Prostitution and Slavery

Date Added: 07 October 2008
Sex-slavery thrives in Spain while the debate rages about whether to regulate prostitution or ban it outright

There is a scene in Book One of Don Quixote when the self-appointed knight errant meets a party of prisoners under guard bound for the galleys. On questioning them, he finds out that one of them is a pimp by profession.  Whereupon Quixote protests that the prisoner

“would not deserve, for mere pimping, to row in the galleys, but rather to command and be admiral of them;”

He then goes on to say that

“there ought to be an inspector and overseer of
them, as in other offices”

Here Don Quixote touches on a subject that is topical today, because there is currently a debate in Spain about whether to abolish or regulate the vice trade.  However Quixote’s concern for regulation was that

"in this way many of the evils would be avoided which are caused by this office and calling being in the hands of stupid and ignorant people, such as women more or less silly, and pages and jesters of little standing and experience, who on the most urgent occasions, and when ingenuity of contrivance is needed, let the crumbs freeze on the way to their mouths, and know not which is their right hand."

Today the debate is driven more for concern for the women. And rightly so. A frightening number of prostitutes working in Spain are foreigners coerced into it against their wills by foreign mafias.

And Spain certainly provides a fertile soil for the trade to flourish. Whether Quixote’s defence of pimping was intended by Cervantes to be another example of his raving or one of his occasional instances of common sense, they can be seen as symptomatic of a traditional tolerance in Spain for prostitution that continues today. I doubt that anywhere else in Europe is prostitution so widely apparent and accepted. Puticlubs (bars-cum-knocking shops) can be seen, not only on the sides of highways (with substantially occupied car-parks) but in main thoroughfares in the major cities. Quality papers have prostitutes advertising their wares in the back section.

And paying for sex carries much less stigma than elsewhere in Europe. Statistics suggest that about in one in four Spanish men under forty-nine have had sex with a prostitute, while one in seventeen have done so in the last year, making Spanish males – in the words of Giles Tremlett in Ghosts of Spain – “the most enthusiastic brothel Johns of Europe”.

A Spanish film “Airbag” (1997) highlights this lack of opprobrium. It is a comedy about three lads who celebrate the stag night of one of their number by going to a cat-house. While with one of the girls, the groom looses his expensive engagement ring in an inappropriate place, where it is recovered by the owner of the establishment, an evil gangster boss called señor Villambrosa (played by Francisco Rabal).  What follows is a thriller-farce as the three friends drive across Spain to try and recover the ring, avoiding bullets from both Villambrosa and his associates and a rival gang.

The film is highly enjoyable but requires you to suspend (along with disbelief) certain moral misgivings. The pimps are diabolical, controlling and brutalising girls and dealing in drugs as a sideline, but to patronise their clubs is seen as an innocuous laddish thing to do. At no point does it occur to our heroes that their behaviour is helping the bad guys prosper.

However there is now a campaign by the city council of Seville to encourage men to make this association between their licentiousness and the degradation of women.  Posters have now appeared bearing the slogan: “prostitution exists because you pay.  The price includes: humiliation, degradation, violence...”

To this might also be added murder.  One of the ways girls are coerced into prostitution is to threaten family members in their country of origin.  There was recently a case of a Nigerian mafia making good just such a threat.

A Nigerian girl, a minor called Jennifer, had been lured to Spain by the promise of a better life.  Under continuous threats, coercion and physical violence, she was forced to work on the street (the exact one being Las Ramblas in Barcelona) and was told she owed 50,000 for having this opportunity arranged for her. Eventually she was rescued, and her procurers, Félix Oto, 48 years, and Magdaline J., 32, were arrested. But for reasons then unknown, Jennifer refused to ratify before the judge what she had told the police, and the couple were allowed to go free.

By 2006, when she had turned 18, she had rebuilt her life. She obtained residency rights and was working in a hairdresser’s.  Having been thus rescued one might have thought that she would have been untouchable. However in 2007 she was approached by the same mafia and told to pay the outstanding debt of 47,000 euros or her father would be killed. Jennifer made a full report to the police. Later the police received a message from Interpol, informing them that her father had been shot down in a road in Lagos.

Which is the best way of combating this trade in women: regulation or outright banning?  If it was regulated would it drive the mafias out of business, much as, say, the end of prohibition would an end to boot-legging?  Such an argument is predicated on the idea that there would be enough girls who would still enter the trade voluntarily, to make the traffic in sex-slaves no longer economically viable. Figures vary as to how many prostitutes work in the vice trade because of coercion. The figure that the government recognizes is 80%, in contrast to that proposed by the regularistas that is 20%.

Some might say that prostitution is intrinsically degrading and should be banned outright, so that girls should not be tempted into making easy money even if the conditions are in other respects favourable.

(Against this, some might argue that an office job can be just as degrading and traumatic, as the program Ugly Betty, and the various other versions around the world, suggest. Certainly the evil impulse behind the slavery, namely the tendency to view fellow humans purely as exploitable commodities, can manifest itself in supposedly respectable workplaces.)

But whichever method is used – regulation or outright banning – it should be determined without prejudice which is the most effective against the mafia-controlled prostitution, and it should be implemented quickly. An end should be put to the repugnant situation where slaves can have their services advertised in quality papers or be put to work in establishments that not only function in full view but advertise their presence with neon signs. A country makes a shameful conquest of itself when it allows foreign criminal organisations to commit atrocities on its own territory so freely.

To animate themselves to fight what should be a war of attrition, the authorities could draw inspiration from historical figures like William Wilberforce or Thomas Clarkson. They thought that the abolition of slavery might be a good idea. They were right, and it still is.


El País: 24 September 2008: Prostitutes allowed, slaves no
El País: 28 September 2008: A mafia assassinates the father of a prostitute who escapes
Don Quixote: Chapter 6
Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett