How Trans Sex Workers in Paris Are Coming Together to Stay Safe
Photo: Edouard Richard
This article originally appeared on VICE France
Near the sprawling Bois de Boulogne public park in western Paris, a white van belonging to a trans sex worker has been completely wrecked. The bed is torn apart, the bumpers shattered and trash dumped on the ground around the vehicle. "This really pisses me off," fumes Samantha as she surveys the damage to the van.
Samantha is a sex worker and employee of the Bus des Femmes – an organisation that works to provide sex workers in the area with a range of welfare services. She considers herself an expert on the Bois de Boulogne – where, in April of 2018, trans sex worker Vanessa Campos, 36, was killed while trying to protect a colleague from being robbed.
"You're looking at a kind of intersectionality with these girls; the combined stigmas of being trans, a sex worker and an immigrant," Françoise Gill, the president of Bus de femmes, later explains to me.
Samantha is on her weekly rounds to check in on the area's sex worker community – a group that has felt considerably less safe since the French government introduced a €1,500 (£1,350) fine in 2016 for anyone caught paying for sex. Even though prostitution is legal in France, the fine was partly intended as a deterrent. But instead of working as planned, clients now regularly ask the women for sex in secluded areas to avoid the police. In a Médecins du Monde survey conducted with nearly 600 sex workers in France, 63 percent said they have seen their working conditions deteriorate, while 42 percent said they have experienced more violence since the law change.
"Every three days, a girl here is attacked," Samantha estimates. The atmosphere around the park is pretty calm this late afternoon as the women wait for clients to start trickling in. The Bus des Femmes continues to roll along slowly, stopping at each woman to offer condoms and lube. "You doing okay, sweetie? Good luck," Samantha calls from time to time. She asks them for their names and nationalities, and documents the information on her route map, before inviting them in for a quick snack break – but few say yes for fear of missing out on a client.
Marie, however, accepts the invitation and rushes into the bus for a cup of tea. The Ecuadorian has worked in and around this park for 19 years. In that time, she confides, it's become harder and harder to make money. "More and more, the clients try to negotiate," she says. "I have 20-year-olds who ask me for 'a little fellatio' for just €20."
The Paris mayor's office shut off many of the lights in the park in the evenings as a way to discourage people from soliciting there. The so-called "good clients", as the women refer to them, have mostly fled now, worried about the fine. "The girls are always being attacked in the park," says Ramona, who is a member of the Acceptess-T, an association that advocates on behalf of trans and immigrant sex workers. "They are more vulnerable than ever."
Faced with these dangers, many of the women I speak with tell me that they have developed their own techniques for keeping safe. Some keep tear gas to hand, while others carry brass knuckles or a big stick. When near each other, the women yell out "Todas!" ("Everyone") to alert their colleagues to danger. But – as in the case of Vanessa Campos – if you're working in an isolated area deep in the park, it can take a considerable amount of time for someone to intervene, if at all, especially during the chaos of a night shift.
In addition to their own personal means of protection, a self-defence workshop "for and by sex workers" was created in 2015, before the law came into effect. This inter-associative project, "SWAGG", is headed by Médecins du Monde, in collaboration with Acceptess-T and the sex workers union STRASS. "It's a workshop where you learn to defend yourself both verbally and physically," explains Pesha, a sex worker and course leader. So far, around 100 girls have taken part. "The idea is to have trainers in every community," adds Sarah-Marie Maffesoli, project coordinator at Médecins du Monde. "Currently, there are about a dozen of us."
Around the Bois de Boulogne, the sex workers are mostly immigrants, so the self-defence classes double up as French lessons. "In verbal self-defence, we learn little phrases like, 'Leave me alone,'" Pesha tells me.
But not all women working here have the free time or are convinced by the merits of the workshop. Back in the bus, Marie admits she doesn't feel totally comfortable taking self-defence classes: "At my size, and with my high heels, it's not easy to defend myself. Faced with a guy who works out and is much stronger than I am, I wouldn't be able to fight."
To this, Pesha explains that the main aim of the workshop is to teach the women emergency reflexes and ways of making the most of the objects around them – such as a stiletto heel.
Near where Vanesa Campos was murdered, the Bus des Femmes stops by Johanna's truck. Johanna has worked in the woods since 1999. In that time she has learned to defend herself against police violence and turf wars between other women. "I keep a knife in my truck," she tells me. Having a weapon may be reassuring, but it can also backfire. "We don't use weapons in the workshop because your attacker could turn them on you," Pesha warns.
And while the cops sometimes turn a blind eye, using a weapon can expose you to huge risks, even in cases of legitimate self-defence. "One girl was arrested and sentenced to a three-year conditional jail term after she used tear gas on her attacker," Ramona remembers.
In addition to the dangers of the work itself, the sex workers in the Bois can never be sure that they will be paid at all. "After having sex with one client, he demanded that I give him a refund because, as he said, 'You're not a real woman,'" Marie recalls. "We get lots of guys like that."
The Bus des Femmes remains one of the few spaces where the women of the Bois de Boulogne can be safe. Inside, Marie is able to take a breather and unload her frustrations. As she heads out again, Samantha murmurs, "Take care of yourself, sweetie," and gives her a few pastel bath bombs from Lush – a slightly unexpected gift.
In spite of the death of Vanesa Campos, and the media's focus on several similar attacks since, authorities are still not taking the problem very seriously. The measures they have set up to help each other – welfare associations, self-defence classes – are not enough in the face of a deeply flawed law. "The women can't even work together; they can be arrested for sharing a truck," Françoise Gill adds.
Médecins du Monde is currently developing an app designed to protect sex workers, which should go live in June of 2019. Accessible in seven languages, it will allow the women to send alerts to each other, and in the event of a problem share their location.
"The aim is to improve the way information is shared," says Sarah-Marie Maffesoli. "So that the workers can finally keep one step ahead of their attackers."