In 2003, Spain’s Institute of National Statistics (INE) showed that just over one in four Spanish men under the age of 49 had experienced sex with a prostitute – with one in fifteen having done so within the previous year. This was backed up by Maribel Montano of the ruling PSOE party who claimed in 2007 that: ‘every day 1.5 million men pay for sex’ in Spain. In fact, there are an estimated 300,000 prostitutes working in Spain possibly turning over around 40 billion Euros per year, which roughly equates to the country’s education budget. For good reason, Spain is sometimes dubbed the ‘Brothel of Europe’.
Certainly, the openness and extent of prostitution can be a surprise to north Europeans who still cling to the myth of Spain as a prim and proper, old-fashioned, hard line, Catholic country. This notion is swiftly dispelled as you drive at night along any main road out of a large town or city. In the outskirts, and often close to industrial estates, you will come across brightly lit buildings that normally have a garish neon sign pronouncing ‘Club’. These are brothels in all but name and house, sometimes, up to a hundred or more prostitutes. Called Clubes de Alterne (socialising clubs) by the Spanish, their location and nature are openly known and tolerated by the police, authorities and local population.
The clubs, of course, vary hugely and span the whole spectrum of prostitution from its lowest depths to a brothel system that is reasonably fair and transparent within a deeply emotive industry. At their worst, the Clubes de Alterne are controlled by criminal gangs who have trafficked women from Third World countries on the promise of conventional work. Deprived of their passports and physically intimidated, the women are forced to work as prostitutes, whilst earning their bosses huge sums. Indeed, the International Labour Organisation in 2005 calculated that a forced sex worker would earn 67,200 Euros a year in an industrialised country.
In Spain, there have been calls for prostitution to be legalised and regulated. However in 2007, after three years assessment, the parliamentary commission appointed by the socialist government was unable to come to a conclusion and prostitution was left in a legal limbo, being declared neither fully legal nor illegal.
The arguments for and against the legalisation of prostitution have always been complicated, not least by the universal recognition that prostitution is an industry that is almost impossible to completely stamp out. There is also the problem of interfering with the rights of consenting adults within a democracy. In this regard, Jose Luis Roberto Navarro, Head of Security for the Asociacion Nacional de Empresarios de Locales Alterne (ANELA), states: ‘all the women working in the 200 clubs of our association do so voluntarily. Indeed, many immigrant women now coming to work in Spain as prostitutes know beforehand exactly what they are coming to do. The 2007 removal of many EU border controls has stopped most of the trafficking – at least from European countries.’
Certainly, the Clubes de Alterne are full of immigrants, mostly from Romania and Central and South America. Barely 2% of the prostitutes in Spain are Spanish and, of those, hardly any work in the clubs. In the tight communities of Spanish villages and towns this would be tantamount to social suicide – notwithstanding the widespread use and acceptance of the Clubs de Alterne by Spanish men.
Membership of ANELA, a self-policing organisation, is the just about the closest that brothels in Spain get to being regulated in Spain. As a condition of membership, a club must be a properly registered business, such as a hotel or bar licensed for renting rooms. It must also expressly undertake not to allow anyone on the premises under eighteen, any usage of drugs or involuntary prostitution. Furthermore, the club must agree to co-operate fully with the police, whilst ensuring monthly medical checks-up for the women.
The El Cisne club, just south of Valencia city, is a demonstration of the potential benefits of legalisation and regulation. This middle ranking ‘club’ is actually a hotel in which the women live, paying 50 euros a day for full board. A softly-spoken professional hotelier runs the ‘club’, which has a full-time chef, a restaurant, swimming pool, salon and internet area for the women. Only slightly more garish than a UK travel lodge, El Cisne is immaculately clean, tidy and un-intimidating, with a recognisable hotel foyer and several rooms for ‘short term’ rental – each of which has a shower and WC and an emergency button.
Of course, El Cisne has a surreal feel about it as, during the long working hours (5pm to 4am), it has fifty semi-naked women roaming through the large bar area to the rooms above, the internet area or their own salon. There is also a bizarrely competitive atmosphere, as the women desperately try to gain the attention of any men entering the bar, at which time they are free to negotiate any deal they wish. Whatever they earn (normally 60 Euros for half an hour in one of the guest rooms) is a matter for them and of no financial interest to the club.
Left alone to speak to a number of the women, a crude straw poll indicated that the women at El Cisne were there voluntarily, all were immigrants and all had come knowing what they would be doing. Hating the nature of the work, the women saw it as their only way to make any money, having come from desperate poverty in their own countries. They said that their clientele came from all walks of life with three out of ten men treating them gently, whilst nine out of ten men spent no more than half an hour with them. They felt safe at El Cisne and, despite the obviously distasteful nature of the work, were clearly much better off than prostituting themselves elsewhere – let alone on the unprotected horrors of a public street governed by oppressive pimps.
