Prostitution in Spain – Will the government abolish “the oldest profession”?

October 13, 2022

Several months ago I was down in Madrid with Morena.

We were walking down calle Leganitos, just off Plaza España.

Maybe you know it: it’s one of the smaller streets with a lot of Chinese-owned businesses. Supermarkets, hair stylists, wedding photo studios…

Wandering along and looking in shop windows I noticed a few girls standing outside nail salons. Well-dressed and obviously there for some reason, I figured they were doing customer capture.

The only thing was, they were all scrupulously avoiding me and Morena.

“That’s weird”, I thought. “I wonder why these girls aren’t offering Morena a pedicure or something.”

We walked on, and I promptly forgot all about it until El País came out with this article: Getting your nails done at a secret brothel. If your linguistic skills are up to it, the Spanish version is much more complete.

Ah, so it was customer capture… just not for people like us.

Turns out, there are a lot of secret brothels in Spain. As well as a lot of regular brothels.

The regular brothels are along the highways, or in the cities, and often have large neon signs giving an idea of what they’re offering.

The secret ones are in nail salons, hair salons, even Airbnbs or private flats – and they’re sometimes not all that secret.

So today, we’re going to talk about one of the darker corners of Spanish life: the (mostly) underground prostitution industry.

Prostitution in Spain – here’s the scoop.

Several of the top articles on this blog are about sex.

There’s the one called Sex in Spain, of course, in which I talk about penis size, infidelity, and that time someone’s granddad offered to blow me in a park.

There’s the one about Dating Spanish Girls – a situation which often, but admittedly not always, leads to sexual intercourse.

And there’s the one about Spanish housewives turned prostitutes – something which, allegedly, happened a lot during the previous economic crisis.

But there’s more to say about the sexy side of life in Spain. Today I want to talk about the current debate around prostitution in Spanish society.

First things first: is it even legal?

Let’s see…

Is prostitution actually legal in Spain?

Short answer: well, sort of.

At least, it’s not illegal. It’s in an unregulated legal grey area.

Pimping is illegal. And so is sex trafficking, obviously.

But current laws make it hard to prove that trafficking is taking place at all. (If your suspected victim is an adult, and says the whole thing is voluntary, you don’t really have a case that it’s not.)

Estimates say that there are anywhere from 70,000 to 400,000 prostitutes in Spain – most of them immigrants. And that the industry moves 3.7 billion euros per year… or perhaps much more. It really depends on who you ask.

So if prostitution isn’t illegal, does that mean it’s just a regular job?

Well, no.

But perhaps it could be.

In fact, in 2018, a group of women called OTRAS (Organización de Trabajadoras Sexuales) registered as a trade union with the Ministry of Labor – causing a feminist backlash when activists demanded the abolition of prostitution, as well as the union. The activists argued that since no work contract exists, prostitution cannot be considered a job, and therefore there can be no trade union.

And I guess they’re right, up to a point. Since pimping (or proxenetismo, to be a bit more formal) is illegal, prostitutes really can’t have a work contract.

But maybe they could be autónomas.

A judge named Gloria Poyatos put this idea to the test when she registered as a freelance prostitute several years ago. Neither Social Security nor the tax people had any specific problem with it, apparently. It’s just not something people usually do.

All this to say, it’s an unregulated gray area. And given the fact that many of the people involved might not be in Spain legally to begin with, it’s difficult to imagine a situation in which prostitution moves “above board”.

Anyway, about that debate…

Prostitution in Spain: to regulate or to prohibit?

These days, there are several different ideas about what should be done with prostitution in Spain, as well as other countries in Europe.

The prohibitionists want prostitution to be completely illegal: prosecute the pimps, the prostitutes and their customers, and just make the thing go away.

Is that really possible, though? There are plenty of countries where prostitution is already illegal, but I don’t think there’s anywhere that’s actually managed to make it disappear.

And wouldn’t prohibiting the livelihood of some of the most vulnerable members of society just make things worse for them, not better?

On the other hand, you have the Abolitionists and the Neo-abolitionists (AKA proponents of the Nordic Model) who generally want to prosecute the customers but not the prostitutes – while also trying to help victims of sex trafficking to escape their situations.

Then you have those who would like prostitution to be legal and regulated, as it is in The Netherlands, Germany and a few other countries. That would have certain benefits: sex workers could have contracts, trade unions, and presumably go on sick leave or have public pensions when they retire.

In Spain, as I said, prostitution is unregulated and officially not illegal – but some cities have passed laws designed to get sex workers and their curstomers off the streets… essentially fining them for doing in public what would be perfectly legal in private.

Furthermore, Pedro Sanchez’s coalition government has recently promised to make prostitution illegal. The problem is, nobody can come to any sort of agreement about how illegal they want to make it. Even within the Socialist and far-left Unidas Podemos parties there’s no consensus.

So for now, prostitution is an open secret

All this brings us back to the roadside brothels, clubs, and other places where prostitution happens every day, in cities and towns all over Spain.

Since pimping is illegal, how exactly does that work? Well, apparently the women working in those sorts of places are just “renting rooms” from the owners.

Here in Catalonia, in fact, you can run a licensed brothel if you want: charge entrance at the door, sell overpriced drinks, and rent the rooms out at exhorbitant prices for women to ply their trade. Not many places have actually gotten licenses, though… Most brothels are just run as bars or strip clubs, with “extra services” offered in private areas.

For the most part, there’s nothing police can do, except fine the owners for not having the correct type of license for the activity happening inside.

earn a living teaching english in madrid
Plaza Mayor, my beautiful city. Photo by Mr Chorizo.

As for the brothels inside nail salons, they’re less obvious. But regular customers and neighbors often know what’s going on. Presumably, so do the police. It’s all un secreto a voces – a sort of open secret.

(In Madrid, interestingly, many places where street prostitution takes place are directly outside police stations. Calle Leganitos, which I mentioned earlier, has a police station, and so do the other two places I know about: Calle Montera and Plaza de la Luna. Make of that what you will.)

Human trafficking in Spain… how common is it?

You may have noticed that I’m kind of dancing around the topic of sex trafficking here.

Mostly, that’s because the estimates of how prevalent it is vary so widely. Gloria Poyatos, the judge who I mentioned earlier, claims that “only” 15% of prostitutes in Spain are in situations where they’re not free to leave. Still, that’s a lot of people.

Some NGOs working the field, on the other hand, say that “the vast majority” of prostitutes are unrecognized victims of human trafficking.

In any case, it’s hard to tell. With so many immigrants involved in the industry, a lot of people don’t have papers, and might not be willing to talk to the police. And if you don’t have a victim willing to file a report, you can’t usually prove that a crime is taking place.

But that’s not to say the government isn’t trying. In 2019, authorities reported identifying 467 victims of human trafficking in Spain: 250 of sex trafficking, 173 of labor trafficking, 24 of forced criminality, and 20 of forced begging. That’s from the US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report. A report, which, incidentally, ranks Spain as one of the better countries at preventing human trafficking.

So that’s a bit about the supply side of the question. What about the demand?

A younger crowd in Spain’s brothels…

This is where things got surprising for me.

Because, as El País reported in 2017, the “consumers” of prostitution are actually getting younger.

To quote from the linked article…

“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.”

Nacho Carretero for

It’s true that I hadn’t really considered that guys under about age 40 might be going out to brothels on Friday nights… I figured we had moved past that sort of thing decades ago.

But I guess not. According to the same article, consumption of prostitution is just another example of the sort of instant gratification that people are used to expecting these days.

Is it, though?

Because it seems to me like prostitution is also a more general cultural issue. Here in Spain, it’s just another socially acceptable form of entertainment, like going to a football match or hanging out in a bar.

It was for the older generations, and apparently, it is for the newer generations as well.

So here in Barcelona, there’s prostitution in discos and on hotel roof terraces. Business picks up during summer tourist season, and every time there’s a big international conference.

All this to say: it would appear that prostitution isn’t going away.

If anything, the opposite.

What is to be done about prostitution in Spain?

Prostitution is sometimes called “the oldest profession” – there are historical references to it going back to the ancient Sumerians. It’s in the Bible, the Koran and the Kama Sutra.

So I have my doubts about whether a strict prohibition is going to work.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned before, the whole left-right political spectrum doesn’t do much for me. And one of the reasons is because what people consider to be “left-wing” or “right-wing” depends a lot on the country.

Back in the US, the socially acceptable leftist opinion seems to be that prostitution should be legal. In fact, that making it legal will “protect women“, somehow… Just look at Amsterdam!

(I’ve wandered through a couple of Red Light Districts in The Netherlands, and I thought the whole thing was pretty creepy. But whatever.)

On the other hand, here in Spain, the left seems to want prohibition – with some going as far as to compare brothels to “concentration camps for women“.

What should be done, then? I’m not really sure.

As usual, I’m just a humble blogger, and I’m not trying to make some giant moral conclusion.

I will say this: trying to legislate away the most basic urges of a super-horny species of non-arboreal primate seems like a plan that’s bound to fail.

I just hope the people in charge come up with some way to crack down on the human trafficking aspect. For now, though, it seems like the political debate could go on for quite a while.

Guess we’ll see.

Caffeinatedly yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. What do you think about the prostitution issue in Spain or elsewhere? Hit me up right here, in the comments section… Thanks!

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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  1. Hi Daniel,
    My take on this topic. The Dutch and German model has only contributed to increase human trafficking to those countries. Also, legal prostitution is a good source of taxes, so nobody cares about those pushed into the system, as the assumption is that everyone in the business is working willingly.
    Is someone who is coerced by fear or hunger acting willingly? , as brothels need fresh flesh for their clients.

    In Germany, “maffias” entice young women (and men) from other countries (best if they do not speak the language) with a promise of a job in hospitality. Once they arrive, they pick them up and that’s the end of the story. There’s no way out.
    The Loverboys case is another quite known issue in the Netherlands, where “boyfriends” bring young women or men into prostitution.

    When prostitution is illegal, it is easier to prosecute pimps and those involved in the chain. Probably the best system is the neoabolitionist model, but even in the current state of things in Spain victims are able to go to the police or get help from organizations.

    1. Hey Valerie, thanks for the comment. The big question I didn’t really research here is whether or not legalizing prostitution makes trafficking easier or more difficult somehow… if legalization leads to more trafficking then obviously I’m opposed.

  2. I came across your youtube telling about 7 great places to see in Madrid. Because we are headed to Madrid next week, it was important. And helpful. Thanks!

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