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Prostitution in Italy

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Prostitution in Italy

Prostitute in a brothel of Treviso

In Italy prostituzione (prostitution) (the exchange of sexual services for money) is legal, but organized prostitution (indoors in brothels or controlled by third parties) is prohibited. Brothels became illegal in 1958. Sex workers in Italy are often referred to as Lucciole (fireflies), which is also the name of their website.[1]


Prostitution thrived in Italy in the Middle Ages. The city of Venice declared in 1358 that brothels were indispensable, and courtesans achieved high social status in Venice, particularly in the 17th century.[2]


Regolamentazione, the regulation system of prostitution, was established in 1861, with Italian unification, modeled on the French Napoleonic system of Réglementation and the Bureau des Moeurs. A decree of 1859, by Count Camillo Benso di Cavour to aid the French army which supported the Piedmontese against Austria, authorized the opening of houses controlled by the state for the exercise of prostitution in Lombardia. On 15 February 1860 the decree was signed into law (Legge Cavour) with the enactment of the "Regulations of the Security Service on Prostitution."

A further law (Legge Crispi), adopted on 29 March 1888 prohibited the selling of food and drinks, and parties, dances and songs in the brothels and the opening of such homes near places of worship, schools and kindergartens. It also provided that the shutters should always remain closed, hence the name "case chiuse" or "closed houses". A further amendment was the Legge Nicotera of 1891. Under this system prostitution in Italy was fully legal in private houses. A system of sifilicomi (hospitals for sex workers) were set up under the belief that they were the sources of venereal disease. Although sex workers found this regulated system repressive they were able to develop ways to resist it. Under the Fascists (1922–1943), more repressive measures were introduced in 1923, 1933 and 1940.

Overall the system was considered a failure, and as in other European countries with Réglementation, movement for its abolition grew from the latter years of the nineteenth century from leftist and feminist groups. This abolitionism is often considered confusing, since it has been applied to both the abolition of regulation and the abolition of prostitution. However, these forces led to the introduction of a new system in Italy that abolished regulation, but not prostitution.[3]

Legge Merlin L. 75/58

The Legge Merlin L75/1958[4] (Merlin Law, named after its main author, socialist MP Lina Merlin) became effective on 20 September 1958. This law, still in force today with little change, revoked the regulation system, closed the case chiuse and established a new offence called sfruttamento della prostituzione (exploitation of prostitution) with the aim to punish pimping. Specifically article 3.8, provides penalties for "chiunque in qualsiasi modo favorisca o sfrutti la prostituzione altrui" ("any person who in any way promotes or exploits the prostitution of others"). Article. 3.3 lists places where prostitution is prohibited, such as houses, hotels, dance halls, entertainment clubs or other areas open to the public. Article 5 prohibits libertinaggio (solicitation) "in a public place or place open to the public, solicits in a scandolous or disturbing manner, or follows a person inviting them by acts or words".[5] Article 7 prohibited registration and mandatory health checks.[6][7][8]


This follows the standard abolitionist control of prostitution (abolishing regulation) policy prohibiting trafficking, exploitation and aiding and abetting of prostitution. What remained legal was street prostitution or independent sex work by a worker in their own home. The law, was promoted as an equality measure liberating women, but despite its good intentions to give more rights to dependent prostitutes, was the subject of intense debate over the ten years it took to come into effect and still continues today. The law specially refers to donne (women).[6][7]


As expected, the effect of the law was to push women out into the streets, becoming more visible, and into private homes.[9][10] The law remained a subject of intense debate, with its defence being seen as a feminist issue, though both Marxists and Catholics support it. The Christian Democrats repeatedly sought the law's repeal from 1973, and in 1998 also the Democrats of the Left, at least temporarily. This would have re-opened the case. At the same time conservative women's groups such as Federcasalinghe[11] pushed for regulation, such as medical examinations, but feminists generally opposed this. However, surveys consistently suggest that there is considerable support for re-opening the case.[12]

