The findings of a US-wide survey, outlined in a report, ‘Who Buys Sex? Understanding and Disrupting Illicit Market Demand’ might help the general population appreciate why prostitution is not a victimless crime, and how the sex trade is driven by the demand and not the supply side.
Demand Abolition, a US-based group that campaigns against the sex trade, commissioned a survey about johns and their behavior, interviewing 8,201 adult men across the US. As ‘quality control’, a number of women who were previously involved in prostitution (sex trade survivors) were asked to give their views on the research and to help come up with recommendations for change.
How common is paying for sex in the US? Despite the creeping normalization of prostitution, which, in popular sanitized parlance is commonly referred to as ‘sex work’, the majority of men choose not to pay for sex.
Demand Abolition found that on average, men who buy sex spend a minimum of $100 per sex act, which goes towards an estimated $5.7 billion profit from prostitution. Buyers use illicit massage businesses, the street and online to buy sex. High frequency’, or entrenched, regular buyers drive the market and typically earn $100,000 or more annually. Regular buyers are more likely to be younger.
I have heard a variety of justifications by johns that tally with the findings of the research. Many convince themselves that the women enjoy it; that if they don’t have sex they will spontaneously combust; and that they are merely looking for a little ‘variety’.
So, why do men pay for sex? According to the research, motivation is varied, but the increasing normalization and sanitization of the sex trade, such as the propaganda promoted by pimps and other profiteers that would have us believe that buying sex is the same as paying for a beer and a burger, removes the stigma from the men, and provide a clear conscience.
In Berlin recently, home of the mega-brothel, I came across a sign advertising a ‘beer, blood sausage, and as many girls as you can manage’ as a lunchtime deal for €60. Prostituted women are marketed alongside food and booze, and in turn, become nothing but a consumable item in the mind of the john.
Some even see themselves as saviors. ‘At least (now I have paid her for sex) she can feed her kids and buy them shoes,’ one john, who openly admitted paying for sex with a street prostitute that ‘looked in a bad way’, told me. Another said, ‘If women could give full satisfaction to husbands and boyfriends, then men wouldn’t go to prostitutes.’
‘If I wasn’t able to have sex with a prostitute and was frustrated, I might have to go out and attack a real woman.’ The ‘real’ woman that this sex buyer was referring to was a woman who wasn’t prostituted. I have heard the same thing said by sex buyers, by women in prostitution, pimps and by members of the public.
Prostitution is dangerous business. A review of homicides of women in street prostitution found that they were 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than other women. And the johns are the main perpetrators of homicide and other violent crimes towards prostituted women – in 2017, between 57-100 percent of homicides of prostituted women in the United States were committed by sex buyers.
Research by Dr Melissa Farley, a psychologist and academic based in San Francisco, found that the attitudes and behaviors of regular johns are similar to those that are common among sexually aggressive men. ‘College-aged men who used women in prostitution reported having committed more sexually coercive behaviors than men who had not used women in prostitution,’ says Farley.
Marian Hatcher is a sex trade survivor based in Chicago. Hatcher is employed as a victim advocate by the anti-trafficking division of Cook County Sheriff’s Office, and was one of the peer reviewers asked to provide feedback on the research findings. For Hatcher, finding what would deter the johns is key.
‘Better understand who buyers are and what leads to (and helps put a stop to) buying behavior,’ says Hatcher, ‘and we can work towards ending demand. End the demand and there will be no impetus for traffickers and pimps to supply the women.’
The key recommendation of the report is to shift the limited resource law enforcement has from seller to buyer. Funding programs to support state and local agencies to address demand. Fund survivor exit services and law enforcement demand reduction operations from fines collected from buyers. Increase fines and penalties for repeat offenders.
Targeted education, healthcare and media effort to combat the normalizing of sex buying. Establish zero tolerance employer policies prohibiting sex buying under any circumstances, including activities on company time or with company resources that are related to sex buying. Targeted prevention campaigns and focus deterrence communications to change behavior.
During my travels researching my book on the global sex trade, I encountered vibrant “sex workers’ rights” movements in the global south, namely East and South Africa, India, South Korea and Cambodia.
I was told by a number of activists that the abolitionist position was “white feminism” and that such feminists, including black, Asian, and indigenous sex trade survivors, were imposing colonialist views of “sex work” on people of colour in the sex trade.
In response to criticism about Amnesty International adopting a policy of blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade, Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “All want to end poverty, but in meantime why deny poor women the option of voluntary sex work?” Roth had plenty of support for this statement, but lots of dissent. One of the many replies from human rights activists was by sex trade survivor Rachel Moran, who asked: “Roth, wouldn’t you say, if a person cannot afford to feed themself, the appropriate thing to put in their mouth is food, not your cock?”
Ruchira Gupta is founder of Apne Aap, an NGO dedicated to preventing intergenerational prostitution in India which supports more than 20,000 vulnerable girls and women.
According to Gupta, India is being used as a site for neoliberal pro-prostitution politics to be tried and tested because the women in prostitution in cities such as Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi are disenfranchised and voiceless.
