Paid sex in Spain has remained in legal limbo until the recent proposal of the Comprehensive Law Against Trafficking, proposed by the governing Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. In 1995, prostitution was depanelized as a voluntary activity, leading to an unregulated and very successful establishment of the sex industry since then. In fact, not only is Spain the European country with the highest demand for sex, but is also third internationally. This lack of a jurisdictional model has been criticised by different actors for its lack of a comprehensive approach towards sex workers and the facility it offers to mafias to coerce and exploit victims into the industry. Although the new proposal aims to solve this limbo and social stigma, it is uncertain whether this is the right approach.
A billionaire business
The high demand of paid sex goes hand in hand with a wide acceptance of its consumption. Indeed, prostitution in Spain is a very successful business that is no longer associated with one category of customers. Currently, 18-19 year old teenagers on a night out, to all-men business meetings can comfortably end their night in a brothel. Unsurprisingly, to cope with the voluminous demand, there is an estimated 300,000 sex workers in Spain. In 2010, the United Nations estimated that 39% of men in Spain had paid for sex during their lives, an atypical amount compared to other EU countries. What’s more, it is exorbitantly profitable. As of 2016, the UN estimated Spain’s sex industry was worth €3.7 billion. However, the attractiveness of the industry is not limited to nationals, it has also opened the door to “sex tourism”. For instance, the biggest brothel in Spain “Club Paradise” is found in La Jonquera, located at the border with France, which opens the door to a bigger clientele.
So far, the laws in Spain have been ineffective in tackling the unregulated market of prostitution. Although the activity is allowed, the government draws the limit on the “carnal pound”, meaning no labor rights for sex workers, providing thus an easy outlet for criminality and turning Spain into a magnet for human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
It has been commonly understood that the line between prostitution and sex trafficking is when one or more persons are subjected to engaging with commercial sexual activity. The most common scenario forces victims through coercion, fraud, or force and if they attempt to leave their situation, are blackmailed with their safety and/or their loved ones’. Although Spain has undergone many changes in its legislation and action plans since the 2000s, there is still much room for improvement. Recently, Amnesty International has launched a campaign denouncing the instrumentalization of victims as a means to dismantle a trafficking network and the need to approve a Comprehensive Law against Human Trafficking.
“Not one of the men who paid to sleep with me asked me if I was there out of choice, or whether I wanted to be doing this. They didn’t care either way.”
The abolition of paid sex
Until now, the sexual exploitation of a third party – procurers – was punishable and prosecuted. The free exercise is not regulated at the state level, thus leaving it in the hands of the municipalities. That’s why the approval of the Law against Human Trafficking would pose an advancement. Nonetheless not all parties agree this is the best approach. To begin with, there is no concrete data discerning the line between volunteer and forced sex work. Although the national police and politicians affirm that more than 80% of women are coerced into prostitution, these assertions vanish in thin air due to the lack of a real updated figure of prostitution in Spain. Furthermore, the Secretary of Equality – conscious of this information gap – offered a position to gather data and estimate the number of sexually exploited women and girls. The position, however, still remains vacant. Altogether, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos has approved the abolition of prostitution without knowing exactly the figures surrounding this controversial activity.
Moreover, the civil society has denounced the difficulty to ban such a profitable enterprise, predicting the rise of mafias, sexual violence, and even more precarious circumstances. In fact, this situation was happening before the approval of the law: “[t]here are clients who, because they believe that the law is approved, refuse to pay the sex workers or refuse to leave when they have finished the service. It is an appetizer of what will happen in the future”.
The voids that characterize the legality of prostitution have generated many obstacles in the industry for sex workers, including the strengthening of mafias who are comfortably accommodated on the law limits. Civil society workers and victims have demanded a change in legislation requesting better protection mechanisms for many years. Nevertheless, the abolitionist proposal of PSOE is far from the modifications they were asking for, and the consequences of dealing with an entangled and complicated subject in such a superficial manner are looming.
- Is the prohibition of paid sex the solution to diminish sexual exploitation?
- Should other models, like the Netherlands, be taken into account?
- Would the other side of the coin, regularizing paid sex, be a better approach for the protection of sex workers?
- Lorenzo Escot, Sabina Belope-Nguema, José Andrés Fernández-Cornejo, Eva Del Pozo-García, Cristina Castellanos-Serrano & Selene Fabiola Cruz-Calderón, “Can the legal framework for prostitution influence the acceptability of buying sex?”, Journal of Experimental Criminology, 2021.
- Elena Boza Moreno, “La prostitución en España: el limbo de la ALEGALIDAD” (In Spanish), Dialnet, 2019.
- Estefanía Acién González and Ángeles Arjona Garrido, “Prostitution and Deservingness in Times of Pandemic: State (Non) Protection of Sex Workers in Spain”, MDPI, 2022.