Last week, the French magazine Causeur stood up for the newest victims of France’s sex trade: the paying male customers. The French government is currently considering making it illegal to pay for sex, stopping short of actually outlawing prostitution itself. The news hasn’t sat well with Causeur and the long list of johns who presumably make up the majority of its subscribers.
Realizing that men who like to pay to have sex with trafficked women would be dejected if the law were passed, the magazine has started a campaign to defend their right to do whatever the hell they want. Tastefully, they’ve decided to name that campaign: “Manifesto of the 343 Scumbags: Hands Off My Bitch!”
But don’t worry—it’s ironic; the name is an appropriation of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous feminist pro-body-autonomy, pro-abortion “Manifesto of the 343,” because the guys at Causeur are saying that prohibiting men from having sex with prostitutes is somehow a feminist issue. Feminists, however, appear to have disagreed pretty much across the board. Socialist MP Anne-Yvonne Le Dain put it bluntly: “Shame on these horny morons [and their] pitiful manifesto.”
I decided to call up the magazine’s editor, Gil Mihaely, to hear his side of the argument.
VICE: Why did you create this manifesto?
Gil Mihaely: The French government is considering a new law that will penalize prostitutes’ clients, so it’ll be illegal to go to a prostitute. This is part of a larger project aimed at prohibition. The ideological heart of the debate is that a woman cannot freely decide to become a prostitute—that a woman becoming a prostitute is just like a person deciding to become a slave.
But your manifesto is about defending the right of men to visit prostitutes, not a woman’s right to become one.
The manifesto can’t be read outside a French context, and the French context is twofold. First, it’s a parody of a manifest published in 1971, written by Simone de Beauvoir, saying that since women have absolute control of their bodies, they should be allowed to have abortions. Because we feel the same way—because we feel women should be the only ones to decide what to do with their bodies—we say that free women who can decide to abort can also decide to become a prostitute.
And this is why we have a second title, translated as “Hands Off My Bitch.” It’s another parody. There was a slogan against racism called “Hands Off My Friend,” and friend in French is pote and prostitute is pute, so it’s kind of solidarity. We are dealing with consenting adults. The state should stay out of it.
OK. But don’t you think that, by having men who visit prostitutes sign it rather than the prostitutes themselves, you’ve ended up focusing on the wrong people?
We didn’t think so, but maybe you’re right. The idea was to initiate a debate, because there’s been talk about this law for almost a year and there wasn’t really a debate. We decided to do something we thought was provocative and funny. Some people don’t find it funny. We think women should have full control of their bodies and can decide what they want to do with their bodies, whether we like it or not. Because freedom isn’t only tolerating what we like it’s tolerating what we don’t like.
Do you think the kind of people who actually call women bitches would understand your message?
I really do hope that people understand the humor in this initiative. I think someone can use a word like bitch and people understand that, when he comes home after work, he doesn’t say, “Good evening, bitch.” It’s funnier in context. It’s kind of a pun.
Alright. In your manifesto it says, “Under the guise of protecting women, this is a war against men.” Isn’t that a little misguided?
In France, there’s an intrinsic tension between equality and liberty. The equality of women and men is really something that is accepted by everyone. Some people, especially those now in power, seem to have a real problem accepting that there’s equality and difference. So there’s an ideological project to make men women with penises; they don’t accept that you can be equal and different.
What’s the difference in this case?
They say that prostitution is a scandal because women also have a libido and don’t go to prostitutes, so men should behave themselves. I’m just saying this is the way it is, and it’s probably true that most prostitutes are women and most clients are men, and it’s true that it’s been like that in many societies and for quite a long time. We are very suspicious of people trying to do projects to create a new man, a better man. So, men are men. They’re human beings – they’re not perfect.
How many women do you think get into prositution because it’s something they’ve dreamed about doing since childhood?
This is a very good question. First of all, during the debate we’ve learned that we don’t know exactly how many prostitutes practice in France and we don’t know how many of them are doing it freely. What everyone sees is the street prostitution—the most miserable kind. But we don’t know how many other kinds of prostitution exist and how many other prostitutes practice.
The other part of the answer is that it’s very difficult to narrow down the field of consent, because very few people do as adults what they dreamt of when they were young. If liberty is being able to choose between being Prime Minister, an astronaut, a fighter pilot, or a brain surgeon, there are very few people in the world who enjoy this freedom.
Don’t try to say that you cannot consent to be a prostitute. It reminds me of what the Bolsheviks used to say—that if you work in a factory and you don’t understand that the only party that represents you is the Communist party, then you are a victim to propaganda. And this is the liberty issue. Who will dare to say you can’t vote because you don’t vote correctly? So this is what the feminists are saying to the women: “Look, you’re destroying your body and your soul.” But even after all that, they still say “Yes, and I’m going to do it anyway.” What are you going to do?
But you understand that a lot of prostitutes will be in the sex trade because of stuff like trafficking and drug addiction, right? And you see the difference between women wanting the right to abortion and men wanting the right to visit prostitutes?
I think you have to really want to not understand in order to see things like that. And I think that what bothers those who are criticising us is that most of the people who signed this petition are seen in France as right or reactionary. So the government, instead of debating with some of its allies—because, as I said, this is a debate that divides the left and divides the feminists—they can say, “Look, the fascists are against us—let’s be together because male chauvinist pigs are trying to interfere in this business.” I think this is why they choose to present things like that.
Right, OK. I’m not sure what you mean. Do you think prostitution makes France a better country?
I think that prostitution is part of our society. I think it’s unrealistic to try an abolitionist or prohibitionist stand. I think it won’t work and it will make the situation worse.
Have you ever visited a prostitute yourself?
No, but of course I know people who have. When I was a teenager, a couple of friends and I went to the big city to see a prostitute, and when we got there we were so scared that they started laughing at us and we went back. We went up and down the street, so they knew we were afraid, and we went away ashamed.