Policing Commercial Sex in 1970s France: Regulating the Racialized Sexual Order

AuthorRébecca Franco
Published date01 February 2023
Date01 February 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Policing Commercial
Sex in 1970s France:
Regulating the Racialized
Sexual Order
Rébecca Franco
Faculty of Law, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam,
De Boelelaan 1077, 1081 HV Amsterdam,
The Netherlands
Based on multi-sited archival research, this article examines the racialized regulation of
commercial sex in 1970s France, and whether and how this was intertwined with the
protection of a racialized, gendered, and class-based sexual order. In doing so, this article
contributes to a contextualized and historicized analysis of the construction of race and
colour-blindness in French legislation and law enforcement. During and after the
Algerian War, colonial anxieties about sexual threats posed by North African male
labour migrants in the French metropole played a role in the discussion on commercial
sex and motivated politicians, policymakers and journalists to argue for its selective tol-
erance. The author argues that the indirect legislation on commercial sex granted dis-
cretionary power to the police to protect the sexual order through colourblind
justif‌ications. This enabled law enforcement to implement and enforce universalist legis-
lation from belowin a racially particularistic way.
Prostitution, sex work, labour migration, gender, interracial intimacies, police,
discretion, france, critical race studies, colour-blindness
Corresponding author:
Rébecca Franco, Faculty of Law, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1077, 1081 HV Amsterdam,
The Netherlands.
Email: r.s.franco@vu.nl
Social & Legal Studies
2023, Vol. 32(1) 96115
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/09646639221094754
Fortunately, there are these houses [brothels]; without these you would be raped! []We
need these [prostitutes sic] for all these men!
Police off‌icer (Goutte dOr, 1977)
The above quote illustrates the attitude of the French police toward the regulation of
commercial sex in the 1970s. At that time in France, pimping and soliciting, including the
operation of brothels, were criminalized. Yet, in response to a question from a white
female reporter from the local newspaper, a white police off‌icer operating in the working-
class neighbourhood of La Goutte dOr in Paris exclaimed that the existence of brothels
should be tolerated. The policeman was implicitly referring to the activities of single male
migrant workers from the former French colonies in North Africa. The French authorities
and wider society were concerned about the presence of these single men from the
African continent. Anxieties expressed about the deviant and excessive sexuality of racia-
lized men were used to justify such anti-immigrant rhetoric (Shepard, 2012, 2018). At the
time, the French government was enforcing a relatively open immigration regime because
the economy required cheap, temporary, male migrant labour (Weil, 1995; Sayad, 1980;
Sayad, 1997). In this context, prostitution became a central discursive and regulatory
issue that mitigated and articulated these anxieties. This paper examines the importance
of race in the interplay between gender and class in the control of commercial sex in
France in the 1970s by looking at the policing and regulation of commercial sex for post-
colonial North African migrants.
It does this by investigating how the regulation of commercial sex was also a form
of regulation of interracialized intimacies. Thompson (2009) has argued that interra-
cialized intimacies are not necessarily just regulated through prohibition but also
through indirect forms of control. This article draws upon insights from scholars on
gender, intimacy and colonialism who have argued that the regulation of interracia-
lized sex and intimacy has been integral to constructing and protecting racial hierarch-
ies within the colonial sexual order (Stoler, 2010; Stoler, 1989; Stoler, 1995; Ray,
2015). Thus, to manage interracialized heterosexual contact, the colonial administra-
tion regulated prostitution to ensure that colonized men did not have access to com-
mercial sex with white women (Howell, 2000; Razack, 1998; Staszak, 2014; Taraud,
2003). Research on the regulation of interracialized intimacies should be attuned to
such indirect types of regulation that aim to make possible some forms of intimacy
while preventing or restricting others.
Before proceeding, a note on terminology is warranted. I use the concept interracia-
lized intimaciesto underline the processes of racialization involved in the designation of
certain intimacies as interracial, based on Jin Haritaworns (2007) understanding of inter-
raciality. Moreover, I will use the term prostitute(in quotation marks) in direct quotes
and use prostitutionto ref‌lect the historical discourse because this was the term in use at
the time. However, I use commercial sex,sex workerand sex buyeras preferred
current terminology.
Looking at the regulation of commercial sex contributes more generally to research on
the construction of race in French society and law. In the United States, the f‌ield of critical
Franco 97

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