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    Barcelona and Prostitution: Always Difficult Relations With the Neighbourhood

    Living (badly) in Barcelona

    Text Isabel Holgado Fernández Anthropology. Line Co-ordinator of Research and Co-operation with Immigrant Sex Workers

    relations 1
    © AHCB-AF
    relations 2
    © Cristhian Maury

    The historical evolution of prostitution in Barcelona has been marked by the intervention of the public powers. The prostitutes have therefore mapped the city, opening new spaces of sexual trade.

    "Hygiene is government."
    Juan Giné y Partagás, C.19th 

    Barcelona, 1350: King Pere IV el Ceremoniós prohibits brothels around the Rambla de Barcelona under forty steps from churches. Barcelona, 2006: the Consistorial, through the Ordinance of measures to foster and guarantee citizens' coexistence in public of Barcelona, restricts sexual trade in the street, amongst other things, and sanctions the offer and demand of sexual services in places under two hundred metres from educational centres.

                 The urban evolution of prostitution in Barcelona has been marked throughout history by the intervention of the different public powers. The prostitutes have therefore mapped the city, opening new areas of sexual trade which will remain outside official control until further notice. Since the Crown, the ‘Consell de Cent', the Central State or the City Hall, sexual trade has been sporadically prohibited, regulated and tolerated in the majority, but invariably the object of policies of control, above all in public areas; the favoured targeted collective being the numerous clandestine women who, at all times, have tried to work "independently" and avoid being entered in the municipal registers. The public management of prostitution has been a constant source of income for the public coffers since Alfons X el Savi consolidated the system of public brothels by awarding licences ad usum meretricale -exclusively for men.

                 Another of the constant features in the history of prostitution has been the unending restrictions on prostitutes, who have not been able to lead normal lives and be socially accepted. Without going into the dramatic conversations derived from the persisting social stigma, and avoiding brutal times and punishments here (head shaving with public scorn, ear cutting, whipping, death...), most of the prohibitions have focused on the use of public space and dress, seeking to maintain for social order the crucial difference between decent women and the unchaste. Alfons X, for instance, established brown as the colour for prostitutes, which causes the Spanish expression "irse de picos pardos"- and forbade them from wearing jewels, as well as keeping them off the streets in Easter Week. From 1446 public women had to remain in their brothels. Later they were shut up in Lent in the convents of "repentant" women. The first of these in Barcelona was the Convent de les Magdalenes, and in the 15th century, the most widely used was that in carrer Egipcíaques, the name (Magdalena - Madeleine) being derived from a repentant biblical prostitute turned into a martyr. The expression "to be poorer than a whore in Lent" is still colloquially used today in Spanish.


    Historical and human circuit

    The chronicles say that in the Middle Ages, the area of Barcelona outside the walls (for instance the present area of Canaletes and carrer Tallers) was the habitual scenario for the poor class prostitution, an area shared with beggars and other social fringe groups. After 1400, street prostitution was complemented by the brothels (or "bons llocs") tolerated by the government. Sculpted in the stone of the building, a large head with a striking expression, called carassa, announced the proximity of a brothel.

                After the 16th century, prostitution proliferated on either side of the Rambla as a means of making a living. Known as the Raval or 5th district until 1981, this is a densely populated area, rich in cultural and political effervescence, but also very poor with great housing, social and sanitary problems, and which unceasingly receives new population in search of better opportunities in the city. Prostitution becomes an economic option to be able to face up to the endemic poverty and seek better margins of autonomy in a context of standardised social and labour exclusion for the female population.

                 At the end of the 19th century, street prostitution was focused mainly on the bottom of the Rambla, on the right hand side, known as "los bajos fondos" (the down and out), it was rebaptised as "el barrio chino" (the Chinese district) in the twenties. This prostitutional space led by poor women and men of low or medium purchasing power, coexists alongside the more chic brothels that begin to appear in the early years of the 20th century. Aimed at a "select", cosmopolitan male audience, Spanish and French women worked here, and some stood out for the quality of their services: the Chalet del Moro in Passatge de la Pau, and Madame Petit in carrer Arc del Teatre, famous for being the first in Europe to include the bidet in the ritual of hygiene.

                 The European stage and intellectuality along with the local male population and the sailors regularly visiting Barcelona, assured the good health of sexual work and the splendour of the Chinese district. Women in prostitution were part of the driving force of the socioeconomic fabric of the Raval for more than a century. Rosa, a prostitute and inhabitant for thirty years of the Chinese district is saddened when she thinks of this time, "We gave incredible life to this district. Everyone earned money with us: but look, not a single statue. The pimps have one, they are even given a square". 1

                 Until 1935, when the Spanish right wing government suppressed prostitution as "a licit means of living", the municipal policy had been based on the classical hygienist ideology (prostitute women as those mainly responsible for venereal diseases) and public order, with policies centred on the census and hygienic control of women in prostitution. After the civil war, the regulation was restarted and the city's brothels were reopened, while there was greater control on the numerous, autonomous prostitution in the street, multiplied by the great economic strife caused by the after-war. Women prostitutes had to work in public brothels, be on the register and comply with the restrictions and weekly hygienic checks stipulated by the Special Hygiene Department.

