Prostitution and Deservingness in Times of Pandemic: State (Non) Protection of Sex Workers in Spain
1.1. Deservingness: The Transition from Welfare to Workfare
1.2. The IMV in Detail: The Unfulfilled Expectation of Sex Workers
2. Materials and Methods
3.1. Sex Workers vis-á-vis Benefits
Secondly, the NGO offered to apply to the RISGA (Income for Social Inclusion of Galicia), informing her that the Municipal Social Services of A Coruña would require her to stop sex work to access the benefit. She refused since the benefit would not be more than €300.“This made me laugh because the first thing she did was offer me a course and a doctor called me, and, in that video-call, I participated, and there was another girl engaged in prostitution in a shelter, she was in a shelter […] I said ‘What face mask?’. If we want to eat, we have to work. The client does not want to wear a face mask. And she said, ‘What are you doing?’ Even if you don’t negotiate the condom, you have to negotiate the face mask. If they don’t want to use the face mask, then you don’t kiss […] And, in the end, she sent me a form that I had to complete, of course! Because that’s all subsidized”.(Sex Worker 1)
Third, the NGO informed her of the possibility of accessing the Food Bank, which she also rejected, although she did agree to be registered in this resource, given that she had always had problems accessing the municipal register.“Because, here in Galicia, there is the RISGA, but to collect it, they demand, if you are engaged in prostitution, they demand you leave prostitution, and it is a miserable income, I don’t know if it is €300. If they discovered I was a prostitute, I’d have to pay the money back. When they told me that I had to quit prostitution, I told them that I was not interested. Those €300 would not fix anything. And that I am going to continue in prostitution. And as to whether they could expose me, I am very publicly exposed in a way. It is very easy to discover that I am a prostitute. Because of the ad [...], I am in Pasión18, and I can be found. Then, they were going to find me, regardless. So, I said no because I can’t live on €300, 350 or even €400. I have to pay the phone, I have to pay rent, I have to eat […] What am I supposed to do with €400?”.(Sex Worker 1)
After attempting to access rent payment assistance and being denied due to lack of an employment contract and registration, the second informant decided not to apply for the IMV due to financial needs derived from family responsibilities both in her country of origin and in Madrid, her usual city of residence. Curiously, she told us how, despite working as a prostitute on the streets, she is the one who financially supports her immediate family.“They offered me a basket from the Food Bank, every 15 days. In other words, I could starve to death on the other days. So I said no. [...] I had problems registering and they did help me with that because I could register at the Food Bank of A Coruña. It was managed by a social worker [from a civil society]. And very well managed”.(Sex Worker 1)
Based on her experience, she highlights the complexity and slowness of the application procedure.“Now my nephew and his mother have arrived. But, the rest are in Ecuador, with my other nephews. My mother is here, but she is a domestic worker. I’m always helping out my nephews and helping them with food, things [...] And my brother also needs help when something happens. My brother is a supermarket cashier, and there are times when he can’t make ends meet. I’m the one with the most stable financial situation. My mother doesn’t even earn the minimum wage and my brother earns €900, I think, but he has to pay 800 for rent”.(Sex Worker 2)
The difficulties in presenting the documentation and later appealing the denial decision forced her to seek external support. She resorted to the advice of the APDHA and, later, to a lawyer friend to appeal the inadmissibility ruling for living with relatives with incomes. In the description of this long and tortuous process, which had not yet finished at the time of the interview, our protagonist alluded to the disappointment of having believed that she could access the IMV, given the initial announcement of the Ministry of Equality, until she finally understood that, if she did not declare herself a victim of exploitation, she could not do so (except for the income threshold).“I did the Minimum Income thing, which is a mess, it’s a bummer, and it took a long time, and then they replied that I needed a letter that said that I gave access to my data. So, time passed, and then they told me it was denied, because, supposedly, there are family ties”.(Sex Worker 2)
Along this same line, she recounts how some colleagues tried to process their applications through other NGOs, experiencing long waits and little information.“And they had a lot of patience with me, huh? Later on it became a hassle, attach this, fill out that, and I don’t know what else. But, I tell you that we added many workers to the IMV application to see if we could get somewhere with it, And no… no luck! It turns out that, in its day, it was said that women in a prostitution context, well, they said it that way, and it turns out that later, when it was approved, we were no longer in prostitution contexts and only the victims of sexual exploitation were listed. So, they already took away from how to access that help, right? We had to be declared ourselves to be victims. We are not victims”.(Sex Worker 2)
