Interview with survivor Rosen Hicher, who walked 743km to fight for Abolition
Sporenda : Why did you decide to do this demonstration, the Walk for Abolition, and why a walk as opposed to some other type of action?
Rosen : This idea of doing a walk has been on my mind for two or three years already, it’s something that has been germinating. When I started lobbying to get Abolition passed, I thought it would be over and done within six months. For me, it was obvious. But I saw that it was dragging on and on and I couldn’t understand why the government wasn’t taking this seriously. For me who lived through it, prostitution was such an extreme violence that there is no other solution. It has to be right away, right now.
So it didn’t go that way, and that’s what gave you the idea of the walk?
Exactly. Also, thinking while walking, and for a streetwalker, walking is only natural, it makes sense.
You were assisted by a team. How did you form your team, and how did you organize all the logistics, which were pretty complicated?
In the beginning, I had started out on my own, I live in Saint-Jean d’Angély, I was counting on passing through Saintes, Rochefort, La Rochelle, Niort. Saintes was not too far from home, so I could get by, I know people in those towns who could accommodate me, so I wasn’t worried. Actually, since the walk was organized around the place of my last prostitution experience to my first one, everywhere along the way, everywhere I worked, I had friends or family. The team was formed in a bizarre way because I only contacted Luc once by phone and two or three times by Facebook. Catherine I only contacted once. They came spontaneously and after that, it was them who did the organizing, not me.
Among the towns that were a part of your itinerary, you said a lot of them are ones you worked in?
That’s right. I worked in Saintes, Rochefort, La Rochelle, Bourges, Châteauroux, Vierzon, Blois. Other towns I planned to stop in because I have family there—my son in Châteauroux, etc.
And you chose to arrive in Paris on Colisée because that’s where you had your first experience of prostitution?
Yes, and because in prostitution, the first place, the first client, that’s the big passage, the most dramatic moment, because that’s the one that gets you inside and doesn’t let you leave.
It’s something that stays forever written in your memory?
I could draw a very precise composite drawing of my first client.
That «bar à hôtesses», on Colisée Street, is it still there?
No, it’s a restaurant now.
[Note: A «bar à hôtesses» in France is a bar or a strip club that serves as an unofficial meeting place for prostituted women and johns. The women don’t necessarily work for the bar owner, they just meet clients there. This is where Rosen started.]
What were the biggest problems you encountered on the walk?
Definitely the heat, because it was really hot, between La Rochelle and Niort, it really heated up, the temperature rose to 35°, and I got an enormous blister on my right foot which disabled me because this large ball under my foot got in the way of me walking. But I don’t feel pain anyway.
Yes, you’ve said that it’s related to the dissociation of prostitution, the fact that you don’t feel pain.
I’m just starting to have some idea of physical discomfort. I’m starting to feel fatigue and a few types of physical pain. I broke my arm in 1996, the end of my humerus is very damaged, my right arm is full of osteoarthritis, and I am disabled in this arm because of domestic violence. People with osteoarthritis are always telling me “It’s really painful, it’s dreadful.” But I don’t have any pain in this arm, I hardly feel anything, except for once in a while, very faintly.
There are public figures who supported you and even accompanied you on your walk. Can you tell us about that?
There was Eva Darlan, Florence Montreynaud, Patric Jean, and more. Each face, each person who accompanied me, I cannot forget them.
In different towns, you met politicians: municipal councillors, mayors, etc. How did that go? How did they show their support for your cause?
There were a lot of representatives who welcomed me—mostly they were men. At Rochelle, it was a woman, same with Niort. That woman had never thought about prostitution or its abolition before. And she was the representative for women’s rights at the Niort City Hall.
A women’s right’s official who had never given a thought to prostitution, that’s unbelievable, isn’t it?
She had never thought about it. When I spoke to her, I had the impression that she was just finding out that prostitutes could exist. Anyway, I got a very warm reception, albeit with an emphasis on passing the penalty for the clients and the importance of the client in prostitution. But I think a lot of them understood.
You had some contacts with media, what were your impressions of those media contacts? Did you feel like the pro-prostitution position was dominating? How was your message received?
Those that came to me and those that I called to say I was arriving were both attentive. The best team was in Niort, it was two men, they were both completely supportive, and who did everything they could to get the message out about what this walk was about, because this march was a support to reopen the debate and for the law to finally pass in the Senate.
