Countering Violence Against Women
The Underbelly of the Sex-Trade Industry
Amelia Tiganus is a sex-trade survivor, originally from Romania. She was prostituted in Spain, where she still lives. Tiganus is involved in a campaign to end the sex trade, working since 2015 with Feminicidio as coordinator of its online training platform and projects for the prevention and awareness of prostitution, trafficking and other forms of violence against women. She is currently documenting the number of murdered prostituted women in Spain.
Tiganus has published several articles on the sexual exploitation of women and girls. In the past two years, she has given more than 100 lectures and workshops throughout Spain and Argentina. I spoke to Tiganus about being trafficked and abused in state-sanctioned brothels, and about her life and activism after escaping prostitution. Here is her story.
When I was 17, I was sold by a Romanian pimp to a Spanish pimp for 300 pounds [roughly $350]. But the total debt I was told I owed my new pimp was 3,000 pounds, after he had bought me and paid for my travel, documentation, clothes and the “facilities” that they put me in. Like many Romanian girls, I was totally vulnerable, not only because of economic poverty but also because of social exclusion, and being stigmatized for suffering multiple rapes at the age of 13.
I left school at 14, and at 16 I left my family and started working in a factory. The society I grew up in was deeply patriarchal, so to them I was already human waste; a bad woman.
When the pimps captured me, they talked about the virtues of being a prostitute in Spain. They told me I would earn a fortune in a short time. I didn’t know that what awaited me would not look anything like [what] they told me.
It was very easy to deceive me because they had already stripped me of my humanity by telling me I was a “bitch,” and by sexually violating me. I could not aspire to anything else. The pimps are expert manipulators and psychological abusers. The worst punishment is usually not physical. They didn’t put a gun to my head or threaten me or put me in chains—they broke me down psychologically, and that is how I became a victim.
Like other survivors of prostitution, I define the brothel as a concentration camp. During the day, we were forced to watch pornographic films, to eat and to sleep under a strict regime of control. We were expected to be loving and smiling, since that gave the place and the pimp a good reputation. We had to play a role all the time, and had to do what the johns demanded, such as dressing as they wished, or to [go by] another name. We had to sleep in the same bed that we had been sexually tortured in by johns.
The pimps know that Spanish johns want the “merchandise” in good condition and without obvious signs of violence. They want “happy whores” because, thanks to the media and awareness campaigns that directly relate physical violence to trafficking, the [sex buyers] do not want to feel like part of the mafia that sexually exploits women. But the johns also don’t want to give up their privilege of sexually accessing women’s bodies. So they prefer to deceive themselves, with the support of the institutions, the media, the political class and society in general, into believing that the prostitutes inside the brothels are happy and there by choice.
When I was taken to the first brothel in Alicante, a big tourist area, I was amazed that the place was full of girls from my home city. I was also surprised by the endless 12-hour days to which we were subjected. Between opening at 5 p.m. and closing at 5 a.m., there was no possibility of rest, and this was seven days a week. If we stopped work, we were fined, and this was added to our debt.
The pimps told us that once the debt was paid we would get 50 percent of the profits. They told us we shouldn’t complain, because we were going to earn a lot of money in a short time, and then retire early. I realized after three weeks of being there that that would not happen when I had already paid my debt.
In prostitution, everything is set up to take money away from the women. They are left with just enough to send to their families and not raise suspicion. We were fined and charged for lodging and maintenance at exorbitant prices, despite sleeping in crowded rooms and eating badly. We were sold expensive clothes and makeup, and they made us buy drugs, supposedly to offer to the johns and earn more money.
They hooked us on drugs as soon as they could. First it was alcohol, then cocaine. Drugs and alcohol were always available. At first, we were pressured to do it, but then we complied in an attempt to mentally escape the torture.
We were willing to endure the cruelty because we believed in the false promise of the freedom and autonomy that money would give us. In the brothel you lose your identity: You are interchangeable and usable, without any individual characteristics.
