“I’d rather sell my ass than my soul, it’s harder but much cleaner”, Claudette told me on one of our first meeting. How can one not write a story about her?
I had been working for a few months on a documentary project about sex workers in Switzerland, seeking to understand why this country considers that prostitution can be a job as any other as opposed to the French state which stipulates that every form of prostitution is a violence against women.My book on the subject does not attempt to explain this job, which has as many sides to it as it has persons practicing it. The book seeks to give a voice to Claudette, to let her tell her story and express her views. Because one of the reason that explains the differences in legislations between Switzerland and France is that in France one rarely hears the opinions of the ones for whom we make the laws. We think we know better than they what they need, and we refuse to believe that a priced sexual relationship might sometimes be desired by a woman. A prostitute is unhappy, we are told, and if she claims the opposite it’s because she is not aware of being miserable.
Often, because of her job people pity Claudette, or try to “save” her. But rarely do they listen to her when she talks about her achievements as a father and grandfather, her record as a champion cyclists and her victories as a sex worker’s rights campaigner.
Claudette controls her life, makes her choices clearly and knowingly. She does more than just live her life, she loves it. She has endured her whole life the discourse made by strangers trying to reduce her to what she is not, because of her job but also because of her gender. Claudette is hermaphrodite. She is born with both male and female genitals, a condition that is not very well known and often mistaken with transgender. People often think that being different is a difficulty to overcome, that a physical peculiarity is a trauma, especially when it comes to gender. But the way Claudette was raised has allowed her to never feel undermined by her gender.
“I never felt like a boy. That wasn’t me.”
“I never felt bad about being hermaphrodite, it’s the others who have a problem with it, not me. I was born with both male and female genital parts so that it wasn’t clear if I was a boy or a girl when I was born. But my parents let me chose who I was, what my identity was even if they declared me as a boy at my birth. In 1937 it was an undeniable advantage. But I have always felt like a girl and I lived my life accordingly. I have the sex of the angels, why would I be ashamed of it? “
“The satisfaction of work well done is incomparable in prostitution. When a client is happy, I’m happy too. It’s social work, how can anyone deny that we make people happy, that we are useful? In my job I have the certainty that I have done what was right.”
“With some clients it doesn’t go as well as with others. For a lot of men the need to go see prostitutes is stronger than they are, they can’t help themselves. They do it without thinking. And when it’s over they start remembering that the money they just spent they needed it for rent, for groceries or that their wives is going to be asking where it went. And all of a sudden they don’t speak to you anymore, they become shifty and they’re ashamed of what they’ve done and of you. How many times did I give 20 francs back to a guy who had realized he had to walk back home under the rain at 3am because he had given me all he had including money for a cab…they can’t help themselves. And I’ve been a good prostitute but a bad whore. I couldn’t take advantage of that need like some other girls did, and I couldn’t let them walk home under the rain. Men can be weak.”
“I always found comfort and strength in the message of Christ. It’s his message of love that nourishes me, everything else is of no importance to me. The church, as an institution, does not interest me and I actually don’t agree with what they do there even if I am Catholic. But the example set by Christ gives me courage.”
“Sport has always been an important part of my life. Cycling is one of my passion, I have done it all my life and I have no intention to stop. I still win competitions at my age and record better times than people thirty years younger than me.”
“Activism is complicated. I’m one of the few who fight for the cause of sex workers using my real identity and showing my face, as Griselidis Real used to do. I’m exposed to the judgement of my family by doing it, for my work as well as my gender. I lost touch with some family members after my first TV show where I clearly stated I wasn’t just a volunteer in that fight, but a sex worker myself. But at my age you know that there are two types of families: the ones you’re related to and the ones you chose. If my blood relatives reject me then I have my other family, the ones I chose and who know and accept me for who I am.”
Claudette unnerves some people because she lives a happy and coherent life while denying a fundamental moral precept. But her case is neither isolated nor unique. Claudette and others like her have a right to be heard, to be participants in the debate on legislation that currently criminalizes and excludes them. Prostitution is a complex profession that one cannot reduce to a simple rapport of victims facing their tormentors. This documentary is a testimony that seeks to deconstruct Manichean ideas by telling the life of Claudette, as a whole, a life where prostitution and gender play a part without defining it.
Email from Claudette received 21 Oct 2013
This morning it’s been 52 years since we said “yes” to each other for life.
52 years of happiness that I share with the friends I hold dear.
Malika Gaudin Delrieu