In March 2015, at the beginning of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) session, Gupta was “warned off” by a senior UN official while on her way to accept a major prize for her work. She was told that “trafficking” was fine to mention, but that prostitution was not, because it would offend those that consider “sex work” to be labour. But Gupta refused to capitulate, because she has seen for a number of years how the pro-prostitution lobby has distorted the reality about the sex trade in her country.
“In India, the term ‘sex worker’ was literally invented in front of our eyes,” says Gupta. “There was no poor woman or girl [in India] who thought that ‘sex’ and ‘work’ should go together. The pimps and brothel keepers who were on salaries began to call themselves ‘sex workers’ and they became members of their own union, along with the customers.”
During a research trip to Cambodia, I had arranged to meet a group of women through the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU). The NGO, based in Phnom Penh, says it represents 6,500 Cambodian “sex workers” who are campaigning for decriminalisation of the sex trade.
A board member of the WNU decided to attend my meeting with the women. During the two hours we were together, she talked for and over the women, looking frustrated and irritated when I directed my questions to them and not her.
The women were desperate to tell their stories of the daily violence and abuse they endure from punters. All told me how much they hated selling sex for a living. I asked the women about the benefits of being in the Union, and was answered not by the women, but by the WNU member. She spoke solidly for five minutes, ignoring any interruption from the women themselves. “If they are beaten by the police, they are given legal training on their rights; if they are arrested, the WNU will provide food during the time they cannot work; and if one of the women dies, they will help to buy the coffin,” she explained. Knowing their rights “empowered them”, I was told.
The women did not appear to be empowered. Some had become pregnant by buyers and were caring for the babies. Three were HIV positive. All of the women had been raped on multiple occasions. Each told me they could get out of prostitution if only they had $200 to buy formal identification papers, because this was the only way to secure legitimate employment in the service industry or a factory. None of the women were familiar with the international campaign to de-criminalise the sex trade, and all said that they wanted out.
None of the women, the translator told me, used the term “sex work” to describe what they do, or “sex worker” to describe who they are. One of WNU’s aims is “to challenge the rhetoric around sex work, particularly that concerned with the anti-trafficking movement and the ‘rehabilitation’ of sex workers”. All of the women asked me where they could get help to escape the sex trade. In the meantime, WNU board members and paid staff travel the region, speaking at “sex workers’ rights” conferences, distorting the voices of the exploited women.
This NGO seemed to consider the concept of “sex workers’ rights” to be above and beyond the importance of the lives of the women themselves. I asked the board member if they were planning on raising money to help the women out of prostitution. She told me: “No”.
QotD: “Husband killed his wife ‘when 48-hour bondage sex session’ during their ‘honeymoon period’ in Germany left her with a perforated bowel”
A German man is in court facing manslaughter charges for killing his new wife in a 48-hour BDSM sex session just days after they walked down the aisle together.
Ralph Jankus, 52, and his wife Christel, 49, took part in a 48-hour sex session for their nuptials, he claims.
New bride Christel suffered severe internal injuries allegedly after a sharp object was inserted into her.
When emergency services were called four days later, they were unable to save Christel.
Self-confessed sadomasochist Jankus faces manslaughter charges at the court in Krefeld, a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, in western Germany.
He is being prosecuted for failing to call for help, allegedly leaving her injured for four days. He claims he was not aware his wife was seriously ill.
The public prosecutor believes that Jankus must have been aware of how unwell his wife was and that her life was in danger.
When questioned, he told police the sex had been consensual and that he had been taking part in sadomasochism sessions for the past thirty years.
Jankus has reportedly admitted that his wife had previously complained about discomfort and had been to see an internal medicine specialist who had carried out a colonoscopy, but nothing had been found to be wrong with her.
Forensic medicine specialists came to the conclusion that the woman must have had some sort of barbed hook inserted into her and when it was removed this caused a perforated bowel.
The victim’s 30-year-old son, who has not been named, claimed his mother had been abused as a child and was mentally unstable.
He added that his mother was dominated by her husband and had started wearing clothes that covered her up well.
She had also allegedly reported abuse at the hands of her husband before they got married, in 2017, but later withdrew these allegations and had spent some time in a psychiatric clinic.
Her son claims that she fled to a women’s shelter in 2018, before turning up happier and marrying her partner in July of the same year.
He said: ‘She had injuries over her whole body and in her genital region.’
The son said: ‘I made accusations to her that she was putting up with too much and that it should never have gone this far.’
He added he had seen bruises which his mother had shown him and she allegedly told her son that she never wanted to see her partner again and never wanted to be hurt by him.
He claims that Jankus ‘abused, mistreated and humiliated’ his mother, but added: ‘I do think she loved him though.’
Her son’s partner, who is also a witness and who has not been named, said: ‘We had no idea about the violence at first. But over time it became more apparent, she was not allowed to leave the apartment. She was forced into taking drugs. She was beaten for going to the hairdressers without permission.’
Until his dramatic fall from grace, Jürgen Rudloff was the self-proclaimed “brothel king” of Germany. Owner of a chain of clubs he boasted was the “the largest marketplace for sex in Europe”, he was every inch the well-dressed entrepreneur, a regular face on reality TV and chat shows.