Men Who Pay for Sex
From my experiences, I identified three types of johns:
The putero majo [“putero” is a word commonly used by prostituted women to mean “sex buyer” or “john”] was the one who would talk to me a lot. I had to be very kind to him and smile, listen and approve, with love and admiration. For me, that situation was one of the most maddening. He forced me to be there, not only in body but also mentally. That was torture for me and the majority of prostitutes. This type of john not only wants to buy a body but also the soul, the feelings and the affection. They want to buy what cannot be sold. They don’t mind self-deception. I cannot describe the impotence and anger that that made me feel. He felt I should be grateful to him because he supposedly treated me well. This john went from being the most loving “boyfriend” to calling me “disgusting bitch,” “liar” and “swindler” in the most violent ways if I was not good at the role he was paying for.
The macho putero was to the point. He paid, penetrated and left. At least that way I could be mentally where I wanted to be. For that type of john, the whores are only a body with holes to penetrate. They don’t care what we are thinking. We must perform for him just like in the movies: moan, smile and pretend that we are participating. Then he leaves and we are left with our bodies violated and in pain. On more than one occasion, this type of john would turn up to the brothel in a pack with his friends and ask for group sex, usually with only one woman. Most of the time he got what he asked for, because the women who were still in debt to the pimp were particularly bound to obey them and accede to more brutal practices.
If the pimps don’t kill us, the third type of john does: the “misogynist putero.” The physical and mental torture that this sadist performs are difficult to narrate. Being bitten, pinched, beaten, insulted, humiliated, reduced to nothing. The more pain, humiliation and fear they inflict, the more they enjoy it.
The johns are macho men who think that women exist to satisfy their desires. They are politicians, judges, police, prosecutors, journalists, trade unionists, workers, businessmen, doctors, teachers, athletes, married, single, young or old. They come from all social classes. There is no place where these men feel more united than in the brothel.
Follow the Money
I was trapped in the prostitution system for five years. The money we earned was taken by the pimps, and that money then benefits municipalities, the treasury and the state prosecutor. The money from the prostitution system ends up benefiting the state economy. This is money literally from the backs of women.
That is why I speak of the “prostitution system.” It is the “community” in which you live. It is the state and its institutions that allow it, because it brings economic benefits to the country—don’t forget that Romania is an important provider of women for sexual exploitation within the European Union.
Every time a prostituted woman retires, at least three new women are forced into the brothels. Whores are “made” on an industrial scale because the sex industry needs them. The pimps invest a lot of money into making young women believe that their best chance is to be a whore.
Spain has recently become a paradise for sex tourists. Here you can easily access all types of prostitution: street, brothels, private apartments, online advertising. It is a safe haven for johns from all over the world. In 2017, 82 million tourists visited Spain, and they contribute significantly to the economy. Much of that money comes from trafficking and prostitution. Sex tourism feeds and sustains trafficking. The Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands and Catalonia, for example, are destinations for sex tourism. The income from prostitution and trafficking in Spain are part of the GDP [gross domestic product].
Counting Murdered and Missing Women
In the database of Feminicidio.net, we have documented 42 femicides of prostituted women between 2010 and 2018, not including those who have disappeared during the trafficking process.
I survived and I can tell my story, but imagine all those who are not able to speak—those who die from addiction, abuse and torture; those who will be killed … the prostituted victims of femicide are the forgotten victims of male violence. They are seen as disposable women. They are brutally killed—their broken bodies are often found in vacant lots, or in containers or in garbage bags. Although they are sexual crimes, they are not recognized as such by laws or people.
In Spain, there is much talk and action amongst feminists about gang rape and abuse of women, which is a good thing. The social perception is changing. However, sexual violence that takes place in brothels does not seem to matter so much. The double morality is still there, with the myth that there are “good” and “bad” women— the women who matter and those who do not. This is reinforcing the inequality between men and women and makes our liberation impossible.
Spain is the third biggest consumer of prostitution in the world, after Thailand and Puerto Rico. In Spain, the sex industry is widespread and standardized. Prostitution is not a crime, but it is not regulated as a professional activity either. However, the “prostitution of others” or sexual exploitation itself is a crime, despite rarely being prosecuted.
In addition, Spain has been a magnet for immigrants in recent years. The racist policies of migratory control have helped the traffickers, because they offer to help those who need to cross borders illegally. They often become traffickers of young women.
Many migrants are caught by traffickers and exploited in Spain through force and coercion. The traffickers take advantage of women in dire poverty, who then end up in debt bondage.
