A few days ago, I described the time-capsule aspects of my Paris neighborhood. It’s not only a time capsule, to say the least– globalization-wise, this is probably the most twenty-first-century place you could find anywhere. But it’s also one of the few corners of Paris where the old pre-1945 amorality lives on, the Paris of prostitutes and hustlers that Americans my age grew up picturing. Most of the rest of Paris has turned the page on all that. The streets still look like they do in the old movies, but the people walking down them think differently.
It’s easy for us Americans to misunderstand all that, because French moral thinking is so remote from our own. Even we non-Christian Americans wrestle with the leftovers of Puritanism. We have a difficult time with gratuitous fun like unregulated drinking and recreational sex, and anyway we still live in a basically Christian country– most of the people we deal with every day retain some religious beliefs, and we atheists have to talk and act with that in mind. At the power-player levels, the religious presence is even stronger. No American politicians would declare themselves atheists or blow off the National Prayer Breakfast.
Meanwhile western Europe is basically a post-Christian place, and the old Christian prohibitions on fun barely register. Germany and Holland have state-licenced brothels, and they treat sex work as work like any other. The European Union requires all member countries to count even illegal sex work in their Gross Domestic Product statistics; Italy takes it to the next level, and includes all forms of gangsterism.
That goes along with a heavy-duty belief in privacy. In France at least, nobody even cares about political leaders’ religious beliefs, and their personal morality is seen as their own business. Can anyone iimagine a figure like Dominique Strauss-Kahn as an American political leader? In case you’ve forgotten: until he got into deep legal trouble in 2011 (a rape accusation in the US, then pimping charges in France), Strauss-Kahn was the heavy favorite to win the French presidency– despite being a twice-divorced, non-practicing Jew with a big “reputation as a seducer.” Almost nobody in France thought that mattered in deciding on a presidential candidate; what you do in private is supposed to stay private.
So– as happens a lot when I think about France– the starting point is a sense of admiring amazement: baseline French morality seems like a radical sex utopian’s dream. With luck, you think, America might reach this level of open-mindedness in a couple hundred years.
But then you’re reminded that morality is always an entangled, trade-off-filled business, and that’s extra true where sex is concerned. In a post back in February, I pointed to one of the specifically-French tangles– the French government itself is warning parents to watch out if their kids start tightening up their sex morals, dressing more modestly, giving up on rock music; all these may be signs of Islamic radicalization.
The message is, your morals are totally your own business– except sometimes they aren’t, and that “sometimes” is when your morals carry a serious political message; the police may have to intervene if your sexual morality implies radical views about western society. Historically, that’s actually a familiar story. The seventeenth-century British Puritans outlawed lots of fun activities, but they also had a radical take on their society, and in the 1640s they launched a revolution designed to remodel their society accordingly.
Things get even more tangled up when money enters the sex-morality picture, as two news stories from last week underlined. Story 1 concerned Dominique Strauss-Kahn himself, who was facing a possible ten-year jail sentence for aggravated pimping: he’d attended a series of high-end sex parties that turned out to involve prostitutes, and the authorities argued he’d played the key role in organizing their comings and goings. Strauss-Kahn acknowledged the orgies, but denied knowing that the women involved were professionals. None of the prostitutes suggested they were coerced into participating in these events, though they had plenty of negative things to say about Strauss-Kahn’s love-making technique.
Last Friday, the whole case was thrown out of court, but only after several years of courtroom action.
Story 2 came the same day, when the lower house of the French parliament voted for a second time to arrest and fine anyone buying sex; prostitutes themselves would not face criminal pursuit, but the legislation would provide them with counselling and help in finding new careers. It’s the second time around for this law. Parliament passed the same bill two years ago, but it was shot down in the French Senate; it’s not impossible the same thing will happen again.
The common thread in these two stories is the view they offer of sex work as social illness. We shouldn’t penalize the patients, namely the sex workers themselves, but we should go after all those who make their work possible, the organizers and clients.
Now, my point isn’t that you should think one way or another about prostitution and pimping; these are complicated issues, with lots to be said on all sides. Here I’m just saying that all this French worry about them– the high-profile criminal prosecutions, the complicated legislation– doesn’t fit with the talk of anything-goes moral openness. Or to put it a little more forcefully: this is as regulated society as any other, it’s just that the regulations are differently configured, and the mechanisms are more carefully hidden.
That’s why it’s worth paying a visit to marginal corners like Château Rouge. Checking on the time capsule can tell you just how strange this new world of ours is.