During the 20 years I’ve been consciously thinking about migration and prostitution, sex work and the sex industry, I have rarely seen such a bad portrayal of these deep and complex topics as in a New York Times piece on sex slaves I lambasted the other day. I lived a number of years in Spain, and it struck me early on that the endless discussion of prostitution failed to comprehend the variety of kinds of sex for sale within the industry, in all sorts of venues and situations that could be seen as good, bad or indifferent but that ought not to be reduced to any abstract, simplifying, uncontextualised term.
Here are researched descriptions of four types of places where different kinds of sexual services are for sale in Spain: large highway clubs, private flats, small houses associated with agriculture and the international coastal zone. After each description, I highlight the socially interrelated themes that arise from even such a brief glance, in order to point out how a cultural study of commercial sex – not prostitution – might proceed, on the assumption that knowing more about the specifics will help promote justice for more people.
Streams of cars and trucks roar along multi-laned routes that connect Spain with France, Germany and other states east and with Portugal to the west. For long-distance truck drivers, the backbone of European commerce, long stints of solitary driving must be broken up with places offering rest and recreation. The buildings strung along these superhighways, as well as along smaller, provincial roads, are known informally in Spanish society as puticlubes (whoring clubs), but to those that work there they are hoteles de plaza, a term that refers to the employment system used, in which those offering sex for sale pay a daily rate for a place to live and work for three-week stretches. These businesses may house 50 workers or more, and in some areas, such as between Burgos and the Portuguese border, numerous clubs are located close together, forming a veritable erotic shopping area. With multiple floors, luxurious decorations, videos, live shows, jacuzzis and ‘exotic’ music—the latest rock from Moscow, for example—these clubs have come to represent luxurious sites of conspicuous consumption. Here customers pay as much as ten times the ordinary price for drinks, and it is the job of those working there to get them to buy as many as possible, since this is the owner’s major source of income. The array of nationalities living in the club at any one time is a phenomenon surely unique to sexual milieux: a German or Spanish truck driver or businessman may find himself surrounded by Rumanians, Nigerians, Colombians, Ukrainians, Brazilians and Moroccans. Imagine spaces filled with people speaking many languages, spaces where people from very different cultural backgrounds mix: the result may feel extravagantly cosmopolitan to some customers, who use these lavish venues to entertain and impress their own business clients. Other habitués include young men wanting a night out (and perhaps a sexual initiation) and lovelorn bachelors or widowers seeking company, all of whom may spend hours drinking, talking and watching. There is no requirement to purchase sex at all, and if it is, it occupies no more than twenty minutes (rules of the house, which wants workers back promoting drink as soon as possible). A large number of support personnel is needed to keep these high-overhead businesses going, and because they employ many migrants, good public relations are necessary with local police and immigration inspectors. Workers move on after their three-week stints, assuring that novelty will always be on offer.
To consider this venue as only ‘prostitution’ requires focussing exclusively on the 15-20 minutes when customers may retire to a private room with workers. Much feminist polemic has been written about concepts of exploitation, coercion and the lack of choice suffered by women in these jobs, as well as how they have reached this destination. Ignored are the work and lifestyles of long-distance truck drivers; cultures of entertainment among businessmen; multi-ethnic workplace cultures; the performance of masculinity and femininity and the reproduction of gender roles; homosociality (masculine bonding, competition, deal-making); financial advantages of owning such businesses and the extent to which lack of regulation makes it possible; relationships with local communities, employees and management and how sites may be used to accumulate social and cultural capital.
Where clubs specialise in splashiness and publicity, private flats offer discretion. They exist in most towns. Here the client rings up first to make an appointment in the kind of building that suggests tenants are ‘respectable’ middle-class families. The manager of the flat arranges for clients not to run into each other, and the flat itself displays few or no sexual signs; on the contrary, it may have floral-patterned covers and teddy bears on the beds, crucifixes and images of saints on the walls and the smell of home cooking wafting from the kitchen. A chain and cuffs hanging from a hook on one wall may indicate special services offered. If the customer has not requested a worker he already knows, he makes his selection and goes to a bedroom. Again, the mix of nationalities and ethnic groups is notable. These businesses rely on classified advertisements and mobile telephones, the two elements also making possible the boom in independent workers who run their own business from their own flat.
Again, most theory has focussed on the sexual acts that occur in flats and the extent to which women workers have chosen to perform them. Subjects that need researching include the cultural role of privacy and discretion; the possible meanings of domesticity as a sexual setting, including religious and family icons; communications technology’s contribution to the development of businesses.
In the southern province of Almería, a large proportion of the tomatoes and other vegetables Europeans eat are grown under plastic in vast plantations operated under semi-feudal conditions. Closeby, various kinds of sex businesses coexist, ranging from luxurious bars with private cubicles to rustic, poor housing where tenants open their doors to clients. The luxurious are located close to the plantations, even directly across from them, and those who enter and pay the prices are Spanish owners and other ‘whites’ from the managerial class, many of them men who were once agricultural labourers themselves. Women who work here come from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The rustic are located farther away, sometimes up inconvenient roads with few public services; here the clients are ‘non-white’, often undocumented, migrants. Here, Nigerian women offer offer sex and other domestic services in their houses (meals, drinks, washing and ironing, music, a place to stay the night). Occasionally tourists wander up from the beaches, seeking something different from the nightlife of the tourist coast.
While ‘prostitution’ is present here, this form of commercial sex attests to a traditional link with migrant sectors such as farming, mining and shipping. Useful research would look at the interrelation of commercial sex with other industries; the intersections of different informal-sector economies and forms of servitude; how the business segments by class, colour and ethnic group. Ethnographic work would consider what kind of relationships are developed among subaltern employees in different expatriate sectors.
This is the area of Spain where Spanishness fades and cosmopolitanism, tourism and hybridity reign. Businesses in Torrelinos, Marbella and smaller towns along the coast highway advertise in a brochure called Encuentros (meetings) which categorises its offerings under the terms Gay Bars, Swapping, Private Establishments and Contacts and Sex Shops. A plethora of clubs, bars, party rooms and flats advertise, mentioning as specialities piano-bars, saunas, jacuzzis, turkish baths, dark rooms, go-go shows, striptease, escort services, bilingual misses, private bars, dance floors, a variety of massages, private booths with 96 video channels, gifts for stag and hen parties, latex wear and aphrodisiacs. Apart from the sexual products and services available, other conditions are announced, such as air conditioning, valet or private parking, swimming pools, credit cards, select clientele, television and accessibility for the handicapped. Many adverts play down the commercial aspect by emphasising the ‘non-professionals’ present. Fitting the international environment, businesses are called Milady Palace, Play Boy, Melody d’Amour, Dolly’s, New Crazy, Glam Ur Palace Club and Titanic. Many are located in ordinary shopping strips.
Obviously, ‘prostitution’ occurs in these venues, but further areas for research include the influence of tourism and its correlation with questions of image and class in services; the positioning of gay culture and diverse sexual subcultures with commercial sex; the existence of subcultures within commercial sex; the role of entrepreneurism in the proliferation of sites. It would be interesting to know which kind of customer goes to which kind of place, how entrepreneurs decide what to offer in such a compact area chockful of sex businesses and how long businesses last. Are there sexual cultures here that extend into the rest of Spain or that tourists take home with them?
– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist