The Calle de Silva is a narrow alley just off Gran Via in Madrid. In the middle of this dark, dingy passage, next to a computer shop and across from a hotel catering to business travelers, there is a doorway lined with incandescent light bulbs and plastered with gaudy 80s porn posters. “Hi sweetie, are you looking for some fun?” the woman at the door asks me. I smile back politely, bashfully, enough for a “yes” to be inferred. “That will be 12 euros then,” she says, looking at me curiously, then lewdly. I hand her the money and enter clumsily through the glass door, staring at my shoes.
Inside, the air is thick with perfume and astringent with bleach. It is also cold, the bite of the air conditioning cutting through the bass of the reggaetón music. Amid the gloom, some fifteen women crowd the small bar, sending forth affected desire and haunted looks. High-heels, shorts skirts, straining cleavage, and mouths like crimson wounds. Their faces flash in and out of the lights and the dry ice, a brume of voluptuous hosts. I pass by and sit on a sofa that smells of too many bodies and of too much spilled champagne. In front of me, a young woman presses her breasts into the chest of a reserved sixty-year-old man, promptly straddling him with practiced confidence. The man stammers and stutters, writhes and twitches, but she pins him to the seat with the force of her hips and the fervor of her flattery.
Behind the slippery onyx surface of the bar, in the shadow of the DJ booth, stands Pedro Calero, the club’s owner. He is short, with the bulk and sag of a man in his mid-sixties. He has neat, medium-length, salt-and-pepper hair parted in the middle, and a bushy moustache. His expression is stern as he grumbles at the waitresses working alongside him. Calero has owned Chelsea, one of Madrid’s oldest erotic clubs, for 34 years. His bar is not what many in Spain call a puticlub, or brothel: large motels-cum-bars where women work legally as prostitutes. Chelsea is a place where “people can come, have a late-night drink, enjoy the company of a hostess and watch sex shows.” Both the puticlub and bars like Chelsea are common in Spain, and they are the environments in which Calero has spent most of his life.
Making a living from the night has taught Calero many things. He knows by a customer’s body language how he or she is likely to behave. He knows the types of people that will break down in tears and the kind of man who will be aggressive with one of his girls. He knows the people that enter to escape and the people that come to study. He knows this business because he owns Chelsea, and because he is one of Spain’s most prolific porn stars.
Calero was born in the Spanish city of Albacete, but he spent little time there, leaving for Palma de Mallorca, in the Balearic Islands, at the age of fourteen to find work. His family was poor, and he didn’t want to depend on what little they had. In Palma, after years of scraping a living from odd jobs, he finally secured work as a deliveryman during the day and as a cook in a cabaret bar at night. The bar had two sections: one, a flamenco-themed restaurant, the other, a late-night strip club with live porn shows. It was there that Calero first encountered the world of live sex. “It started out as a bet. The manager of the club kept hiring people to do the porn show, but none of them could perform on the night, they couldn’t get an erection,” Calero says. “It got to the point where it became a bit of a joke among the workers, and I just said, ‘Okay, I bet you I can do it’.”
Calero went home and proposed the venture to his wife, Fatima, who he had met in his early twenties after living on the island for many years. She was curious about the offer. The money was good, but she wasn’t happy that Calero would be having sex with other women, so she suggested that she do it with him. Calero liked the idea; he figured that not only would he be saved constant worries about his sexual health, but having his wife up there would also make the ordeal psychologically easier. Back then, managers were very demanding of their performers, mainly due to the high rates they were charging customers for the shows. Calero tells me that an actor had one chance. “If he couldn’t get an erection two nights running he was kicked out of the slot.” So he pitched his wife’s suggestion to the owner, who accepted. The next evening the couple was on stage, in front of hundreds of people.
