Spain tries ‘Swedish model’ to address prostitution’s legal limbo

Socialist government is drafting a bill targeting the demand side, with punishment for those who purchase sex

The entrance to a brothel in Castilla-La Mancha.
The entrance to a brothel in Castilla-La Mancha.Cristóbal Manuel

The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) is drafting a sweeping bill to address the legal limbo affecting prostitution, which is neither regulated or criminalized in this country.

Experts estimate that Spain has a €3.7 billion sex industry

Spain’s governing party wants to penalize clients and those who provide apartments for prostitution activities. The sex workers themselves would not be targeted in any way, as they would be regarded as victims. The bill is inspired by the abolitionist model pioneered by Sweden (see side box).

Under the terms of the new legislation, “gentlemen’s clubs” – there are an estimated 1,500 in Spain, or three for every hospital – would be shut down through court orders.

The new law seeks to disincentivize demand by outlawing the purchase of sex. It also considers human trafficking for sex exploitation to be a form of gender violence.

Several models

The Swedish model. Sweden was a pioneer of the abolitionist model with a 1999 law that penalizes clients with as much as one-year prison sentences. In 2016, France introduced fines for people who purchase sex. In Finland, the client is punished if the prostitute is the victim of a trafficking ring. Other countries that go after the client include Iceland, South Africa, Canada, South Korea, Singapore and Northern Ireland.

The Dutch model. The Netherlands has opted for a regulation model, and prostitution has been considered a job since 2000. Brothel owners pay taxes and pay social security contributions for their sex workers. Germany adopted a similar model in 2002 with the aim of improving women's working conditions and avoiding stigmatization. The United Nations and the European Parliament consider that these goals have not been met.

Spain and Italy. Prostitution is not regulated and is therefore neither legal nor illegal, although the Spanish criminal code does consider pimping a crime. Several cities have their own bylaws setting out fines for both clients and prostitutes.

Hungary. The government has taken a prohibitionist approach. Prostitution is illegal and sex workers bear the brunt of the punishment, which includes prison sentences for those working in "protected zones." Clients are only targeted it they accept sex with minors.

Experts estimate that Spain has a €3.7 billion sex industry; last year the police identified 13,000 women in anti-trafficking raids and said that “at least 80% of them were being sexually exploited.”

Government sources said that the bill is still at a preliminary stage, and that there are three versions under consideration. The 50-page document that this newspaper had access to includes 93 articles and several additional provisions that would modify half a dozen existing laws and codes, including the Criminal Procedure Law and the Criminal Code.

The overarching idea behind the initiative is to protect victims by “eradicating prostitution because of its close ties with human trafficking for sexual exploitation purposes.”

The draft document also considers creating a fund to compensate victims of trafficking.

Several sources told EL PAÍS that the government wants to incorporate feedback from groups and associations that work closely with prostitutes.

The PSOE heads a minority government, and in order to secure congressional approval for its initiative, it will need additional support from 92 deputies to add to its own 84 lawmakers.


The Spanish executive is adopting an abolitionist approach, but sources admitted that there is an ongoing debate within the party on whether the bill should focus on trafficking for sex exploitation, or target trafficking in general. There is also a division of opinion on whether to include the word “prostitution” in the title of the act.

The preliminary draft considers several other forms of human exploitation, including forced labor, slavery, mendicity, organ extraction and forced marriages.

Prostitution remains a divisive issue in Spain. In August, the first sex workers’ union, OTRAS, was registered with the Labor Ministry, but in November the High Court struck down its bylaws, considering that its activities cannot be the object of a valid work contract.

English version by Susana Urra.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS