Press play to listen to this article
MADRID â€”Â PrimeÂ Minister Pedro SÃ¡nchezÂ faces a tough challenge to follow through on a pledge to overhaulÂ Spainâ€™sÂ prostitutionÂ lawsÂ with the ultimate aim of eradicating the countryâ€™sÂ â‚¬3.7 billionÂ sexÂ business.
At his Socialist Workersâ€™ Partyâ€™sÂ (PSOE) national conventionÂ earlier this month,Â SÃ¡nchezÂ won support for his planÂ to â€œpush ahead with the abolition of prostitution, which enslaves women in our country.â€
However, imposing a ban will be difficultÂ in a country that has become one of theÂ worldâ€™sÂ biggest sex industryÂ hubs. Many in SpainÂ donâ€™t see abolition asÂ a viableÂ solution.
â€œWhen something is prohibited, mafias emerge,â€Â cautionedÂ Conxa Borrell, secretary general ofÂ OTRAS, the countryâ€™s only labor union representing sex workers.
Attempts to eliminate prostitution will only push an already marginalized industry further underground, she warns. â€œWhen something is illegal, thereâ€™s always someone who will try and make money out of it.â€
SpainÂ loosened legislation criminalizing prostitutionÂ in 1995, aiming to make the sex tradeÂ easier to regulate.Â Since then, the industry has thrived, drawing significant custom from over the border in France, which has much tougher rules.Â
In 2016,Â the United NationsÂ estimated Spainâ€™sÂ sex industry was worthÂ â‚¬3.7 billion. ItÂ is believed around 300,000 women work in it. AnotherÂ U.N.Â reportÂ estimated that 39 percent of Spanish men had paid for sex in their lifetime, muchÂ moreÂ than in mostÂ EuropeanÂ countries.
Such statistics have hardenedÂ politicalÂ resolveÂ toÂ eliminate the sex industry.
â€œWe need a model that deals with the terrible Spanish reality,â€ Laura Berja,Â PSOEâ€™sÂ parliamentary spokeswoman on equality, told POLITICO. â€œWe are the biggest consumer of prostitution in Europe and the third biggest in the world.â€
Laws controlling prostitution do exist in Spain. Pimping is illegal and, underÂ aÂ 2015Â law,Â fines can beÂ slapped on those who solicit sex from a vehicle, although the sanction is rarelyÂ applied.
The governmentâ€™sÂ draftÂ Sexual Freedom Law, which parliament is due to debate in the coming weeks, includes measures to clamp down further on pimping by going after those who â€œuse a property or venue to facilitate the sexual exploitation of another person.â€
Calls for an overhaul of prostitution laws are amplified by the plight of highÂ numbersÂ of foreignÂ women trafficked into the sex trade.
â€œEightyÂ percent of women who work in prostitution in Spain do so under coercion after being tricked in their countries of origin by criminal gangs who are dedicated to trafficking human beings,â€Â theÂ national police estimate.
PSOE appears not to support claims from some sectors thatÂ changes to immigration lawsÂ are neededÂ for any reformÂ of the sex trade to be effective.Â
Instead, the governing partyâ€™sÂ draft proposal envisagesÂ anÂ â€œall-encompassing law for the abolition of prostitutionâ€Â to be put to parliament before the end of the currentÂ legislature,Â scheduled forÂ 2023.
RocÃo Mora, director ofÂ APRAMP, an organization campaigningÂ againstÂ the sexualÂ exploitation of women, welcomed SÃ¡nchezâ€™sÂ announcement. â€œTwo fundamental things are needed in order to stop this: that all forms of pimping be penalized and the demand for paid sex be tackled with severity,â€ she said.Â
AlthoughÂ PSOE has yet to releaseÂ details of the planned legislation, it is expected to includeÂ a new fine system for those who pay for sex, along with heavier sanctions for pimps and brothel owners.
Mora praisedÂ recentÂ precedents for the abolitionist approach in countries such as Norway, Sweden and France. In 2016, France criminalized the purchase of sex,Â while bolstering the fight against trafficking and providing an â€œexit programâ€ for sex workers.
â€œWe have studied the French model and we support a lot of the abolitionist measures that their legislation includes,â€ saidÂ PSOEâ€™sÂ Berja.
The current disparity in legislation between Spain and its neighbor to the north helps explain why so many French menÂ head downÂ toÂ theÂ frontierÂ townÂ ofÂ La Jonquera.Â
TheÂ CatalanÂ town is home to what is reportedly the largest brothel in Europe. Roads crossing nearby countryside are frequently lined with scantily dressed women plying for trade from curb-crawling motorists from over the border.Â A former mayor despairingly describedÂ La Jonquera asÂ â€œthe bordello of France.â€Â
However,Â theÂ Socialistsâ€™ planÂ faces criticism from those who advocate increased regulation insteadÂ of abolition.Â
Borrell, from the sex workersâ€™ union,Â takes a dim view of the French model. SheÂ pointsÂ to a spate of violent deaths ofÂ prostitutesÂ in Parisâ€™ Bois du Boulogne park as proof that the approach has backfired.Â BorrellÂ also takes issue with the supposedly feminist nature of the abolitionist argument.
â€œIn what way is putting out of work the supposed 300,000 women who say they are in prostitution feminist?â€ sheÂ asked, complaining that the PSOE has so far not consulted with workers in the sex industry.
SÃ¡nchez also faces dissent closer to home. Unidas Podemos (UP),Â the hard-left junior partner in the Socialist-led government, is divided between abolitionists and those seeking to better regulate prostitution.Â
EqualityÂ Minister Irene Montero,Â from UP, says the solution is getting tougher on the â€œpimping industryâ€ andÂ has complainedÂ targeting prostitutesâ€™ clients doesnâ€™t work. â€œWe have the possibility to fine clients â€¦ that has notÂ reducedÂ the number ofÂ johns.â€Â
Prostitution risks becoming another area of dispute betweenÂ PSOE and UP,Â who haveÂ already tussledÂ overÂ gender and sexual equalityÂ issues.
With UP divided,Â SÃ¡nchezâ€™s SocialistsÂ may see a chanceÂ to seize the initiative on a big social issue, albeit at the risk of antagonizing their coalition partners.
While the left is split,Â it could be the political right that ensures theÂ initiative gets through parliament.Â
PSOE and the conservative Popular Party (PP) rarely see eye-to-eyeÂ butÂ the two haveÂ been able toÂ form a consensusÂ onÂ gender violence, signing off on a cross-party â€œstate pactâ€ on the issue in 2017.
The far-right VoxÂ partyÂ hasÂ beenÂ scathing in its opposition to theÂ abolition proposal, saying it is â€œlike issuing a law banning hunger,â€Â butÂ the PP has kept relatively quiet, suggesting it could end up backing the initiative.