Linda arrived in Spain 23 years ago after receiving “a tip” that it was a good place to earn money as a sex worker.
Pregnant by a companion who abandoned her in her native Mexico, she was taken in by a sex club in Murcia, on the Mediterranean coast.
“They gave me work and a place to live for me and my daughter when she was born,” she told Euronews. “It’s an option for a lot of immigrant women because they don’t apply for residency papers – or didn’t at the time.”
Linda then worked in various clubs on what is called the Mediterranean Corridor, a term coined by sociologist Antonio Arino claim that prostitution was prevalent in most postcodes that touch the sea, whether in the form of apartments, erotic nightclubs and neon-lit highway hotels.
There are up to 1,200 brothels along Spain’s highways, such as the Olimpo, 40 kilometers from the capital on the A6, which, despite being used to lock up 40 Romanian women trafficked into 1999, still doing a roaring trade.
“I’ve never been abused myself,” Linda said. “The landlords would take advantage of our legal limbo and charge €50 a night for the room, €5 for clean sheets, €5 for a condom. Some insist that you offer oral sex without a condom and others make you work 12-hour shifts. But the great thing about clubs is that if a patron gets weird, the bouncers kick them out.
At one point, Linda had her child taken into care and had to fight to get her back. Now her daughter has grown up and Linda works independently, choosing her hours and her clients. After years of struggle, she has finally organized her life as she wishes.
But that might be short-lived. With the support of the Conservatives, he it seems that the Spanish law on the abolition of prostitution will be enacted perhaps as early as October.
Based on the Nordic model, the legislation aims to black out the gray area occupied by the sex industry in Spain, fines clients and punishes anyone who financially exploits sex workers, including landlords who rent knowingly property for the purpose of prostitution. Sex workers themselves will be considered victims of crime.
“What abolitionists want is to control their husbands and prevent them from using prostitutes,” Linda explains. “The majority of clients who come to see me are married and have families. They are excellent fathers and good husbands, but we offer them a different service. We have such a rigid sexuality in our society that they can’t try these things at home.
Without wasting any time, Linda goes on to say that there is no particular profile for men who pay for sex.
“If you want a client’s profile, just look around,” she says. “It’s the young guy, the husband, the monster, the lonely guy… They talk about violence against us but a lot of them want to be dominated. Sometimes they want to dress up.
The statistics are contradictory and outdated. According to a 2008 study by the Spanish Center for Sociological Investigation (CIS), more than 32.1% of Spanish men have paid to have sex at least once in their life. In 2011, the UN estimated this figure at 39%, which earned Spain its reputation as a European brothel. More recently, sociologist Antonio Ariño from the University of Valencia found that in the region of Valencia, between 4% and 6% of men have paid for sex in the past year. He thinks that figure could apply to the whole country.
But Fuensanta Gual, spokesperson for the anti-abolitionist association CATS, which supports the rights of sex workers, disputes this data.
“There was a study of 400 men in Germany and none of them admitted to paying for sex, which is statistically impossible,” she said. “Here in Spain, men are more likely to admit it.”
This lack of shame among Spanish men, Gual acknowledges, may stem from the explosion of eroticism in the 1980s known as destapé, a reaction against the sexual repression of Franco’s dictatorship. Destapé means both nudity and openness, and so nude scenes and sex, in general, have become synonymous with throwing off the shackles of the regime.
The iconic photo of Madrid Mayor Enrique Tierno Galván presenting an award to topless erotic actress Susana Estrada summed up the mood and became the symbol of democracy reaching Spain.
The 1980s ushered in an era of decadence such that even King Juan Carlos I, now King Emeritus, would have paid for sex, the details of which were written by former Colonel Amadeo Martínez Inglés in his recently published tome , _Juan Carlos 1:_The king of 5000 lovers.
Rocio Mora, of the pro-abolitionist association APRAMP whose mission is to prevent, reintegrate and care for sex workers, believes that the association between political freedom and prostitution is one of the keys to its normalization.
“It’s neither liberal nor progressive to go see a prostitute,” Mora said. “Some of the women I tend to are so psychologically damaged they can’t even talk about what the industry has done to their bodies and their lives.”
The sex industry in Spain is worth around 3.7 billion euros per year, according to various sources, including the Spanish Statistical Office (INE), but there is a significant gap in the statistics regarding the proportion of workers sex trafficked or exploited.
Mora believes that Linda’s case is not representative of the majority of sex workers, but Vera, a sex worker from Madrid from Eastern Europe, points out: “There are no up-to-date statistics on trafficking in Spain. The government says it based the law on a recent study, but it does not exist.
In 2012, the national police’s organized crime wing, CITCO, estimated the number of sex workers in Spain at 45,000 prostitutes, a figure that sociologist Ariño considers to refer to sex workers who are trafficked and/or exploited. CATS’ Gual maintains that trafficking and abuse accounts for only 10% of sex workers, in stark contrast to the government, which puts the figure at between 90% and 95%.
Estimates of the number of sex workers in Spain also vary widely, from the 350,000 of Medico del Mundo to the 100,000 to 120,000 of CATS and Ariño.
Medicos del Mundo treats around 9,000 women a year, 93% of whom are immigrants, half of them without legal status.
“Thirty years ago, it was Spanish women who had drug and alcohol problems,” said spokeswoman Celia López. “Now it’s the immigrants. But what they all have in common is a very precarious economic and social situation.
López believes that the high consumption of pornography among Spaniards is driving the demand for prostitution in Spain and that the bill as it stands will not be effective in reducing the demand unless the penalties are coupled with awareness campaigns.
“Men need to know that if they are consuming commercial sex, they may well be paying a woman who has been trafficked and that makes them complicit in trafficking,” she said.
Vera, who has studied economics and worked in the sex industry in 12 different countries, believes the new law will not only be ineffective, but will push an already shady industry further underground.
“I’ve worked in Sweden, Norway and Iceland where the client is fined and sex work has supposedly been abolished,” she says. “I know very well how this is going to play out – obviously very negatively for us. It will be difficult for any immigrant woman to rent an apartment because the landlords will be afraid of being fined for renting premises for the purpose of prostitution. This means that we will end up in the hands of the mafias.
“We will not be able to report crimes or violence that happens to us in our apartments for fear of being evicted,” she continues. “This is what happens in Norway and Sweden – crimes are not investigated.”
While spokespersons for APRAMP and Medicos del Mundo insist that all prostitutes they have dealt with would jump at the chance for an alternative, Linda, Vera and Maria, an Ecuadorian who works on Calle Montera in Madrid, are all begging to disagree.
“Why don’t they leave us alone?” Linda wants to know. “It’s the white savior complex. They are like the missionaries who went to South America. They want to present us as mentally ill, but we are strong. We had to fight the stigma and make sure it’s understood that we’re not cockroaches, that we’re not going to hide.