Journalists, who are meant to inform people, have to first inform themselves. Did you get the impression that they really knew this issue? Or were they essentially relying on the stock of usual clichés about prostitution?
There are very few who really know the issue. It’s a subject that is very well known and also widely misunderstood. And prostitution is something that really fascinates the media.
Yes, but always through the myths and the false representations, right?
The constantly recycled myths are tiring. One of these journalists admitted that he hadn’t read anything, that he wasn’t interested, he hadn’t looked at any of the literature or informed himself ahead of time…The beneficial side of that situation, in the case of this press correspondent, was that his article wasn’t too bad, because it didn’t have the usual clichés, like the happy sex worker who loves her job. He wrote an article that wasn’t negative at all, because he only listened to me.
In your opinion, is it better not to know anything about prostitution than to have a stock of false ideas?
There’s a lot of journalists who are interested in prostitution because it’s a topic that sells, but they only present the point of view of those who are for it. So when a journalist comes along who knows nothing and who hasn’t gotten interested in the subject for the wrong reasons, but who listens to me and who hears the abolitionist position, his article will go in the other direction. And this was a young man who had never thought about prostitution and who had never thought about buying sex, it seemed surreal to him that a man can still buy a woman nowadays.
According to some statistics, it seems that the abolitionist position is more widespread among youth than among older people. Has your message had more success among youth?
I’m around young people a lot, mostly because I have kids, and also because I meet young people while lobbying for abolition. And a lot of them say to me “I wouldn’t have even thought of it.” It’s common knowledge among people of a certain age, but not for them. It’s a certain category of men who gave themselves the right to buy anything.
We just found out that theoretically the law was going to be studied by the Senate during the first term of 2015. But the Senate blocked this law for a year. Why do you think there are such delays in France? I don’t think there has been so much stalling in other countries, like Ireland, where the law just passed.
Yes, it takes a long time, they don’t realize the importance of this law. The problem in France is that we talk a lot to get results that are really slow moving. To get it passed through the National Assembly, it required getting into everyone’s mind that buying people’s bodies isn’t okay. It takes time, because there’s lots of people to motivate: there are over 500 MPs. The law was adopted by the National Assembly and it has to be passed again in the Senate—but the senators don’t necessarily have the same positions or the same arguments on the issue.
In a book that just came out, « Elles ont fait reculer l’industrie du sexe » that compares the way the law was passed in different Nordic countries it was mentioned that it’s a known fact that some important politicians are johns. These politicians have done everything they can to stop the law from being passed and even when the law is adopted, they campaign to get it abandoned. Do you think the same situation could exist in France?
Well, here’s an anecdote, now that the walk is finished. I lived in town “X…” for ten years. The mayor, who has also been an MP and who is now a senator, did not welcome me. And for a good reason: when I worked in “X…” he was a john, he didn’t deny himself—he was a friend of a very well-known politician. In the «bar à hôtesses» where I worked in “X…” there were the usual red bench seats and low lighting, and underneath there was a sort of vaulted cellar where the rent boys worked. The mayor of “X…” went everywhere looking for women and especially there. He knew that I lived in his town and since I had seen him in the «bar à hôtesses», he wasn’t going to welcome me.
There can be very personal reasons such as this for some politicians’ refusal to vote for this law.
It made me laugh, I knew that at “X…” there was no hope of being welcomed. This man who was always hanging around in the bars and clubs certainly had no desire to meet with me. What could he have said to me? “So, uh, look, Rosen…” It was a comedian who said that. I had planned that stop along the route, and I knew I wouldn’t be welcomed. That was the walk’s sense of humour.
As for me, I have nothing to hide, but to illustrate the ambiance I used to live in, every day there were police cars in front of my place, people from social services and housing were watching me to see if there were still clients coming over.
In the book I was just mentioning, in a Nordic country where the law was just passed, the media actually cited, revealed the names of politicians who were johns. Is that something that seems desirable or acceptable, or is that an “outing” we should say no to, because it’s a privacy issue, etc. If the MPs and senators who are voting on this law are johns, isn’t there a conflict of interest?
I would eventually be in favour, but only in several years, because as long as the law has not been passed, we have to be relatively careful: if we affect one of them, we affect them all.
It wouldn’t be your responsibility to reveal the names, it would be the responsibility of the media to do their homework and to reveal the ethical problem if there was a politician who votes against the abolitionist law who is a john. It’s a debate…
I’ve thought about it a lot. In the town of Z, there was a counsellor—who has recently passed away—who was on the city council, and he was one of my johns. I was a so-called “free” woman, but that guy told me that he bought women anywhere and of any age. As an elected official, from the lowest to the highest position, there are things that you just don’t do. When you run in an election, you avoid being a john. That guy, when he came to see me, he was repulsive. He was repulsive in his words, and repulsive in his demands, and I don’t understand the mayor of that town, who knew, because she was told, and she had zero reaction, she just remained completely indifferent.
It doesn’t surprise me because these politicians believe they are all-powerful, above the law, they think that nothing can happen to them. And they’re right, because name me any politician who has been put in jail for rape, there are none. Georges Tron, the MP from UMP, [who was accused of rape and sexual assault] will be given a warning again but it would surprise me if he gets any jail time…they’ll slap him with a fine…
Oh yes, a warning. I’ve thought about it, and I don’t want there to be a controversy right now over revealed names, I don’t want that to cause problems. The law is already late enough, there are victims waiting.
So you think that could hurt the passing of the law, that kind of revelation?
It makes me very afraid, I would prefer not to go there. The senator from town “X…”, my ex-client, I knew already that he wouldn’t welcome me, he couldn’t talk to me about my walk against sexual slavery while he was a john himself. We have to wait until the law has been passed to avoid putting girls in more danger than they’re already in. It’s for them mostly. As for me, they can attack me, it doesn’t bother me.
You’re very brave… If this law is finally passed, what obstacles do you see to its enforcement? In Norway and Iceland, similar laws were passed but the police sabotage the law by doing nothing to keep johns under surveillance or to arrest them. And then the pro lobby pretends the law doesn’t work. Stories about bad cops who extort prostitutes are part of the folklore about prostitution. What do you think of this risk in France?
We’ve so normalized prostitution and have so established it as a right, a given, and something we can sacrifice women to, this change will take time to enter people’s minds. It will take time, it’s true.
And also training for police officers to teach them what prostitution is? Because they continue to think that they should differentiate between women who are trafficked and those who are not, that there are some who choose… If they have those ideas in mind, how can they do their work correctly?
There will be work to do for the police as well as for the prostituted. It’s already complicated to understand how a prostitute operates, because we’re completely marginalized, completely displaced. And for the prostitutes, there is also the problem of domestic violence with serious consequences: their partners, their husbands are violent. And often prostituted women are subjected to rape. They accumulate all sorts of violence, and it’s true that there is an enormous task with them, a whole task of resocialisation. I help prostituted women, and for example one of them didn’t even know she had a social security number. And there’s the foreign women…
Lots of them don’t even speak French. How can they know their rights?
It will be very difficult, the enforcement of this law. But if the parties concerned do their job correctly, it will be possible. For the foreign women, the question of papers, renewable at six months, that’s fair, but there is more work to do.
There was a demonstration of Chinese prostitutes in Paris recently, did you hear about it?
People need to know that those women were victims of kidnapping and trafficking, they did not arrive in France all by themselves.
Since the passage of the law in Sweden, the percentage of men who are johns went from 13% to 8%. Do you think we can hope for the same result in France?
Yes, definitely! Some of my johns that I met after my walk said to me “you made us understand things we didn’t before.” Some of them are able to get it.
Because of this law passed in Sweden in 1999, now, pimps are no longer interested in Sweden, they find it’s too difficult to sell women in that country, they’ve taken their business elsewhere. So that law has a deterrent effect, not just on clients but on pimps as well. They go to where there is no law or where prostitution is legal.
We hope that it will eventually go worldwide.
Do you expect to do another demonstration?
Yes I’m asking everyone to send a postcard to the Senate so they will get going on it, move them forward. Of course with courteous and non-violent language.
Sporenda : Thank you for your time Rosen!
Send your postcards to the Senate!
Palais du Luxembourg
15, rue de Vaugirard
75291 PARIS Cedex 06
We thank Leah Harwood very much for the translation