Les Miserables translates roughly as “The Downtrodden.” Fantine is one of these downtrodden, a young working-class grisette who hides her out-of-wedlock child to obtain respectable employment. When her secret is discovered, she is thrown out of the factory. In desperation, she sells her hair and her teeth, and finally, reluctantly, she sells sex. (Incidentally, she may not be the only major character in the novel who is involved in the sex trade: It is implied several times in the novel that when M. Thenardier involves Eponine in his criminal exploits that this includes pimping her out.)
A contemporaneous researcher surveyed Parisian sex workers, and while he goes on at length about his own prejudices, he also gives some data, including reasons cited for getting involved in sex work. This data doesn’t really confirm his biases,which might indicate its validity, at least insofar as he believes laziness, vanity, parental “corruption” and women forgetting “their most sacred of duties” (huh?) are to blame for prostitution. In any case, Fantine’s story (“brought to Paris and abandoned by soldiers, clerks, students, etc.”) was commonly cited—by a little less than 10% of respondents—and the bulk of the rest were orphaned, or kicked out/ran away from home. The single most commonly cited reason for turning to sex work, though, was poverty (i.e. doing it for the money, duh).
Today, many confused feminist commentators, including Anne Hathaway, refer to the character as someone caught in “sexual slavery,” linking Fantine’s plight to the term “sex trafficking.” But Fantine is not a sex trafficking victim and to call her such is to profoundly miss the point of the story. In fact, the co-option of a survival sex worker’s story to fit an agenda that leads to the oppression of all sex workers is itself exploitative. You might note, as quoted in the article linked above, that Victor Hugo also refers to Fantine as a slave, but I believe this is more clearly metaphorical on his part, since he explicitly names “hunger,” “cold,” “loneliness,” “abandonment,” and “privation” as the “slavers.” Interestingly, Hugo himself was rather well known for his sexual exploits with his wife, long-term mistress, short-term mistresses, his maids, and, yes, with many sex workers. So, Hugo was himself a client–a fact which those who would use Les Miserables as an anti-trafficking text are presumably unaware.
In a modern context, “sexual slavery” and “sex trafficking” are used cynically to push an agenda of criminalization, centered around the idea that clients of sex workers are evil, exploitative misogynists who must be punished. This has led to some well-funded and mostly successful efforts to criminalize clients, and where already criminalized, to intensify enforcement and sentencing, with no effort to remove penalties against sex workers or to keep soliciting and pimping charges from being applied to them. The closest these folks have come to removing penalties has been their appropriation of sex worker activists’ efforts to allow trafficking victims to expunge their records. As a result of these abolitionist efforts, sex workers are more frequently arrested during client stings. To the extent that clients are indeed dissuaded, sex workers are forced to offer more for less and to see more clients as the marketplace grow smaller, the remaining clients being generally more violent. Trafficking victims also suffer all these effects – and are more frequently arrested and abused than “rescued” by law enforcement.
I myself am a former sex worker, one of those unicorns who does relate to Fantine in certain ways (though I am not so saintly), but the most fascinating character to me, in Les Mis, is the character of Javert. Javert sees the world the way many people have through history and to this day: he is a blinkered and devoted believer in “law and order.” The law, to him, embodies morality, and the people who break the law are both evil and irredeemable. Of course, we are shown this isn’t true when introduced to our hero, Jean Valjean. He is a petty thief driven by hunger, then compelled to conceal his identity when his status as an ex-con prevents him from finding work or accommodations, yet, he is a character whom Hugo portrays as noble. Fantine is a desperate survival sex worker, arrested trying to defend herself from harassment. They both break the law, and Javert is there to make them pay. Broadly, this is a story about how the laws and the justice system make criminals of many reasonably decent people, particularly people dealing with poverty. Yet, Javert is too blinded by his law and order ideology to see this happening. It’s not hard to see echoes of Inspector Javert’s worldview in the criminalization efforts made in the name of fighting sex trafficking. And so it is unsurprising that some feminist “abolitionists” commenting on the film support “law and order” solutions that fit easily with his views: further criminalization of poverty.
It is nonsensical to call Fantine a sex trafficking victim, as sex trafficking requires a sex trafficker. Fantine does not have a pimp of any sort; third-party coercion is not a part of this story. Even if Fantine had a coercive pimp, it would still be glossing over important issues to attribute all of Fantine’s suffering to him. This is a story about the criminalization of poverty, as well as poverty itself. Fantine most definitely does not want to enter the sex trade and does not enjoy her experiences there. But this is actually not synonymous with sex trafficking. But exploitative work conditions are not synonymous with trafficking. Her unhappiness does not justify arresting her, or driving her business further underground by arresting her clients, and making her already dire situation worse.
Coercive third parties certainly do not account for everything people in the sex trades suffer, which often comes at the hands of police and other agents of criminalization; from indigence; and from people who treat those who sell sexual services poorly, their actions based on society’s belief that prostitutes and other sexualized women are less than human. But to think about those sources of suffering would require examining our own complicity (particularly those of “us” who work for the abolition of prostitution) in the situation. And while no one these days calls Fantine evil as Javert might, they make her modern day counterparts the butts of cheap jokes on late-night television and talk about “cleaning up the streets” and shutting down escort advertising venues.
Making a challenging financial situation even more difficult does no favors to those engaging in survival sex. As I’ve written, I am a fan of Les Miserables. I think it has something important to say in both its original context and in a contemporary one. And it is not really a story about sex work. As the title explicitly states, it is a story about the downtrodden in society. Survival sex workers are just a part of this group of people whose suffering stems from their poverty. To talk about Fantine divorced from this context, to cast her as a “sex slave” or “sex trafficking victim,” is to miss the point and distort Hugo’s message to fit an entirely different and ultimately dangerous agenda. Fantine’s life is an integral part of a compelling story — a story that has far more to tell us than “prostitution is bad,” and which should never be used to try to justify more criminalization.