Following the founding of the Comitato (see Advocacy, below) attempts to change the law continued with 22 bills introduced in the 1996–2001 legislative session.[6]

Growing concerns over street prostitution and migration


Prostitution became much more visible in the early 1990s with increasing migratory waves from Eastern Europe and Western Africa which had begun in the 70s. The fall of the Soviet regime, the Yugoslavian war and new immigration policies (Legge Martelli n. 39/90) contributed to an influx in 1989/90 from former Soviet bloc countries – "Polish Girls" . A second wave came from Nigeria and Peru, using tourist visas that then expired (clandestini), followed by Albania in 1993-4. The fourth wave (1995) were also again from Nigeria and Albania, while 1996-8 saw the arrival of migrants from Moldova, and Lithuania as well as Albania.[9] Immigration law became much more repressive in 1998 with the enactment of the Legge Turco-Napolitano (law n. 40/98). (see below)[6][6][13]

Amongst these migrants were women who joined the sex trade with varying degrees of voluntariness, some enduring coercion and debt bondage (Human trafficking) (see below), including under-aged girls. These issues of foreign nationals, coerced sex work and under-aged workers have reshaped the debate in Italy as elsewhere in recent years. Descriptions of the conditions of migrant women, particularly young women, on the street shifted the debate in the 90s from the Comitato's image of independent and assertive women to that of victims of male violence.[9] One reaction of the local authorities was to withdraw residence permits from foreign women on the streets and deportation of the 'clandestini'.[6]

Street prostitution

With migration, street prostitution became more visible, the workers being considered to now be mainly foreigners. In turn this created another force driving policy, community groups from neighbourhoods where street prostitution was most visible particularly from the 1990s.[13][14] Municipalities have also tried to police sex work themselves since 1994, including targeting clients, sending notices to their homes and confiscating vehicles[15] although charging clients with aiding and abetting was blocked by a tribunal in Perugia in September 2000.[16] Continuing police activity became a national focus following the suicide of a client that year.[17]

Another initiative was to create tolerance zones, such as in Mestre in 1995.[18][19] A more tolerant approach has emerged from local authorities, based on riduzione del danno (harm reduction).[6][20]

Some municipal authorities have created confusion by erecting signs drawing attention to prostitution occurring in the neighbourhood.[21]

Dealing with immigration (Legge Turco-Napolitano L. 40/98)

Originally proposed by international agencies, and approved by the EU in 1996, the cause of protection of migrant workers was taken up in Italy by Maria Paola Colombo Svevo (PPI), President of Irene, an NGO, and by other Catholic and lay NGOs such as Caritas.[6]

While it was always possible to request a residency permit on humanitarian grounds, this was not well known or utilised by foreign sex workers. In 1996 Democrats of the Left), Interior Minister announced new measures in 1997 to deal with prostitution as an 'urban safety' issue, and there was little debate over the proposals given widespread concern over trafficking. The main opposing viewpoint was that residence permits should be granted only on the condition of denouncing traffickers.[22] What debate there was essentially confined to the position of women. The resulting legislation was the Legge Turco-Napolitano of 1998 (L. 40/98),[23] jointly sponsored by Livia Turco (Social Afffairs). The position of the (relatively weak and scattered) women's movement was that victims should not be further victimised by being expelled to their home country sans papiers and a possible life-threatening situation.

Measures included increasing penalties for recruiting and trafficking (article 10), and allowing victims of trafficking to stay in the country under a 'protection permit' (article 16, which became 18 in the Elena Marinucci (PSI) had embraced the aims of the Comitato and attempted to legislate this in 1987.

