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.”
QotD: “Their journey takes them into the dark underbelly of the scene, where they hear tales of human trafficking, forced drug taking and violence.”
A couple writhe naked on the sand while the waves break gently behind them.
A jogger runs past and he does not bat an eyelid at the sex scene playing out yards away.
The “lovers” are in fact porn stars, and they are filming on a beach in Spain — fast becoming the adult movie capital of the world.
While passers-by in the UK would be shocked, producer Thierry Kemaco — renowned in the industry for his outdoor films — explains: “In Spain, the people watch and when you finish, they applaud.”
This liberal attitude may be less surprising to a younger generation brought up on a sex-rich diet of TV’s Love Island and online porn.
But there is still plenty to shock six young Brits who travelled to Spain to explore the booming sex industry for BBC3 documentary Porn Laid Bare.
Their journey takes them into the dark underbelly of the scene, where they hear tales of human trafficking, forced drug taking and violence.
They are also on set to witness the nerves of a young Russian girl when she realises she is expected to have sex with 20 men.
The Brit group, who were chosen for their varying attitudes towards porn, include freelance journalist Neelam Tailor, 24, porn star super fan Ryan Scarborough, 28, student Anna Adams, 23, and the youngest of the group Cameron Dale, 21.
Not one of them comes away unchanged by what they witness.
The film is directed by Rob Diesel, who also stars in it. He says he went to Spain from his native Sweden because “they’re more liberal here”.
The website he is making the film for had 7.6billion visits last year and turned over £6.9million.
Rob says: “It’s a multi-billion-pound industry in Spain.
“They respect you as an artist. It’s a job here, it’s not like, ‘Look at the freaky guy there who’s doing porn’.
“There’s so many myths in porn still. You don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with and the artists I work with all have contracts.”
But the Brits are left horrified when they later watch footage of Rob pulling a woman along by her hair in what is known as a “public disgrace” video.
Neelam says: “I felt like I’d been lied to. He’d talked so much about respect and choice and then we saw him doing the other side.
“When we confronted him, his argument was that people are into it.
“But I completely disagree with him and he has to think about the message he’s putting out into the world. For me, it’s always about the bigger picture.”
Neelam was just 12 when she first watched porn and says she would then view it “most days”.
She stopped aged 16 after noticing she struggled to become aroused when having sex.
Neelam, who is in a long-term relationship, says: “I realised this is the effect it can have so I stopped watching porn because real intimacy is so much more important to me.”
A third of young people surveyed say they’ve had riskier sex due to porn, while a quarter have felt pressured by a partner to do pornographic acts.
Roughly four in ten say porn has made them more concerned about how their genitals look, and one in five claim it made them consider plastic surgery.
Yet over half of those surveyed agreed that performing in porn is a good way to make money, and over a quarter would like to perform in porn themselves.
In Barcelona, they meet Ismael López Fauste, a porn magazine journalist turned police informant. He decided to leave the industry after witnessing “human trafficking, drugs, lots of violence and a lot of prostitution”.
Ismael tells them: “The point where I got out was when some of the girls overdosed on the set because they gave them drugs. I thought, ‘OK, I am a part of this’. This is just one of the stories.”
After writing a book exposing how some women are exploited, he says more came forward to tell their story.
But he adds: “Then the threats began because they wanted me to stop writing. They wanted me to delete everything.”
Asked who threatened him, Ismael replies: “The producers.”
He adds: “I want you to hear someone who was inside the industry. She was going to be with you but in the last few days she got threatened.”
The woman agrees to speak to the group over the phone. A former porn actress, she says: “In some scenes I was made to take drugs and if I didn’t I would be sent home without the money.”
She adds that she tried to report it to the police “but they aren’t bothered” and that she has failed to get the videos deleted.
The emotional interview leaves student Anna, from London, in tears.
She says: “It’s just really quite hard to know that it’s going on.”
A visit to a Madrid studio, run by director Torbe, the so-called king of Spanish porn, also leaves her shaken.
He tells them: “I find girls who don’t know anything about anything.
“Ninety-five per cent of the girls who come here are new, so I teach them, especially young girls.”
When the TV pals visit he is a filming a group sex session involving one woman and several men.
The star is a 19-year-old Russian girl who, the group are told, will earn just over £2,500.
She is wearing a red eye mask and her hair is in pigtails.
Her appearance is enough to prompt Anna to demand Torbe — under investigation for allegedly distributing child pornography — to show them proof of the girl’s age.
After seeing a copy of the her ID, Anna is satisfied but remarks: “She’s just turned 19.”
Filming is further delayed because the young actress — who reveals she has only been in the job a week — is so nervous.
As the 20 men, who wear masks to hide their identities, wait around on set, the Brits discover that the Russian girl had been expecting half that number.
Let’s pause here to take a look at the numbers, since porn-apologists make claims like, the women in porn make “a million a year”. Porn is usually paid by the sex act, £2,500 ÷ 20 = £125 per sex act, assuming there is only one sex act per man on set, so the £2,500 is actually a rip-off. There is no way anyone could do this kind of filming every day; women only last “six months to three years, tops” in the porn industry, and one analysis found that almost half of the women in the US porn industry did only one or two films before quitting.
When Anna, who stopped watching porn because she felt it did not fit with her feminist views, confronts Torbe, he says it is because they are shooting “two scenes” today.
When filming does finally start, Anna leaves the set in tears.
Speaking outside, she says: “I’m really concerned for her safety. I feel scared for us to leave because I don’t know what’s going to happen when we are not there.”
In the studio, Ryan has to comfort a tearful Cameron, who says: “It is the worst thing I’ve seen.”
Ryan adds: “It just doesn’t look fun. After a week, how do you know how comfortable you feel sleeping with this amount of men? It’s not the environment for a 19-year-old.”
The Knesset [in late December] passed a landmark law against prostitution making [sex buying] a crime, rather than the [‘work’] itself.
The law makes Israel the 10th country to institute what is called the “Nordic Model” of combating human trafficking and prostitution. The law passed with the approval of 34 MKs, with none voting against, at the last minute before the Knesset broke for the April 9 elections.
There are currently 14,000 people [being commercially sexually exploited] in Israel, including 3,000 minors, according to the Welfare Ministry, and 76% would leave [the sex industry] if they could. The average lifespan of a prostitute in Israel is 46 years.
Now a first-time offender will be fined NIS 2,000 for hiring or attempting to hire a prostitute and NIS 4,000 for further offenses. It also allows for pressing charges and fining the offender up to NIS 75,300. It offers the Justice Ministry the option of instituting other punishments, such as “John Schools,” meant to educate those who pay for sex.
It is midday in Bhairchawa, one of the 23 official border checkpoints between Nepal and India. Each day, up to 100,000 people cross under the stone arch separating the two countries. Some are on foot, others in trucks or on bikes, mopeds and rickshaws. Amid the chaos – the people, the dust, the noise of traffic and honking of horns – are the guardians: women who, having survived the horrors of human trafficking, now spend every day trying to spot potential victims and their exploiters among the crowds.
One of the women on duty today is Pema. While we talk, her eyes remain fixed on the crowds, scanning the throngs of people moving slowly across the checkpoint.
She is right to be vigilant. The 1,750km open and porous border between the two countries is a dream for traffickers and a nightmare for those trying to stop them. It has helped this crossing become one of the busiest human trafficking routes in the world.
More than 23,000 women and girls were victims of trafficking in 2016 according to the annual report published by the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal. However, numbers could rise to 40,000 Nepalese victims a year, according to NGOs in the field. Last year, a study conducted by Sashastra Seema Bal, the Indian armed border force, said detected cases of trafficking from Nepal to India had risen by 500% since 2013.
Pema says she knows how to spot potential victims because she was herself trafficked across this border when she was 11 years old. Born in a remote village in the north of Nepal, she was taken by a friend of her parents, drugged and sold into a brothel in India. Years of rape and torture followed until she was rescued by Maiti Nepal, an anti-trafficking charity, following a raid on the brothel.