The show was a success. At least, Calero thinks it was; he was so focused on his performance that he can no longer recall it. “The act seemed to start as it ended, and all I remember is that the crowd cheered a lot.” It may not have been memorable, but it was the first show of a career that would see Calero spend at least five hours of every day for the next 30 years with an erection. An erection that, according to him, never let him down. “There were times when I found it incredibly difficult to work, but I can’t remember a time where I couldn’t get hard.”
Calero’s prowess in Mallorca soon came to be known in other cities in Spain, and both he and his wife started receiving phone calls from clubs on the mainland. The couple decided on Madrid and set up their act in a small sex bar in the bohemian neighborhood of Malasaña. From there, they started working at other clubs across the city, sometimes performing 12 shows in a night. “It was relentless,” admits Calero, “show after show after show, it was incredibly demanding. That’s why there were so few people doing it.”
Calero says he never tired of having sex with his wife, even though she was the only woman he had sex with on stage. “I was always able to distinguish between what we did on stage, and what we did at home.” Sex in private was intimate and spontaneous, but sex on the stage could be challenging and awkward. “To give the audience the feeling that what we were doing was instinctive and unique was always the most difficult part,” he says. The pair planned their routine every night, in an attempt to recreate, at least superficially, the intimacy they shared in private. But as Calero admits, if he thought about it too much, he ran the risk of failing. “You wanted to entertain, of course, but dwelling on what the audience wanted was dangerous. You had to focus on the task at hand, and pretend that no one was there.”
Calero had turned something innately private into a business but had to make sure that the business seemed as if it were anything but commercial. “Making simulation appear real is no easy undertaking,” he tells me.
But Calero assures me that he became used to this dilemma and soon treated it with the professional indifference that success in the industry required of him. With this practiced stolidity, his reputation continued to grow. Offers came in from clubs all over Spain, and directors wanted to cast him and his wife in their porn films. But Calero stuck to the stage and bought Chelsea, what was then a late-night bar in the center of Madrid. “Porn on the stage was far more challenging than on camera. In films, you have long breaks, stunt cocks and more opportunities to succeed. On stage you have one chance and a real audience; I always enjoyed that pressure to perform.”
Calero transformed Chelsea into a large cabaret-cum-sex-club: a cross between the Moulin Rouge and a Broadway show. There were 60 hostesses and live sex shows of various types almost every night, in which Calero regularly performed. On the weekends, some 300 people came to the club to enjoy its services. “We got businessmen, bachelor parties, married couples, and single women,” says Calero. “Interestingly, the women were always the least daunted, and often come to learn new techniques or positions from the dancers.”
Five years ago, the lease on Chelsea ran out, and a large hotel chain outbid Calero for the rights to the building. But business was good and Calero didn’t want to close. By luck, there was another site free, just across the road from the old one. He bought the place and renamed the club Chelsea II. Although smaller, the new space is an homage to its predecessor. There are the same faux-leather seats; electric candles flickering on red, satin tablecloths; sticky, leather banquettes ensconced in private booths divided by thick, burgundy-colored curtains; and gold-plated picture frames encasing TV screens showing hardcore porn. The clients are a mixture of gnarled regulars, drunk tourists, and lonely men. “Most of the customers behave themselves, but you get the odd one who thinks that because this place is not a regular bar, everything is permitted,” Calero says. “But working here has given me the equivalent of a masters in psychology. I recognize that kind of man even before he has sat down.”
It’s around one in the morning now, and Chelsea is starting to fill up. At the back of the room, a petite Russian woman skids down a dancing pole in staccato squeaks of skin on metal and thrusts her hips asynchronously to the music. Pulling aside her sequined lingerie, she starts masturbating for a disinterested audience. She does this ponderously, with a hesitancy that makes it look as if she were fumbling through a bowl of peanuts. Straining for sexiness, she rubs her breasts violently and grimaces.
“Things are not what they used to be,” says Calero, “Back when I first started, porn wasn’t so readily available, and there wasn’t so much sexual freedom as there is now. People came to these shows to live out their fantasies. Now porn is everywhere, and people aren’t as fascinated with live sex shows as they once were.” Calero stopped his act ten years ago, physically tired and emotionally disgruntled by the changes in society’s tastes. He keeps the show running with different actors and by involving volunteers from the audience. “I’m not nostalgic for the shows. That time has passed, and I have moved on to what I do now,” he says.
