FORTY kilometers from Madrid, silhouettes of dancing girls adorning the facade of the dark, shabby brick Olimpo are designed to lure punters off the highway for a wild night of booze and sex.
In 1999, the same facility was used to detain 40 girls trafficked from Romania who were in the care of clients of Madrid’s Casa de Campo. The Spanish owner was arrested with his acolytes, his activities reduced. But, 23 years later, the Olimpo is still going strong.
One of 1,200 motorway brothels in Spain, the Olimpo is registered as a nightclub. Others are registered as hotels. Prostitution is a legal gray area on the Peninsula.
Some areas have more of these clubs than others, such as the so-called Love Route on the N 301 between Cuenca and Cartagena, where a 14 kilometer stretch has eight such establishments. Then there’s the Mediterranean Prostitution Corridor, a term coined by University of Valencia sociologist Antonio Ariño that runs from Cadiz to Girona, where every postcode has a brothel, either in the form of a sex club. motorway or a more clandestine hotel, massage parlor or apartment.
A large number of Spanish men have paid for sex, at least once in their lives. In 2008, the Spanish Center for Sociological Investigation (CIS) put this figure at 32.1% compared to 11% of British men and 14% of Americans. In 2011, the UN increased Spain’s figure to 39%, earning the country its reputation as the brothel of Europe.
Data from Ariño’s 2017-2021 study of the Valencia region found that between 4% and 6% of Spanish men had had sex in the past year, compared to 1% of Americans and , over the past five years, 3.6% of Britons. Ariño thinks his data probably applies to all of Spain.
There’s no doubt that brothels are doing a booming business in Spain, worth 3.7 billion euros annually, but if the government has its way, the peninsula’s days as a sex trade hotbed could be accounts. The abolition bill, which is expected to be approved as early as October, will fine customers and eventually close establishments like the Olimpo, punishing anyone profiting from prostitution except the prostitutes themselves, including landlords knowingly renting premises for prostitution.
It seems desirable. One could even think “it was time”. But the proposal is not without detractors, especially among prostitutes themselves.
Vera, a sex worker from Eastern Europe, has worked in 12 different countries, including Sweden and Norway, both of which have opted for abolition. She thinks the new law will simply push more women in her profession into the hands of the mafias.
“If you want to get rid of abuse in the industry, you have to decriminalize it totally so that the police become our friends and protect us,” she told The Olive Press. “If they pass the law, we’re more likely to go to customers’ homes and you never know what might be waiting for you there. There could be five men instead of one. And in the street, we won’t have time to filter out unwanted customers.
Vera adds that she won’t be able to report any violence in her own apartment for fear of being evicted. “That’s what’s happening in Sweden and Norway,” she says. “Crimes are not investigated.”
Vera worked in clubs and apartments. Some, she admits, force sex workers to perform oral sex without condoms and require 12-hour shifts. But now she is independent and content with her situation.
“Working conditions are good in Spain and the police don’t bother us. Nowhere could be worse than my own country,” she says, refusing to reveal her name, but explaining that since prostitution is illegal there, the police tend to ask for free sex or a bribe in return. to close your eyes.
Fuensanta Gual of CATS, an association in Murcia which lobbies for the rights of sex workers, argues that since the sector operates more or less above the radar in Spain, the authorities are at least able to offer minimal protection.
“The police carry out inspections in Spanish clubs from time to time, looking for victims who have been forced into prostitution and also check for abuse or abusive conditions,” she told Olive Press. “If the clubs are closed, women will be even more at the mercy of abusive elements because they will have no other choice. Ironically, they will not have the protection of the law. They will not only be beyond the reach of the police but also beyond the reach of the associations that support them.
Gual is not convinced that Spain is the brothel of Europe. She cites a survey in which 400 Germans were asked if they had ever paid for sex. The findings were void. “It’s statistically impossible,” she said. “Here in Spain, men are more likely to admit it.”
Gual agrees there could be a connection between this openness and the explosion of eroticism, known as destapé, that followed the Franco dictatorship’s sexual repression when bus tours carried Spaniards from the across the border to France to watch Bertolucci’s Last Tango in 1972 in Paris.
Destapé translates to both ‘nudity’ and ‘openness’, and sex was the order of the day during the Movida of the 1980s – to the extent that even the former king, Juan Carlos I, would have enjoyed the company. high class prostitutes. , “perhaps indicating the kind of society he lived in,” Gual observes.
But Rocio Mora is furious that prostitution is in no way equated with liberal attitudes. Spokesperson for the pro-abolitionist association APRAMP which deals with abused sex workers, she says: “It is neither liberal nor progressive to pay for sex. Some of the women I date are so psychologically damaged that they can’t even talk about what the industry has done to their bodies and their lives.
Moreover, Mora does not believe that Vera’s case is representative of women selling sex in Spain. But Vera points out: “There are no current statistics on trafficking in Spain. The government says it based the act on a recent study, but there is no recent study. It does not exist.
The proportion of sex workers who are trafficked or exploited is far from clear. Valencian sociologist Ariño believes that when the National Police’s Organized Crime Unit claimed there were 45,000 prostitutes in Spain, the figure most likely referred to those trafficked or exploited in some way or other. ‘another one. He estimates that there are between 100,000 and 120,000 sex workers in total, just like Gual.
Medicos del Mundo puts the total number of sex workers at 350,000, and spokeswoman Celia López says around 93% of them are foreigners. “Thirty years ago, they were Spanish women with a drug or alcohol problem. Now its immigrants. But what they all have in common is a precarious socio-economic situation,” she told Olive Press.
According to López, the proliferation of pornography in Spain stimulates the demand for commercial sex and normalizes it. Abolition can only work, she believes, if accompanied by a massive awareness campaign, signaling that those who pay for sex drive demand and inevitably participate in exploitation and trafficking. .
“If we don’t address the situation,” Esther Torrado, a sociologist at La Laguna University in Tenerife and an expert on sexual violence, tells Olive Press, “we will end up becoming a nation of waiters and whores.”