Analysis

Why Does Spain’s Progressive Prime Minister Want to Ban Prostitution?

Pedro Sánchez hopes to bolster his feminist credentials—and take on the far right.

By , a professor of political studies at Bard College
A woman holds up a sign that demands the abolition of prostitution during a demonstration in Madrid on Oct. 23.
A woman holds up a sign that demands the abolition of prostitution during a demonstration in Madrid on Oct. 23. OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP via Getty Images

At last month’s 40th Congress of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pledged to ban prostitution in Spain. “We will move forward abolishing the prostitution that enslaves women,” he was quoted saying in El País, sounding very much like a human rights crusader.

The news caught many by surprise. Spain is one of world’s most socially progressive societies, and in 2005, it became the first overwhelmingly Catholic nation to legalize same-sex marriage, ahead of Sweden, Britain, and the United States. Sánchez is also known as a tireless champion of liberal causes. Last year, he legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide, and earlier this year, his cabinet approved the world’s most expansive gender identity law with the intention of keeping Spain at the international forefront of LGBTQ rights. The measure allows teenagers as young as 14 to change the gender assigned to them at birth without undergoing gender confirmation surgery and receiving a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, as is the norm in most countries.

Now, Sánchez’s vow to ban prostitution has upset many at home and abroad. Conxa Borrell, secretary-general of OTRAS, the only union in Spain representing sex workers, told Politico “when something is prohibited, mafias emerge.” A spokesperson for the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance, an organization that represents more than 100 groups working with sex workers, criticized the Sánchez government by telling VICE World News “COVID-19 has dramatically impacted sex workers all over the world, including in Spain, where many sex workers face destitution and homelessness.” The organization urged the Spanish prime minister “to meet representatives of sex workers communities, discuss their needs, and develop joint programs and policies that would protect them” instead of outright banning their trade.

At last month’s 40th Congress of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez pledged to ban prostitution in Spain. “We will move forward abolishing the prostitution that enslaves women,” he was quoted saying in El País, sounding very much like a human rights crusader.

The news caught many by surprise. Spain is one of world’s most socially progressive societies, and in 2005, it became the first overwhelmingly Catholic nation to legalize same-sex marriage, ahead of Sweden, Britain, and the United States. Sánchez is also known as a tireless champion of liberal causes. Last year, he legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide, and earlier this year, his cabinet approved the world’s most expansive gender identity law with the intention of keeping Spain at the international forefront of LGBTQ rights. The measure allows teenagers as young as 14 to change the gender assigned to them at birth without undergoing gender confirmation surgery and receiving a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, as is the norm in most countries.

Now, Sánchez’s vow to ban prostitution has upset many at home and abroad. Conxa Borrell, secretary-general of OTRAS, the only union in Spain representing sex workers, told Politico “when something is prohibited, mafias emerge.” A spokesperson for the European Sex Workers’ Rights Alliance, an organization that represents more than 100 groups working with sex workers, criticized the Sánchez government by telling VICE World News “COVID-19 has dramatically impacted sex workers all over the world, including in Spain, where many sex workers face destitution and homelessness.” The organization urged the Spanish prime minister “to meet representatives of sex workers communities, discuss their needs, and develop joint programs and policies that would protect them” instead of outright banning their trade.

Few would disagree that prostitution in Spain needs reform. The Washington Post reported Spain has “made a name for itself as the brothel of Europe” and noted that revenue from Spain’s domestic sex trade stands at $26.5 billion a year, with as many as 300,000 people working in the industry. The Washington Post cited Spain’s unusual approach to decriminalizing prostitution as a reason behind this growth. Madrid decriminalized prostitution in 1995, but unlike in other European countries, the newly legalized sex trade was not regulated by the government. One notable exception is a ban on “pimping,” or someone working as a booker between a sex worker and a client. But it is almost meaningless, since nightclubs effectively function as brothels by “renting” rooms to sex workers whose labor the government does not recognize as legitimate.

Adding complexity to the issue of prostitution in Spain is the fact that the vast majority of sex workers today are immigrants. This was not the case in 1995. According to the European Network for the Promotion of Rights and Health Among Migrant Sex Workers (TAMPEP), some 80 to 90 percent of all sex workers in Spain are migrant women from Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa. Most of them live in poverty, which makes them especially vulnerable to exploitation. A report cited by the BBC noted that, in 2019, Spanish police freed 896 women who were survivors of sex trafficking.

Women have become Spain’s most sought-after electoral constituency.

These human rights issues are certainly on Sánchez’s mind. But politics is not very far behind. Sánchez first proposed banning prostitution in 2019 as part of the PSOE’s feminist manifesto, which called prostitution “one of the cruelest aspects of the feminization of poverty and one of the worst forms of violence against women.” The document also vowed to clamp down on surrogacy agencies, which are legal in Spain—blaming them for “undermining the rights of women by treating their bodies and reproductive functions as merchandise”—introduce parental leave of 16 weeks for men and women, and strengthen the provisions of a 2004 law intended to curb violence against women. According to government statistics, 1,024 women have been killed by their partners in Spain since 2003.