Rudloff is now serving a five-year sentence for aiding and abetting trafficking. His trial laid bare the misery and abuse of women working as prostitutes at his club who, according to court documents, were treated like animals and beaten if they didn’t make enough money. His imprisonment has dismantled the idea of Germany’s “clean prostitution” industry and raised troubling questions about what lies behind the legalised, booming sex trade.
Prostitution – legalised in Germany in 2002 – is worth an annual €15bn (£13.4bn), and more than a million men visit prostitutes every day. The change in the law led to a rise in “super brothels”, attracting tourists from countries where such establishments are illegal.
Rudloff’s empire – a chain of Paradise brothels – was founded on the idea that sex could be sold as a health service for men, on an almost industrial scale.
The jewel in the crown was the Stuttgart Paradise, opened in 2008 at a cost of more than €6m.
The five-storey club is billed as a “male wellness centre”, where customers pay €69 to cover entry, a meal, drinks and a Turkish bath. Sex costs an additional €50 for half an hour. Men wear bathrobes and shower shoes; women are naked aside from high heels.
Women who work at the club also pay the €69 entry fee, a daily tax of €25 plus the cost of a dormitory bed if they spend the night.
The Paradise business model is the same as the hundreds of other “sauna clubs” across Germany – brothel owners provide the premises, and the women are self-employed. Yet Rudloff’s high-volume, low-cost model only works if the supply of women is enough to satisfy demand and bring enough customers through the doors.
According to court documents, this became a problem for Paradise almost immediately. There weren’t enough women to fill the clubs. So Rudloff’s friends in the industry offered to help him out.
In 2008, as Rudloff was growing his business, investigators in Augsburg, Bavaria – a hundred miles from Stuttgart – received a tip-off that gangs from the city were trafficking women from eastern Europe, and sending them to work in Paradise. (While prostitution is legal in Germany, pimping and sex trafficking are not.) There was still no clear connection to Rudloff at this point. Then in 2013, a trafficking investigation into a brothel in Augsburg uncovered further links with Paradise.
At 6pm on 30 November 2014, in a mammoth operation involving 1,000 police officers and 70 locations, Rudloff’s four clubs in Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Saarbrücken and the Austrian city of Graz were searched simultaneously. The private and business premises of the brothel managers, as well as investors’ cars and apartments, were combed through, and files, financial records, computers and phones confiscated.
The evidence was sufficient to convict several pimps who had trafficked women into Paradise. Rudloff himself was finally arrested in September 2017.
In a trial lasting almost a year, testimony from the jailed pimps revealed that trafficking was crucial to the success of Rudloff’s business.
Among the witnesses at his trial was Ibrahim “I”, a former member of the Hell’s Angels and a close friend of Rudloff’s. Ibrahim admitted forcing women into prostitution at Paradise, setting them a daily target of €500 a day and beating them if they didn’t bring enough money home. He would hit them on the head, rather than the body, he explained, so that no one would see the bruises. He also tattooed his name on to women’s bodies and ordered women to undergo breast enlargement surgery.
One woman who worked at Paradise told the court she had seen young women weeping after their first night working there. Another said that she had seen gang members treat women “like animals”.
Peter Holzwarth, the chief prosecutor at the trial, argued that the owner and management at the clubs were guilty of Organisationsdelikt – aiding and abetting an organisation involved in criminality. “He knew – in the cases brought to court – that the women working at his club were being exploited by pimps,” says Holzwarth. “And he knew the women were trafficked, or rather, he thought that they might be and [still let them work], and that is sufficient for a conviction.”
The court agreed. Sentencing Rudloff in late February this year, the judge remarked: “A clean brothel of this size is hard to imagine.” He said he hoped the convictions would serve as a warning to the sex industry.
Three months on, questions are being asked about the scale of the criminality that could be lurking within Germany’s legalised brothels.
Augsburg’s chief police inspector, Helmut Sporer, says that the huge growth of the sex industry post-legalisation has fuelled a rising demand for women. German authorities have no data on the number of women who work in the domestic sex trade, but conservative estimates suggest 400,000. According to Sporer, more than 90% of these women come from south-east Europe and Africa, and half are under 21.
“The majority don’t conform to the profile of the self-employed sex worker. They speak no German – or only very basic German. They have a limited education and they are travelling abroad for the first time. Many don’t even know which city they are in,” says Sporer, who says that all these factors make it likely that many are not working voluntarily in prostitution.
It’s not just migrants at risk of exploitation. Sandra Norak, 29, has never worked at Paradise, but spent six years working in brothels across Germany after meeting a man on the internet while she was still at school.
Norak’s boyfriend threatened her with violence, forcing her to work at a brothel where she had to sleep with up to 500 clients a month. She kept none of the money for herself. Now an activist for changes to Germany’s prostitution laws, Norak claims her exploitation was replicated for the majority of the women she met, most of whom were pushed into the trade by pimps or traffickers.
It was not until 2014 that she was able to get herself out of the sex trade and complete high school.
The experience, she says, is a “kind of destruction of your identity”. “[Some of the women] could have got away from the guy exploiting them but didn’t have the strength or the belief to find their way back to a respectable life.”
