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Spain Debates Dangerous Sex Work Law

Across Europe, Criminalization is Linked to Increases in Sexual Assault, Harassment, Attacks

Sex workers protest in the Puerta del Sol, Madrid, against the the proposed criminalization of sex work, October 22, 2021. © 2021 Cecilia Montagut

Spanish lawmakers should reject a potential law criminalizing sex work that is being debated in parliament. Research across Europe consistently shows that laws criminalizing the purchase of sex, known as the Nordic Model, increase sexual violence and harassment against sex workers, while having no demonstrable effect on human trafficking or the demand for sex.

Research commissioned by the Northern Ireland Department of Justice showed “no evidence” that the 2015 criminalization of the purchase of sex led to a decrease in demand for sexual services, and had a “limited deterrent effect on client behaviour.” In France, the 2016 introduction of the Nordic Model created a fear of arrest for clients, which forced street sex workers into secluded, dangerous locations and led to a spike in gruesome murders. Statistics from, a sex worker organization based in Ireland, showed a 92 percent jump in reports of violent crime against sex workers in the country the first two years after the country adopted the Nordic Model in 2017. In 2022, an Irish Department of Justice-funded report found that one-fifth of sex workers interviewed had been sexually exploited by police, and that the legislation had “drastically marginalized” an at-risk population.

The Spanish bill also threatens the right to housing, stipulating up to four years in prison for anyone (including other sex workers) who rents a room to “facilitate the prostitution of another person, even with their consent.” This could criminalize sex workers who live and work together as a safety measure.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) Advisory Group on Sex Work wrote in 2009 about the criminalization of activities associated with selling sex, like providing transportation to sex workers in danger or owning an establishment where sex is sold. “Thus … sex workers and their managers, other associates and even family members can face criminal charges.”

Criminalization also undermines and endangers the work of activists and human rights defenders. A 2021 report found that anti-sex work laws make it dangerous for advocates to gather in person, organize online, contact trafficking victims, and conduct health outreach in brothels, for fear of being arrested.

Spanish lawmakers should act on what credible data consistently shows: criminalizing clients does not make workers safer, nor eliminate demand. Rather, it opens the door to further exploitation, forces sex workers to abandon security measures, and erodes the work of human rights defenders.

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