Of the myriad groups that make up the Spanish Indignados movement, one of the least reported on is the Prostitutas Indignadas. Or "pissed off prostitutes". That changed on Friday when they got together to march through the centre of Barcelona – there were more journalists than actual prostitutes.
The press are actually having quite a hard time in Spain at the moment – getting shafted both by the politicians and the police, who are using them as a private espionage service, and by the social activist groups, who accuse them of being sell outs. And though I’m not naïve enough to equate reporting in these times of corporate hegemony with actual prostitution, you have no idea how much I wanted one of those T-shirts with "Yo Tambien Soy Puta" on them. (When I mentioned this to one of the girls, a Brazillian, she offered to give me hers afterwards. It was like that "I like your dress, it’s going to look great crumpled on my bedroom floor" chat up line.)
Despite working in the oldest profession known to man (and penguins), prostitutes are typically living proof of the old "shit rolls downhill" saying. Although Spain is one of the last countries in Europe where it’s not illegal to work as a prostitute, it’s not actively legal either. Which means that the girls get treated with the same disrespect they do the world over, and the police can generally turn a blind eye. Up until now progressive governments have preferred to go along with the franquista line that "it doesn’t exist, so we don’t have anything to say on the issue", largely to avoid controversial legislation either way that could lose them votes. Although this still holds true for central government, the Catalans are marginally less swayed by the Catholic Church, and, since 2006, have been pushing through progressive legislation to make it harder for working girls to work.
On the 12th of May, the final stage in this pogrom against prostitutes comes into play, making it illegal to work the streets. Street prostitution being generally the lowest rung on the sex work ladder, it’s understandable that the move has caused uproar from aid organisations and social activist groups like 15M. When you take away the livelihood of people who have next to nothing, what the fuck are they going to do?
Accordingly, not many of the girls who turned out to the protest had much in common with Julia Roberts. Apart from the hordes of journalists, the crowd was made up of women pushing 50 and transsexuals. The trannies, as you might expect, were the most fun. Kika, a peroxide blonde with an acne scarred face, commandeered a megaphone, and spent the march reading out slogans such as “I’d rather be a whore than a politician” from a printed out sheet. She was really good at it. “I used to be in the church choir as a little boy” she told me with a wink.
Kika is just one of the prostitutes who work with Genera, a non-profit that has been forging links in Barcelona’s sex work community for decades. Also on the march was Beatriz, a transsexual author who arrived in Barcelona in 1989 and has “worked at everything. On the street, in flats..." Still? “I do what I have to”.
Her 2009 book Manifesto de Putas is a post structuralist critique of the situation facing prostitutes in Spain. In it, she places the blame squarely with the power structures that legitimise discrimination against what she feels is "the right of the individual to do whatever they want with their body". Neither does she think much of the changes Barcelona has gone through in the last ten years. “The city centre is just for tourists,” she says. “Ten years ago you’d go to a gay bar and everyone would mix – the rich, the poor, the tourists. Now everything’s much more boring.”
She also has little patience with the council’s hypocrisy. “They say they don’t want prostitutes on the street, but for the Americans this is like Vegas. They come here to fuck. If there wasn’t demand for it we wouldn’t be doing this.”