They even mentioned the experience of a trans woman who was required by an entity to sign a paper declaring herself a victim of sexual exploitation to be able to proceed with the process with some guarantee of success.“There are colleagues who are beginning this process: ‘Ah! Well, look. The same thing happened to me with the minimum income […], or, that, it happened to me, they kept me waiting, ‘I spent days to get a piece of paper,’ ‘they did not pick up the phone […] ‘They did not tell me of a specific experience, but they said things like:’ I was waiting for many days, ‘They did not answer the phone.’ That was because they had gone to these organizations to help them”.(Sex Worker 2)
“It is a shame. It’s an outrage. What they did to generate expectations of that size in women, it’s also making fun of the hunger felt by these women. Because it generated such an expectation in the prostitutes, to later leave us with our pants down […] It’s not worth the paper it’s written on. That was on April 21. ‘Ay! What a nice plan I have, look.’ It was an absolute disaster. Society does not see it. It makes me angry when I see Irene Montero, and I read all this in the media, and it burns me. It’s a joke”.(Sex Worker 1)
This situation only adds to the already tense relationship that thousands of sex workers have with the administration and civil society entities specializing in their care. This tension has already been verified in previous investigations (Acién 2015) and is evident in the speech made by prostitutes, human rights activists, and our key informants’ testimonies.“The current government is entirely abolitionist, and, of course, it was not going to take us into account unless we declare ourselves victims. They no longer count on us, much less on this issue. Although they always try to make us look like real victims, now that we are genuinely in need. That we are victims of hunger, of necessity, we cannot even access a benefit like any other citizen in Spain, of the State, right?”.(Sex Worker 2)
“Yes, because then they can treat us like idiots as if we are obligated to get by on our own. We need to inform ourselves so that they do not deceive us! Watch out! We are a part of a marginalized, forgotten society that no one wants to care for. Not even by giving us the possibility of accessing this help, this benefit, or the Gag Law, which has screwed up our lives. The two things have joined up, the pandemic and the other thing. In fact, in the same spaces where prostitution is talked about, they don’t even want to talk to the people involved. I think it is a moral sense that does not allow them to work with us”.(Sex Worker 2)
“We are not recognized as workers. Therefore, we are not listed anywhere; we cannot access absolutely anything. From there, we are already totally excluded. The politicians we have are cowards when addressing a growing reality. Because prostitution is the consequence of the position of women in society. And nobody sees that behind this, there is enormous State negligence. And, of course, also the stigma. The bad woman. They don’t want to tackle prostitution because be, Beware! They are not going to contaminate themselves with us. We are polluting agents for their policies, and they are only playing to the gallery. Therein lies the stigma of the dirty woman that pollutes”.(Sex Worker 1)
3.2. Civil Society Entities and the IMV Process
The same activist decried the lack of foresight of the Ministry of Equality when it required the closure of the brothels without previously consulting with the NGOs specialized in this field and without foreseeing alternatives for the women who would be left without housing or income. On the other hand, it denounces that the existing housing resources are designed for victims of gender violence, according to the Comprehensive Law against Gender Violence,27 or identified victims of trafficking, but not for women engaged in prostitution. In this regard, the activist makes an interesting reflection on the perverse political use of terms and the contradictions posed by the fact that those who engage in prostitution are spoken of as victims of sexual exploitation but are not considered as such when accessing emergency housing.“And women victims of trafficking (we have already described those perverse distinctions) have to include Annex 1 and 2 (as those of us who are working on this call them), which accredits their situation of trafficking to guarantee access to the IMV. In other words, we have to have an assessment. Speaking of the IMV, we have had a total of 129 requests […] 80% of which have no clear response from the administration […] And the reason for denial in those cases where there has been a response is that the applicant has not paid Social security contributions for more than one year in Spain. Interesting [ironic tone]”.(Begoña Vera, videoconference26)
“The Ministry of Equality recommends that Autonomous Communities stop them working in brothels […] Very good, it shows goodwill. But, ask the entities, the people working on this issue! […] Because, while it is being done, are homeless women with no access to housing or income offered alternatives? Of course! Now we have the IMV. […] But what are they going to eat today? Where are they going to sleep? […] So, I said on the radio: ‘Please send the police and social services to knock on the door to see if the women have been left inside.’ It happened. […] And are there resources for gender violence, for example, to provide housing solutions for women in prostitution? Women with children? We call the resources, and then they say: ‘No, this is for gender violence’”.(Begoña Vera, videoconference)
