Sex Work in Spain: The Legality of Prostitution

Madrid skyline, Gran Vía at dusk

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Despite some sources claiming that prostitution is legal in Spain, the truth is that sex workers exist in a legal vacuum wherein the practice has been decriminalized since 1995 but no public laws have been written regarding the legal status of sex workers.

The workers themselves are not penalized, but instead, the procurers are the ones who are punished by the law. According to a 2009 study by TAMPEP (European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers), 90 percent of sex workers in Spain are said to be victims of human trafficking, which violates international law.

Brothels have been illegal in Spain since 1956, but these days, the vast majority of them are loosely disguised as whiskerías or "clubs" and are left to function as normal.

The Culture of Prostitution in Spain

If you're planning a trip to Spain and want to explore the world of sex work in major cities like Madrid, whose Red Light district is famous for its "underground" brothels and clubs.

Truthfully, prostitution in Spain doesn't have the stigma that it has in many other countries. You can often come across sex workers in open, public spaces such as Gran Via in Madrid and Las Ramblas in Barcelona, so to many it may seem like a completely typical aspect of life in a large Spanish city.

However, don't be fooled by the pretense of acceptability. Prostitution in Spain is not the regulated wholesome affair that it is in the Netherlands. Human trafficking is a very serious, global issue, and hiring exploited sex workers directly funds some tremendously nefarious activity.

Spanish organizations like Mujer Emancipada and Colectivo Cominando Fronteras are working to end human sex trafficking in Spain, a country that often grapples with migrant rights. To learn more about human trafficking in Europe, you can visit ENPATES, a multi-nation coalition currently tackling the problem.

Legal Loopholes and Illegal Practices

Still, despite the many multinational organizations helping combat illegal prostitution, there are several ways local sex workers—and, unfortunately, human traffickers—have found to continue running brothels and clubs. However, there are other legal loopholes some sex workers have used to get clients without breaking the laws.

Sex workers have been able to practice their trade freely and advertise frequently in the "Relax" section of the classifieds in newspapers and magazines. However, a proposal suggested that all contact sections of newspapers should be closed down to prevent the advertising of prostitution, but it stalled in governmental hearings. While this may not end the problem at the source, it could be one way to curb the demand for sex work in larger cities, according to some members of the Spanish Government.

What is totally illegal is a public solicitation for sex, also known as "street prostitution." Both the sex worker and his or her client can be prosecuted in some parts of Spain, including Barcelona for soliciting sexual acts in public. Additionally, pimping is expressly illegal in the country, but Catalonia provides government permits "to gather people to practice prostitute."

Like all countries, Spain has its own laws and cultural signifiers that make visiting or living there unique. Read up on the legality of cannabis and nudism as well, and make sure you always have all the facts when traveling abroad.