                 The regulated tolerance finished in 1956, when Spain signed the abolitionist agreement of the United Nations (1949) and prostitution was once more considered "illicit traffic", following the banner of the world abolitionist current, and in coherence with the ultraconservative Francoist mentality on the virtue and respectability of women. The impact on the paid sex market was demolishing: in Barcelona alone, 98 brothels and 42 clandestine houses were closed, and the control and confinement of women prostitutes rose sharply.

                 But neither the brothels nor the women who turned to prostitution to make a living, nor the male demand for paid sex disappeared from the social choreography. A large part of the brothels became bars, American bars, snack bars... The sex professionals became waitresses, emigrated to other countries or extended the clandestine street prostitution, assuming greater risks before the overwhelming official persecution. With the rise in the American bars and the meublés, a new Chinese district, known as "perfumed", was formed on the left hand side of the Eixample, in the vicinity of carrer Urgell and avinguda de Sarrià. The popularity of cars also provided new places for street prostitution.

                In 1962 Spain ratified the international convention that identifies prostitution with traffic and exploitation. Ten years later, the government closed the majority of meublés in Barcelona and reactivated a campaign of "cleansing" and repression of women in prostitution. The area of the "perfumed Chinese district", Rambla Catalunya and Ronda de Sant Antoni were those most sanctioned. According to officialdom, the main objective was to disband the organisations of foreign pimps and "avoid the proliferation of drugs, traffic of minors and general delinquency". The results were some arrested pimps and very severe action against the women, many of whom were arrested, fined for "public scandal" and confined in re-education centres around the country.

                 Despite the persistent pressure and the habitual raids, the deserving women continued to look for new scenarios and using the public space to offer their services, especially on the Rambla, twenty-four hours a day. The areas of sexual work were extended in the city and the number of women rose, as shown by the documents neighbourhood protests of these times. After the social and political change in the seventies, the origins of the women were diversified (transvestites and transsexuals began to be seen) as well as the offer of paid sexual services 2: the use of press advertisements of massage parlours, call-girls, home or hotel services, etc., lay alongside street prostitution with its epicentre in carrer Robadors. Carandell says that this street in 1982 has almost thirty bars, the odd sex-shop and a dozen meublés. Draper calculates that at the time there had to be between 40,000 and 45,000 prostitutes "of all kinds" in Barcelona 3.

                 As a result of the Olympic Games in 1992, the Chinese district and the rest of Ciutat Vella became the priority of city's policy of renovation. An ambitious urban plan is started up and in 1999 a new Plan of Uses for District I is approved. The new regulations translate into the progressive closing of numerous hostels and meublés, and the disappearance of streets where prostitution was carried out. This municipal intervention made women prostitutes more visible, and also brought the first protests from the professional women, backed by some owners of premises, who sought protection from the Ombudsman in claiming their right to work.

                 After 1997, a significant change occurs in the profile of the women. As a result of the new global and labour tendencies, the number of extra-community immigrant women in commercial sex has increased constantly, and now account for between 60% and 90%, depending on the spaces. Mainly from Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa, but also from western countries, this new reality has changed the public policies and the social evaluation of the phenomenon. It must be said, at this point, that there have always been foreigners in commercial sex in Barcelona, both in the streets and in the closed spaces. In addition to their presence in the luxury brothels in the 20th century, Barcelona regularly received foreign women, called "gaviotas" (gulls), who followed the United States sailors around the different Mediterranean ports. As well as temporary stays of women of different origins, the neighbourhood protests in the seventies arose above all from the conflicts presumably caused by the presence of Latin American women.

                 Today, following the application of the municipal ordinance strongly criticised by different sectors of civil society, some politicians, prestigious jurists and the prostitutes themselves, and the macro raid carried out in November 2006 against presumed criminal networks of Romanian prostitution, the physiognomy of street prostitution in Barcelona has changed substantially, above all in the centre of the city. Despite the precariousness of the working conditions and the greater vulnerability due to the administrative situation, the women and transsexuals (Albanians, Romanians, Chinese, Latin's, Spanish, etc.) seek urban spaces to carry out their work without causing neighbourhood conflicts. One added difficulty is the fall in demand from men in open spaces, as for the first time they are also the object of administrative sanction. Meanwhile, the sex industry is consolidated in the spaces hidden away from the citizens. Barcelona stands out as one of the favoured places for sex on the European menu. Prostitution is only one of the many modes included in the mercantilisation of sexuality. The offer of paid sex profiles, spaces and experiences is extraordinarily diverse, and more in reach of all pockets than ever.


