The Prostitute Condition by Lilian Mathieu


by Vanessa Charles


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Lilian Mathieuis a sociologist and director of research at the Centre de la Recherche Scientifique, the Max-Weber Center and the ENS in Lyon. He is a specialist in the study of prostitution and social movements.

The argument of Lilian Mathieu

He explains in his book The Prostitute ConditionFor some, prostitution is a modern slavery inflicted on women by a society marked by male domination. For others, it is a simple profession based on the free disposal of one's body. The first ones claim the pure and simple abolition of prostitution and take as an example Sweden, which chose to prohibit the venal sexuality and to penalize the customers.

The latter plead for "sex work" to be fully recognized by the law, as in Holland: since 2000, prostitutes have been able to practice their profession in establishments where they have an employment contract and access to most of the rights guaranteed to employees.
In a dense and argued book, Lilian Mathieu, who has been working on prostitution for ten years, estimates that these approaches translate above all a deep ignorance of the sociological reality of prostitution. Criticizing the "miserabilist" approach of the abolitionists, the sociologist shows that, contrary to their assertions, not all prostitutes live under the control of a pimp. But he is just as severe towards those who think that the trade of the body can be a job like any other : the entry in prostitution, he notes, is "at worst a form of constraint, at best an attempt to avoid an even more degraded or perilous situation". French pragmatism is therefore still relevant: absent from the penal code, prostitution is considered as a private matter, the law being content to repress soliciting and procuring.

Prostitution, says Lilian Mathieu, is neither slavery, nor a profession, nor even a market, but a complex social space where several forms of venal sexuality exist side by side: the "traditional" ones, who practice their profession in a studio, the street prostitutes, who work in dangerous conditions, and the "occasional" ones, these young drug addicts who try to "survive in the short term by prostituting themselves for a low price". What these "relegated" worlds have in common is the omnipresence of violence: in May 1995, 41 % of prostitutes declared that they had been victims of at least one assault since the beginning of the year.

But the originality of Lilian Mathieu's approach consists mainly in defining prostitution as a "zone of social vulnerability". Faced with the deterioration of the job market, the entry into the world of commercial sexuality is sometimes, he asserts, the result of an economic constraint. This is notably the case of single mothers without qualifications who can only access internships or part-time jobs, of young people excluded from the RMI or of undocumented migrants who try to ensure their survival.

The proposals outlined at the end of this book by Lilian Mathieu echo this analysis: by asking for the opening of the RMI to people under 25 years old or the end of repressive immigration policies, the sociologist hopes to act on prostitution by reducing social precariousness. This analysis, which profoundly renews the view of venal sexuality, has however a weakness : by dint of criticizing the psychoanalytical and compassionate discourses of abolitionists and associations helping prostitutes, Lilian Mathieu ends up evacuating a little quickly any approach which is interested in biographical trajectories and in the singularity of individuals' stories.

LA CONDITION PROSTITUÉE by Lilian Mathieu. Editions Textuel, 208 p.

Vanessa Charles

A (very) close friend of Cupid and a true lover of relationships of all kinds, I am the main editor of Give Me Date. I answer your questions about couples, sexuality and dating and I test dating sites to give you a subjective opinion on how to find love or meet new people.

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