How Do We Fight the Sex Trade?
At Feminicidio.net, we have several proposals to combat trafficking and sexual exploitation:
● We ask for the adoption of a comprehensive law against trafficking based on three elements: the identification of victims, protection and reparation.
● We propose a reform of the criminal code that incorporates the criminalization and punitive punishment of the crimes of rufianismo [pimping], localia terceria [third party exploitation] and proxenetismo noncoercitivo [non-coercive pimping], because if sexual exploitation in brothels is not allowed, some experts claim that would eradicate 90 percent of trafficking.
● The awareness and prevention of trafficking and prostitution should be incorporated into the school curriculum.
● The media should give femicide in the prostitution system the same coverage as other types of femicide so that it is recognized in official figures. We want trafficking and prostitution cases to be followed from a human rights perspective so they avoid misrepresentation, manipulation, morbidity and sensationalism in the treatment of information. We also want to develop campaigns aimed at consumers of prostitution and young people to discourage or inform about the risks of consumption of prostitution.
Our new project, Sexual Geo-violence, documents the different types of sexual violence. There is a link between sexual violence, prostitution and pornography.
● The development of training plans for the police is urgent, and needs to incorporate multidisciplinary treatment from clinical psychology, anthropology, sociology and criminology.
The feminist movement is indebted to the victims of femicide in the prostitution system, who have shown how the end result can be a loss of life. We must find a way to reach a common purpose, and to tackle this at the root cause, which means, of course, penalizing the johns.
Public Policies and Public Support for Prostituted Women
I fully support the Nordic model. I support it as a woman, as a feminist, as a survivor of prostitution and trafficking and as a member of an abolitionist NGO [nongovernmental organization], La Sur. At Feminicidio.net, we understand that we cannot achieve real equality while countries are profiting from the sexual exploitation of women; while men can, for payment, access the bodies of women; and while profiting from our sexuality and our reproductive capacity.
It is necessary to create public policies that go beyond economic aid for women escaping trafficking and prostitution. As a survivor, I know that many more things are needed than money. Women who have been prostituted need therapy, education and training to help them find jobs and become financially independent. Often, the uprooting, loneliness and stigma of having been prostituted means that we need an entire society to welcome us as we are. We are brave survivors of a system created to enslave and dehumanize us. We deserve to live a life free of patriarchal violence.
I was able to get out of the prostitution system after five years, when I understood that I had been cheated. That was what saved me and allowed me to continue pursuing my dream. I wanted to live a quiet life, have a home, to create a family, to study, be “someone,” because I had been “nobody” for too long.
In the countries where the sex trade has been legalized, trafficking has increased, pimps have become entrepreneurs and men receive the message that nothing happens to them if they pay to penetrate women’s bodies. At the same time, the demand for increasingly brutal and degrading sexual practices is on the rise. I always wonder how someone can fight against women becoming free of prostitution. What world do we want to leave our daughters?
The Way Forward
The abolitionist movement is growing because every day there are more diverse women (politicians, judges, police, journalists, businesswomen, workers, students) who understand that the existence of prostitution makes it impossible to achieve real equality. They are not willing to accept that prostitutes are “the others,” but that we are all women.
There are also some men who refuse to comply with what masculinity imposes on them. As Laura Segato says in her book, “Counter-Pedagogies of Cruelty,” “Many men today are withdrawing from the corporate pact, marking a path that will transform society.”
What people do not see is that the legalization and normalization of prostitution does not reify or dehumanize some women but all women. The fact that men have [monetary] access to the bodies of some women strengthens their abuse and humiliation toward other women in their lives. One of the myths is that the johns have a conventional life, but the truth is that johns are still abusers and misogynists, even when they are at home with their wives and daughters.
Abolitionists will win this war. That is why we speak out, risking [the danger of] facing a perverse, powerful millionaire industry that claims our destiny is to serve men sexually. It is a long and hard battle, and perhaps many of us will not be alive when the abolition of prostitution has been achieved. But we will be proud to know that we have been part of a movement that has created a world without prostitution. A world without prostitution is a world where care, mutual desire, shared pleasure, ethics, love, recognition, good treatment and equal opportunities occupy the center of life.