Spain, the world capital of prostitution?

Europe’s largest brothel has just opened in a land where no fewer than 39 per cent of men admit to visiting sex workers

The Spanish economy may be dangerously close to meltdown this week but one area at least – prostitution – appears to be doing very nicely, thank you.

“Don Jose – cleanliness; Don Jose – discretion; Don Jose – security, and a patrolled car park,” half-whispers the calm female voice on a Granada radio station throughout the day. It is an advertisement for the city’s biggest and best-known brothel.

Cut to a Saturday night inside the said Don Jose “club” – three storeys high, flashing neon lights, two bars, a VIP zone and some 70 sex workers, clad in everything from nightgowns to G-strings to the very briefest of shorts – and, according to local regulars, business is booming. “The place is heaving every weekend,” comments “Alvaro”, an experienced brothel-goer in his late forties. “These days in the afternoons and early evenings, you’ll get businessmen who’ve told their wives they’re at meetings. Then later on, there are hordes of 18- or 19-year-olds, just there to have a laugh and, if they want, have a quick lay as well.”

This is no exaggeration. Prostitution is so popular (and socially accepted) in Spain that a United Nations study reports that 39 per cent of all Spanish men have used a prostitute’s services at least once. A Spanish Health Ministry survey in 2009 put the percentage of one-time prostitute users at 32 per cent: lower than the UN figure, perhaps, but far higher than the 14 per cent in liberal-minded Holland, or in Britain, where the figure is reported to oscillate between 5 and 10 per cent. And that was just those men willing to admit it.

To meet this vast demand, an estimated 300,000 prostitutes are working in Spain – everywhere from clubs in town centres to industrial estates, to lonely country roads to roadside bars, the last often recognisable by gigantic neon signs of champagne bottles or shapely females, flashing away in the darkness. And recently, on the French border, Club Paradise opened with 180 sex workers, making it the biggest brothel in Europe.

As the clubs get larger, the clients get younger. According to studies carried out for the Spanish Association for the Social Reintegration of Female Prostitutes (Apramp), back in 1998 the typical client was a 40-year-old married male. By 2005, however, the average age had dropped to 30 – and it appears to be getting lower. “The kids are going because they see it as a quick way of getting what would take a lot longer to happen if they went to a disco,” Alvaro says. “You’ve got the money, you choose the woman you want and it’s all over and done with.” His own logic is even more brutal: “I go when I don’t have a girlfriend.”

There is no single reason, though, why prostitution should be so popular in Spain. Historically it has long been seen as an expression of individual freedom – first as a pressure valve for the strait-laced family-focused environment of the Franco years (when prostitution was quietly ignored), and then consolidating itself after the dictator died. Then, as now, brothels would be listed in the yellow pages, albeit under the coy title of “nightclubs”, and nobody batted an eyelid. Among the young men of the Spanish provinces, even in the late 1980s, sleeping with a prostitute was no longer something you did as way of losing your virginity: it could actually be seen as cool.

In the 1990s, magazines such as Interviú, which prides itself on its investigative journalism, would think nothing of publishing “erotic guides to Spain”. Even today, all-male business dinners can end up in the local “club”. “Every now and then I have to take clients,” says one accountant who did not want to be named, “but it’s OK. They take credit cards.”

If the roots of Spain’s acceptance of prostitution ultimately lie with the sexual and personal repression of the Franco years, the most curious hangover from the sexual revolution is that, even today, most “‘serious” newspapers carry adverts for prostitutes. In the Madrid issue of one major national daily, 75 or 80 per cent of small ads are for prostitutes, offering all manner of services with prices from ¤20 to ¤200. Plans to eliminate the so-called “contact ads” appear to be on a kind of permanent hold, partly justified by the precarious economic state of Spain’s print media.

However, the underbelly of a trade which is legal in Spain but not recognised as an actual job is far from pleasant, with human trafficking constantly rearing its ugly head. In 2009 alone, Spain’s Ministry of the Interior detected 17 international crime rings involved in sexual trafficking in Spain. Between January and April of this year, according to the newspaper El País, the authorities identified 493 cases of women sold into sexual slavery.

