FORTY kilometres outside Madrid, figures of dancing girls adorning the front of the seedy dark brick Olimpo are designed to lure punters off the motorway for a wild night of booze and sex.
In 1999, the same establishment was used to lock up 40 girls trafficked from Romania who were being farmed out to clients in Madrid’s Casa de Campo. The Spanish owner was arrested along with his cronies, his activities curtailed. But, 23 years on, the Olimpo is still going strong.
One of 1,200 highway brothels in Spain, the Olimpo is registered as a nightclub. Others are registered as hotels. Prostitution is a legal grey area on the Peninsula.
Some regions boast more of these clubs than others, such as the so-called Love Route on the N·301 between Cuenca and Cartagena, where a 14-kilometre stretch has eight such establishments. Then there is the Mediterranean Corridor of Prostitution, a term coined by Valencia University sociologist Antonio Ariño goes from Cadiz to Girona, where every postcode has a brothel, either in the shape of a highway club or hotel, massage parlour or more clandestine apartment.
A large number of Spanish men have paid for sex, at least once in their lives. In 2008, Spain’s Centre for Sociological investigation (CIS) put the figure at 32.1% compared to 11% of British men and 14% of Americans. In 2011, the UN hiked Spain’s figure to 39%, earning the country its reputation as the brothel of Europe.
Data emerging from Ariño’s 2017-2021 study of the Valencian region found between 4% and 6% of Spanish men had had sex in the past year compared to 1% of Americans and, in the last five years, 3.6% of Brits. Ariño believes his data probably applies to Spain as a whole.
There’s no doubt that brothels do a roaring trade in Spain, said to be worth an annual €3.7 billion, but if the government has its way, the Peninsula’s days as a hotbed of commercial sex could be numbered. The abolition draft law which is forecast to be approved as early as October, will slap fines on clients and finally close the likes of the Olimpo down, punishing anyone profiting from prostitution, apart from the prostitutes themselves, including landlords knowingly renting premises for prostitution.
It sounds desirable. One might even think, “about time.” But the proposal is not without its detractors, not least among the 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 believes 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 sector, you have to decriminalize it totally so that the police become our friends and protect us,” she tells The Olive Press. “If they pass the law, we’re more likely to go to the clients’ homes and you never know what could be waiting for you there. There could be five men instead of one. And on the street, there won’t be time to filter out undesirable clients.”
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. “The crimes aren’t being investigated.”
Vera has worked in both clubs and apartments. Some, she admits, force the sex workers to perform oral sex without a condom and demand 12-hour shifts. But, now she’s independent and content with her situation.
“The working conditions are fine in Spain and the police don’t bother us. Nowhere could be worse than my own country,” she says, refusing to reveal its name, but explaining that as prostitution is illegal there, the police tend to ask for free sex or a bribe in exchange for turning a blind eye.
Fuensanta Gual from CATS, an association in Murcia that lobbies for sex worker rights, argues that, given that the sector operates more or less above the radar in Spain, the authorities are at least able to offer a modicum of protection.
“The police carry out inspections in Spain’s clubs from time to time, looking for victims who have been forced into prostitution and also checking on abuse or abusive conditions,” she tells the Olive Press. “If the clubs are closed down, the women will be even more at the mercy of abusive elements as they won’t have any other option. Ironically, they won’t have the protection of the law. They’ll not only be out of reach of the police but also out of reach of the associations who 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 zero. “That’s statistically impossible,” she says. “Here, in Spain, men are more likely to admit it.”
Gual agrees that there could be a link between this openness and the explosion of eroticism, known as the destapé, that followed the sexual repression of the Franco dictatorship when bus tours shipped Spaniards across the border into France to watch Bertolucci’s 1972 Last Tango in Paris.
Destapé translates as both “nudity” and “opening up,” and sex was high on the agenda during the 1980s Movida – to the extent that even the former king, Juan Carlos I, is alleged to have enjoyed the company of high-class hookers, “indicative perhaps of the kind of society he lived in,” observes Gual.
But Rocio Mora is incensed that prostitution should in any way be equated with liberal attitudes. A spokeswoman from the pro-abolitionist association APRAMP that attends to sex workers suffering abuse, she says, “It’s not liberal or progressive to pay for sex. 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 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 has based the law on a recent study but there is no recent study. It doesn’t exist.”
The proportion of sex workers trafficked or exploited is far from clear. Valencian sociologist Ariño believes that when the national police’s organised crime unit claimed there were 45,000 prostitutes in Spain, the figure most likely referred to those trafficked or exploited in some way. He reckons there are between 100,000 and 120,000 sex workers in total, as does Gual.
Medicos del Mundo puts the total figure of sex workers much higher at 350,000, and spokeswoman Celia López says around 93% of these are foreign. “Thirty years ago, it was Spanish women with a drug or alcohol problem. Now its immigrants. But what they all have in common is a precarious social/ economic situation,” she tells the Olive Press.
In López’s view, the proliferation of pornography in Spain is driving the demand for commercial sex and normalizing it. Abolition can only work, she believes, if accompanied by massive awareness campaign, flagging up the fact that those paying for sex are boosting demand and inevitably buying into the exploitation and trafficking.
“If we don’t address the situation,” Esther Torrado, sociologist at Tenerife’s La Laguna University and an expert in sexual violence, tells the Olive Press, “we’ll end up a nation of waiters and whores.”