The standard rates were 50 euros for a blowjob or 180 euros for sex.
But, whereas demand for live porn has dwindled, the desire for prostitutes has not. Prostitution was decriminalized in Spain in 1995 and is not covered by any current law. It exists in a grey area; only some activities related to it, such as pimping, are illegal. A United Nations study reports that 39 percent of Spanish men have paid for a prostitute’s services at least once, far higher than the 14 percent in Holland or 5-10 percent in Britain. I read on internet forums that at the old Chelsea, the standard rates were 50 euros for a blowjob or 180 euros for sex. But when I ask Maria—not her real name—a 20-year-old Dominican, if she has sex with her clients, her coquetry turns to hesitation. “We drink with the customers, flirt with them and just have fun,” she says cautiously. Maria is careful not to say anything incriminating, redirecting the conversation with ribald comments. But when she sees that I am not interested in buying her a drink she gets up to leave, joining her colleagues at the bar. The rest of the women avoid me for the remainder of the night.
There are an estimated 300,000 prostitutes working in Spain, mostly hailing from Latin America and Eastern Europe. Their arrival in the country is often a nefarious business with many of them shipped in by criminal organizations who pose as legitimate agencies offering job opportunities in Western Europe. They pay for the girls’ transport to Spain and then hold them hostage in their brothels until they pay off their interminable transportation debts.
“The girls do not work as prostitutes here, they’re here to provide the customer with a good time and to get him or her to buy drinks,” Calero emphasizes. “If, after they have been treated to lots of champagne, they choose to go back to the hotel with a client and charge him, well, that’s their prerogative. I have no part in that.” He insists that at Chelsea II everything is legal. “The girls can come and go as they please. The ones that decide to stay have contracts and those that perform in the sex shows willingly do so. I have nothing to hide,” he affirms.
Calero has also never hidden anything from those close to him. “I’m not embarrassed by what I do or have done, I’m proud of it,” he says. Calero has four children. The eldest, 45, is in charge of another strip joint, and the rest have worked behind the bar at Chelsea at some point in their lives. “My kids know what I do, and see it in a similar way to the work done by a truck driver or a bricklayer.” His parents and the parents of his wife also knew, and, although they didn’t understand at first, they, too, came to accept it. “If someone hates my work, then that’s their problem, not mine.” Calero is equally unconcerned about larger controversies surrounding his industry. He has little to say about women’s treatment or the wider objectification of female sex in general. He believes he provides a service to the public, which makes more people happy than sad. Calero has never been more willing to explore his job’s consequences than that.
Most of the club is drunk now, drunk enough to want more of everything: more compliments, more champagne, more flesh. Amid it all, Calero weaves through the tables with practiced discretion. He is careful not to notice his clients’ amorous advances nor to be caught listening to their confessions. He watches from the shadows, making sure everything is running well, without ever drawing attention to himself. He is a consummate professional. But with his professionalism comes a certain dispassion. It is a dispassion that can be heard in the way he talks about sex. In his gruff, gravelly voice, he describes intimate moments mechanically. He outlines the acts without reflecting upon them. He answers risqué questions forthrightly, but without being forthcoming; with the openness of a porn star, but the emotional austerity of a Victorian father. Indeed, it is an indifference that allows him to thrive in this world, but never to engage with it critically.
All around him people listen to one another with imbecilic smiles while others skulk in the darkness, sipping on cocktails, enveloped by expensive embraces. Calero does not move, that stern expression still on his face, a look hardened by a thousand disapproving stares. To him, this world is normal. With what others see as shocking, he pays the bills. Like sport to many great sportsmen, sex has become banal to him so it can be accessible and exciting to others.
Photos from the project “Into the Porn” by Katia Repina.