Who’s Afraid of a Sex Workers’ Union?

Who’s Afraid of a Sex Workers’ Union?

Who’s Afraid of a Sex Workers’ Union?

A movement for sex workers’ rights is gaining momentum in Spain—but it’s facing opposition from the national government and some feminists.


Conxa Borrell can be hard to find. Her association’s website doesn’t provide much contact information, and when I track down her number and call, she mumbles a time and place for us to meet the following day and then quickly hangs up. When I arrive at the designated address—a municipal building in Barcelona, in a gentrified, tree-lined neighborhood away from the city’s center—her organization isn’t listed in the directory. Someone finally points me to an unmarked classroom on the fourth floor, where I find Borrell alone, sitting upright at a desk. Wearing a beige sweater and a sprinkling of silver eyeshadow, her hair in a chic chignon, she looks like a high-school teacher. She does, in fact, teach: She leads workshops on branding, marketing, and price negotiation for sex workers. Borrell is the secretary general of Spain’s first sex workers’ union, and she’s fighting for its life.

The Organización de Trabajadoras Sexuales—OTRAS, for short, which poetically translates to “the other women”—was quietly green-lit in August 2018 by Spain’s Labor Ministry, while most senior politicians were away on summer vacation. (In Spain, unions must register with the government, which is usually a purely administrative procedure with no political oversight.) When Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez found out nearly a month later, he was aghast. His socialist cabinet, which boasts the highest number of female ministers in Spanish history, had vowed to make the pursuit of gender equality a priority when it took office in June 2018; the sale of sex, his government claims, is incompatible with that objective. Sánchez promised to roll back the union’s approval, and shortly after announced that he would introduce legislation banning prostitution. Feminist organizations throughout Spain urged him to follow through, and soon.

Spain straddles the line between two approaches to prostitution in the European Union and elsewhere backed by opposing feminist factions. One aims to abolish prostitution completely, as exemplified by Sweden, which criminalizes the purchase—though not the sale—of sex. The other approach, best seen in Germany and the Netherlands, is to legalize and regulate sex work. In Spain, prostitution is decriminalized but unregulated—frowned upon by political institutions but included in the national GDP. This legal gray area has long made Spain one of the world’s top sex-tourism destinations, bringing in $26.5 billion per year—almost twice as much as sex work in the United States. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but between 45,000 and 400,000 people are said to work as prostitutes in the country. For every public hospital, there are three brothels, and young men joke about ending a particularly drunken night in a puticlub the way American undergrads hazily remember executing keg stands on Thirsty Thursday.

Meanwhile, those who work in the industry do so in the shadows—unable to claim basic labor rights, social security, or pensions, and at risk of being penalized for working in public spaces. That’s what Borrell hopes a union will change. But she’s up against a powerful abolitionist camp. Both sides wield the same feminist rhetoric to position themselves as women’s true defenders and accuse each other of being in bed with the patriarchy. At the heart of the debate is a question of whether selling sex is inherently exploitative—or whether it’s work that should be treated just like any other kind.

Borrell got into sex work at 39, in the last year of a failing marriage, in order to make some cash. Now 52, she has a camera-ready smile and slips easily into irreverent mockery, mimicking politicians by speaking in a high-pitched wheeze or grabbing her crotch to signal what she sees as law enforcement’s uselessness. (“They just play with their balls all day,” she says.)

Wary of seeking help from social workers who, she felt, simply couldn’t relate to sex workers or fully understand the stigma around the industry, Borrell co-founded APROSEX, the Association of Sex Professionals, in 2012. Today, APROSEX falls somewhere between a social network, support group, and day-care system. The women check in on one another to make sure they’ve reached and left their dates safely, take turns watching each other’s children during night shifts, and meet for coffee or a movie to vent about work and clients. APROSEX counts about 150 members.

Sabrina Sánchez, a trans-rights activist originally from Mexico, is its secretary. She moved to Spain 12 years ago, with a communications degree from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México—one of Latin America’s most prestigious universities—but found it impossible to get papers or a job. Once she’d blown through her savings, she turned to sex work. It was that or sweeping floors, and sex paid better. Along with Borrell, Sánchez—with fire-hydrant-red hair and a towering frame that, on the day we met, was boosted by a pair of ruby heels—quickly became the face of APROSEX. Her social-media savvy and charismatic public persona cast the group as an increasingly important political entity.

People from other corners of the sex industry—be it erotic dancing, massage, or pornography—also joined the group. Anneke Necro, 31, a brunette with a vampiric aesthetic, got her stage name (which she requested I use) after working in a funeral home for a brief stint a few years ago. She’s a porn actress, director, and producer, whose collaborations with industry fixtures like Erika Lust have won her modest acclaim in Spain. But she grew tired of the routine exploitation, even in so-called ethical studios. “There are producers who make feminist or supposedly feminist products where there are still abuses and no contracts,” she told me. “It’s chaos.”

