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The industrialisation of prostitution

Spain’s unusual legal situation and permissive attitude to prostitution have made it home to a sprawling sex industry and large numbers of women-trafficking gangs. However, following the lead of other countries on this issue might not be the ideal solution.


Spain's lax laws on prostitution draw gangs of people traffickers from other countries. Photo: el finísimo jarritos.

For the first time, the Spanish police have released figures on the number of women reportedly forced into prostitution by traffickers and pimps. Last year, the authorities say police rescued or were approached by around 1,300 women working in the sex industry against their will, most of them from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa. The real figure is undoubtedly much, much, higher: over the last three years, the police have smashed more than 40 prostitution networks alone.

Official estimates put the number of female prostitutes in Spain at around 100,000. Other sources put it as high as 400,000. More than 80 percent are foreigners, and most were brought here by international trafficking gangs.

The traffickers come here because Spain’s laws on the issue are strangely balanced, making prostitution effectively legal: selling sex is permitted although making money off prostitutes is not. Large numbers of women still work on the street, picking up kerb-crawlers in industrial estates, or using cheap city centre boarding houses; others place classifieds in newspapers. But the majority work from brothels. Technically, it is illegal to run a brothel, so the owners of the 1,000 or so of them that line the country’s main roads or are found on the outskirts of towns and villages register their premises as hotels and charge the women for the use of the rooms.

Since the 1990s, prostitution in Spain has undergone what might be called a process of industrialisation, coinciding with the economic boom in Europe over the last 15 years and the worsening poverty in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Latin America that has driven millions to seek a new life abroad. Spanish entrepreneurs have forged links with international criminals to traffic women, in some cases buying and selling them at impromptu auctions.

There is a lot of money to be made:  estimates put the value of the sex industry in Spain at €40 billion annually, almost the equivalent of Spain’s education budget. The profits are as high as, and the risks and punishments much lower than, drug trafficking.

Although the brothels of the Costas attract northern European men, the industry’s growth has been driven largely by local demand. In large part this is due to a shift toward greater acceptance of using prostitutes —seen as just another leisure activity— among younger, middle-class men. The average age of a punter has fallen from the mid-forties to the mid-thirties. Around a third of Spanish men admit to having paid for sex.

What to do? Abolitionists look to Sweden’s zero tolerance approach, while others would follow Germany, Australia, and Canada’s lead by fully legalising.

The government has set up commissions to explore possible solutions. In 2007, after nearly three years of debate, it threw in the towel, rejecting both full legalisation and abolition, and simply leaving prostitution where it was: in a legal limbo, and increasingly controlled by organised crime.

For the Spanish authorities, prostitution is above all a public order issue. As the number of women working the streets in the country’s main cities has grown, the extent and scale of prostitution has become visible. The response has been to clear the city centres, or to limit the number of women working there. This has driven the trade to the outskirts, or forced women into brothels.

Back to the brothels

Catalonia plans to remove prostitutes from the street, saying this will increase their independence from pimps, and allow the authorities to monitor hygiene and security.

The authorities there now fine prostitutes working the streets. Advocates of prostitution as a form of employment argue that legalisation will improve these areas.

The problem with this kind of legalisation is that it fails to eradicate illegal prostitution and often makes women working in the legal sector vulnerable to exploitation by brothel owners. Experience from Germany, Australia, and legal brothels in the United States and Canada shows that women are forced to turn over 40 to 50 percent of their profits and may be required to remain in the brothel for up to 90 percent of their time, in a given seven-day working week.

In addition, women may have to justify their refusal of a customer, and in some cases may not be able to refuse at all. Concurrently, women are often documented as prostitutes, an act that can result in future job loss and “blacklisting”, forced medical tests from hostile clinical staff, and harassment by police officers.

The costs of legalised prostitution, such as rent to the brothel owner, medical examinations, and any registration fees are paid by the women involved in prostitution, thereby increasing the number of sexual encounters they must have in order to make a profit. Due in part to these costs, illegal prostitution has flourished in legalized areas as clients seek cheaper sex, and women determined to increase their income, or avoid psychological/drug tests, circumvent the legal system. In Germany, for example, there are three times as many non-registered women involved in prostitution as those registered. In Greece the ratio is more than 10 to 1.

Prostitution that did not place women in danger would require private medical coverage, unions to negotiate profit sharing, and complete discretion over customer selection. To remove the incentives for illegal prostitution such costs would have to be passed on to the taxpayer.

Demand on the rise

A two-step strategy involving increased penalties for the men involved in prostitution and increased economic development for women would seem the way forward. To date, through not enforcing existing laws, or creating legislation to target clients, Spain has allowed this demand-driven trade to grow. That said; it is hard to imagine Spain following Sweden’s route of penalties, including imprisonment, for men who solicit prostitution. As for offering prostitutes alternatives, given that most of them are non-nationals, and many here without permission, and that Spain currently has 20-percent unemployment, it is equally hard to see much money going into that solution.

The real issue here is trafficking of women and girls. Even if Spain were to regulate prostitution, allowing women to register as self-employed, as is the case in Germany, traffickers would undercut the market by bringing in women illegally and pimping them out at lower prices.

What can be done is to impose much higher penalties for those who traffic in, and pimp, women. At present, traffickers rarely face more than a €10,000 fine or maximum two-year sentence, as opposed to 10 to 15 years for drug smuggling.

The police have begun to take the problem more seriously in recent years, helped by a small number of brave women prepared to give evidence in court. Nevertheless, as has been repeatedly shown, pimps and traffickers continue to operate with impunity, and building a case against them is difficult and slow.

Finally, EU residency laws are another example of misdirected policy. A woman participating in the prosecution of a trafficker will, at best, as in Belgium, the Netherlands or Italy, be allowed to remain in the country until the trial is over, at which point she will probably be deported. Other member states of the European Union as well as the United States are often not as lenient. In Germany, two young girls freed from sex slavery were deported immediately and banned from travelling back to the country for five years, a ban that extended to all member states of the Schengen Treaty. Such policies explain why so few women will prosecute their kidnappers and abusers, as these individuals often seek retribution when the women return to their country of origin.

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Published: Apr 2 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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