“Prostitution,” said Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in his closing speech at the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) congress in October, “is a practice that enslaves women.” The crowd stood and roared, applauding Mr. Sanchez’s call for the abolition of one of the world’s oldest forms of systemic oppression.
Spain decriminalized prostitution in 1995 by not addressing it at all in its criminal code. The law is silent as to whether engaging in prostitution is a problem or a “job.” While it prohibits gaining profits from the prostitution of others—i.e., pimping—owning a commercial sex establishment is legal.
By allowing the purchase of sexual acts and the proliferation of brothels as anodyne businesses, Spain concocted the perfect recipe for the explosion of the commerce of prostitution, human trafficking, and unfettered sexual exploitation.
How? Because the logic of any marketplace relies on the mathematical dance of supply, demand, and the incentive for profit. The sex trade is no exception.
It didn’t matter that Spain declared profiteering and sex trafficking crimes. When a state allows men to consume prostitution, sex traffickers and other exploiters, online and off, will ensure that demand is met.
Spain is the world’s third largest market for prostitution. The United Nations estimates that 39% of men in Spain have purchased prostitution in their lifetime, compared to an average of 19% globally. Thanks to these sex buyers, the Spanish sex trade ballooned into a 26.5 billion Euros (about US$30 billion) industry.
The caravans of flesh this “business” requires comprise up to 90% of undocumented foreign women, each indebted to traffickers and the houses that exploit them under the nose of the state.
It’s a cruel illusion that these women from the poorest regions of Brazil or China, the smallest villages of Nigeria or Thailand, or the most desolate parts of Bulgaria or Hungary, bought costly plane tickets to parts unknown, somehow landing in Spain in search of brothels, forbidding highways, and endless lines of men eager to penetrate their bodies.
These myths—or disinterest—harden our indifference to the pain and dehumanization that prostitution inflicts. They help us weave fanciful tales of consent and empowered agency, excuses that allow us to anoint men and their institutions with an invented right to sexual access and harassment at any and all cost.
“When I was trapped in a brothel in Ushuaia, the city at the end of the world, I met a sailor from the Spanish Navy, who every night during his stay paid for me. Knowing my desperation to leave that place where my life was at risk every second, he offered me a better one in Spain,” said Alika Kinan, an Argentinian survivor leader.
“Once we arrived in Barcelona, he took every peso I had and brought me to the closest brothel, ‘Mister Dollar’, where the conditions were equally horrific and worse, since my slave owner was now sleeping next to me.”
While Prime Minister Sanchez has not yet publicly verbalized a solution to ending the system of prostitution, one key to unlock his goal is at his fingertips in his own party.
Women leaders of the PSOE are advocating for a law known as the Abolitionist, Nordic or Equality Model, that solely decriminalizes people bought and sold in prostitution, offering them services, while targeting sex buyers as perpetrators.
The law, based on human rights, international law, and feminist principles is also a tool to prevent sex trafficking. In 2014, the European Parliament urged its members to enact the Equality Model, recognizing that prostitution was “a violation of human dignity,” and an indelible barrier to attaining gender equality.
Unlike the U.S. socialist party, whose top members rarely miss an opportunity to embrace the sex trade and call for its decriminalization, the PSOE published a feminist manifesto, calling prostitution “one of the cruelest aspects of the feminization of poverty and one of the worst forms of violence against women.”
Susana Ros, a congresswoman for Castelló in eastern Spain and PSOE deputy spokesperson, said that “without prostitution, there is no trafficking,” and so, the legislature should put an end to it. Defining the socialist party as abolitionist, Ros characterized the men who use prostitution “as repugnant as pimps,” and guilty of exploiting women and girls.
Echoing these sentiments, the Spanish feminist movement, one of the strongest in the world, embraces at its core that prostitution, like domestic violence, rape, or sexual assault, is abuse of power, an expression of sexual control, and male supremacy.
In 1999, Sweden was the first country to legally recognize that prostitution squarely fits on the spectrum of male violence against women, which the state vowed to address along with other forms of gender discrimination and unwanted sex. At the same time, since almost every cent the multi-billion-dollar global sex trade generates come from the wallets of sex buyers, Sweden penalizes the purchase of sexual acts, which fuels sex trafficking.
Six countries and one part of the United Kingdom have since followed Sweden, including France, which today has the world’s most comprehensive abolitionist law. France amended not only its criminal code, but eight other laws, including immigration, education, and health, recognizing the high costs of prostitution on society and the political will needed to help prostituted and sex trafficked people rebuild their lives.
In just five years, France’s legal actions against pimps and traffickers have increased by 54% and 8,000 sex buyers were apprehended and fined. The revenue from these penalties have reached 60-80 million Euros, 14 million of which were allocated to the budget that compensates victims and provides them services.
France abolished brothels in 1946 after the government called them a “national humiliation.” For decades, French sex buyers have flocked to Girona, at the Spanish border, known as “the supermarket of sex” where the prostitution of women is ubiquitous under bridges, at roundabouts, and in mega-brothels. At this Franco-Spanish border, the buying of women from Eastern Europe and the Global South is often a sordid rite of passage for young men.
Spanish police launched a campaign informing sex buyers that they are probably consuming a trafficked person. This outreach must go further in educating the public that patronizing prostitution is sexual misconduct, not a guessing game, and that advocating for the same progressive legislation France and other countries enacted is essential toward realizing equality.
Arguments that these laws push prostitution underground or hurt individuals are not based in either fact or reason. Prostitution is chronically visible. Sex buyers find it at their fingertips and children see it on their way to school.
What reigns underground is the unspeakable violence and trauma that prostitution exacts on those purchased in that backroom or parked car—a violence often memorialized by buyers or profiteers with a camera in tow to produce pornography from it all.
Five hundred years ago, Spain, with other European kingdoms, brought to every shore they colonized the institution of prostitution. For centuries, they sold Indigenous and Brown women and girls for sexual gratification and the economic growth of nations. Today, the daughters’ daughters of those forgotten souls are still lined up on the auction blocks of La Jonquera and thousands of other brothels. It’s time for Spain to reconcile these truths and enact the abolitionist law. It’s time to recognize that prostitution is femicide by a million cuts and must end.
About the Author: Taina Bien-Aimé is the Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW)