It is often referred to as the oldest profession in the world. And yet thousands of years after dancers and musicians coaxed men into brothels in the late period of Ancient Egypt and Athenian lawmakers taxed women selling sex in state sanctioned houses in Ancient Greece, sex work still manages to polarise and spark debate.
Last week the discourse was reignited when Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez announced plans to ban sex work in the country.
Speaking to supporters at the end of the Socialist Party’s three-day congress in Valencia, Sánchez said that the practice “enslaves” women – committing to his 2019 election pledge to outlaw prostitution.
Sex work was decriminalised in Spain in 1995, and since then the industry has boomed. In 2016 the UN estimated the country’s sex industry was worth €3.7bn (£3.1bn), and it is estimated that around 300,000 women work in the country’s brothels and red light districts.
Demand is huge. One survey conducted in 2008 found that 78 per cent of Spanish people consider prostitution an inevitability in modern society. Another survey a year later found that nearly 40 per cent of Spanish men over the age of 18 had paid for sex at least once in their life.
But although decriminalisation has made selling sex safer, campaigners have warned that the vastly profitable and largely unregulated market in Spain has become a hotbed for criminality.
Spain is now a global hub for human trafficking and sexual slavery, with women often trafficked from Romania, South America and West Africa.
In 2019 Spanish police freed 896 women being exploited as sex workers and estimate that over 80 per cent of those working in the industry are victims of mafias and organised crime, according to a report by the BBC.
The charity Human Rights Watch points out that sex work is the consensual exchange of sex between adults, while human trafficking and sexual exploitation are separate issues. The problem with Sánchez’s approach is that he conflates the two.
By touting an outright ban on prostitution, Sánchez is proposing the removal of safe working conditions and legal protection for sex workers while doing nothing to target the problematic attitudes to women and sex that lead to women being trafficked, sold and exploited.
In targeting those who work in the industry, the Spanish government is barking up the wrong tree. Sex work can be safe when it is both decriminalised and regulated. The industry can be legitimate when those who are selling sex are empowered to make the rules, set their own boundaries, are able to report crimes safely and without stigma, and when they keep all the money they make.
Regulated properly, sex work should not enslave women. Those working in the industry would not be at as much risk of being trafficked, raped or murdered if they were not forced to do their job outside the law, and if society viewed sex workers for who they are – women, and men, with families and dreams and lives of their own.
A ban on prostitution can never work. Forcing sex work underground can only harm women.