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Spanish Government Continues All-Out War on Sex Work

MADRID — Sex worker advocates in Spain continue denouncing the government’s relentless war against all forms of sex work, including adult performances and content.

Yesterday, sex workers marched in Barcelona commemorating the international Day for the End of Violence Against Sex Workers, bringing awareness to the government’s radical abolitionist policies.

Sex worker organizations Otras and Afemtras supported by Platform of Those Affected by the Abolition of Prostitution, also marched Thursday to the Ministry of Consumer Affairs protesting the forced closure of websites that allowed sex worker ads.

The government action, The Objective news site explained, “condemns the overwhelming majority of sex workers to street or club work.”

The groups had already organized protests in 2022 against the ruling Socialist party PSOE and its ally Unidas Podemos faction for their aggressive SWERF policies marginalizing and criminalizing sex workers.

The PSOE government cabinet moved recently against 14 classifieds platform, including the top four platforms used by online sex workers.

The closure was mandated by a recent amendment to Spain’s controversial Only Yes Means Yes legislation, which criminalizes “any advertisement that uses gender stereotypes that perpetuate or normalize sexual violence against women, children and teens, as well as those promoting prostitution.”

A Law Supposedly About Consent

Sex workers have pointed out that the original goal of the Only Yes Means Yes law was to enshrine the idea of consent in Spanish law, but that its backers ended up not criminalizing non-consensual deep fakes and deplatforming consensual sex workers instead.

Full-service sex workers, which until then had proudly used the words “puta” and “prostituta,” initially complied with the law by rebranding as “escorts,” following the U.S. model.

In July, General Consumer Affairs Director Bibiana Medialdea announced she was cracking down on the escorts ads as well and began compiling data. On October 18, Medialdea began proceedings to shut down the pages she considered were breaking the Only Yes Mean Yes amendment.

Sex worker activists told The Objective that they have repeatedly tried to contact Medialdea, who does not appear to be interested in any meaningful consultation with the people directly affected by the new law.

“They ignore the voice of sex workers,” they told The Objective. “They ruin us, they make us lose autonomy and they send us into a clandestine world. How the hell is this helping reduce crime activity in our work life?”

The sex workers are also accusing the PSOE government of “institutional violence” against them and demand an end to “harassment and criminalization of our work.”

The PSOE is currently also determined to pass a law that explicitly abolishes all sex work, The Objective reported.

The difficulty is that some of the PSOE’s allies in the coalition government, particularly the Catalan regional parties, are in favor of legalization.

Sex workers are also attempting to lobby the right-wing Partido Popular, currently in the opposition, hoping to convince liberals and libertarians within it to break rank with the social conservatives in the party to preserve the legal status of sex work on personal freedom grounds.

Inés Olaizola, a penal law academic at the Universidad Pública de Navarra, has described the PSOE’s approach to sex work as “taking agency out of the consent of the women who work as prostitutes.”

By classifying all prostitution as “exploitation” — and thus erasing sex workers’ ability to consent — the proposed legislation essentially treats women “like minors,” Olaizola explained.

Sex Worker Activists in the Industry Speak

Noting that the PSOE’s proposals calls for “the abolition of all forms of making a profit from the prostitution of others, including porn production,” Barcelona-based director and producer Erika Lust warned in 2022 that “it would not matter whether the practice is carried out under exploitation — banned under current law — or if it is independent labor, with consent from all parties involved, following ethical production standards.

“What is presented as an effort to stop exploitation and violence in defense of human rights, in particular women’s rights, ends up being the main source of violence, precariousness and lack of protection for all sex workers — who are already vulnerable as it is,” the feminist filmmaker added.

“The Only Yes Means Yes law was promoted as a revolutionary feminist law,” Spain-based performer and sex worker activist Maria Riot told XBIZ. “But it’s not just targeting full-service sex work. Those classified pages were also used to advertise video calls, sexting, etc. It’s all kinds of sex work that it ends up affecting.”

As one of the hand-made signs during the Barcelona protests pointed out, “Abolishing prostitution is the theory — Criminalizing us is the practice.”

The recent move in Spain to pass copycat age verification laws for adult content online — “like in Utah,” wrote a Spanish commentator supporting them — is also part “of the same drive to totally criminalize all sex work,” Riot continued.

Last week, Reuters reported that the head of Spain’s data protection agency “is developing age verification technology to prevent children from accessing inappropriate content online such as pornography or gambling sites.”

“Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez tweeted three years ago that he was going to abolish prostitution,” she added. “The institutional feminists who are part of his government in the Ministry of Equality have said they want to abolish it all, including porn. They keep changing the goalposts. The block on advertising pages is only the current move.”

As XBIZ reported, the spokesperson for the PSOE’s Equality Commission Laura Berja unequivocally stated, “We must abolish prostitution because it is incompatible with human rights.”

European director, performer and sex work activist Paulita Pappel, who is originally from Spain, told XBIZ that the country is currently facing a rise in conservative influence.

“This is leading to the suppression of voices and erosion of fundamental human rights,” Pappel noted. “The pretext of protecting children online is being used to target sex workers, restricting their tools and subjecting them to discrimination. Laws requiring age verification and banning online advertising for sexual services are pushing sex workers into precarious situations. We need to oppose these measures and advocate for decriminalization. We must fight back.”

Main Image: Spain’s self-described ‘prostitution abolitionist’ Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez

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