Spanish sex workers fight push to stamp out prostitution

'Ángela' a sex worker waits to meet a client at a hotel in Madrid, Spain. October 2022

'Ángela' a sex worker waits to meet a client at a hotel in Madrid, Spain. October 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Cristina Cuenca

What’s the context?

Sex workers say a Socalist party bill aimed at ending prostitution by cracking down on pimping and making it a crime to buy sex will drive the trade underground, putting them at greater risk of violence and unsafe conditions

  • Draft law cracks down on pimping, sex trafficking
  • Sex workers say measures would drive trade underground
  • Fierce debate divides women's rights campaigners

MADRID - It was not how she imagined a fresh start in Spain, but sex work has become a financial lifeline for Peruvian migrant Ángela and relatives back home, helping to pay for her father's cancer treatment and put her brother through medical school.

"You have projects, ideas for life, but life surprises you," said the 32-year-old, who - like many Spanish sex workers - is angry and worried over ruling party plans to crack down on the sex trade in a bill that sets out to champion women's rights.

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The draft law being drawn up by the Socialist party (PSOE) would make it a crime to buy sex, and introduce tougher penalties for pimping - seeking to effectively end prostitution and sex trafficking by tackling demand.

Online sex work, such as video calls, and the production of pornographic photographs and videos fall within the scope of the proposed legislation. Another law already in force bans adverts for prostitution.

A parliamentary vote on the proposals had been due early this month, but some lawmakers have agreed to talks with sex workers that could lead to amendments being made.

Part of a broader women's rights push by the Socialists, the draft legislation treats sex workers as victims, rather than criminals as would be the case under a ban on prostitution.

A sign reading 'We are all workers' is pictured on a fence as protesters leave a demonstration against the proposed law to abolish sex work in the country, in Madrid, Spain, October 4, 2022

A sign reading "We are all workers" is pictured on a fence as protesters leave a demonstration against the proposed law to abolish sex work in the country, in Madrid, Spain, October 4, 2022. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

A sign reading "We are all workers" is pictured on a fence as protesters leave a demonstration against the proposed law to abolish sex work in the country, in Madrid, Spain, October 4, 2022. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

The changes would not penalise sex workers in any way, said Andrea Fernández, a Socialist lawmaker and co-author of the bill who believes all sex work stems from exploitation that should be punishable by law.

'Sex work is work'

Until now, sex work has existed in a legal grey zone in Spain and is largely tolerated, though sexual exploitation and pimping, the act of controlling sex workers or taking a part of their earnings, are illegal.

But sex workers fear the proposed crackdown will not succeed in bringing an end to prostitution and could instead increase the dangers for people selling sex.

"It will continue but only in worse conditions," Ángela, who asked not to give her full name to protect her identity, told Context about the proposals, which have sparked street protests by sex workers.

At recent demonstrations, some held placards reading "Sex work is work" and "Feminist whores", while sex workers' association Astras has threatened to name and shame politician clients in a bid to shoot down the new rules.

Rakel , 41, a sex worker who belongs to StopAbolition, a campaign group set up to fight the bill, said if passed it would drive sex work underground, raising the risk of HIV infections and violence due to unsafe conditions such as street work.

"The government that approves this law is going to throw us into the arms of the mafia," she said, asking not to give her full name.

She said, for example, that only criminal networks would be willing to rent apartments to sex workers, as landlords would fear prosecution under the draft law's broader definition of pimping.

Women vs. women

Spain's Socialist-majority government decided to forge ahead with the legislation despite deep divisions over the text within the party and coalition partner, Podemos. Critics say the initiative is overly paternalistic and obscured by moral judgments about the sex trade.

The bill has also split the country's women's rights movement, pitting women against women in an acrimonious debate that far-left lawmaker Mireia Vehí said was getting "out of hand".

"It's almost a debate about who can or cannot be called a feminist," said Vehí, who rejects the government's approach.

"It's a model that only leads to the persecution of women, that does not end prostitution, or put an end to trafficking," she said, calling for the consideration of alternatives such as decriminalisation or even a universal basic income.

About 70,300 women work in Spain's sex industry, according to the latest estimate published by UNAIDS.

That would make it one of the biggest markets for prostitution in Europe, a statistic Socialist politicians have used to strengthen arguments that a deregulation implemented in the mid-1990s has failed.

'Ángela' a sex worker prepares to meet a client at a hotel in Madrid, Spain. October 2022

'Ángela' a sex worker prepares to meet a client at a hotel in Madrid, Spain. October 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Cristina Cuenca

'Ángela' a sex worker prepares to meet a client at a hotel in Madrid, Spain. October 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Cristina Cuenca

Trafficking directive

There has been support for the government's plans among groups working with trafficked women forced into sex work.

But many sex workers reject the argument that most women working as prostitutes are coerced into the trade, saying the vast majority have chosen freely to do so.

"They exploited me more when I worked as a waitress," said Ángela, adding that she had rarely heard of women being forced into sex work.

The debate in Spain comes as the European Union reviews its 2011 anti-trafficking directive, which could make buying sex a crime across the whole bloc.
European countries currently take varying approaches to the sex trade.

France and Sweden punish clients, while sex workers in Croatia and Romania face arrest and prosecution. In Greece and the Netherlands, sex work is legal and sex workers must apply for a licence and follow rules on where and how they work.

Earlier this year, Belgium decriminalised sex work, with regulation via labour law which supporters said would let sex workers set their own terms, and could reduce exploitation and violence.

For now, Spanish sex workers' efforts are focused on securing amendments to the Socialists' bill, including reversing the criminalisation of buying sex and narrowing the definition of pimping to avoid landlords becoming liable.

"The amendments may give us a little hope, but I think it will not be much," said Susana Pastor, who heads the Astras union.

($1 = 1.0240 euros)

This story was corrected on October 27, 2022 at 18:15 GMT to correct the U.N. estimate on number of sex workers to 70,300 (not 300,000), and removes erroneous reference to trade's estimated annual value in paragraph 19.

(Reporting by Joanna Gill in Brussels and Oscar Valero in Madrid; Editing by Helen Popper.)


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