Every day, the newspaper is full of more disheartening realities from the continent that threaten to shatter the teenage American perception of Europe as a bastion of indiscriminate sexual opportunity, sandy beaches, and wine-splattered tablecloths. Of course, Europe has never been the Xanadu that American pop culture has painted it as for decades, despite the splendid languor and unmistakable placidity in the European disposition that evades even the most lethargic and simple American. However, the perception of Europe as the ideal setting for a teenage odyssey continues to tempt thousands of American youths into “Eurotrips” annually, enticed by Hollywood’s adolescent adventure-comedies spotlighting the splendiferous world that lies across the pond.
No single city has become the icon of unfettered debauchery more so than Amsterdam, and no single subject has been cast more enticingly or frequently to American consumers than prostitution. Snapshots of the red light district, stumbling groups of sloshed friends, emetic partygoers hunched in club corners, all of these scenes have become part of the pop-culture canon of American teens who fantasize about the salacious pleasures resting in wait on the other end of the Atlantic, and, particularly, that single, European market good that comes at the unthinkably inexpensive cost of €50.
That prostitution retains a uniquely explicit place in American culture as the object of male desire is a curiosity in its own right, but far worse is the discrepancy between its perception in the modern American psyche and the realities on the cold, hard ground of European metropolises. This week, an astounding article was published in the New York Times documenting the sharp uptick in prostitution in Spain. The article is powerful not insofar as it causes us worry that Spain is increasingly controlled by venal thugs, but instead by bringing to life the devastating stories of these nameless and countless victims.
These stories include women with bar codes tattooed on their wrists to account for the debts they owe to organized crime syndicates. They include tales of earnest mothers smuggled into Spain under the false pretenses of a job as a receptionist who find themselves pimped out on rural highways, women whose parents have sold them to local bosses who pay a monthly sum for the service of their daughter’s body, and women who commit suicide as their only means of exerting a final modicum of control over their lives. Needless to say, there is also a fair amount of drug addiction and venereal disease involved as well.
The government estimates that somewhere between 200,000 to 400,000 women (a disconcertingly large range) in Spain are currently working in prostitution, and of that egregiously large number, an estimated 90 percent of the women were trafficked into the country. This is a drastic change from recent decades, as the New York Times article points out in somewhat-too-wistful of a voice that “thirty years ago, virtually all the prostitutes in Spain were Spanish.” The problem began at the end of the Cold War when hundreds of Soviet women found themselves lured to Western Europe under maniacally false pretenses, and the problem remains predominantly an Eastern European one, with the Balkans providing a devastating 30 percent of all women trafficked into Spain for the purposes of prostitution.
Human trafficking is not easy (though it is nowhere as difficult as it should be), and the high cost and risk of the trade would not be undertaken unless the product was satisfying a clear demand in the marketplace. To put it another way, 39 percent of Spanish men admit to having visited a prostitute at least once. This brings us back to the very concept of prostitution and its portrayal in popular culture, where physically flawless (and powerful) prostitutes strut around and imperiously instruct their fumbling customers—think Eurotrip or Deuce Bigalow. It is exactly these types of portrayals that have broken the social taboo on prostitution and made it acceptable for a young man to cop to having slept with a prostitute, or to do so in the first place. Might the article shock and offend more readers if 39 percent of Spanish men had admitted to having tortured animals or assaulted their spouses? The fact seems to be that as a generation, our international conscience has been numbed and desensitized to this particular transgression, to the act of purchasing, if only temporarily, a human body, and the whole experience has been adorned with jovial trimmings that ignore the fundamentally sad and morally reprehensible nature of the act itself.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that I would support the legalization and regulation of prostitution in America based on the conviction that the government does not possess the authority to dictate the terms on which its citizens copulate. However, what is occurring in Spain is not prostitution, it is not coitus shared between consenting adults who have defined the terms of their encounter beforehand. It is modern day slavery. It is the complete and total ownership and victimization of the women involved, who are used as chattel to satisfy the pecuniary concerns of their tacit owners. Of course there are legal restrictions and punitive measures that need to be strengthened by the Spanish government in order to combat this issue, but more importantly, the generation of men who are the consumers in this market must realize the inherently complicit role they are playing in an atrocious crime every time they consider venturing out in search of an “experience.”