Recent news of the Spanish National Police rescuing a 19-year-old woman from a Romanian prostitution ring serves as a conspicuous bright spot in much larger narrative of Spain's sex tourism industry, which is unfortunately thriving due to what the New York Times describes as "packs" of young French libertines stumbling across the permeable Spanish border for weekends of debauchery.


The Times' Suzanne Daley reports on a town nestled on eastern border between France and Spain called La Jonquera, a place where the boom in Spain's sex tourism is especially evident. Young men traveling in groups from France — where prostitution, when not constricted by more rigorous law enforcement, can be very expensive — are one of the groups fueling the demand for sex services. According to Francia Vila il Valls, Barcelona's councilor for women and civil rights, the young men who used to go discos now go to brothels, which serve as "just another form of entertainment" for tourists taking full, carnal advantage of Spain's flagging economy and the European Union's porous borders.

The reality of Spain's sex industry, however, is far from entertaining, unless you're into really lurid, horrifying stories, in which case it has all the appeal of an especially grisly CSI episode. Though Daley points out that there's precious little reliable data on human trafficking, the State Department's 2010 report on trafficking showed that anywhere between 200,000 and 400,000 women worked as prostitutes in Spain, and that nearly 90 percent of them had been trafficked. The Balkan countries account for the largest percentage of trafficked women (30 percent), but the Spanish sex slavery racket is more of an Epcot tour-of-the-world enterprise: over the last decade, Nigerian organizations have moved women from Africa to Spain, and more recently, Barcelona police have realized that Chinese mafias have been running prostitution rings in the city through a network of about 30 brothels. As revelations of new prostitution organizations have emerged, it has become clear to law enforcement officials that the complexion of Spain's sex industry has changed dramatically over the past 30 years.

Thirty years ago, virtually all the prostitutes in Spain were Spanish. Now, almost none are. Advocates and police officials say that most of the women are controlled by illegal networks - they are modern-day slaves.


Women such as Valentina, whose story the Times sketches with soul-crushing detail, are lured from Eastern Europe with promises of legitimate work in a hotel, only to essentially be held hostage by the people who helped bring them to Spain and threatened with death if they don't become sex workers. Other groups, like the Nigerians, control women by threatening their families, while still others are sold to traffickers by their own families.

Meanwhile, the visibility of the sex industry has come under fire recently, most notably in a political battle over whether to allow newspapers to advertise prostitution ads, which appear in even the most reputable publications. And while some politicians would like to see prostitution outlawed outright, others worry that it would only force the trafficking industry further underground and make it even harder to help women caught in its already hidden web.


The problem in a country such as Spain, where prostitution is essentially legal, isn't a dearth of legislation aimed at stamping out sex trafficking — Western Europe realized in the 90s that women were being trafficked from the former Soviet Union and created a legal framework to deal with the problem. Putting those measures into practice, however, and adequately policing sex trafficking is another thing altogether. The trafficking industry is huge, with some 2.4 million people according to the United Nations being "traded" at any one time. The operators of human trafficking networks pull in $32 billion a year, and almost 80 percent of of those trafficked are sexually exploited. Women account for two thirds of trafficking victims and only one out of every 100 is rescued each year.


The practice is, in other words, big business and big business has a way of maintaining whatever status quo of legal loopholes or law enforcement lassitude that allows it to create the largest possible profit margin. In a business that commodifies the human body, stamping out exploitation can be difficult, since sex work — even the totally legitimate kind where workers are willing and more or less (insofar as any working person who needs to pay bills can be) autonomous is itself exploitative. Then again, so is waiting tables, performing open heart surgery, or arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court — any functioning economy, whether legitimate or otherwise, requires its participants to exploit whatever assets they've honed through practice and a varying degree of formal or informal education. The persistent abuse of trafficked sex workers isn't evidence the sex trade should be made illegal or that its workers should be pushed to the fringes of society, out of sight and mind of the law and the general public. Such abuse only reveals the iniquity suffered by women (and men) who are deemed only marginal members of the society they live in because of the way they earn a living. Until squeamish and misogynistic attitudes (which you better believe still exist in even the outwardly progressive metropolises of Western Europe) about sex and the human body vanish from at least the Western consciousness, no mountain of legal assurances can stymie the flow of trafficked sex workers, since they'll still exist on the fringes of a culture not yet comfortable with the whims of whatever sits between its legs.

Women Enslaved by Spain's Brothel Tourism Boom [NY Times]

Human trafficking affecting millions, including some in the U.S. [Washington Post]