We are talking about large organizations such as the Spanish Red Cross, Hermanas Oblatas, Proyecto Esperanza or Médicos del Mundo. If these entities expressed helplessness and criticism of the management of the IMV for sex workers and victims of trafficking, greater distress could be expected from those with a more discreet weight in the intervention system because of their reduced logistical capacity or less frequent contact with the administration. Thus, for example, APDHA could not participate in the intermediation to process the benefit because it did not have the proper accreditation.“I contacted Proyecto Esperanza and told them that I was a prostitute and wanted to know how to access the IMV, that I had seen it in the press, they told me that they knew exactly what I knew, that they had no more information. I felt the indignation of the person who spoke to me. All these entities had a meeting with the Ministry of Equality because of their anger about this. And she gave me the phone number of a social worker from Médicos del Mundo in Galicia, and she told me the same thing: ‘unfortunately, all organizations are the same. We all know what appears in the media and nothing else, we do not know how it will be managed, or by what means, or which ones will see the requirements’”.(Sex Worker 1)
The NOMADAS activist also spoke to us about this issue and added interesting nuances that complicated her advisory work. She pointed out the insecurity generated by not knowing whether or not women would finally be able to access the IMV and, above all, was concerned that sex workers would have to expose or declare themselves victims (especially mothers) and assume the risk of hypervigilance from the State.“These associations had to request it, to be mediators between women… we were not there as mediators. We were handling a document that explained the IMV for sex workers or women in prostitution contexts, victims of trafficking, and such and that it had to be requested. Then they left us out […] they were only the victims of trafficking and after a complaint and […] the usual”.(Civil Society 1)
“All this back and forth, ‘Ay! Yes. Now they are going to help sex workers’, ‘then not,’ ‘Now we are going to remove this law that will go after them’ [referring to the article on prostitution in the Organic Law Draft on the Comprehensive Guarantee of Sexual Freedom30]. It has generated even more insecurity about these institutions. We never recommend that they say that they are sex workers, much less if they have children: For them, it is crystal clear! The cases that have come to me of sex workers who were being asked about their son and questioning why their son was not in Spain. Because one of them was asking for food aid and she asked me: ‘Am I going to involve my son in this? For €50? No, no, no!”.(Civil Society 2)
Institutional Review Board Statement
Informed Consent Statement
Conflicts of Interest
In 12th-century Europe, the eligibility of the poor to receive alms was already based on an assessment of the degree of need and moral criteria (such as being a good Christian and not engaging in immoral occupations such as prostitution) (Tierney 1959). Subsequent research maintains this definition, it is the persistent attempt to classify people according to their deservingness, Katz (2013, p. 1).
The term deservingness is used mainly in the social construction and regulation of poverty in the Anglo-Saxon world (Katz 2013). In Spain it is not used in the media, or in political discourse, or in the social sciences, unless it is to translate the English term. The Third Sector in Spain uses the term vulnerable to refer to the poor who could be considered deserving. Although it is not an equivalent term, nor does it appear to share the ideology of deserving, in general, intervention actions show that there are implicit ideas of deservingness (Arqueros 2018).
Spanish Socialist Workers Party: https://www.psoe.es/ (accessed on 1 April 2020)
Acronyms for United We Can, an electoral coalition registered in March 2019 and made up of the Podemos (https://podemos.info/; accessed on 1 April 2021) and Izquierda Unida (https://izquierdaunida.org/; accessed on 1 April 2021) parties on the occasion of the call for general elections in Spain in that year.
The Fourth Article, Section b), of the Organic Law 4/1981, of June 1st, of the States of Alarm, Emergency, and Siege, empowers the Government to, in the exercise of the powers attributed to it in Article 116.2 of the Constitution, to declare a State of Emergency, in all or part of the national territory, when health crises occur that involve serious changes to normality (Royal Decree 463/2020, of March 14, by which the State of Emergency is declared for management of the health crisis situation caused by COVID-19, see: https://www.boe.es/buscar/doc.php?id=BOE-A-2020-3692 (accessed on 1 April 2021).
https://www.mscbs.gob.es/ssi/covid19/guia.htm (accessed on 1 April 2021).
The Ingreso Mínimo Vital, Evictions, Rents and Housing: tenants and Landlords, Housing: Mortgages, Labor rights and measures for workers, Protection of workers in vulnerable situations, Self-employed, Vulnerable consumers and families, Small and medium-sized companies, Women, sons and daughters victims of gender violence, Universities—contracts, teachers, academics, assistants, visitors and general staff, Boys and girls, Animals, Autonomous Communities Care funds. and Plan for the transition towards a new normality.
Anticipating that it is charged while the situation of lack of income lasts, under the periodic control of Social Security.
