The sex worker trade in Spain turns over an estimated 40 billion euros annually, earning it the nickname the "brothel of Europe."
By Sinikka Tarvainen
Madrid - Is prostitution a form of violence and exploitation of women, which should be banned, or a job like any other, which should be regulated?
The question has divided Europe, with Sweden trying to eradicate prostitution by penalizing the clients, while others such as the Netherlands have legalized the trade.
For Spanish legislators, however, prostitution proved too tough a nut to crack.
After nearly three years of debate, a parliamentary commission advising the government threw in the towel, rejecting both of the proposed approaches and simply leaving prostitution where it was: a shady zone where it is neither legal nor illegal.
Spain will only take measures aimed at reducing prostitution, the commission announced.
Its incapacity to adopt a clear policy angered both the main camps: women's rights activists regarding prostitution as a form of slavery, incompatible with democratic values, and prostitutes' associations saying sex workers needed legal rights to protect themselves.
Spain has been dubbed the "brothel of Europe," with up to 500,000 women working as prostitutes. Every day, 1.5 million men buy sex in Spain, said Maribel Montano of the governing Socialist Party (PSOE).
The trade, which is plied in places ranging from parks and flats to roadside brothels, turns over an estimated 40 billion euros (54 billion dollars) annually, almost the equivalent of Spain's education budget.
Ninety per cent of the prostitutes are immigrants - mainly from Latin America, eastern Europe and Africa - coerced into the trade by criminal rings, according to the PSOE.
Even those who are working independently would often prefer to do something else for a living. "Clients treat me badly, humiliate me and refuse to pay," said Mauro Pilaquinga, a transsexual prostitute from Ecuador.
The problem is made more complicated by the - apparently small - number of prostitutes who have freely chosen to sell sex.
Margarita Carreras has worked as a prostitute for 24 years "because I want to, because this is a free country, because it is very lucrative and because I prefer it to a cleaning job," she explained.
Prostitutes' associations representing people like Carreras accuse the authorities and certain feminists of treating them condescendingly and of not giving them a voice.
Voluntary prostitution is not illegal in Spain, while pimping and coercion are.
But it is not always easy to distinguish between the two, and the legal vacuum makes it difficult for the authorities to "clean the streets" of prostitutes as often requested by local residents.
In one recent development, residents of a central Madrid street threatened to film haggling between prostitutes and potential clients in an attempt to scare the men away.
Parliament's incapacity to take a stance showed how deeply divided Spanish society is on the subject.
A full ban on prostitution might imply penalizing hundreds of thousands of male clients, a measure too unpopular for the government to contemplate, a police expert observed.
The problem proved too complicated even for the northeastern Catalonia region, where officials had drawn up innovative plans to turn prostitutes into independent businesswomen forming cooperatives.
"The matter is too polemic," sources of the regional government conceded after the plans were shelved.
"To continue allowing the sex trade without regulating it shows a great hypocrisy," the daily El Mundo complained in an editorial.