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The stone buildings and labyrinthine pedestrian streets, built for a time before cars, come to life as street lamps blink on. She gets distracted by two young men who appear to be taking pictures of each other and purposefully getting her in the frame. When the flash goes off, she yells at them and tries to grab the camera. The two men laugh and continue drinking their beers. And with nearly 2, brothels — including the biggest one in Europe — Spain has the third highest rate of prostitution in the world, with an estimated ,—, sex workers.
Sex work was decriminalized in Spain in , yet there are no laws directly addressing the issue, leaving women in the industry in a legal vacuum. Sex work is tolerated, but not regulated. A police report from last year revealed 5, cases of human trafficking in the previous five years , the majority forced to work in the sex industry. Academics say that in Spain up to 90 percent of sex workers could be under the control of organized crime networks, trafficked from other countries.
In the s, most sex workers were Spanish, but today, 80—90 percent are immigrants , mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, or Eastern Europe. Sex workers in the Mediterranean country, as a result, can be separated into two categories: those who chose to enter the trade and those who were forced into it. And for an outsider looking in, the line that separates these worlds can get blurry.
In the end, the bill could hurt two populations who have very different needs. Robador cuts across a plaza with a playground full of screaming children. The other half of the street — narrower, darker, and mostly hidden — is lined with doors leading to pisos and clubs. Both are essentially brothels, but the former is privately owned and harder for police to search.
Women on Robador escort their clients through these doors both day and night. Some work exclusively in the pisos and clubs. Others, like year-old Manuela, spend hours calling after men on the street. Hers and other names in this story were changed for privacy. She sits on a curb playing Candy Crush on her phone, barely taking her eyes off the screen as she speaks. Her dirty blonde hair is pulled up into a ponytail and her soft bangs fall right above her eyes. She puts her free hand in her pocket, keeping it warm, and rhythmically taps her black high-heeled boots.