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.”