The Paradise case has shaken the industry, says lawyer Frank Theumer, who has known Jürgen Rudloff for 30 years, and defended him at his trial. “The big brothel owners, whether in Augsburg, Hamburg or Berlin, have become more careful.” According to Theumer, what happened to Rudloff could happen to anyone working in the industry.
A pint of semi-skimmed, 20 Bensons, a scratchcard and, er, a porn pass . . . The odds on this becoming a regular corner-shop scenario crashed this week as Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, announced that age verification checks for accessing online pornography would be delayed yet again, this time because the government forgot to inform the European Commission. No wonder it’s been called Sexit.
Age verification began as a thoughtful response by the coalition government to alarming NSPCC research that 65 per cent of 15 to 16-year-olds and almost a third of 12-year-olds access porn. That porn sites should be age-verified, as gambling domains already are, has a 67 per cent approval rating. The problem is that it’s technologically impossible to enforce.
From July 15, clicking on a porn site was supposed to generate a page where a user must provide proof via a credit card, passport or driving licence that they are over 18. Unfortunately Britain stands nobly alone in this endeavour against a global porn industry. And any fool can easily install a VPN (virtual private network): a bit of software which conceals your geographical location. British kids use them already to dodge rights issues, particularly to access US Netflix with its superior range of films.
A VPN would allow a porn user to swerve the UK age-blocker. And which punter wouldn’t do that rather than give personal details to the state-approved verification firm AgeID (which, unbelievably, has the same owner as Pornhub)? No amount of blah about safe encrypted data will reassure anyone that their name and mugshot won’t one day pop up alongside their taste for “watersports” and MILFs.
The alternative would be to go into a shop and, after showing an age ID, buy a £4.99 porn pass. While oldsters might find this no more embarrassing than the time they bumped into their mate’s mum while buying a copy of Razzle, young people have grown up under the total anonymity of the web. Besides, they would simply access porn on platforms such as WhatsApp, Reddit or Snapchat. And a VPN can make the internet an even more dangerous landscape, opening up blocked extremist, paedophile and drug sites on the dark web.
Yet whether age-verification is feasible should not distract from the bigger, more pressing question: does allowing the porn industry to pipe its product unrestricted into every home have toxic consequences? Ireland is reeling from the murder of Ana Kriegel, 14, found naked with extensive injuries and a ligature around her neck, killed by two 13-year-old boys. One of the boys was found to have phones containing thousands of pornographic images, many involving children and animals. The Irish prime minister has said he will be viewing Britain’s age-verification plans closely.
This, of course, is the most extreme scenario. Experts speculated in 1993 whether James Bulger’s killers were inspired by “video nasties” or were just disturbed children who’d have killed in any era. But there is no question that having immediate access to images once obtained only by writing to obscure PO box addresses has changed society. Police now investigate 1,000 cases of offenders viewing child abuse images each month: our jails could not accommodate them all so most are dismissed with a caution on a first offence. Many such men say that viewing “barely legal” porn involving teenagers on legal sites drew them to younger children.
There has also been a spate of deaths of women at the hands of partners who claimed they were engaged in consensual “sex games”. These include Anna Reed, 22, from Harrogate who was suffocated in a Swiss hotel room; Charlotte Teeling, 33, from Birmingham, who was strangled, as was Hannah Dorans, 21, from Edinburgh. Natalie Connolly, 26, was penetrated with a bottle of carpet cleaner and left for dead at the bottom of the stairs. All the men concerned argued that “rough sex” or “Fifty Shades of Grey games” had gone wrong, that these women had, in effect, consented to their own deaths.
These are scenes choreographed by violent pornography, which is not some rare category but just a click away. Researchers studying aggressive porn that involves slaps, hair-pulling and choking found that in 95 per cent of cases the actresses responded with expressions of pleasure, suggesting to the viewer that violence is desired.
Is it any coincidence that the first generation of children exposed to hardcore pornography before their first kiss have epidemic levels of mental illness? The extreme aesthetics of porn fuel body-hatred in young women, while psychologists are concerned that a growing cohort of young men are so desensitised by porn that they suffer erectile dysfunction and emotional disconnection from real women. Moreover, when sex is learnt through porn — a misogynist industry focused solely on male desire — girls prioritise their performance above their own pleasure.
This is now normalised in the mainstream: Teen Vogue ran a feature on anal sex, which most women find uncomfortable, even painful, but is demanded by some men because it’s a major porn trope. Teen Vogue’s anatomical diagram did not even include the clitoris.
Yet young women are not allowed to balk at porn. In the US high school comedy Booksmart, two girls watch porn on their phone in horror. One tries to tell herself she must enjoy it because “I’m a sex-positive feminist”. Not to love porn marks a girl out as uncool, conservative and “unwoke”. Age-verifying technology is, alas, a distraction from the real conversation we need with young people about porn. That it is not feminist nor is it positive sex.
A mock-Tudor semi on a residential street in west London is the nerve centre of the organisation that made history 27 years ago in a landmark domestic violence ruling.
Southall Black Sisters (SBS), a not-for-profit group, is celebrating the 40th anniversary since it began challenging gender-based violence and providing practical support to black and Asian women escaping domestic violence and forced marriages.
Most famously it supported Kiranjit Ahluwalia, whose successful 1992 appeal against her conviction for murdering her violent husband changed the law on provocation and the understanding of battered woman syndrome.