Two years ago, the women of APROSEX decided it was time to unionize. Once they were a legal entity, they’d have a fighting chance to demand basic workers’ rights and challenge the criminal code. Under a 2015 public-safety law—colloquially known as the “gag law” and widely considered draconian—sex workers can be fined from ¤600 to ¤10,400 (roughly $680 to $11,800) for committing “obscene acts” or, more vaguely, for “disobeying authority” in public spaces close to places frequented by minors. (The law doesn’t stipulate how far workers need to be from such facilities to be in the clear.) Last year, law enforcement reported an average of 1.3 women per day for prostitution, 60 percent of whom were fined. Meanwhile, brothels, often under the guise of “gentlemen’s clubs”—clubs de alterne, where “dancers” or “cocktail waitresses” are known to tacitly render other services—have no trouble obtaining licenses and operate with impunity.

After OTRAS was legalized, its two dozen or so members—who include women and men, both trans and cisgender—quickly found themselves engulfed in a national controversy. Prominent activists, academics, and media personalities swarmed social media under the hashtag #SoyAbolicionista (“I’m an Abolitionist”) to denounce what they saw as basic exploitation masquerading as the service economy. The union’s opponents argue that in a patriarchal society, women can’t be consenting parties in a paid sexual act born of financial necessity. They liken sex work to slavery, hence their name: “abolitionists.”

The most well-known voices among abolition activists are two young actresses based in Madrid, known together as Towanda Rebels, a name derived from a battle cry in the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes. Their fame predates OTRAS; in a December 2017 YouTube missive directed at sex clients called Hola, Putero (“Hi, John”), they charged that all sex work is rape and called for its immediate ban. The video went viral, and Towanda Rebels shot to stardom. Today, they command a large and loyal social-media following—16,000 on Twitter, compared to OTRAS’s 3,000—and have launched and circulated multiple petitions and campaigns demanding OTRAS’s dissolution.

Mention Towanda to the members of OTRAS, and you’re likely to get an eye roll. “Look, they’ve blocked all of us,” Sánchez says, showing me her Twitter page on her phone as evidence. Borrell says they’ve reached out a number of times to the duo and other high-profile abolitionists, to discuss the pros and cons of regulating sex work on a panel or some other forum, but their offers are routinely rejected. When I contacted Towanda Rebels, they declined to speak with me after learning I’d be talking to OTRAS.

OTRAS calls this abolitionist opposition “the industry.” “They live really well off of their discussions, books, workshops, conferences, without ever including sex workers,” Necro says. “We’re not allowed to attend the feminist conventions.” OTRAS accuses “the industry” and the government—the two loudest arms of the abolitionist camp—of racism and classism, and is irked by their claims to feminism. “A government that refuses to guarantee the rights of the most vulnerable, poorest women with the highest number of immigrants? How is that feminist?” Borrell bristles. “We’re the feminists, the ones fighting for their rights.”

While advocates for legalization argue that it will make sex work safer, abolitionists counter that it could instead endanger women who, unlike the members of OTRAS, did not choose to enter the profession on their own. Abolitionists frame their anti-prostitution stance around the issue of human trafficking, specifically for prostitution. They argue that regulating sex work will simply allow traffickers to exploit women under legal cover.

In 2017, according to the latest government reports, 577 people in Spain were identified as victims of sexual exploitation, 155 of whom were identified as victims of sex trafficking. The government identified an additional 10,111 people as being “at risk” of sexual exploitation. Another recent study found that the majority of people trafficked specifically for sex in Spain—over 65 percent—are originally from Nigeria.

Whether legalizing prostitution would, in fact, increase trafficking is the subject of contentious debate. In 2016, Amnesty International released a model policy calling for decriminalization to protect the rights of sex workers, citing The Lancet and other organizations whose research indicated that criminalizing sex work doesn’t reduce trafficking but “often make[s] sex workers less safe and provide[s] impunity for abusers,” because the workers are “often too scared of being penalized to report crime.” Conversely, a 2013 World Development study of 150 nations concluded that “countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.”

In Spain, media and abolitionists often claim that up to 90 percent of prostitutes are trafficked, although this isn’t an official number. Borrell alleges the statistic is a misleading rephrasing of another figure—that 90 percent of sex workers in Spain are migrants. (The figure appears in a 2009 study by the European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion Among Migrant Sex Workers.) “Over time, ‘migrant women’ became ‘trafficked women’,” she says. Borrell claims she’s never met a trafficked girl. Sánchez says she has, but not in Spain. Necro remembers Eastern European girls who “clearly had been trafficked” while working with a porn company.

But most of OTRAS’s members work for themselves, which is an entirely different reality from the women who work in clubs or pisos, privately owned brothel “floors.” There, the line between “migrant” and “trafficked” can blur. Some women were conned back in their home countries by traffickers promising them a life of glamour and luxury in Europe. Others were forced into prostitution to pay off the debt of their passage to Spain. Still others came to Europe on their own but, unable to obtain legal status once there, turned to pimps.

“The trafficked women have no papers, so if police raid a club, the women have no choice but to say they’re there because they want to be,” says Rocío Nieto, the founder and president of the Asociación para la Prevención, Reinserción y Atención a la Mujer Prostituida (APRAMP), a leading organization against sexual exploitation. Over three decades, Nieto says she has worked with 1,500 women forced into prostitution from countries ranging from Paraguay and Venezuela to Romania and Nigeria.

