Spanish Left, feminists split on approach to prostitution

Prostitutes on a street in Spain huddle in shadows to avoid being photographed. Photo: Europa Press
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Spain’s Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Social Security has officially called for the Fiscalia government prosecutors’ office to begin legal proceedings to nullify the controversial registration in August of the OTRAS prostitutes organization, whose application to be legally recognized as a labour union was processed by officials at the Labour Ministry without the knowledge of Minister Magdalena Valerio.

The surprise revelation of the group’s registration as a labour union, in contravention of the official position of the new Socialist government of President Pedro Sánchez, caught Valerio and the Sánchez administration off guard and brought into public view what has been an increasingly divisive issue in recent months among Spain’s left-of-center political parties and feminist organizations over how to deal with prostitution and sex workers in Spain.

Longstanding tensions over the issue have been inflamed to the point where some now say Spain’s feminist movement is “at war” over the response to prostitution, with the Socialist party (PSOE), Podemos and Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) being pressured to take a stand. In doing so, they are generating criticism and a hardening of positions even as the parties consider courting the important women’s vote in upcoming municipal, regional and European parliamentary elections slated for next Spring.

Decriminalized in Spain since 1995, the act of prostitution is not directly addressed in Spain’s penal code, but exploitation of women by pimps and sex-traffickers is a criminal offense. An increase since the economic crisis began in 2008 in the number of poor Spanish women turning to prostitution to escape poverty and immigrant women coerced into sex slavery by traffickers and pimps has led to increasing calls from Spain’s traditional, mainstream feminist organizations for prostitution to be outlawed.

In the ongoing debate over prostitution, the mainstream feminist organizations, frequently referred to as the “abolitionists”, count on political support from the PSOE and of Izquierda Unida. They view prostitution as practiced in Spain as clear exploitation of women and particularly of poor and vulnerable women by pimps and traffickers.

On the other hand, the more “libertarian” left, which believes the best way to stop exploitation of sex workers is to allow them to organize themselves into unions. This position is supported by some smaller labour unions like Catalonia’s Intersindical, which has been trying to organize prostitutes for years, and the new-wave transectional feminist and anti-capitalist organizing leadership of last year’s massive 8-M Marcha Feminista, which brought hundreds of thousands of women into the streets across Spain on International Women’s Day.

Trying unsuccessfully to steer clear of the debate so far has been left-wing party Podemos, which infuriated the mainstream “abolitionist” feminists recently when the party leadership said it had “no opinion” on prostitution and would not be taking a position until the issue had been further debated within the party.

With the Labour Ministry’s request that state prosecutors move to annul the newly registered OTRAS union, the Sanchez government has made it clear that it does not wish to set a precedent that will see legal employer-employee work relationships established between pimps and prostitutes. In a statement issued this week, the Ministry said it will not accept “constitution of a union that aims to pursue the defense and promotion of prostitution, granting labor rights to those who practice prostitution and, therefore, normalizing the existing relationship between those who practice prostitution and pimps.”

► Read More in Spanish at Europa Press, El Diario and El Plural …

► Background stories in English at TheLocal.es and USA Today …

► Click to read more about Prostitution & sex-trafficking in Spain …

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