To less fanfare, a 20-year campaign resulted in changes to immigration rules that had trapped women from overseas in abusive marriages. The 2012 concession let women who had come to the UK on a partner visa claim benefits while applying for settled status after fleeing domestic violence.
Formed by Afro-Caribbean and Asian women, SBS arose when in 1979 Southall communities united to oppose a National Front march through the town. Pragna Patel, who has led the group since 1982, says: “The growing anti-racist consciousness and second wave of feminism came together with the recognition that you couldn’t prioritise the fight against racism at the expense of women’s struggles.”
She explains that the word “black” in the name was a political and unifying term, bringing together disparate minority communities with common histories of imperialism and colonialism. With funding from the Greater London Council, she started out with two others. SBS now has 14 staff and, through a trust, owns its premises. Her vision, inspired by the burgeoning law centre movement, was to bring the law to people to deal with their realities.
“I was 22 and very naive in lots of ways, but fearless in other ways,” Patel says. “If you asked me to set up something like that today, I’d say you were kidding.”
In 1980 one of its first campaigns followed the death of a local woman, known only as “Mrs Dhillon”, burnt by her husband because she had only given birth to daughters. “The same community that had shown such indignation about racial violence was silent on gender-based violence,” Patel says.
The same year, SBS exposed the racist and sexist Home Office practice of testing the virginity of Asian women coming to the UK to join their husbands. Officials at the time argued that the test was necessary to determine the authenticity of their marriages.
The organisation shot to national prominence when it took up the case of Ahluwalia. It was pivotal for two reasons, Patel says. “It laid bare the built-in discrimination in the criminal justice system, based on white male assumptions of behaviour and conduct. And it forced minority communities to acknowledge that gender-based violence existed and the way they treated women was partly responsible.”
Ahluwalia tells The Times: “When I got my life sentence and my trial solicitor said there were no grounds of appeal that was a big blow. I had no lawyer, no family. I lost everything.”
After receiving her letter for help, Patel visited Ahluwalia hundreds of times and painstakingly put together her history to support her appeal. “In my trial statement there were 40 pages,” Ahluwalia says. “When SBS took over my case, there were nearly 500. I don’t have the words for SBS and Pragna. Without them I wouldn’t be here.”
SBS also worked to introduce the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, giving courts power to stop someone from forcing another into marriage. Until then, Patel says, authorities were reluctant to intervene in what they saw as “cultural matters” for fear of being branded racist.
Patel insists it is racist not to act: “Tolerance, diversity and multiculturalism are important in the fight against racism. But you can’t allow multiculturalism to be used to cloak abuse of more vulnerable people in the community.”
As SBS celebrates its anniversary, there is much still to do. The group has just been given a grant from the tampon tax fund to support migrant women escaping domestic violence. They are fighting for changes to the Domestic Abuse Bill, published this year, which leaves migrant women unprotected and trapped in cycles of abuse, exploitation and destitution.
These women do not need charity, Patel says — they need rights.
On a sunny morning in Madrid, two young women duck down a side street, into a residential block and up to an apartment front door. Then they start knocking. Marcella and Maria spend a lot of time banging on doors and yelling through letterboxes all over the city. Most of the time, these doors never open. When they do, the two women could find themselves in trouble. Their job on the frontline of Spain’s fight against sex trafficking is a dangerous one; both have been assaulted and threatened. Yet they keep on knocking, because they have been on the other side of those doors, forced to sell their bodies for a handful of euros, dozens of times a day, seven days a week.
To say that prostitution is big business in Spain would be a gross understatement. The country has become known as the brothel of Europe, after a 2011 United Nations report cited Spain as the third biggest capital of prostitution in the world, behind Thailand and Puerto Rico. Although the Spanish Socialist party, which two weeks ago won another term in government, has promised to make it illegal to pay for sex, prostitution has boomed since it was decriminalised here in 1995. Recent estimates put revenue from Spain’s domestic sex trade at $26.5bn a year, with hundreds of licensed brothels and an estimated workforce of 300,000.
Supporters of decriminalisation claim it has brought benefits to those working in the trade, including making life safer for women. Yet this vastly profitable and largely unregulated market has also become infested with criminality, turning Spain into a global hub for human trafficking and sexual slavery.
Prostitution becomes sex trafficking when one person moves, detains or transports someone else for the purpose of profiting from their prostitution using fraud, force or coercion. In the UK, thousands of women are thought to be trapped in sexual servitude, but the scale of the problem in Spain is staggering. Until 2010, the law didn’t even recognise human trafficking as a crime. Now the Spanish government estimates that up to 90% of women working in prostitution could be victims of trafficking or under the control of a third party – such as a pimp – who is profiting from them. Between 2012-2016, security forces in Spain rescued 5,695 people from slavery but acknowledge that thousands more remain under the control of criminals.
Since it passed its first anti-trafficking laws in 2010, the government has been scrambling to get on top of this crisis, spending millions of euros on an emergency plan to target the individuals and gangs operating with impunity. In 2015, it went further and created formal alliances between security forces, prosecutors, judges and NGOs, to rescue victims and prosecute the perpetrators. Survivors such as Maria and Marcella now find themselves playing a crucial part in bringing the battle to the criminals who once sold and exploited them. But can Spain’s new alliance of defenders really turn the tide against the traffickers?
