This article originally appeared on VICE France
When I meet them, the women are all wearing chunky knit cardigans over their satin nighties. We're standing in front of a caravan belonging to one of them, Chloé*, and they're smoking and chatting. Chloé tells me she just got her polling card for the first round of France's presidential elections this Sunday. "Like most people in France, we're not sure who we'll vote for yet," her friend Sandra tells me. She has copper highlights in her hair and smoky eyes. "But we're absolutely positive who we're not voting for."
Standing next to her is Jocelyne, who points at her mismatching red socks and apologises for the way she's dressed. She tells me she doesn't feel ready to vote yet. Florence, in a blonde wig, says that it annoys her that "no one talks about us". The position of prostitutes in France hasn't been discussed much during the campaign, but whichever candidate wins will have a huge impact on the lives of these four women.
They're all in their fifties, and they've worked the same spot for almost three decades, on a road that crosses the Bois de Vincennes – the largest public park in Paris – in the southeast of the city. When their increasingly rare clients leave them, the morning joggers run by. "Our clients don't want to take an escort to a fancy restaurant," Sandra says. "They just want to blow off some steam."
A lot changed for these women when, about a year ago, a law was passed making paying for sex in France illegal. Chloé points to a few younger girls on the other side of the street. "The networks are still there, so nothing changed there. But more than anything, this law has put us in danger." A client recently tried to rob her. He took out a revolver, threatened her and eventually just left with her iPhone. "A lot of our clients have left – it has affected our quality of life. We now have to accept clients who we wouldn't have taken on before – people who are rude or violent. People who fear nothing."
The health risk is worse now, too. "Everyone in this area used to wear condoms, but these days one out of two doesn't wear one." One man recently asked Jocelyn for a "natural fellatio" – without a condom – which she refused. "It's a disaster," she says.
Watch: 10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Sex Worker
The women tell me they're in this line of work by choice, and feel their profession should be recognised as such. "It's an art, like Grisélidis Réal said," says Sandra, referring to the famous Genevan author, prostitute and feminist. "And one of our missions has always been sexual education. We used to explain to men that sex is not just emptying your balls – that it could be more. We would advise them to go and see a doctor if they had an issue or were impotent. People need to differentiate between prostitution and sexual slavery. As long as they don't, our work will keep being stigmatised."
Like Sandra said, they know who they aren't voting for. Left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has said "prostitution is nothing but human trafficking and should therefore be radically regulated". They won't go for Socialist Party candidate Benoît Hamon either, who signed a declaration called "Prostitution is a form of violence, let's abolish it!" The biggest betrayal to them, however, is the fact that the left formed a majority that led to the law fining their clients. Sandra is a leftie and was a supporter of current president François Hollande when he was elected in 2012. "It hurts that this law came from the left," she says.
Centre-right candidate François Fillon didn't vote on the law when it was passed in the National Assembly, but the women of the Bois de Vincennes are sceptical about him for other reasons. He's being investigated for hiring his wife as a parliamentary assistant for an outrageously high salary. "To give that kind of money to his wife and still pretend to be Mr Clean, it's incredible," says Sandra. "What's more, he's supported by all these Catholic traditionalists, so Fillon is also not an option."
And then there's Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National. Sandra says, "I don't support racists, but some of us sex workers might be tempted to vote for her because she's said she's against fining our clients." Florence and Chloé are more right-leaning in their views, and they think the National Front has a few "good ideas" for the economy. "I have clients in plumbing and in construction who can't find jobs because of competition from foreign labourers," Chloé says. But leftie Sandra says she has her passport ready and has put some money aside; if Marine Le Pen wins, she will "fuck off".
The four women all agree that social-liberal Emmanuel Macron might be an option – he talked about prostitution in an interview with Grazia, and while he didn't offer any solution, he also didn't judge. As a candidate, he hasn't disappointed them yet. And they like his wife Brigitte Trogneux. "She has a certain presence," Sandra notes. If he makes it to the second round, they'll all vote for him.
But the women working in the Bois de Vincennes aren't the only sex workers I want to hear from about the upcoming elections. After speaking to Chloé, Sandra, Jocelyne and Florence, I contact Morgane Merteuil, an escort and former spokesperson for French sex workers union STRASS. She has decided to vote for the far-left socialist candidate Mélenchon, mostly because of the other options: "I believe our struggle is in better hands with him than with the three main other candidates – a fascist, an ultra-liberal and an ultra-conservative."
She thinks specific laws on prostitution don't affect sex workers more than laws about social issues. "I'm a woman and a sex worker, which means that I am part of a rather vulnerable class. I think liberals will put vulnerable people at risk even more than they are now. So I'll go for a candidate who promises to fight inequality."
"Women were just beginning to feel more comfortable about paying for sexual favours, and now they're made to feel guilty and weird about it again."
I ask 32-year-old male escort Bug Powder the same question. He calls himself an extreme leftist with libertarian inclinations, and when I meet him a badge with the text "This is what a sex worker looks like" is pinned to his leather jacket. He's not voting because he doesn't recognise himself in the options. "The political class doesn't represent the people – they don't engage in the reality of the working class, and even less so in that of sex workers." According to him, "The regulation of prostitution is one of the rare issues all politicians agree on. I'm not going to vote for someone who wants to make working more difficult for me."
The new law has impacted his business, too. He still has his regular clients, but hardly any new ones coming in. "Women were just beginning to feel more comfortable about paying for sexual favours, and now they're made to feel guilty and weird about it again." Among his clients are women with all kinds of motivations – they pay for sex with him because they don't want or have time for a relationship, or because they have special fantasies. But he thinks there's a social aspect to selling sex – that he sells empathy and attention, too. He has worked with disabled women who'd never had sex before and with women who deal with conditions that make sex painful, like endometriosis. And then there's a woman who was subjected to female genital mutilation as a girl, and has had clitoral reconstructive surgery later in life. Her new clitoris needs to be stimulated to regain sensitivity, which is where he comes in.
Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron has compared his former job as a banker with that of "a prostitute". Bug thinks that's ridiculous. "He should do sex work for a while to get food on the table, then we'll talk," he says. "Sex work is short term work, wage labour. Politicians are making it a thing outside of classic employment – something incomparable to anything. But violence and exploitation exist in other lines of work, too. Many sex workers chose their job because they didn't want to be exploited in other fields, and to stay in control. That is my case."
*First names have been changed.