only seeking to hide the prostitutes, as if to dissimulate them is the only goal worth reaching. The question one must ask therefore is who those laws want to protect. The girls victims of traffic or the passers by who would be offended at their sight?
Claudette is the opposite of a victim. She controls her life, makes her choices clearly and knowingly. She does more than just live her life, she loves it. And she lives it without lying, not to herself or others about her job, her relationships or anything else. She has endured her whole life the discourse made by strangers trying to reduce her to what she is not, because of her job but also because of her gender. Claudette is hermaphrodite. She is born with both male and female genitals, a condition that is not very well known and often mistaken with transgender. People often think that being different is a difficulty to overcome, that a physical peculiarity is a trauma, especially when it comes to gender. But the way Claudette was raised has allowed her to never feel undermined by her gender, that she assumes and with which she plays.
However, often, because of her gender or her job people pity her, or try to save her from a situation that causes her no harm. But rarely do they listen to her when she talks about her achievements as a father and grandfather, her record as a champion cyclists and her victories as a sex worker’s rights campaigner.
There are women who enjoy prostitution, women who practice it freely and to deny their existence is a moral getaway, a way not to feel threatened in our values that wish to see the body gravitating above the laws of merchandising. Women endure every day all sorts of pres
sures to make their body yield to modern aesthetic standards, but to
use it to make money is unacceptable. The body is not a merchandise. One cannot give it a price tag, damage it to make money, or loan it to someone else. If one accepts this premise, then wouldn’t it be natural to abolish professional sports, where the athletes parade for the audience and where they need to put an end to their careers at 35 years old because their bodies are already damaged to a dangerous extent? But for many, sports and prostitution have absolutely nothing to do with each other, because what bothers people is not the commercialization of bodies, but of sex. This dichotomy relies on moral values, which should therefore be debated. Morality is neither fixed nor unassailable; it is on the opposite the product of a constantly evolving society, but those values are however brandished as a flag and one cannot oppose it without being pointed out as a monster willing to see women enslaved.
Claudette unnerves some people because she lives a happy and coherent life while denying a fundamental moral precept. But her case is neither isolated nor unique and the reality of those people has to be acknowledged. They have a right to be heard, to be actors of a debate that currently excludes them. Laws, which are based on a single point of view, cannot be legitimate or fair if they fail to take under consideration the whole of the situation they wish to amend.
Prostitution is a complex profession that one cannot reduce to a simple rapport of victims facing their tormentors. This book is a testimony that seeks to deconstruct Manichean ideas by telling the life of Claudette, as a whole, a life where prostitution and gender play a part without defining it.