It is not, therefore, a temporary aid given during the health crisis, but is advertised as the “ultimate safety net for the entire population” for those who lack sufficient income to “reduce the currently high levels of income inequality existing in our society”.
https://www.mscbs.gob.es/ssi/covid19/ingresoMinVital/home.htm (accessed on 1 April 2021).
See note 10.
See, for example: https://www.abc.es/sociedad/abci-victimas-explotacion-sexual-cobraran-ingreso-minimo-vital-durante-estado-alarma-202004210932_noticia.html (accessed on 1 April 2021).
Translation of Image: Information for women victims of trafficking, sexual exploitation, and women in contexts of prostitution. #No Woman Unprotected. Are you in a situation of extreme vulnerability and need economic support? You will have a right to receive the Ingreso Mínimo Vital if you need it and your situation meets the agreed requirements, including if you are in an “irregular administrative situation”. Translation of Tweet: If you are the victim of trafficking, sexual exploitation or in the context of prostitution and you need help because you are in a situation of extreme vulnerability, you have the right to a Ingreso Mínimo Vital. Even if you are in an irregular administrative situation. #No Woman Unprotected.
Translation of Infographic: IMV as a way of out of violence: through the economic independence of victims. The IMV is a necessary instrument for freeing women from situations of violence. Economic independence is key so that no woman suffering from gender violence needs to be economically dependent. You can apply for the IMV as a victim of sexual violence or sexual exploitation, or trafficking.
Verbatim transcription of a video published by the Ministry of Equality on Twitter on 29 March 2021: https://twitter.com/IreneMontero/status/1376567485110091779 (accessed on 1 April 2021).
Accessible in image format at: https://twitter.com/ProstitutasSev/status/1272952449817546753?s=20 (accessed on 1 April 2021).
Full document accessible at: https://observatorioviolencia.org/wp-content/uploads/Plan-Vi%C4%9Bctimas-trata_COVID_definitivo.pdf (accessed on 1 April 2021).
https://www.pasion.com (accessed on 22 March 2021), contact page.
Translation of Tweet: From @IgualdadGob, the Coalition Government reinforces the fight against gender violence and broadens its protection to victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation with alternative housing solutions and access to the IMV.
Expansion of the Contingency Plan against gender violence in the face of the COVID-19 crisis: additional measures aimed at victims of trafficking, sexual exploitation and women in prostitution contexts https://observatorioviolencia.org/wp-content/uploads/Plan-Vi%C4%9Bctimas-treats_COVID_definitivo.pdf (accessed on 22 March 2021).
https://www2.cruzroja.es/ (accessed on 1 April 2021).
See complete article at: https://www.europapress.es/epsocial/igualdad/noticia-victimas-trata-encuentran-dificultades-tramitar-ingreso-minimo-vital-cruz-roja-20200729154223.html (accessed on 22 March 2021).
http://www.hermanasoblatas.org/ (accessed on 1 April 2021).
See selected excerpts from Begoña Veras’ videoconference in a post by activist Raj Redlich on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RajRedlich/status/1382268485930221573?s=19 (accessed on 1 April 2021).
https://www.boe.es/buscar/pdf/2004/BOE-A-2004-21760-consolidado.pdf (accessed on 22 March 2021).
https://www.proyectoesperanza.org/ (accessed on 1 April 2021).
https://www.medicosdelmundo.org/ (accessed on 1 April 2021).
See draft, in process at the date of writing this work on the website of the Ministry of Equality: https://www.igualdad.gob.es/normativa/normativa-en-tramitacion/Documents/APLOGILSV2.pdf (accessed on 1 April 2021).
In a press release from the Association of Directors and Managers of Social Services dated 11 November 2021, the following data is noted: three out of four IMV applications have been denied (73%). Almost 100,000 are pending resolution. Only 8.0% of the population (799,203 people) living below the poverty line in Spain benefit from the Ingreso Mínimo Vital. The average amount of the benefit per beneficiary is 172 euros per month.
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Acién González, E.; Arjona Garrido, Á. Prostitution and Deservingness in Times of Pandemic: State (Non) Protection of Sex Workers in Spain. Soc. Sci. 2022, 11, 199. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci11050199
Acién González E, Arjona Garrido Á. Prostitution and Deservingness in Times of Pandemic: State (Non) Protection of Sex Workers in Spain. Social Sciences. 2022; 11(5):199. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci11050199Chicago/Turabian Style
Acién González, Estefanía, and Ángeles Arjona Garrido. 2022. "Prostitution and Deservingness in Times of Pandemic: State (Non) Protection of Sex Workers in Spain" Social Sciences 11, no. 5: 199. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci11050199