History of prostitution in Barcelona

From the time in 1350 when King Pere IV prohibited brothels located within forty steps of the city’s churches to the 2012 law passed by the Generalitat (the Catalan regional government) forbidding street prostitution, Barcelona has had a long, colourful and contradictory relationship with “the world’s oldest profession”. Today we will be looking at the history of prostitution in the city and the part played by the protagonists themselves, public powers and punters in its development.

Early chronicles relate that, in the Middle Ages, prostitution flourished in the area of Barcelona outside the wall (re. today’s present area of Canaletes and carrer Tallers). After 1400, street prostitution was complemented by brothels known in Catalan as “bons llocs“, which were tolerated by the government. Punters could identify them easily thanks to the large head sculpted on the side of a building, called a “carassa“. Regulation of the business came with King Alfons X el Savi, who awarded licences to whorehouses “ad usum meretricale“, thus cementing the dubious relationship between sex services and the public coffers. Ever since then, the reality has been that of a “cat and mouse game” with independent sex workers constantly searching for areas in which to work that fell outside of publically controlled zones. Over the centuries, prostitution has been sporadically prohibited, regulated and tolerated in line with current social, political and religious trends.

Besides all the social stigma attached to women sex workers such as occasionally brutal punishments including head shaving and ear cutting, most restrictions have centred on the use of public space and appropriate dress. The aforementioned Alfons X, for example, decreed that prostitutes should wear brown clothing (which gave rise to the Spanish expression “irse de picos pardos“) as well as forbidding them to wear jewellery and insisting they kept a low profile over Easter Week. In 1446, public prostitutes were forced into brothels. Over the particularly sensitive religious period of Lent, they were shut up in convents for “repentant” women (the city’s first one was Convent de les Magdalenes in Carrer Egipcíaques). Curiously, even nowadays in Spain there is a colloquial expression “Más pobre estoy que puta en cuaresma” (‘to be poorer than a whore at Lent’).

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Throughout the 17th century, prostitution expanded on both sides of the Rambla, especially the Raval, a densely populated urban area with serious housing, social and sanitary problems. It was an area that saw the influx of migrant workers seeking better opportunities in the city. For many young women surrounded by endemic poverty and excluded from other ways of earning a living, prostitution was one of the only ways to earn a living.


As we come towards the end of the 19th century, street prostitution mainly centred on the right hand side of the lower Rambla, known as “los bajos fondos“. In the 1920s it was renamed “el barrio chino” (the Chinese district). The neighbourhood, where both male and female sex workers plied their trade, was frequented by customers of low or medium purchasing power. Alongside it, more upmarket brothels began to emerge. These aimed at a “select”, cosmopolitan male audience; many of the whores came from Spain and, particularly, France and the establishments prided themselves on offering high-quality services. Indeed, Chalet del Moro in Passatge de la Pau, and Madame Petit in carrer Arc del Teatre, were renowned for being the first bordellos in Europe to make use of the bidet for the purpose of hygiene. Its proximity to both the city’s famed theatres and cultural centres and the docks with their regular arrival of randy sailors assured the Chinese district’s success for decades. Indeed, there is no question that women in prostitution were a key part of the socioeconomic fabric of the Raval for more than a century.


From 1935 through to the late 50s a kind of regulated tolerance prevailed, which saw official brothels, weekly hygiene checks and a degree of control of independent sex workers on the streets. Aligning with the UN approach to prostitution (outlawing it) had a huge impact on the paid sex market, above all at the lower end. But, as they say in Spain, “hecha la ley, hecha la trampa”. Thus, the effect was to move prostitution to other areas and other outlets. What became known as “American bars” abounded. Sex workers became waitresses, left to work abroad or entered street prostitution. A new red light area called the “perfumed Chinese district” emerged on the left hand side of the Eixample, in and around Carrer Urgell and Avinguda de Sarria. By the 1970s, the scene had diversified with press advertisements of massage parlours, call-girls, and home or hotel services alongside traditional street prostitution (then centred on Carrer Robadors). By 1982, it was estimated there were between 40,000 and 45,000 prostitutes “of all kinds” in Barcelona. In 1995, prostitution was decriminalized in Spain. At the same time, sex workers began to unite to claim their rights.

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Since the 90s, a significant change has also occurred in the profile of sex workers. In line with globalization, more and more extra-community immigrant women entered the world of commercial sex in the city. They now account for somewhere between 60% and 90% of the total, depending on location. Despite yet more interference from the authorities (see the 2012 public ordinance passed by the Generalitat), sex workers of all genders strive to continue working. Now less visible, the sex industry has consolidated itself in places hidden away from the citizens.


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