As we all know, prostitution is big business in Spain, said to be worth €18bn a year. Estimates claim there are about 200,000 sex workers in the country, nearly all of them immigrants, many of them illegal.
Although the young ladies ply their trade in the streets and brothels, prostitutes or putas often advertise in newspapers as well. In fact Spain is the only European country where the "quality" press carries adverts for sex. With the migration of most classified advertising to the internet, prostitution now accounts for 60% of the Spanish classified ad market.
Most of the newspaper ads are not placed by individual women but by the mafias – largely from Romania, Nigeria and various Latin American countries – who exploit them. Proof of this emerged this month when police broke up a prostitution network in Madrid after following up ads in various papers. The women were being forced to give half their earnings to pimps, and much of the rest went on paying for their lodgings, leaving them, the police said, "in a state of near slavery".
In an attempt to clean up the act, the Spanish government has put itself on collision course with the national press with the announcement that it wants to ban adverts offering sexual services from their classified sections. President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero made the announcement during this week's state of the nation speech, saying it was part of a strategy to fight the people trafficking and sexual exploitation that was rife in the country. "As long as these advertisements exist, they contribute to the idea of this activity as normal," he said.
Unfortunately, the explicit adverts, which fill at least a page in most of Spain's dailies, are worth €40m a year to the struggling newspaper industry. So the Association of Spanish Newspaper Editors has responded to the announcement by saying that the logical policy would be for the government to make prostitution illegal. They argue that If prostitution was illegal then placing adverts in newspapers would by definition become illegal.
However if the ads are banned, then newspapers will want to be compensated and, worryingly for Zapatero, El País, a staunch supporter of his socialist party, is the paper that earns the most from this form of advertising. In spite of its left-liberal sensibilities and readership profile, the paper earns €5m a year from advertising prostitution.
Surprisingly, the most openly religious daily, ABC, also runs the ads; El Publíco is the only national that does not run them as a matter of policy.