There is a near-universal acknowledgement that the majority of sex workers (more than 80% according to the Interior Ministry) are employed by the sex industry in Spain because they were forced into it upon arriving from another country — mainly from Romania and Latin American nations. But consensus on how, or if, the state should regulate sex work remains absent.
It was Spain’s Socialists themselves who decriminalised sex work in 1995, and one of the unexpected results of that decision was a boom in unregulated brothels. Offences linked to exploitation and human trafficking in sex work remain illegal, but flourish behind nominally legal closed doors.
The lack of legal clarity on selling sex in private venues has turned out to be highly lucrative. Black market tracker Havocscope estimates revenue from the industry to be worth $26.5 billion in Spain, second only to China globally. There is also a significant amount of sex tourism on Spain’s northern border, as French laws on buying and selling sex are much stricter.
Drive down any road out of your average Spanish town and before long you will notice neon signs displaying beacons for “amor” and “chicas” on large buildings without any windows, but with dedicated parking out front. These are bars that also function as brothels, and those who own them cannot take a cut of sex workers’ pay (pimping remains illegal), but instead profit from “renting” rooms used by punters. The last time police did an audit in 2013, they found 1,693 such clubs operating across Spain.
Pilar Álvarez, gender correspondent for the El País newspaper, says that the Socialists consider prostitution to be “incompatible with human rights and gender equality” and will achieve abolition by focusing on prosecuting clients, pimps and third-party profiteers like brothel owners, and by offering women “a way out.”
Sex worker-led organisations oppose the proposed policy, which they say has not been conceived with the participation of sex workers.
“Nobody has asked the women who practice prostitution in Spain about what we want, or how,” said Conxa Borrell, Secretary-General of the OTRAS sex workers’ union.
“We are women of flesh and blood, strong, brave, and left suffering from institutional violence,” Borrell said. “Do they want to be feminist and progressive? Then let them prove that they are and agree to have formal and regular meetings with plans tailored to every need and every sector.”