Words by Jordi Jon Pardo and Aleix Pujadas
In Barcelona, there are around 2,735 prostitutes according to official figures and, as Paula Ezkerra, one of their number said in a conference this April, “[they] want to have their own voice”.
The Spanish sex workers collective is determined to take a step forward. Ezkerra and her colleagues are trying to improve their rights and public opinion with the creation of a trade union for prostitutes in the capital city of Catalonia.
Prostitution in the United Kingdom is not illegal, when it comes to the simple act of exchanging sexual activities for money is not forbidden. People are allowed to both sell and pay for sex (except in Northern Ireland where the situation is slightly different). However, many of the things associated with it are illegal, such as trying to find clients in the street, running a brothel or pimping.
Other European countries, like Germany and Holland, have regulated prostitution. In those states, it is considered a legitimate job and it is allowed to work for oneself or another person. Therefore, the client pays an amount of money to the prostitute for the services she has done and therefore is allowed to defray social security costs and pay contributions like the rest of the workers.
In Spain, the exercise of prostitution is unregulated but not illegal.
If a person decides to work as a prostitute, he or she is not punished by the Spanish law. Nevertheless, prostution is banned “in areas of public transit, near places frequented by minors (schools, parks …) or in areas that may create a risk for road safety”, according to the Spanish Citizen Security Law, which imposes fines for this “serious offence”. Also, there are some kinds of sex work that are banned in Spain such as prostitution of minors, forced prostitution or profiting from the sex work of others.
The secretary for equality at the trade union Spanish General Union of Workers (UGT), Eva Gajardo, explains that people who exercise prostitution “can’t be considered employees”, for the simple reason that prostitution is not registered as a job under Spanish law. The question to be discussed, for Gajardo, is whether the society or the state should consider the prostitution a job like any other.
A study by Pontificia Comillas University (Madrid) in 2016 found that 20% of Spanish men had paid for some type of sexual service the year before. The same research also claims that 10% of these users had seen minors exercising prostitution, but they did nothing about it.
The latest official data on sex work in Barcelona is found in the “Report on prostitution in Barcelona” published in 2014 and made by the council of the city. Of the 2,735 female sex workers in the city, 355 are on the street, 1,000 in private properties or hotels and 1,380 in brothels.
Nearly half of them are victims of human trafficking. The exploiters do not always exercise violence or intimidation against sex workers: rather, the coercion is linked to situations of precariousness that prostitutes are subjected to. These pressures lead them to practice sex work as the only way out.
El Raval is the gateway to Barcelona’s prostitution, the neighbourhood next to Las Ramblas also known as the heart of the city’s edgy art hub, attitude, and street life that attracts cosmopolitan crowds. “Nobody dreams of being a prostitute,” says Paula Ezkerra, one of the prostitutes and figureheads of “Prostitutas Indignadas”, a platform that calls for spaces where prostitution can be used to improve working conditions and neighbourhood coexistence in El Raval.
Another spokeswoman of the “Prostitutas Indignadas” platform, a 54-year-old woman called Janet who has been a sex worker for more than thirty years, complains about precariousness and harassment on the streets of Barcelona. The Civic Ordinance of the city approved in 2012 fines of 3000 euros for those who exercised street prostitution. It was approved by Barcelona conservative mayor Xavier Trias (CiU) with the support of the also conservative party PP. However, the current mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau (Barcelona en Comú), has reduced the pressure on sex workers by avoiding punishing them.
Janet points to a 2017 case in which a client killed a sex worker. Though the killer turned himself in to the police and is now in prison, “Prostitutas Indignadas” demonstrated for hours in Raval because it was not treated as murder by many politicians and the press. Janet complains that the mass media focussed on the work of the murdered woman, and not simply that she died as a consequence of gender violence. “We are helpless in many ways that extend far beyond labour rights”, she says.
The idea of coming up with the first trade union to claim the “labour and vital” rights of sex workers was in 2015 in Barcelona. Various associations of prostitutes have already created the Catalan Assembly of Pro-Rights Activists on Sex Work and announced that the CUP, a left political party of the Catalan pro-independence movement, has given them political formation related to the prostitution to pull the project forward. In September 2017, the CUP helped them to occupy a house in El Raval so the sex workers of “Prostitutas Indignadas” had a place to meet and help each other.
Janet admits that one of the problems of the Spanish labour unions is the lack of feminist perspective. “The trade union is a project that we have been trying to put together for years, but sex work has never been recognized by popular unions like UGT or the CNT (National Confederation of Labour) because they are mostly made up of men”. One of the reasons that Eva Gajardo (UGT) argues is that prostitution, for them, does not contribute positively to society, and that is why prostitutes should not be able to come up with a union that defends his rights because it turns out a paradox at all.
However, both Janet and Ezkerra remain predisposed to unify and defend the oldest profession in the world, and either sex work might disappear or could be formally regulated in many modern states these years. Spain, specifically Barcelona, is the paradigm of a revolution and counter-revolution that has been taking place for decades and seems that we are witnessing the end of unregulated prostitution to become legal and illegal at the same time.
INSIDE BARCELONA’S BROTHELS
Words by Jorge Bernal, Joan Bonavila, Ricard Julià, Pep Ribera, Pablo Vilasanjuan
It is six in the evening; we enter the Basinger club, a typical Barcelona brothel. We introduce ourselves to girl “Y”. She is from Bolivia, and from the first day that she stepped on Spain, she has been in a precarious situation, without the papers needed to work legally.
