Protection and Hope

Adriana Riley / GRACE MORRIS

13 years ago, the solution that Adriana found to reconcile motherhood and employment was to be a sex worker. Today, she continues to devote herself to this and fighting for the rights and visibility of a profession that’s still not regulated, often silenced and socially stigmatised.

“I couldn’t lose my job or have to leave in order to take care of my children…” Sitting in a red seat in the Alameda de Hércules square, Adriana is not at all different from the other women who, like her, relax in the sun on this spring afternoon. The wind moves her black hair, and the seeds falling from the nearby tree dance around her face with the same joy as in her smile. She grabs a cigarette from her pack, lights it, and takes a sip of the Coca-Cola she ordered. While drinking, the piercing on the septum of her nose tinkles the glass. Her gaze is intense and strong, sincere. Nothing differentiates Adriana, in essence, from any other women, except that her job, the job she can’t lose, is uncommon.   “I am an independent sex worker, an escort. I am about to be 32-years-old, and I have been working since I was 19.” In Spain, prostitution is not prosecuted under the law, like soliciting prostitution and variants of sexual exploitation are. Since 1995, the year when prostitution was decriminalized, anyone can be freely employed as a prostitute, an activity that moves 3.5 billion euros a year in the country, 0.35% of the GDP. The base of this business is 100,000 sex workers, of which only two out of every 10 are voluntarily employed; Adriana is among them. Among other reasons, she chose to be an escort because it gives her more control over her clients. While the crime rate in Spain is not among the highest in the world, the sex business come with increased risk. “At the beginning, it was complicated because it’s scary not knowing with whom you’re going to be…I didn’t want to be alone with anyone, so I started working with couples. I’m bisexual and it gave me peace of mind knowing there were women.” After a sip of her soda, another puff of her cigarette and a deep breath, Adriana explained the details of the laws surrounding prostitution. Although prostitution is not criminalized in Spain, if a sex worker approaches a client in the street, both can be fined as this particular practice is illegal under the law. Many of the Spanish prostitutes offer their services in clubs or on websites. “On these pages, you can find absolutely everything,” The latter is Adriana’s preferred option because it is the one that allows her to earn more money: she charges between 250 and 300 euros per hour. “In a club, it’s much cheaper…the hour ranges from 50 to 60 euros.” A woman approaches Adriana and gives her a tap on the arm. She has a cigarette between her lips and makes the gesture of lighting it with an invisible lighter. Adriana smiles, takes hers and lights it. The woman walks away. “I started working in this in a very simple way. I had jobs with a salary and fixed schedules, but none of them was compatible with motherhood. I became a mother very young, before I was 19. I needed to take care of my children and to do that, I needed more flexibility. As an escort, I have a lot of flexibility.” Adriana acknowledges that, at the beginning, her decision was not easy for her family; from the way she relates it, it’s clear they have spoken about it many times. “For them, one’s sex is sacred and nobody can touch it. It took them a while to understand that sex work is not always forced, and at first, that was very difficult.” In Spain, the profile of users of these services has changed over the years. In 1998, the majority of men were married and in their forties; in 2005, were men in their thirties. In 2017, the average user was a man between 19 and 21 years of age. Currently, 39% of men in Spain have paid for or regularly pay for sexual services.  “And, not many people are aware of that.  We need to work towards the visualization of this enormous activity. This is one of the reasons that OTRAS was created.”  Founded in 2018, OTRAS (Organization of Sex Workers) is the first and only union of sex workers in Spain. Among its objectives, OTRAS fights to decriminalize sex work, defend the labor and social rights of prostitutes, give a voice to women who exercise sex work freely, destigmatize the profession and help victims of sexual exploitation. For Adriana, the last objective is the most important. “The difference between sex work and the trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation [is huge]. To begin as a sex worker, the decision must always be voluntary.” The Spanish government, despite the fact that this point of view is shared by many sex workers, as of now,  does not recognize OTRAS as an official union. It believes that doing so would lead to even greater exploitation of sex workers and trafficking victims.  “Well basically… it is a fight for labor and social rights, to decriminalize sex work and to make visible the position of the women in order to fight against the stigma.” Adriana mentions this issue as she is preparing to leave, taking one last puff of her cigarette and finishing her Coke. It is something she knows too well and has suffered from. “I was in brutal depression, I was on medication and just stayed in bed for a long time because of the stigma… the stigma kills.” Two tattoos on her arm serve as a permanent and constant reminder of the struggle she has overcome and the consequences of stigmatization. The first is a semicolon, the symbol of a movement started in 2013 on social media by activist Amy Bleuel after her father’s suicide. Unlike a period, which signifies the end of a sentence, the semicolon allows a sentence to continue to be written. Thus, this tattoo represents hope for people who have faced or are facing depression, addictions, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. The second tattoo is a red umbrella, a symbol since 2005 of the International Committee of the Rights of Sex Workers (ICRSE), which represents the struggle of the collective to protect themselves from the abuses to which sex workers are subjected: abuse by pimps, customers and the police, as well as – and perhaps above all – the ignorance of our society. An umbrella and a semicolon. Although today it isn’t raining in the Alameda square as Adriana walks away from the bar, and although the spring – a symbol of new beginnings – shines in Seville, her skin does not for a moment forget  that ongoing struggle for her rights and for the rights of all sex workers. She does not forget that it is only thanks to this struggle that she will be able to continue her work with dignity and continue to bring money home for her children. With protection and hope.