I meet Maria and Marcella, both in their mid-20s, in the offices of Apramp, an organisation set up to protect, reintegrate and assist women in prostitution. Apramp helped them escape their traffickers, and they are now among its outreach workers. Their day job is to identify potential trafficking victims and try to offer them a way out. They find women they think might need help on the streets, in hostess clubs, and in some of the 400 residences they say are operating as informal brothels in Madrid.
Both shrug off the suggestion that they are brave. “When I’m wearing the Apramp vest at those apartments or on the streets, I don’t feel scared,” Marcella says. “We know from our own experience they’re doing much worse things to the girls and women inside. So it only makes us more determined.”
The two poised and eloquent young women, dressed like students in jeans and trainers, have lived through terrible things. Maria, petite and softly spoken, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, was brought to Spain from Romania by someone she trusted: she thought she was going on holiday with her new boyfriend. Instead, he drove her over the border using their EU residency cards and within 24 hours she was on the streets.
“It just happens so fast,” she says. “It’s difficult to describe how much you can be broken in such a short time. The shock and the trauma makes you go into survival mode. You don’t have time to realise what has happened to you.” She spent eight months being prostituted on street corners, in brothels and in strange apartments. “You’re alive but you’re not really existing,” she says. “Not one of the men who paid to sleep with me asked me if I was there out of choice, or whether I wanted to be doing this. They didn’t care either way.”
She was told by her pimp that she would have to pay off a debt of €20,000 before she could go home. “With Romanian women, the traffickers threaten to kill your mother or your sister or your children if you don’t pay off your debt,” she says. “People always ask, ‘Why didn’t you just run away or go to the police?’ but they don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t just stop a random person on the street and ask for help, because someone you love could get killed. The police in Romania are often corrupt. You think, why should it be different here?”
The promise of freedom in return for paying off the debt almost always turns out to be a lie. Maria says that, throughout her time under the control of the traffickers, she was hit with hundreds of tiny charges: she’d have to pay for clothes, rent for the corner she worked, for condoms and sanitary towels. If she didn’t bring back enough money, she wouldn’t eat or she’d be beaten.
“Debt is invisible,” Maria says. “It’s not a physical chain but it works the same way.” She says some traffickers force women to get breast implants and even though the operation costs around €3,000, tell them they have to pay back €10,000. Marcella nods in agreement. She was trafficked from her native Brazil after applying to do a master’s in Spain, a university course that turned out to be bogus. She was forced into prostitution immediately after she was collected from the airport. “If Apramp hadn’t found me, I think I’d be dead by now,” she says.
The fact that she not only survived but is now able to help others in the same situation has been an essential part of her recovery. “The mafia take you and destroy your whole identity. Even now, you’re recovering but you can never forget your past,” she says. “Doing this work really helps.”
Between them, Maria and Marcella have helped dozens of women and girls escape their traffickers. It’s a process that takes months, sometimes years. Afterwards, Apramp finds the women somewhere safe to live, offers counselling and legal support, and helps them find work. “We have to show them that their lives are worth living again,” Marcella says.
Rocío Mora, Apramp’s co-founder and director, sweeps into the room and embraces Maria and Marcella, who are about to start their afternoon shift. “The only ones who really understand what we are facing are the survivors,” she says. Tall and immaculately groomed, Mora is one of Spain’s best-known anti-trafficking advocates; her rage at what she sees happening on the streets is raw and visceral. What Spain is facing, she says, is a huge violation of the fundamental rights of women and girls; anyone labouring under the impression that the majority of women working in prostitution in Spain are doing so by choice is deluding themselves. “The sex industry profits from the sale of women who are being controlled and exploited through debt, violence or psychological manipulation,” she says. “Our mobile unit has contact with 280 women a day and almost 100% are victims of exploitation and trafficking.”
There are many reasons why Spain has become a hotspot, but for Mora, the biggest single factor is cultural. Spain’s sex trafficking epidemic is, she says, just the most extreme manifestation of the country’s problematic attitudes to women and sex. “There is huge demand for prostitution here. It’s become so normalised that it’s just seen like any other leisure activity.”
One survey in 2008 found that 78% of Spanish people consider prostitution an inevitability in modern society. And demand is huge: another survey, conducted in 2006, found that nearly 40% of Spanish men over the age of 18 had paid for sex at least once in their life. Mora has recently seen a radical change in the kind of men buying sex. Before, it was largely older men sneaking away from their families. Now, both the women on the streets and the sex buyers themselves are getting younger. “The social stigma isn’t the same as it was when I started out,” she says. “We have a generation of young men growing up believing they have the right to do anything to a woman’s body if they have paid for it, and they don’t have to worry about the consequences.”
As a young girl, Mora watched her mother (also called Rocío) start Apramp from their kitchen table. At 18, Mora was studying by day and driving a mobile health unit through Madrid’s red-light district by night.
“When my mother started this work, it was mainly getting health services to Spanish women who were engaged in prostitution to feed their families or a drug addiction,” she says. Two decades ago, criminal gangs started to take hold. “And it really was a radical change. There was suddenly a lot of violence and coercion – men on the streets watching the women and taking their money.”
