Sex workers: victims of violence or wage-earners in the sex trade?

Spanish government backs abolitionist model, opposed by those advocating a system with rights and duties for women

5 min
The clubs El Paraíso, closed, and El Infierno del Papiol, in Baix Llobregat, in an image from this week

Barcelona / Santa Coloma de GramenetVictims or wage-earners? To put it very simply, this dichotomy focuses the debate on who and how sex workers should be treated, whether as women who are victims of an unequal system that puts a price on their bodies or women who freely decide to earn money with their sex. For Janet, spokesperson for Putas Libertarias del Raval and Putas Indignadas, "everyone chooses which part of their body they want to work with" while, in contrast, Amelia Tiganus, a former sex worker, rejects that it is a job because she says that if you take money out of the equation you would have to talk about rape. 

These two positions define the majority models around the regularisation of sex work, reactivated with the recent announcement by the Spanish president, Pedro Sánchez, that in this legislature there will be a specific law that will put an end to the historical illegality. 

Prostitution has been one of the major issues that no government has dared to tackle and, in more than 40 years of democracy, it continues to be in legal and social limbo. Local councils have tried to fill this vacuum with ordinances that, although it is not an illegal activity, penalise women - male sex work is residual and even more invisible - and, without any other official recognition, the Penal Code punishes those who profit from the buying and selling of sex - be it voluntary or forced - and the so-called gag law allows sex workers to be fined for exhibiting themselves in the street.

Sánchez's announcement

The Spanish president has set himself up as a defender of the abolitionist model, which is reflected in the legislation of pioneering Sweden and France and which is based on penalties for the client. Far from bringing calm, Sánchez's announcement has further muddied a debate that has always been ill-considered and almost devoid of nuance. There is a broad consensus on the need to include prostitution in a legal framework. Full stop. In the face of the abolitionist path stands the regulationist one, adopted by Germany or the Netherlands, which grants rights and also duties to sex workers. The left and feminism are on one side or the other, in a further demonstration of how far apart their positions are. And in the background, the complaint of sex workers, who insist that they feel ignored and threatened, despite the fact that they are the protagonists.

To understand the controversy it is necessary to know the arguments. Abolitionism does not mean the prohibition or outlawing of prostitution, but rather, through policies and social benefits, the aim is, on the one hand, to give sex workers alternatives to stop. On the other hand, the aim is to discourage demand, especially among young people, by means of sex-educational plans. "Without pimps, there will be no sex work", proclaim its advocates. 

Amelia Tiganus spent five years in 40 brothels and when she got out, "thanks to therapy and feminism", she says, she has become an activist for the abolitionist cause, arguing that "most sex workers are not sex workers of their own free will" and that no democratic country can tax women "for being penetrated by mouth, vagina and anus" or in clubs that she calls "concentration camps for women".

The dirtiness of money

Along the same lines, Mexican Rita María Hernández, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Rescue Freedom International, affirms that prostitution does not fit "the definition of dignified work, of equity or equality" because money is "a point of power, of authority over women" that enshrines "whoever pays, rules". As a matter of principle, abolitionists believe that sex work is basically nourished by women trapped in poverty, violence and structural inequalities, irregular immigration and exploitation and trafficking networks. So consent is really "subjugation" and is invalidated by the potential vulnerability of sex workers, Tiganus points out. 

Hernández and Tiganus recently coincided in a conference organised by the International Abolitionist School, based in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, a city that defines sex workers as victims of male violence and as such benefit from "the feminist approach" that is made in the process of recovery and accompaniment when they ask for help, explains Maribel Cárdenas, director of the area of Equality and of the La Ciba space. 

In Navarre they have taken a step in this direction and since 2017 they have been supporting sex workers who want to quit, regardless of whether their situation is irregular. Thus, they are offered a financial benefit, training courses and assistance, says Alicia Giménez García, co-founder of the association Acción Contra la Trata (Action Against Trafficking). The activist assures that with "opportunities and protection" most women do not want to continue working, however, as Hernández insists, if a country is committed to abolitionism, it has to make social investments. "Otherwise the law will not work", she points out, while assuring that in abolitionist countries, human trafficking and exploitation "has dropped to manageable levels" and at the same time, sex workers feel "empowered to denounce the client who violates them because they know that the law protects them".

Free choice

In the ranks of regulationism, sex workers are wage-earners in an activity that must be regulated on an equal footing as any other. For the moment, the Supreme Court recognises the statutes of the union Otras. Conxa Borrell, secretary general of this organisation, reproaches that Sánchez's proposal will leave all sex workers marginalised. "It doesn't matter if they are in a club or work as self-employed and rent a room", she says, since the intention is to prohibit the profit from prostitution by punishing the renting of spaces, thanks to the recovery of the figure of "third party renting".

Almost on the verge of retirement, Janet from Putas Libertarias del Raval criticises the "hypocrisy of the state" for "pushing sex workers even further underground" in order to attack "the weakest link" in the business, without daring to tackle "transversal" problems that punish "the working class". She refers to the "capitalist and colonialist system" that ignores migrant women, who are left without rights due to the harshness of the law on foreigners, or the great precariousness of work. "I am a sex worker. My money is well regarded but not my profession", says Janet, who says that they are called victims "because they are poor or migrants".

At first, Janet combined sex work with a "normative job". All in all, 40 years of work and a heritage that guarantees her good years, she admits, because in her experience in prostitution, there is a majority of free women who enter to "round off their income" or "reconcile with their family".

For Mercè Meroño, president of the Fundació Àmbit Prevenció, abolitionism is wrong to approach the issue as a "moralistic" debate, denying rights to self-employed women or forgetting about migrant women. "How do they plan to legislate with their backs turned to the women themselves?", she asks.

The figures are also ammunition for the battle between the two sides because even the official ones are pure estimates: 80% of the 300,000 to 400,000 sex workers in the state come from human trafficking and exploitation, figures that neither Meroño nor the two leaders of the sex workers believe and maintain that the vast majority work of their own free will. Nor does Mariona Llobet, lecturer in Criminal Law at the UPF, take them for granted and calls for more public policies to make clients aware that they are "buying bodies" under the laws "of patriarchal society". For the specialist, it is a mistake to want to "abolish through criminal law", which already punishes pimping and exploitation, and warns that consumers who sense that the sex worker is a forced victim will not report it for fear of reprisals. "There are hardly any clients who report it", replies Hernández.