Yet that makes no difference, it seems, to the clients who pour through the doors of the brothels. “There is a clear lack of awareness as to what is going on,” says Marta Gonzalez, a spokeswomen for the Madrid-based NGO Proyecto Esperanza, which helps women who have been victims of trafficking. “Clients don’t realise that many of these women could be victims of trafficking. Lots of people would be more wary if the prostitutes were clearly under lock and key or had obviously been subject to physical abuse. They don’t realise that all it takes is a death threat to their families back in Nigeria or Brazil, and the woman is already being coerced into prostitution.”

The laws in Spain are of little help either, with prostitution currently a permitted activity – but with no labour rights. “They’re already frequently leading a double life or are considered social outcasts and often are in dire need of money,” said a Spanish Red Cross social worker running a healthcare programme for prostitutes. “Add the lack of legal rights, and they’re a clear target for exploitation.”

On top of that there’s Spain’s recession. “Economically the women I’m dealing with are at the end of their tether, and the lack of other employment possibilities makes everybody more nervous about keeping clients. In the process they put themselves at risk, too. They’ll be more willing to accept it when a client doesn’t want to use a condom, for example, to be sure they get him to sleep with them.”

When prostitution and trafficking overlap, the legal situation grows even more discouraging. “Glitches in the legislation mean that an identical crime is punished less severely here than, say, in Germany.” Ms Gonzalez says. “Forcing someone to prostitute themselves in Spain gets from two to four years in prison here, while human trafficking gets five to eight. But because the latter charge often can’t be proved effectively because of poor legislation, the criminal gets the lower sentence.”

Meanwhile, Spain’s sex trade continues to flourish. And, in one way, it is literally more visible than ever: recently, in an attempt to cut the number of road accidents, the police in Lerida, Catalunya, issued the prostitutes working in out-of-town lay-bys with fluorescent waistcoats.

Why Spain’s brothels are filling up with 20-year-old johns

Police worry about the drastic decrease in the average age of clients, who come from all walks of life

His first time was shortly after his 20th birthday. “I was playing on a soccer team and we won a championship. We all went out for dinner, and then they invited us to a brothel as a prize for having won the tournament,” says Antonio, 21, who lives in Asturias.

“When we finished dinner, we started to have some drinks and then all of a sudden the coach said we should go. With the euphoria of the drinks almost all of us decided we were up for it, and on top of everything, they were paying. Since then, I’ve gone back on the nights I’m out partying. Now, it’s part of the plan.”

Visiting prostitutes has become increasingly common for 20-year-old Spaniards such as Antonio, according to the police. And questioning whether or not the women are victims of human trafficking is not something that commonly crosses the minds of these young clients.

All of the boys aged from 19 to 21 we spoke to for this article wished to remain anonymous, including Antonio, who asked us to use a pseudonym. “Don’t even say the city that I’m from please,” he begged. This is understandable, but the truth is that in the social circles of boys his age, visiting prostitutes is not a taboo.

“I would say it’s almost common,” says Javi, also a fake name. He is 21 and from Cadiz. “You get to thinking and your mind fills up with friends or acquaintances that have gone or go… to, well, whores.”

Police research backs up Javi’s evaluation. It is now common and almost normal for young men to spend their money on sex.

The normalization of prostitution
José Nieto is the chief inspector of the Center of Intelligence and Risk Analysis (CIAR) with Spain’s National Police. He has investigated sexual exploitation of women and organized crime related to prostitution for more than 19 years. Lately, he has noticed something has changed.

“We all have the classic profile of johns in our minds: men of a certain age, perhaps wearing a suit and tie. But lately in our routine inspections we are finding a lot of boys, a lot of young men who are aged 19, 20, or 21. The profile has definitely changed. The age has gone down a lot.”