Now, she says, most women in prostitution in Spain are foreigners: Apramp works with women of 53 different nationalities. “And the gangs are more sophisticated and more ruthless. They no longer need men on the street, because they are controlling the women through debt, fear and psychological control. This is what makes it much harder to fight, because many don’t see that they have a way out.”
On Calle Montera, one of Madrid’s busiest shopping streets, eastern European or South American women stand alone or in small groups. Maria and Marcella point out that many of the women they help don’t look like trafficking victims: it is easy for people to walk past them and not realise. Maria says many are also acting as human signposts, indicating that there are houses filled with other women nearby. When we get back to our car that evening, flyers have been stuck under our windscreen wipers offering a two-for-one deal on women for the special price of €30.
A short walk from Calle Montera is the HQ of the Centre of Intelligence and Risk Analysis, run by Spain’s national police. José Nieto is its chief inspector and Spain’s leading anti-trafficking law enforcement officer. As with Mora, anti-trafficking work has become Nieto’s vocation. He has spent more than 20 years trying to develop an effective police response to a human rights catastrophe that, until 2010, wasn’t even included in Spain’s criminal code.
“When I started in 1997, I was part of the brigade that believed all prostitutes did this work because they wanted to,” he says. “But it’s like an illness: at first you feel that something is wrong but you haven’t got a diagnosis. But as soon as you put a name to it, everything changes. You see it for what it really is.”
He explains the myriad reasons why Spain has become such a magnet for sex trafficking networks; “a perfect storm”, he calls it. “First, we are fighting a crime that is socially acceptable, because prostitution is accepted and embraced by many people here.” Second there is geography: “We are at the centre of all major migratory routes. The main victims we are seeing trafficked and forced into prostitution are Romanian, West African and South American. You can cross from Romania to Spain with an ID card. Africa is just 15km from us. We have a historic and a linguistic connection to South America.”
As in many countries, a prosecution is almost impossible without a victim willing to disclose their situation and testify against their exploiters. “There is great fear among victims that if they tell the police, they will be sent back to their countries with their debts unpaid,” Nieto says. “It makes policing very difficult; if the women don’t ask for help, there is a limit to what you can do. Here in Spain, prostitution itself isn’t illegal, running a brothel isn’t illegal, so you have to prove that what is going on is more than meets the eye.”
I can’t come here as a friend, even though I might very much want to.” These are the words of Andrea Dworkin, addressing an anti-sexist men’s organisation in 1983, in her acclaimed speech I Want a 24-Hour Truce in Which There Is No Rape. “The power exercised by men, day to day, in life is power that is institutionalised. It is protected by law. It is protected by religion and religious practice. It is protected by universities, which are strongholds of male supremacy. It is protected by a police force. It is protected by those whom Shelley called “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”: the poets, the artists. Against that power, we have silence.”
Dworkin, who died of heart failure in 2005 at the age of 58, was one of the world’s most notorious radical feminists. She wrote 14 books, the most famous of which was Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Now her work is being revisited in Last Days at Hot Slit, a new collection of her writing.
Many of the articles written about her claimed Dworkin personified hate. The media often said she hated men, hated sex, hated sexual freedom and absolutely hated the left. In 1998, a writer in the London Review of Books saw fit to give his view on her appearance (“overweight and ugly”) and how her “frustration” at not having enough sex “has turned her into a man-hater”. Another wrote after her death that Dworkin was a “sad ghost” that feminism needs to exorcise and that she was “insane”.
I knew the real Dworkin, and our decade-long friendship taught me far more about love than hate. “I keep the stories of the women in my heart,” she would tell me when I asked how she did the work she did and stayed sane. “They urge me on, and keep me focused on what needs to be done.”
She was motivated by an innate desire to rid the world of pain and oppression. Had more of us listened to Dworkin during her decades of activism, and taken her work more seriously, more women would have signed up to an uncompromising feminism, as opposed to the fun kind, the sloganeering sort you read on high-street T-shirts, that is all about individual “girl power” and being able to wear trousers, rather than a collective movement to emancipate all women from the tyranny of oppression.
We met in 1996. I was one of the organisers of an international conference on violence against women, and Dworkin was a keynote speaker. We hit it off immediately, as we had a similar sense of humour and a number of friends in common. A group of conference speakers went to dinner on the first night and we were raucously discussing our various wishlists of ways to end patriarchy. “Did you notice that we were ‘ladies’ when we came in, ‘guys’ when our order was taken,” said Dworkin the following morning, “and probably banned for life by the time we left?”
In the early 1970s, Dworkin spoke of her own experiences of sexual abuse and violence at a time when few did. And in today’s climate of #MeToo revelations, we can see how far ahead of her time she was. “In the 1980s and 1990s, reading Dworkin became, for many, a discomfiting and exhilarating collegiate rite of passage,” reads a recent piece in the New York Times. “Her writing is a strident and raw look at the systemic bias affecting the everyday experiences of women.”
