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Prostitution: How to regulate its abolition

No other sector is so exposed to blackmail, extorsion, intimidation and physical isolation

The shadow of a sex worker in the Villaverde industrial park in Madrid, in a file photo from 2020.
The shadow of a sex worker in the Villaverde industrial park in Madrid, in a file photo from 2020.DAVID EXPOSITO

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has committed to abolishing prostitution in Spain via a comprehensive law that he is planning to present before his term in office ends. Due to the way that the sector operates and the links it has to organized crime, prostitution has become a destabilizing factor, but above all else, it represents a dramatic situation in the center of societies and for the very human condition.

The terrible rite of passage that used to exist – when so many fathers would celebrate their sons’ coming of age by “taking them whoring” – has now disappeared, but prostitution has become a genuine mass tragedy. Mafia networks control the trafficking of women who are distributed in hangers where they live under lock and key, or in macro-brothels or apartments that move from place to place when they are detected and where exploitation knows no limits, with massive profits for the pimps who trade in human flesh.

In Spain, awareness about this problem has grown in several ways, from public debates where differences of opinion make themselves heard, to debates within the feminist movement with different solutions (ones that are often incompatible) to deal with the problem and even movies and TV shows that show in a new light the drastic problem that exists in the background: available estimates suggest that 80 to 90% of prostitution is controlled by pimps.

Escaping the social hypocrisy that is covering up, whitewashing or trivializing that appalling reality is a crucial step. Spain occupies the top spot in Europe and the third in the world (behind Puerto Rico and Thailand) when it comes to the consumption of prostitution, with an estimated volume of business of €5 million a day, according to figures from the Equality Ministry. Other estimates put the figure at €4 billion a year.

The prostitution industry has seen explosive growth that has taken advantage of being on the margins of the law, sometimes with the blurry complicity of those who should be prosecuting it. The vast majority of prostitutes in Spain are now foreign women without papers, having been recruited in many instances with false job offers and with many forced to prostitute themselves subject to death threats aimed at them or their families. Other factors at play are their extreme vulnerability due to poverty, social exclusion and pure and simple exploitation. No other sector suffers such a complete lack of escape from blackmail, extortion, intimidation and physical isolation.

Nearly all European countries have sought some way to deal with this problem, but none has found a comprehensive solution – probably because none exists. In Germany, it is permitted and regulated, but the same authorities recognize that after reforms in 2017, which saw controls against the trafficking of women toughened up, the clandestine prostitution that is sustained by the exploitation of immigrants grew. Nor have countries that opted for an outright ban managed to eradicate prostitution, such as in Sweden, which has driven down consumption by punishing the client, but has seen the rates of violence against the women rise.

The debate that has been opened by the prime minister’s proposal can serve to set non-negotiable criteria for a society that is adamant about the rights of women, based on that society’s democratic decency, and without excessive moralizing airs nor censorial puritanism. The immense majority of Spanish society likely shares their rejection of the pimp who deals in human flesh, just as the customers of these brothels, apartments and macro-brothels distributed throughout Spain are incompatible with democratic civil standards.

Debate will have to determine how mafia networks can be effectively pursued, if clients should be punished, and what kind of options can be offered to women

Clients may overlook the horror that is behind the lives of the women that they visit, but that does not exonerate them from their role in feeding an industry of miserable exploitation. If these women have no other options, the closure of these places using the law exposes them to a new kind of vulnerability if they are relocated via prostitution networks in other countries.

That lowest common denominator could arrive based on the different current positions – ranging from total abolition to regulation. The Finnish intermediate model combines regulation and abolition with the objective of only punishing the client when dealing with women who are victims of trafficking, while the total abolition option – with Sweden and France as the key protagonists – does not punish the women and offers ways out for prostitutes, instead going after and prosecuting both pimps and clients. This is the model that the governing Socialist Party voted in favor of at its 39th Federal Convention and that has now been ratified, after having promised in 2018 to legislate against human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

The very small proportion of women who work as prostitutes of their own accord, if indeed that phrase can be used in an acceptable manner, allege that this solution would force them underground given that it punishes their clients. In any case, any debate will have to determine how mafia networks can be effectively pursued, if the client of any kind of prostitution should be punished, and what kind of options can be offered to women who manage to break the chain in terms of their future lives and employment.

What cannot continue is the pretense that this problem does not exist. Modifying habits and promoting sex education that avoids the monetization of women are noble objectives, but in the meantime, tens of thousands of women are living devoid of even the most basic protection: they are the ones who are in urgent need of swift action.

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