Prostitution in Spain, a multi-billion dollar business on the brink of prohibition?

by Deborah Cater
Prostitution in Spain - ban or regulate?

Spain is the largest European ‘consumer’ of prostitution and third in the world. The government plans to ban or at least regulate this multi-billion dollar business. How much money is actually involved per year?

At the moment, prostitution is not illegal and neither is running a brothel. Former First Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo had a thick red line on ending prostitution. Days before she recently left the government, Calvo expressed a desire to see paid sex abolished during this term of office.

‘Oldest slavery in the world’

Calvo also could not endorse the saying ‘prostitution is the oldest profession in the world’ and called it ‘the oldest slavery’ in the world. To underline her view, she added, “that anyone who thinks otherwise should instruct their daughters to do a master’s degree in prostitution.” She pointed out the vast majority – the Spanish government previously estimated at least 90% – of prostitutes are victims of exploitation. The question now is whether with Calvo’s departure, the ban on prostitution in Spain will also be postponed.

Calvo left the door ajar, revealing the existence of “a draft plan”. She urged Irene Montero, as Equality Minister, to support and take over her mission to ban prostitution in Spain.

Beyond the limits of legality

Only in Thailand and Puerto Rico is more prostitution consumed than in Spain, according to a 2011 UN report. Yet prostitution is an almost invisible business, comfortably installed outside the confines of legality. The opacity of this black market makes it difficult to fathom. Therefore, it is virtually impossible to reliably assess the vast amounts of money involved every day. Capital Radio made an attempt.

Contribution of prostitution in Spain

According to the UN, prostitution is the second most lucrative business in the world, moving about $108 billion annually. In Spain, the only approximation comes from INE (2018). The statistical office has been studying – under European regulations – the contribution of prostitution and related activities to the national GDP for a few years now.

In 2018, prostitution represented 0.35% of GDP, which is more than €4 billion. These figures are still insignificant compared to the billions that disappear in the underground economy.

300,000 prostitutes

Before the pandemic, there were more than 1,200 brothels in the country. The activities of those brothels were equally divided between urban centres and outlying areas. More than a thousand prostitutes work in the Colonia de Marconi (Madrid) or the Raval district (Barcelona) alone. Over the entire national territory, it is estimated that the number rises to 300,000 prostitutes.

There are many reasons why Spain has become a hot spot, but according to insiders, the biggest factor is cultural. The sex trade in Spain is an extreme manifestation of the country’s problematic attitude towards women and sex. The demand for prostitution has become so large and normalised it is seen as another form of leisure activity.

A 2008 survey found 78% of Spaniards view prostitution as an inevitability in modern society. And the demand is huge. Another study, conducted in 2006, found that nearly 40% of Hispanic men over the age of 18 had paid for sex at least once in their lives. Only in Cambodia, Thailand and Italy was that percentage higher.

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Human trafficking

Prostitution is a highly profitable business whose profits are distributed among very few persons. Owners of human trafficking organizations usually make the most.

With that knowledge, the success of the sector in Spain means the country is also one of the main destinations for trafficking in women in the world. A sexual ‘paradise’ not too far from home for Europe’s neighbours.

The pandemic was not an obstacle. According to the United Nations, the Covid-19 crisis has prompted thousands of unemployed people to turn to prostitution in search of quick money, as terrible as that sounds.

Abolish or regulate?

The eternal debate is also in Spain – should prostitution be abolished or regulated? A widespread line of thought advocates regulation of the sector. In Spanish politics there is an example. Faced with the tendency of the PSOE and PP to ban the slavery side of prostitution, Ciudadanos would rather see the state move into the sector, while regulating the situation so that everyone within it can exercise their freedom without coercion.

If the provision of sexual services is regularised by, for example, applying VAT on sexual acts, the Spanish treasury can collect billions of euros annually. In addition, proponents of this approach predict an increase in prices for customers with the consequent decrease in the total number of customers.

In practice, the lower consumption would reduce the number of prostitution places in the country and thus the illegal trade in foreign prostitutes in Spain. Examples of such an approach are Germany, the Netherlands or France.

Approach like Sweden?

The line the government is now drawing is more like that of Swedish politics. In Stockholm, the number of prostitutes has fallen by two-thirds and the number of clients by 80% over the past 20 years. How? Authorities there consider prostitution as another aspect of male violence against women and children. For example, the entire judicial system is crusading against men who, in their eyes, exploit women as soon as they hire their services.

A similar strategy could be adopted by the Spanish Ministry of Equality. A joint action in close cooperation with Justice, now in the hands of Pilar Llop (a judge who specialises in gender violence).

At the moment, based on the Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana (2015), authorities only hunt customers who pay for sex on public roads and in parks or schools where minors can circulate or where there is an obvious danger to road safety.

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