28 Oct, 2021 @ 13:37
3 mins read

EXPLAINER: The sex industry in Spain and why PM Pedro Sanchez wants to ban prostitution

sex worker photo by John Twohig /flickr
sex worker photo by John Twohig /flickr

IT MAY be the oldest profession in the world, but Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez pledged on Sunday to criminalise prostitution in Spain insisting the time has come to put an end to a practice that “enslaves” women.

The sex industry in Spain 

Spain holds the title of the brothel of Europe after a 2011 study revealed it as the third biggest centre for prostitution in the world behind Thailand and Puerto Rico.

A 2009 survey by the country’s state-owned Social Investigations Centre (CIS) found that one in three Spanish men had paid for sex, while another report published the same year reckoned the figure may be as high as 39%.

It is very hard to provide a definitive number but it is estimated that around 300,000 women work as prostitutes in Spain, and in 2016 the UN estimated the country’s sex industry was worth €3.7bn.

Across Spain there are an estimated 1,500 ‘puticlubs’  – as brothels are known – more than three times the number of hospitals according to a report in El Pais newspaper.

Legal status

 Prostitution was ‘decriminalised’ in Spain in 1995 removing the punishment for those who offer paid sexual services as long as it is not done in public places, although it remains unregulated.

However exploitation such as pimping or brokering paid for sex is illegal under the country’s criminal code and so is forcing people to have sex with others for money.

These laws are designed to combat human trafficking.

Spain’s first sex workers’ union, Organización de Trabajadoras Sexuales (OTRAS) was registered in August 2018 with the Labour Ministry, but in November that year the High Court struck down its bylaws, considering that its activities cannot be the object of a valid work contract.

Regional differences

Prostitute Estepona
Some councils crackdown on street prostitutes while others turn a blind eye.

Local governments differ in their approaches to both indoor and outdoor prostitution, usually in response to community pressure groups, and based on “public safety”

Prostitution is generally  unregulated however the regional government of Catalunya issues licenses for persons “to gather people to practice prostitution” – in effect licenses required by brothel owners to open “clubs”, where prostitution takes place under the agreement that the women themselves gather there to work on the premises but are not employed by the owner.

Some councils have implemented fines for street prostitution.

Why now?

In the last general election Pedro Sanchez’ socialist party (PSOE) included the pledge to outlaw prostitution in what was widely considered a move to attract female voters.

The manifesto labelled prostitution as “one of the cruellest aspects of the feminisation of poverty and one of the worst forms of violence against women”.

The issue has come to the fore again amid growing concerns over the number of women trafficked into sex work.

In 2017 alone, Spanish police identified 13,000 women in anti-trafficking raids, stating that at least 80% of them were being exploited against their will by a third party.

The leftist coalition government supports the abolitionist theory that “There is trafficking because there is prostitution; if there is no prostitution there is no trafficking.”

On Sunday in his closing speech at the end of a three day PSOE party conference in Valencia the PM renewed his pledge.

“Out of this congress emerges a commitment I will implement. We will advance by abolishing prostitution, which enslaves women,” he said.

Prostitution 1920x1465 1


One group which works to help women rescued from exploitation in Spain’s sex industry  has welcomed the move and insists abolition is the only way.

Rocío Mora, the director of Apramp, an NGO which helps protect, help and reintegration women who are in prostitution said: “Abolition is the way, I think. We need to protect women who are sold for sex, who suffer violence and slavery. We need a law which comprehensively criminalizes those who profit from violence against women.”

However, Nacho Pardo, a spokesman for the Committee to Support Sex Workers, CATS, believes banning prostitution will harm the very people it is designed to help.

“This will not eradicate prostitution….it will help the mafias in the same way as happened in the US when prohibited alcohol,” he said in a recent interview with VOA. “I think it will be catastrophic.”


Fiona Govan

Fiona Govan joined The Olive Press in March 2021. She moved to Spain in 2006 to be The Daily Telegraph’s Madrid correspondent and then worked for six years as Editor of The Local Spain. She lives in Madrid’s Malasaña district with her dog Rufus.

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