Once law enforcement is out of earshot, Nieto says, “none of the women tell you they want to be there. None of them tell you they want to do that work.” The number of trafficked women in Spain is on the rise, she adds, in response to growing demand. Approximately 39 percent of Spanish men have paid for sex, and the clients keep getting younger: Today, on average, they’re barely 20. Legalizing prostitution, Nieto says, will only make it easier for organized criminal groups to traffic more women to feed this growing appetite.

Still, an abolitionist approach on its own won’t eliminate the more subtle forms of coercion—including legal and economic circumstances—that may push unauthorized migrants into sex work. Spain has become the main entry point into Europe for West African migrants, with nearly 40,000 arrivals between January and October of 2018—almost double the number for the previous year. Undocumented women from West Africa face the same obstacles as men—language barriers, fear of deportation, racism—but are all the more vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Many of the women that APRAMP takes in will eventually return to their pimps if they’re unable to make ends meet. “Spain has a debt to these women,” Nieto says. “They need to be helped to access work and papers.”

Holland and Germany are often pointed to as models for regulating sex work, but OTRAS’s inspiration comes from New Zealand, which in 2003 became one of the first countries in the world to decriminalize pimping, owning brothels, and purchasing sex after a campaign spearheaded by the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective. Critics, like the activist and journalist Julie Bindel, argue that the labor rights guaranteed by these laws end up benefiting pimps and brothel owners more than the sex workers themselves, reinforcing the power imbalances. Advocates, on the other hand, point to a 2014 case in New Zealand in which a sex worker brought a brothel to court over sexual harassment charges and won as evidence of that model’s effectiveness.

Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland, Canada, and France have all adopted versions of Sweden’s abolition model, which criminalizes the purchase of sex. While this method does appear to reduce demand, it may put sex workers at greater risk. A 2018 French survey of nearly 600 sex workers, both migrants and citizens, concluded that France’s new law has made sex workers’ living and working conditions worse. They’ve lost their preferred regular clients and had to replace them with riskier customers; their wages have dropped; their work has been driven indoors, offering them less of a chance to appraise clients and possibly refuse them; and they’re more reluctant than ever to approach police. After a Peruvian trans prostitute was murdered in France in August 2018, sex workers there rallied against the law.

The question of whether prostitution should be treated as a legitimate form of work has long been under debate, but the issue is gaining momentum in Spain at least in part because sex workers finally have viable political allies. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, once hailed as the world’s most radical mayor by The Guardian, has consistently thrown her support behind the city’s sex workers. When the national government vowed to nullify OTRAS’s legalization, she denounced its “hypocrisy” on national television. “Big businesses are allowed to thrive off the sexual exploitation of many women, but the women are not allowed to organize themselves to defend their rights,” she argued.

Her party, Barcelona en Comú, along with other regulation advocates, argues that sex work should not be conflated with trafficking. (Globally, the majority of people trafficked are coerced into other forms of labor, like agriculture or domestic work.) “They’re two different realities and need to be dealt with differently,” says Marta Cruells Lopez, a gender equality advisor to the Barcelona City Council. While human trafficking—a transnational crime—requires a concerted international response, Cruells Lopez argues that securing sex workers’ rights can be done on the local level. En Comú has suggested establishing government-regulated brothels to allow sex workers to work independently of pimps in controlled environments.

A handful of smaller radical-left parties also back OTRAS, as well as one unlikely ally: the right-wing Ciudadanos party, known for its harsh anti-immigration stance, among other more traditionally conservative postures. “Experience shows us that when the State refuses to regulate, the mafias make the rules,” the party’s press corps wrote me in an e-mail.

“Elections are in May,” OTRAS’s Sabrina Sánchez reminded me, wearily, when we met. The union is conscious of being courted for votes—a departure from previous years, when the rights of sex workers were an unspeakable topic in the political sphere, even though prostitution is as much a part of Spanish society as chocolate con churros. “At the end of the day, it’s really there, embedded in society,” Sánchez says. “Someone always knows someone who did it for a while.” Her hairdresser, who couldn’t find any work when she first moved here from Peru; a family friend who did it to survive during the Spanish Civil War. “We have to show that we’re not the protagonist in Diary of a Call Girl,” she continues, “and we’re not poor victims tied up in a basement either.”

On November 21, Borrell, Sánchez, and a few other members of OTRAS gathered on a busy plaza before Barcelona’s central train station to hold a press conference. Two nights before, Spain’s highest court had voided the union’s bylaws on the basis that prostitution did not legally qualify as work and that, therefore, prostitutes could not legally unionize. However, sex workers in other parts of the industry—be it in porn or the so-called gentlemen’s clubs—could. Feminist groups who’d brought the charge forward hailed the decision as a major victory.

“They fucked our morning,” Conxa Borrell said with a throaty laugh. She’d expected the ruling and called it “useless,” since the union had planned on meeting three days later to rewrite the bylaws anyway. But they’re appealing the Court’s decision. For now, the union still stands as a political entity—and, according to Borrell, its work is just beginning.

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