Plans for Milan 'Prostitution Zone' Gain Cross-Party Support

Prostitution in Italy
Photographer Elena Perlino's project 'Pipeline' focuses on Nigerian sex trafficking to Italy. Elena Perlino

A number of Milan politicians have come out in favour of creating a red light district in the city this week. Politicians from across the political spectrum, including the ruling Democratic Party (PD), Forza Italia, right-wing Northern League and the Left Ecology Freedom party, have voiced their approval of the plans in Italy's financial heart.

Prostitution is currently legal in Italy, but unregulated. However it is illegal to own a brothel, pimp, or live on the earnings of a woman in prostitution.

Carlo Monguzzi from the ruling Democratic Party (PD), wrote on his Facebook page that a red light district is the "only solution" to tackle the violence and exploitation which sex workes currently face due to the lack of regulation. "Having a red light district in Milan is a good idea… We must help the women reduced to slavery and forced into prostitution, who are beaten to death if they don't do it."

Mirko Mazzali, leader of the Left Ecology Freedom Party (SEL), agreed, saying: "The conditions for sex workers in Italy are very dramatic. There is exploitation and very bad hygienic conditions. This idea would prevent sex workers from being trafficked, which is a very bad probelm in Italy because of intense traffic from eastern Europe and North Africa.

"Sex work is big business for criminals. The district must not become a ghetto and there must be psychologists and medical support to help sex workers."

This cross-party support follows a decision made in Rome last week to introduce a red light district zone in the Eur business area south of the city, from April. Police will be ordered to impose fines of up to €500 on prostitutes caught working outside this area, and it will also be supervised by health and social workers to help in the battle against pimps and traffickers.

According to a parliamentary survey there are over 70,000 prostitutes in Italy, who have an estimated nine million clients, creating an annual total turnover of €5 billion.

Maria Spilabotte, a Democratic Party senator who presented a bill last May aimed at regulating the sex trade in the country, has argued that workers should be given rights and pay taxes. She believes this will also help combat human trafficking.

However, Elena Perlino, an Italian photographer who embarked on a long-term project focusing on sex trafficking from Nigeria to Italy, is dubious about these schemes. "The risk, talking about this topic, is to believe that prostitution and trafficking are the same thing. Many eastern European, African and Asiatic women we meet on the street are just sexual slaves, victims of a well organized criminal network."

She continued: "The debt women need to pay back to their exploiters to be in Europe can reach thousand of euros. Life for those women is really tough. They are prostitutes, but that is not a free choice. To create a red light district can remove the women from our eyes, but it is not a real solution to the phenomenon of thousand of women trafficked every year to Italy."

In a Newsweek investigation published last week, sex workers described the dangers they currently face in Italy, with many of them preferring to cross the border into Switzerland where prostitution is regulated and there are safer spaces to work. One sex worker, Carly said: "In Italy streets are dangerous, you do it in the car and you never know what may happen. Italians are lewd because prostitution in our country is still a taboo."

She went on to describe how in Chiasso, an Italian-speaking area of Switzerland, there is even a special section of the police who sex workers can call if they are in danger. Prostitutes can also get official work permits, pay taxes and receive free health checks.

However, some anti-prostitution groups reject Italy's movements towards regulated prostitution zones entirely. A message from the Italian group Resistenza Femminista, posted on the Facebook page of the Alliance of Women for the Abolition of Prostitution, read: "We say NO to this unbearable violation of human rights. NO to the hypocrisy of our politicians who are protecting their rights to buy women's bodies.

"We stand up for the rights of all the sexually exploited women and girls to be helped to exit prostitution (job, education, healthcare and the possibility of living in our country if they are immigrant women) instead of being trapped in a ghetto as second class women who can be beaten, raped and killed without any consequences for pimps."

Jan Macleod who works at the Women's Support Project, considered the debate from a UK perspective. "I'm sure it's been done with the best intentions," she said of the plans for Milan. "But we are very against the approach of tolerance zones in the UK. It has short term benefits, but overall it does cause women physical and psychological damage. Managing that harm is offensive, actually.

"We would advocate the decriminalisation of women for selling sex. Prostitution is not a victimless crime, and can result in assault, abductions and gang rapes. If you make it an offence to buy sex, you send out a message to males that it's not something society condones," she concluded.