Amongst critics were the Comitato who objected to prostitution as something that women required to be protected from, without addressing stigmatisation. However, Catholic organisations dominated the list of approved agencies and followed this belief. However, the debates did distinguish between forced prostitution and a 'free and conscious choice of the individual'.[6][25]


Although the law was not explicitly targeted at sex work, its implementation was. Despite gender neutral language the implementation focused on young female victims of trafficking, driven by populist media imagery. The new law did little to stem the debate. When the D`Alema government was elected later that year (October 1998) three women ministers from three parties (Green, PPI, DS), Laura Balbo (Equal Opportunities), Rosa Russo Jervolino (Internal Affairs) and Livia Turco (Social Affairs) announced they would look at new proposals on trafficking and defend the dignity of women.

The result was a new prominence for Anna Finocchiaro's consultative body, the Interministerial Table for the Fight against Trafficking (February 1998), with wide representation. Finocchiaro had declared `Trafficking in women is a new and very serious problem that we have to combat primarily with the punishment for reduction into slavery, instead of using the Merlin law`. In March 1999 the ministers announced new more severe penalties for exploitation and new rules for protection of those who renounced prostitution. In November an interministerial commission was established to implement article 18 of L40/98. Available statistics for 1998 report 342 known victims, 37% of whom minors, and predominantly from Albania, Nigeria and Yugoslavia. 242 permits were granted in 1999 and 600 in 2000.[6]

Progetto di legge Carfagna

Until 2008, although there were no laws against street prostitution other laws concerning public order and decency could be used, and some places had local ordinances against street prostitution). Regular attempts were made to criminalise outdoor work.[26]

Bill 1079

In 2008, a further new progetto di legge (bill) outlawing street prostitution[27] was introduced by Mara Carfagna,[28][29][30] Minister for Equal Opportunities,[31] and approved by the Consiglio dei ministri on 11 September.[32][33][34]


The bill is framed as an amendment to the Legge Merlin of 20 February 1958, No 75 by providing for penalties for the act of prostitution, solicitation or availing oneself of sexual services in a place open to the public (Art. 1). Article 2 amends article 600 bis of the penal code to provide penalties for recruiting, inducing, promoting, using, managing, organizing, controlling, or profiting from the sexual services of a person under 18, or for those promising any kind reward for a sexual act with a person between 14 and 18. It also provides for repatriation of foreign minors engaging in prostitution. Article 3 deals with organized crime, penalising conspiracy to exploit prostitution via article 416 of the penal code. Article 4 provides no new resources and repeals article 5 of the Legge Merlin, which it replaces, prohibiting libertinaggio (solicitation constituting offence or harassment) subject to up to 15 days imprisonment.

Legislative history

The bill (S.1079) was introduced into the Senate, where it has been debated in committee in conjunction with a group of related bills (19 March 2009).[35][36] In interviews with Gente and Panorama, Carafagna stated that she was declaring war on prostitution[37] and criticised opponents who proposed quartieri a luci rosse (red light districts).[38] It remains firmly on the agenda of the Berlusconi government, despite the sex work scandals that continue to be associated with him.[39] This has been achieved by packaging anti-prostitution measures into security packages, frustrated by the slow passage of the actual legislation. As with previous attempts this has attracted much criticism.[40][41]


The bill is opposed by the Catholic Church, sex workers[42][43] harm reduction advocates[20] feminist groups,[44][45] human rights and immigrant groups,[46] and lawyers[47] and continues to be a matter of both popular and academic debate.[48] Carfagna believes it is necessary to combat trafficking.[49]

2008 ordinances

The Domestic Security regulations of 24 July 2008 (L.125/08) gave mayors judicial power to declare anything that might endanger the security and decorum of their cities an emergency. Under these powers sex workers and clients have been subjected to ordinances that permit municipal police to administer fines. The Public Security Law enables police chiefs to expel persons from a city in which they do not officially reside. EU citizens are subject to fines while non-EU citizens may be placed in detention centres and deported. The Comitato reports a breakdown in relationships between NGOs and authorities and between NGOs and workers, an avoidance of health services and an increase in criminal activity. While enforcement varies by region and over time, the immediate effect has been the expected and desired one of clearing the streets (at least temporarily) and displacing workers to remote areas. Indoors work has increased and quality of life in general has deteriorated. Unprotected sex has increased due to reduced ability to negotiate. Stigmatisation and vulnerability have increased as has a greater reliance on social services. As noted in other countries, as soon as police activity is reduced older work patterns reappear.[7] On April 7th 2011, the Italian Constitutional Court with the Sentence n. 115/2011 decided that this kind of Mayors' Ordinances must have time and space limits and urgent conditions to be issued. So, the simple exercise of street prostitution could be no more persecuted by this kind of local bills.

