Sex, Problems and solutions

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 Centre Max-Weber and the ENS de Lyon. He specializes in the study of prostitution and social movements.

Lilian Mathieu's argument

He explains in his book The prostitute conditionFor some, prostitution is a modern form of slavery inflicted on women by a male-dominated society. For others, it is a simple profession based on the free disposal of one's body. The former are calling for the outright abolition of prostitution, and point to Sweden as an example, which has chosen to ban venal sexuality and penalize clients.

The latter are calling for "sex work" to be fully recognized by law, as in Holland: since 2000, prostitutes there have been able to ply their trade in establishments where they benefit from an employment contract and access to most of the rights guaranteed to salaried employees.
In a dense, well-argued book, Lilian Mathieu, who has been working on prostitution for ten years, argues that these approaches reflect, above all, a profound misunderstanding of the sociological reality of prostitution. Criticizing the "miserabilist" approach of abolitionists, the sociologist shows that, contrary to their assertions, not all prostitutes live under the thumb of a pimp. But he is just as harsh on those who believe that the body trade can be a profession like any other: entry into prostitution, he notes, is "at worst a form of coercion, at best an attempt to avoid an even more degraded or perilous situation". French pragmatism therefore remains entirely relevant: prostitution is not covered by the penal code, but is regarded as a private matter, with the law confining itself to punishing soliciting and procuring.

According to Lilian Mathieu, prostitution 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: "traditional" prostitutes, who ply their trade in studios; street prostitutes, who work in dangerous conditions; and "occasional" prostitutes, young drug addicts who try to "survive in the short term by prostituting themselves at low prices". What these worlds of "relegation" have in common is the omnipresence of violence: in May 1995, 41 % of prostitutes reported having been the victim of at least one assault since the beginning of the year.

But the originality of Lilian Mathieu's approach lies above all in defining prostitution as a "zone of social vulnerability". Faced with a worsening job market, entry into the world of commercial sex is sometimes, he asserts, the result of economic constraint. This is particularly the case for single mothers with no qualifications, who can only access internships or part-time jobs, for young vagrants excluded from the RMI, or for undocumented migrants trying to survive.

The proposals outlined at the end of the book by Lilian Mathieu echo this analysis: by calling for the RMI to be opened up to people under 25, or for an end to repressive immigration policies, the sociologist hopes to act on prostitution by reducing social precarity. This analysis, which profoundly renews our view of venal sexuality, does however have one weakness: by dint of criticizing the psychoanalytical and compassionate discourses of abolitionists and associations helping prostitutes, Lilian Mathieu ends up rather hastily dismissing any approach that takes an interest in biographical trajectories and the singularity of individual histories.

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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