“I’m not talking about special cases,” he adds. “I’m talking about groups of guys who have already started going to brothels as part of their routine. And sometimes the boys go alone. Sometimes we talk to the boys and they say, ‘But we pay them €50 – I would love to make that much in a day’.”

None of the boys we spoke to admit that sexual need is what drives them to brothels. “My friends usually go to these places; they’re guys that don’t have any problem picking up girls,” says Antonio.

According to Nieto, all types of young men can be found in brothels – rich, poor, blue-collar and students.

“We completely agree with the evaluation of the police… the profile of sex consumers in Spain is changing. And it’s worrying,” says María José Martín, a social worker with APRAMP, an association that helps female prostitutes.

For Martín, prostitution is related to supply and demand. “If that’s what the young men are demanding then, as a consequence, there will be more women who are obliged to prostitute themselves,” she argues.

Javier from Cadiz worked at a restaurant during the summer and that’s when he got his first taste of paid-for sex. “The cook and the other waiters were super nice, I really got along with them and sometimes we went out together. One night they suggested going to a brothel and they paid. This summer we went two or three times when the night was coming to an end. They always paid.”

When the summer ended Javier quit the restaurant but returned to the brothel.

“I went alone twice, and twice I called for them to come to my house. It’s a way to party, that’s how I see it. It’s fun, but it’s expensive,” he explains.

Tito, a 20 year-old from Madrid, also asked us not to use his real name. He began visiting prostitutes during his Erasmus year in Rome.

“Older friends from Erasmus told me it was really fun, that they’d gone several times. At the time I had no intention of doing anything. I had never considered it. In fact, the night I went I didn’t even think I was going to do anything, just have a drink, but a girl got closer and…”

Tito went back to Madrid and says he doesn’t think he would go back – but “you never know.”

Sex now. Reflection later
“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Marta Arasanz, a psychologist specializing in sexology, responding to the findings of the police.

“Despite the fact that today there is more sexual liberty than ever before and maybe young men have the easiest access to sex in history, this generation lives in a world of immediacy – everything has to be quick, here and now, and sex is no exception,” she explains. “Prostitution fits in with this philosophy that demands quick pleasure without consequences or commitments.”

Arasanz believes that sooner or later this practice could have negative consequences for the young johns. “They are boys who may end up understanding sex from the ‘intercourse-centric point’ of view, meaning that sex is all about their pleasure – quick and without a second thought about their partner. Without empathy. It can deform their concept of sex and relationships,” she suggests.

Throughout our conversations with young men who had visited prostitutes, their main worry was about the “shame” of talking about their experiences. None of the boys said they were worried about the women with whom they were having sex.

“When I came back from Erasmus I told some friends and none of them got upset,” says Tito. “It’s true that we spoke about whether the girls were exploited or whatever, but this is something you think about after.”

Tito also told a few of his female friends. “They were more surprised, but because it was unhygienic or risky for my health. But none of them said anything about exploitation or referred to the situation of the prostitutes.”

Nieto says that throughout his career he has asked boys about their thoughts on the women. “They always say the same thing: that the girl who they were with wasn’t obliged to be there, that she was there of her own free will to make money. I explain to them that this is hardly ever the case, and especially not in a brothel.”

“It’s clear that we have a long way to go in terms of public awareness. Especially among young men,” says Arasanz. “It seems that they still don’t realize that they’re contributing to the suffering of women.”

Spanish police have been directing public awareness campaigns aimed at young men since 2013.

“We give speeches at high schools and universities. The objective is to make the boys think, invite them to reflect that it is possible that along with their fun, they are contributing to the enslavement of a woman.”

Today, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Nieto is talking to students at the Charles III University of Madrid. He explains the work that he does and that many prostitutes are not in the profession by choice.

Asked if he thinks these lectures help, Nieto says: “For these young men, at first glance it’s hard to see a victim in prostitution because there is no blood, no cries for help. There is a scantily clad girl, usually smiley, who orders them a drink. We try to explain why they are victims and that they are contributing if they go to these clubs.”

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