Clearly, brothels in Spain such as El Cisne provide a benchmark delivery system for both a consenting male and female that is practically acceptable. However, the excoriating sadness of prostitution is inescapable. In 2003 Medicos de Mundo published a report in which they stated that: ‘prostitution was the modern slavery of the 21st century’ and that ‘most women and children abandon prostitution ill, traumatised and poorer than when they started’.
Whilst the Medicos de Mundo report undoubtedly has the sting of absolute truth, it is hard to see how prostitution can be eradicated until the pitiless trauma and impossible conundrum of world poverty is adequately tackled. It is no co-incidence that the overwhelming majority of prostitutes are from countries ravaged by war or dire economic plight. Therefore any ‘consent’ to becoming a prostitute is normally driven by desperation and then, all too often, sustained for too long when an anaesthetising drug habit takes hold.
In Spain, it looks as though the profusion of Clubes de Alterne is here to stay. As Vicente B, a Valencian businessman says: ‘the Clubes de Alterne are a part of Spanish culture. They have always existed in one form or another. It is just that over the past ten years they have become more obvious and much more sophisticated, with some clubs delivering a luxury service in truly opulent surroundings’. Certainly, it is difficult to envisage persuading Spanish men not to use Clubes de Alterne – and if this desire exists and is universally accepted, then there will always be a demand for it, in one form or another.
However, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Spain has missed an opportunity to courageously legalise and tightly regulate prostitution. Clearly, not doing so only acts to keep prostitution underground and pushes it further into the hands of organised crime, thus continuing to make it unsafe and dangerous for all parties. And it is hard to imagine more vulnerable people than young women working in an appallingly distressing business, often far from home and any possible help. More prosaically, of course, the government is condoning an enormous cash industry that is impossible to tax as, by definition, the earnings are not properly legal.
LAW AND PERSONALTIES
In Spain, voluntary prostitution is not illegal, although the law forbids the ‘abusing of a position of power’ and the ‘forcing of someone into prostitution’, a conviction for which carries a prison sentence.
The owning or running of brothels in Spain has been illegal since 1956 but this is circumvented by the setting up of ‘hotels’ or ‘clubs’ who offer ‘alternative’ shows and services. These are the Clubes de Alternes
Two Girls Working at a Club de Alterne
Nika is a pretty, petite, dark haired, Romanian girl with innocent, dark almond eyes who speaks perfect English. She is twenty years old and is dressed in boots and a low neckline, black shirt ending at the top of her thighs. She works at an ANELA club located in Valencia province.
‘I have been here for a week now and I will stay here for three months. No-one in my family knows what I am doing; they think I am working in a bar. I hate the work, I am lonely, miss my family, cried all day yesterday and get no physical pleasure from what I do. But, I have no choice if I am to make some money – which is totally impossible in my country. I have sex with three to four men a day – seven out of ten men have sex with me, whilst the others just talk or touch me. I was under no pressure to come here and I knew what I was coming to do, as a friend in Romania told me all about it.’
Bea is from Romania, is nineteen years old, blonde, heavily made-up and buxom with a stud in her lip. She is wearing tight mini shorts, open blouse and a skimpy black bra. She also works in a club in Valencia province.
‘I have been working here for a year now and I have no plans to stop at the moment. I am here to earn as much money as I can, as I want to be able to go home and buy a really good car and a house. I do not like the work either but, just occasionally, I do get physical pleasure. I have sex with six to seven men a day who pay me 60E for half an hour, all of which I keep. I was under no pressure to come here and I feel safe and secure in this club. I will leave when I feel like it.’
‘No-one knows for sure – but there are probably 4,000 Clubes de Alterne (brothels) in Spain’.
Jose Luis Roberto Navarro (ANELA)
The huge scale of immigration in Spain has complicated matters, as many of the immigrants are illegal thus making effective regulation more difficult.
In 2006 the UNHCR reported that some 500,000 Russian women (the Natasha Trade) had been sold into the sex industry since the 1990s.
Some of the top clubs (like the Universo Majestic in Valencia city) are themed areas of magnificent opulence with prices starting at 156 E per hour and rising – dependent upon a client’s particular desires
Amazingly, there is even a guide to sex ‘clubs’ within Europe called “Sex Guide International” by www.sexy-guide.com’
(Noms de plume: Alexander Peters, Elena Suarez, Alberto Diaz)