Dworkin’s 1983 book, Right-Wing Women, could have been about how Trump came to power. Although I doubt she would have been so quick to lay the bulk of the blame for Trump’s election on white women, her razor-sharp analysis of why so many women are attracted to a politics that despises their rights is more relevant today than ever. Her central theory is that the right exploits women’s fear and offers us a chivalrous protection. It reassures us that we do not need to change the status quo, but accept it, and take whatever access to power is available to us. Dworkin despaired at what has come to be known as “lean-in feminism” which focuses on the ability of individual, privileged women to climb to the top, and always said that until women at the “bottom of the pile” were liberated, none of us could be.
An age-check scheme designed to stop under-18s viewing pornographic websites will come into force on 15 July.
From that date, affected sites will have to verify the age of UK visitors.
If they fail to comply they will face being blocked by internet service providers.
But critics say teens may find it relatively easy to bypass the restriction or could simply turn to porn-hosting platforms not covered by the law.
Twitter, Reddit and image-sharing community Imgur, for example, will not be required to administer the scheme because they fall under an exception where more than a third of a site or app’s content must be pornographic to qualify.
Likewise, any platform that hosts pornography but does not do so on a commercial basis – meaning it does not charge a fee or make money from adverts or other activity – will not be affected.
Furthermore, it will remain legal to use virtual private networks (VPNs), which can make it seem like a UK-based computer is located elsewhere, to evade the age checks.
The authorities have, however, acknowledged that age-verification is “not a silver bullet” solution, but rather a means to make it less likely that children stumble across unsuitable material online.
“The introduction of mandatory age-verification is a world-first, and we’ve taken the time to balance privacy concerns with the need to protect children from inappropriate content,” said the Minister for Digital Margot James.
“We want the UK to be the safest place in the world to be online, and these new laws will help us achieve this.”
It had originally been proposed that pornographic services that refused to carry out age checks could be fined up to £250,000. However, this power will not be enforced because ministers believe the threat to block defiant sites will be sufficient and that trying to chase overseas-based entities for payment would have been difficult.
However, the government has said that other measures could follow.
“We know that pornography is available on some social media platforms and we expect those platforms to do a lot more to create a safer environment for children,” a spokesman for the Department of Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told the BBC.
“If we do not see action then we do not rule out legislating in the future to force companies to take responsibility for protecting vulnerable users from the potentially harmful content that they host.”
The age checks were originally proposed by the now defunct regulator Atvod in 2014 and were enacted into law as part of the the Digital Economy Act 2017. But their rollout had been repeatedly delayed.
UK-hosted pornographic video services already have to verify visitors’ ages, as do online gambling platforms.
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) – which gives movies their UK age certificates – will be responsible for regulating the effort. It will instruct internet providers which sites and apps to block for non-compliance. In addition, it can call on payment service providers to pull support, and ask search engines and advertisers to shun an offending business.
Human rights workers at Amnesty International are braced for scores of redundancies after the management admitted to a hole in its budget of up to £17m to the end of 2020.
Up to 70 jobs will go in voluntary and compulsory layoffs amid a slump in donations and a multi-million pound increase in spending on fundraising, the Guardian has learned. Staff have been told the organisation will be reshaped in line with the vision of recently appointed secretary general, Kumi Naidoo, who wants to increase Amnesty’s work on climate change and economic rights. There are concerns that cuts will marginalise in depth research on totemic Amnesty causes such as the death penalty, torture and the arms trade.
Next week Naidoo is due to unveil a new strategic direction, which he has previously indicated requires treating issues like climate change as core components of the human rights struggle. Sources said it appears he wants to increase the focus on campaigning, rather than traditional research-led human rights investigations.
One insider said the 58-year old global organisation was in the grip of “an existential crisis”. The union resolution described it as “a perfect storm of challenges”.
The job losses follow a damning report into the charity’s culture in February, commissioned after the suicides last year of two staff members, Gaëtan Mootoo and Rosalind McGregor. It detailed a “toxic” working environment and widespread bullying.
It warned: “As organisational rifts and evidence of nepotism and hypocrisy become public knowledge they will be used by government and other opponents of Amnesty’s work to undercut or dismiss Amnesty’s advocacy around the world, fundamentally jeopardising the organisation’s mission.”
According to a resolution from unionised staff in response to the threat of cuts “much of the anxiety experienced by staff in recent years has been generated precisely by the kind of mismanagement of finances and unfair treatment of staff that once again we see displayed in measures now proposed by the senior leadership team”.
The memo shows the charity was on course for a £7m shortfall on its spending of £20m and that travel budgets have already been cut and a hiring freeze extended. The shortfall includes £2.5m spent on fundraising that it could not afford. Income from Amnesty branches around the world was £4.5m less than forecast.
I would be very interested to know how much of Amnesty’s fall in income is a result of its move to support the complete decriminalisation of the sex industry (including pimps and brothel keepers). That move seems to fall under the category of ‘economic rights’ and signalled a fundamental change in direction for the organisation, away from clear human rights violations such as torture and illegal detention, into more complicated political/social areas that it had no expertise in. The shift in focus from research to campaigning risks turning it into a PETA-like organisation, existing purely to get attention/donations and to keep itself in existence. While it is very true that the environment is fundamentally tied in with human welfare, many charities already exist to champion that cause, it looks like opportunism.