    Perspectives and policies

    As we are reminded by Ordóñez 4, the European Union agreed on a policy with respect to dealing with people in sexual exploitation from the Palermo Convention 2000. However, the way the phenomenon of distribution is handled varies from country to country, and in this sense the ideological positions concerning sexuality and migration, amongst others, crystallise in specific juridical regulations and approaches. What is shared by all models is the criminal consideration given to the activity of the pimps. In Spain, based on juridical ordinance, prostitution is a permitted activity, for no constitutional or legal precept expressly forbids it. Another question is the legal and judicial practice, especially when it concerns migrant women and open spaces.

                There are basically three perspectives: penalisation (translated into prohibitionism and abolition), regulation (in its classical and post-modern versions) and depenalisation or legalisation.

                Prohibitionism started with emperor Justiniano, who established severe punishments for all people intervening in prostitution. With an ultraconservative religious component considering all sexual activity outside marriage as sinful, it contemplates the exchange of sex for money as a crime in itself, and the people who exercise prostitution as "delinquent and depraved". Historical practice has left women and those mainly pursued, and the United States and Ireland are examples of this positioning.

                 Abolitionism starts from the axiom that all paid sexual activity, whether or not it might be agreed, is violence against all women, a reduction of patriarchal domination that has to be abolished. They maintain that women are always victims of men, a trafficking network or the compulsion of poverty and that the male customers are always to blame, for they seek to satiate their domination of  women through "the purchase of a woman's body". The measures to be taken focus on sanctioning and pursuing "prostituting men", and also fighting against the networks of pimps. Sweden is the country that has adopted abolitionism as a State policy. Since 1999, it has penalised the purchase of sexual services and men customers are fined and given jail sentences of up to six months. In the Spanish State, the institutional feminism stakes on following the Swedish example.

                 The regulation of prostitution in its classical version, starts from the consideration of prostitution as a "necessary evil". San Agustín de Hipona's theses stipulated tolerance and iron control of prostitution up to the 19th century as a form of preventing "worse sins" and safeguarding the feminine chastity or nubile women. From the 19th century, in the face of the growing concern for health problems among the male population, regulationism was spread throughout the Spanish state. The main actions of the regulation are the persecution of independent prostitution, the census of women prostitutes, the obligation to periodical health checks and the limitation of areas and timetables and tax obligations.

                 Since the nineteen-nineties, regulation in its current version has been one of the most widely used approaches on the municipal scale, sometimes similar to the precepts of prohibitionism. Now the emphasis is placed on restricting the use of public space, and establishing zones for clubs and measure of hygiene and health control. The other area of action, unseen before now, is the municipal regulations that make customer men visible and intervene with respect to them. In Madrid, the campaign was developed last year of "Prostitution exists because you pay", along with dissuading and sanctioning measures for men approaching open spaces of prostitution. The Barcelona regulations of 2006 and those made by Reus City Hall in 2007 also broaden the scope to sanctioning users of paid sex.

                 The legalisation of prostitution as a working and economic activity, with its inherent rights and duties, is the juridical reply adopted by Holland (2000), Germany (2002) and partially countries such as Switzerland and Australia. It was in Europe and the United States where in the nineteen seventies a pro-right movement started, led by the sex professionals themselves and backed by their feminist allies. 1985 saw the first World Whores Congress, held in Brussels, where they reported the social and legal ill-treatment and claimed their rights as sex workers. This pro-rights movement now covers the whole world and there are numerous associations of sex professionals that organise themselves to defend their interests in the first person. In 1997, more than a thousand women prostitutes demonstrated in Calcutta to report the paternalistic, repressive practice that always considered them the object of intervention and never subject to rights. Entities such as the Red Thread in Holland, the Net Work Sex Worker Project throughout the world, Empower in Thailand, the Autonomous Movement of Sex Workers in Ecuador, Hetaira in Spain, etc. are working to achieve the political strengthening of the sex worker group. The last landmark was the holding in Brussels of the International Congress for the Human and Working Rights of Sex Professional People in autumn 2005. One of the central aspects of the demands of the pro-rights movement is the urgent distinction between those who opt consciously and deliberately for sexual work, and those who suffer violence and coercion in a context of prostitution and traffic. Radically different realities that require equally different interventions.


    1 This refers to the French writer Pierre de Mandiargues, the author of the novel La Marge and honoured with a square in the centre of the Chinese district.

    2 Carandell mentions the presence of "male prostitutes", men who offered services of sex and accompaniment for women. In Carandell, J. M. (1982), New secret guide to Barcelona, Martínez Roca, Barcelona.

    3 Draper Miralles, R. (1981), The guide to prostitution in Barcelona, Martínez Roca, Barcelona.

    4 Ordóñez, A. L. (2006), Feminism and prostitution. Foundation of the current debate in Spain, Trabe, León.

    Autumn – Winter (October 2007 – March 2008)

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