Pema lived at a Maiti Nepal shelter and has since trained to become one of 39 trafficking survivors working for the organisation as border guardians. The group work at nine checkpoints between the two countries, in collaboration with border police.
Pema spots a man trying to cross the border, holding the arm of a girl wearing a red leather jacket. She is wearing high heels, and is stumbling, unable to walk properly. “She is dressed too elegantly … One of the things traffickers do is buy women new clothes, to gain their trust,” says Pema as she approaches them and asks for their IDs. The girl does not have any, and the man says he is a businessman working in India and that she is his girlfriend. They are taken aside; Pema and the border police start to question the man.
It turns out their fears are well-founded. The man is a classic “lover boy” fraudster, a man who has seduced a young girl on Facebook and convinced her to leave her family and run away together.
“He has a record,” says Pema. “He was trying to get her out of the country to sell her to a brothel. This happens every single day.”
When the girl learns the truth, she collapses in tears. She is taken to one of Maiti Nepal’s transit homes, where she will receive help and emergency accommodation until she can be taken back to her family.
“It is hard for them to take in the fact that their boyfriend is a trafficker who just wants to sell them,” says Sirta, another of the guardians. “The same thing happened to me. My boyfriend sold one of my kidneys and then he sold me. I am only alive today because I was rescued.”
I worked for a decade under decrim. But before that, for a little, I was a stripper so we’ll start there.
One night, let’s call her Stacy, came in for opening and was extremely distraught because she’d been raped a few hours earlier, she came in to talk to me because she didn’t have anyone else. Our manager told her she could either work her shift or be fired. The only reason she was allowed to leave was because I said I’d leave too and I was making them too much money at that point for him not to cop it from the owner if that happened. She didn’t go to the police because she knew they wouldn’t care.
Then when I was nineteen I switched to working in brothels. People like to think drugs come before that but usually they don’t. Most of the time that comes after you start, to cope with it.
I routinely worked with trafficked women in legal brothels because under that system, it’s actually way easier to traffic them in. Most of them were South East Asian and I know at least three of them are dead, I’m fairly certain a lot more of them are now.
I’ve seen men come in and leave because they wanted ‘younger’ girls, despite there being girls working that were 18 and looked 15.
The night a john tried to choke me, I slammed his head into the mirror. I was warned by police after that next time I would be charged with assault.
I don’t feel the statistics accurately portray the history of abuse most if not all of us have experienced. I met maybe five women who said they hadn’t been abused in some way during childhood, whether it be sexually, physically or emotionally. In ten years.
Literally no one was there because they wanted to be. It was because if not, you starved or worse. I’ve never met any of us who was in the girl’s room between “”“clients”“” preaching about how great it was. We talked about what we would do if we had a choice and what we hated about johns and management, and every level of horror you can imagine that we’d experienced in our lives.
Decriminalization is just a different shaped cage. It’s still designed to trap and commodify women and girls as sex toys for men. I’ve seen women raped and beaten, I’ve known women who have been killed or who have ended up killing themselves.
The reason it’s not okay to people to exchange money to kill someone but it’s okay to exchange money to rape someone, is because the world we live in perpetuates that women and girls are lesser, and that our worth is based in fuckability to men.
And you could ask anyone who is exited the same and their stories don’t vary from ones like mine. But we’re called liars by people who have never set foot in a brothel in their goddamn lives, for challenging the bullshit notion that there is a class of women it is okay to exploit.
The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize has gone to campaigners against rape in warfare, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.
Ms Murad is an Iraqi Yazidi who was tortured and raped by Islamic State militants and later became the face of a campaign to free the Yazidi people.
Dr Mukwege is a Congolese gynaecologist who, along with his colleagues, has treated tens of thousands of victims.
Some 331 individuals and organisations were nominated for the prestigious peace award this year.
The winners announced in the Norwegian capital Oslo on Friday won the award for their “efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war”, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the Nobel committee chair, said.
The pair both made a “crucial contribution to focusing attention on, and combating, such war crimes”, Ms Reiss-Andersen added.