When she arrived, she started to work in different kinds of jobs, first as a cleaning lady, then as a babysitter and after as a waitress, but the poor economic conditions in which she was living in pushed her into the world of prostitution: “I don’t have papers, I have lived here for 15 years and still have not got them. And without them, I cannot work in what I really want, so there isn’t another solution for me. I searched over the Internet and by chance, I was introduced to this world”.
The women who work in the Basinger Club get half of what the punters spend on drinks there. “This is one of the best things. I don’t have to take my customers to bed every time, as I already earn money from the drinks they have, so ever since I arrived here, my conditions have improved. Customers are not always looking for sex. Many times they just want to disconnect for a while and talk with us” claims “Y”.
Angel, the owner of the Basinger, explains that his role in the process is simply as an intermediary: he makes rooms available, supplies condoms and charges the women rent – it is up to them what they charge for their services.
“Women who directly work in the business set their prices and when a customer comes and asks me I tell them to directly ask them.” What each woman earns in total depends on the number of clients they have per night. If, for example, we are talking about five customers per night, that means a minimum revenue of €200 and maximum of €1,300.
“Y” says that, above all, she “would like people to see me as a woman who works in something normal, like any other normal job”. Moreover she considers that regulation of this practice would help in both her work and personal life in the long term: “I would pay taxes, I would already have my papers. I would benefit in many aspects, but above all I would have been paying taxes for a long time and would not have to hide from the Ministry of Finance”.
Angel says that brothel owners do their best to establish fair rates and to maintain discretion for their customers. He argues that the regulation of prostitution would not only be a breakthrough for women but for society as well: “They are taking a long time to legalise prostitution. I’ve always been a supporter of regulation. We are talking about the oldest profession in the world and it should to be regulated. They are not just prostitutes. Some believe that they live for drugs, that they don’t want to work. That is not so. They come from different countries. Their situation is not good and sometimes they are forced to end up in this world. But they must have the right to be registered, to have a contract of employment, to pay taxes…”
Other European countries take different approaches.
In Sweden, it is illegal to buy sexual services, but not to sell the use of one’s own body for such services. Running a brothel is legal, too. In the Netherlands, the practice of prostitution is permitted and women have their job regulated with schedules, unions, and contracts of employment, in addition to good working conditions and protected areas to carry out their work.
There philosophy is that customers are paying for a service, and that women must be free to do with their bodies what they wish, and of course always in the best possible conditions.
Across the continent there is a debate about whether prostitution should be legal. There are some who, knowing the dangers that women are exposed to, want to regulate the job to improve their conditions and. But there are others who wish to fully abolish it.
What is clear is that prostitution should not be a stain on such a dazzling city as Barcelona. Should it be allowed provided that it is regulated? Should we turn a blind eye because it is an activity that will always be present? Should we eradicate it because it is an affront to women’s dignity?
Having spoken with the protagonists of this business, what is clear is that regulation would increase the health checks on the sex workers and also help create employment contracts with the same conditions that other professions have. On top of that, regulation would mean that these workers would be at the same level as any other worker in this country.
LIFE ON THE STREETS OF BARCELONA
Words by Marc Alsius, Jorge Enriquez and Clara Pi
One of the worst human rights viol ations that sex workers face involves extortion and coercion by “mafias”.
This is what Irina (not her real name), from Nigeria, says. She contacted people who, at the initial moment of her migration, cheated and extorted her. The National Police, which say that around 90% of sex workers in Spain are victims of exploitation by trafficking networks.
The restrictions on migration to developed countries are the main cause of the increase in trafficking networks. The need for paid work, subsistence and the search for a better quality of life are the general causes that motivate the displacement.
This is what Irina reaffirms when she is asked about why she decided to come to Spain knowing the risks that the trip could entail: “I was looking for freedom, Spain is a free world with a lot of work and good life, they told me”.
To start the process of migrating, economic resources are necessary (€40.000 approx) so all the women build up debts they will probably never be able to repay. “They are not aware of the value 40.000€”, says Mar Creixell, social educator.
These mafias provide the women with false documentationand promise them work in bars as waitresses, as social workers for the elderly or, in the domestic sphere. But once they arrive in the country of origin, they find a very different reality. To guarantee the payment of the debt, they are coerced with threats to their family back home or with voodoo rituals.
Irina came to Spain by from Nigeria via Morocco and she says she was sure she was about to lose her life countless times in the attempt to reach Europe: “I ask God every day, I don’t want to die, I have to give food my family”.
The intermediary who arranged the trip cheated her, assuring her a job in a factory on the outskirts of Barcelona, when in reality, she was taken to a brothel on the road where she was forced into prostitution.
In Barcelona women like Irina are to be found in the streets, squares or parking lotss where they offer their services. In most of the cases, it is the clients who, through eye contact or direct approach, come to inquire about the price and the services.
Irina ensures that she doesn’t pursue her clients: “I sit in a bank with my phone. If any man comes near me and he looks at me I tell him how much I charge and that’s it”. However, some women follow men and offer their services much more directly, a response to the pressures and debts they face from their “superiors”.
If there is prostitution is because there are men who resort to their services. They think that by paying for a service they are entitled to everything. “The culture reifyies the women, turns them into objects” explain Mar Creixell, and adds “currently there is a legal vacuum”.
The current government is trying to achieve guaranteed minimum human rights for sex workers: health care rights, training, employment. For example, through the SAS (Socioeducational Care Service) they have organized street teams that work at night in the different neighborhoods of Barcelona to promote access to these rights. “There are a lot of women working on the street and they don’t know what is the health care, we take care to explain to them how it works and what are the methods to get it, we accompany them during all the process”, explain the social educator Mar Creixell. They are also provided with a space to have a decent room or to access social services even though they don’t have a passport.