The PSOE’s feminist manifesto was written to address a new reality in Spanish politics: Women have become the country’s most sought-after electoral constituency. Several factors have enabled this development, but the most apparent is the rise of Vox, a far-right political party that entered Spain’s parliament in 2019. Although it is a new political force, Vox’s faction is already the third largest in the legislature. The party is notorious for its opposition to Catalan independence, attacks on immigrants, and tirades against women and the feminist movement. Indeed, Vox has turned anti-feminism into a political strategy.

In the Atlantic, journalist Meaghan Beatley noted, “unlike other European far-right parties, Spain’s Vox thinks fighting women’s rights is the key to success.” Vox has called for ending government subsidies to “radical feminist groups” and for rescinding laws intended to curb violence toward women because they discriminate against men. In 2019, Vox was the only political party to not endorse a declaration by Madrid’s city council condemning violence against women. Defending the party’s decision, Javier Ortega Smith, Vox’s secretary-general, singled out “denialists” on gender violence, adding: “there are also men who suffer violence from women and are killed by their wives.” That same year, in response to the massive mobilization of women in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, on International Women’s Day to demand an end to domestic violence and gender disparities at home and at work, Vox organized the “March for Femininity.” Convened by the “Women of Vox,” its purpose was “to denounce the rancid and supremacist feminism” and “defend motherhood and family.”

Vox’s attacks on women shattered a national consensus on promoting women-focused policies. In response, Vox has succeeded not only in mobilizing feminists but also in unleashing a competition of sorts among other Spanish political parties to see which appeals to women the most. Because the 2019 electoral contest brought Vox into parliament, Sánchez unveiled the PSOE’s feminist manifesto. Ciudadanos (or Citizens), a center-right party, campaigned on a liberal feminist platform that called for the regulation of prostitution and surrogacy. Unidos Podemos, a populist-leftist party to the left of the PSOE, feminized its name to Unidas Podemos. Even the conservative Popular Party, long affiliated with the Spanish Catholic Church and traditional causes like curtailing abortion access, promised it would make the gender pay gap a policy priority.

Legally, it is not clear how Sánchez intends to implement his proposed ban on prostitution. So far, he has not provided many details. It is also unclear how the measure will fare in Spain’s deeply fractured parliament. Framing the prohibition as a human rights issue might shelter Sánchez from attacks that he is being puritanical, prudish, and repressive, but it is unlikely to deliver support from the most liberal factions of his left-wing coalition, who would prefer regulation to outright prohibition. He might, however, do well with the right. Although Vox has mocked the ban as “the equivalent of banning hunger,” the Popular Party, the leading conservative group in parliament, has remained relatively mum, hinting at potential support.

Sánchez will also find an ally in Spain’s thriving human rights community. Groups such as Esclavitud XXI (Slavery XXI), an organization devoted to exposing human trafficking, would like to see the country adopt some version of the so-called Nordic model, an abolitionist framework for prostitution that has been implemented in countries like Sweden and France. The Nordic model makes it illegal to purchase sex but not to sell one’s body for sexual purposes. Auxiliary prostitution services—such as brothels, pimping, and advertising—are also banned. The intention is to end the demand for prostitution by penalizing those who pay for sex rather than those who get paid for having sex, thereby minimizing harm to an already vulnerable population.

Despite the uncertainties ahead, Sánchez is looking to his proposed ban—whatever shape it takes—to bolster an already impressive record of improving the lives of women in Spain as he ponders reelection in 2023. According to the 2020 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Spain is now among the world’s top 10 countries for gender equality, ranked eighth—jumping 21 places from its 2019 ranking. Political empowerment is the main factor behind this stunning performance. The report cited Sánchez’s cabinet as the world’s most female-centric (currently, 14 out of 22 ministers are female) and Spain’s parliament as the most equal in the European Union, (comprised of 47.7 percent women and surpassing past leaders Sweden and Finland). The two leading parties in Spain’s parliament, the PSOE and the PP, have female-majority representations, and the parliament’s speaker, Meritxell Batet, a PSOE politician, is female. When Batet opened the new parliament in May 2019, she spoke of the need for “a more feminist Spain.”

Judging from the atmosphere at the PSOE Congress, Sánchez’s latest proposal to advance feminism via a ban on prostitution was well received. El País reported “more than 5,000 people enthusiastically applauded the prime minister’s speech. … Absent were the usual fierce internal debates and power struggles, and instead there was a festive atmosphere complete with fireworks and giant paellas.” Preceding the address were recorded messages from social democrats from all over the world, including Olaf Scholz, Germany’s likely next chancellor, and former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is widely expected to run for office again next year. Sánchez’s speech suggested that despite recent global advances of right-wing populism, social democracy remains a viable political formula. He also meant to convey the message that embracing feminism could be a path forward to revive the fortunes of social democratic parties—or, at the very least, to keep them competitive.

Omar G. Encarnación is a professor of political studies at Bard College and author of The Case for Gay Reparations and Democracy Without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting.

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