In Spain, sex work employs an estimated 100,000 women and generates €4 billion a year. Like many other countries, Spain tolerates sex work but hasn't legalised it, leaving sex workers in a cruel legal purgatory: they can pay taxes, but aren't recognised as employees.
When the country went into lockdown in March, sex work was not considered an essential service, and therefore banned. It's difficult to imagine a sector of that size just shutting down without huge government support, but after initially leaving sex workers completely in the lurch, on the 21st of April the Spanish government announced emergency measures intended to help women forced into sex work. "Today, we have extended our protection of victims of gender-based violence to women who are victims of trafficking, sexual exploitation and prostitution," said Minister for Equality, Irene Montero, on Twitter.
To qualify, workers had to prove they were victims of exploitation by getting in touch with social services, or be identified by police as they were shutting down brothels. It's a policy that excludes those who choose to work, or those who don't have the means or knowledge to seek out help. When Spain started easing lockdown measures at the end of May, I spoke to three Madrid-based sex workers, who – between them – charge from €40 to €700 per hour, about how they got by. While none had applied for the government support, each had different experiences of a time when some sex workers could afford to stop working, while many had no choice but to keep at it.
Cristina is a 27-year-old from Uruguay, but has been in Spain for four years and working as an escort for two. "A relative of mine got me a waitress job, so I came from Montevideo to Spain," she explained over the phone. "When I ran out of work and didn’t have any studies or specific training under my belt, I couldn’t find another way out."
Cristina has worked every single day since the lockdown was imposed in mid-March, so the easing of restrictions doesn't affect her too much. She works in what she describes as a "sex cooperative” in Madrid’s upmarket Salamanca district. "I charge €80 per hour,” she said. Half of that goes to the house. "When lockdown started, some clients stopped coming, but pretty soon they started coming back," said Cristina.
Since most of her clients are wealthy and live locally, she guesses that fines (ranging from €600 to €10,400) don't worry them. Since restrictions began easing, Cristina's clientele has grown beyond pre-coronavirus numbers: "I suppose young guys are getting back into the routine of going out to have a beer with their mates and ending up going to find sex workers. People really like doing that in Spain." But enforcing health regulations isn't easy in a brothel. "You can’t make all the clients have their temperature taken at the entrance. Mostly because they wouldn’t come back."
Typically, Cristina refuses to go to clients’ houses for her own safety, but during lockdown a number of wealthy and important clients asked her to and she obliged. "The client was so important that my bosses told me to take the job, and said they would pay the fine," she said.
Like Cristina, Charo* also comes from Latin America. The 32-year-old Colombian has been living in Spain for a decade, and preferred not to say how long she has been a sex worker.
Unlike Cristina, Charo is not a luxury escort who works by appointment. She charges €40 an hour and works in a less upmarket brothel between the hip Chamberí and Malasaña districts, where tapas bars abound. "Lockdown has ruined me," she said. "Where I work, drunk guys used to come in the morning on the way home from a night out, but of course, now there are no parties."
"Normally, my boys [as she affectionately called her clients] would go out with the hope of hooking up, but wouldn’t. The poor things would have a massive amount of alcohol and cocaine, and then would come here with their credit cards. Because they were on coke, they couldn’t really get it up and a lot of them couldn’t even fuck."
Charo said she had spent lockdown inside the brothel, waiting in vain for clients. “I’ve been out of work since the last day that people could go out partying. Actually, when you called me, I got excited because I thought that it could be a client," she said.
That said, Charo is nervous about the safety risk when clients do return. "But tell me, what should I do?” she asked. “Should I tell them to touch my tits or my ass with gloves on? Should I give blowjobs with a condom on? They’d never come back. And my boss would tell me not to come back either."
Charo said she is paying for her mother's leukaemia treatment in Colombia and has no choice but to continue working despite the conditions. "My mother hasn't received any money for a few months and has had to stop her treatment. If I don't want her to die, I have to take shit from my clients.”
On the spectrum of luxury escorts, Eva would be near the top, and fairly privileged compared to the vast majority of sex workers. The 35-year-old from Cordoba in Spain's south is also an artist, but at €700 an hour, sex work pays the bills. “The rest of the time, I dedicate myself to painting or sculpting,” she said.
A self-confessed hypochondriac, Eva stopped working even before the government declared the state of emergency. "Luckily, I have a lot of money saved up and I can afford to go a few months without the work,” she said.
Eva's registered as a freelancer and invoices as an independent consultant. She told me she pays the highest income tax rate. "I declare every last euro I earn. As long as you keep paying, the tax office doesn't care exactly what you consult people on,” she laughed. After initially closing up shop during lockdown, Eva received an offer she couldn't refuse in April. "One of my regular clients called me, a very important businessman from Madrid. He suggested I move to his chalet with him in exchange for €10,000 a month, undeclared – because he said he would give it to me at the beginning of each month in advance, in a briefcase."
Eva's only remit would be to keep him company, and have sex when she felt like it. She could also bring her art supplies and do whatever she wanted during the day. After initially hesitating, Eva accepted the offer and has been there since early April. It turned out she was talking to me from his patio. “Ten thousand euros a month for living in a chalet,” she said, “Tell me what you would do.”
*Name changed to protect identities.
This article originally appeared on VICE ES.