Legal status

Prostitution is legal (it is not mentioned in the Penal Code as such), brothels and pimping are illegal. Single sex workers working from apartments are 'tolerated'. Loitering is permitted but soliciting ('unabashedly inviting clients on the street’) is illegal. Migrants with work or residence permits may work in sex work and police cannot revoke residence permits and begin deportation procedures as they tried failing by the Italian laws.

Work permits can be issued to migrant dancers in entertainment clubs for one year in a single workplace. Sex work is forbidden but nude dancing is tolerated. Suspicions of sexual encounters lead to club closures.[7]

Case law

A 2010 court decision created a new precedent, that clients who did not pay the worker would be considered guilty of rape.[50] This was considered a major breakthrough for sex workers' rights.

Theoretical discourses

The three main debates which have occupied the public, media and policy makers are[6]

According to a [7]


Amongst the political actors were the Centri antiviolenza (Anti-violence centres), and women's shelters who advocated for victims of trafficking to stay in the country even if they did not denounce their exploiters, in keeping with their vision that women are best empowered by allowing them to determine their own course of action.

The women's movement has been divided between those who saw prostitution as exploitation and those who saw it as work. In general the movement has not prioritised prostitution, giving it mid-level importance, and saw it as a cultural issue and did not trust the State as an intervenor. On this issue Catholic organisations have been part of a hostile backlash to feminism, as is the fascist right. For example the mayor of Bologna cut all funding to women's shelters.

The women's movement of the early years denounced prostitution.[51]

The policy of fining clients of street prostitutes, which has started to be implemented in the early 1990s, by city mayors, has been approved by part of the feminist movement (blaming clients for the existence of prostitution was a common discourse among both feminists and Catholics)[51] but opposed by other feminists who felt this policy further victimized the women.

Amongst the ongoing debates surrounding sex work in Italy are the feminist legal scholars who advocate "diritto leggero", the concept that the State should intervene only minimally in matters considered the free choice of the individual. There was a trend towards supporting normalization. A prominent advocate for this position has been Roberta Tatafiore, chief editor of Noidonne ("Us Women").[52]

In regard to legal issues, feminists in general have supported the Merlin law, which banned brothels and regulation; and stood for decriminalization, with the exception of exploitation by third parties (pimps).

In the centre-left government of Prodi, the policy system was reasonably open and the dominant approach matched that of the women's movement, in moving ahead with "protection".[6]


The shift in emphasis from workers to clients in 1994 when mayors ordered police to fine clients was welcomed by Catholics but feminists were divided. In Bologna in 1998 the Case delle donne per non-subire violenze, the Comitato and MIT, a trans-sexual organisation left the city's co-ordinating committee on prostitution in protest, believing that any repression worsened workers' working conditions. There was also a feeling that criminalising clients prevented them reporting abuse of workers or collaborating with authorities.

The issue was raised again in 1999 by Jervolino, proposing amending the Merlin Law to stiffen penalties for exploitation. Giuliano Amato, Minister of Institutional Reforms, suggested that instead the client should be penalised and Antonio Di Pietro (Lista Di Pietro) introduced a bill into the Senate but raised the ire of feminist politicians, in particular Livia Turco who emphasised that prostitution should be decriminalised and only true abuse be penalised. She and Laura Balbo also received representation from the Comitato against this. This debate occurred during meetings of a parliamentary commission into prostitution, where there were frequent references to underage foreign sex workers.[6]

Underage workers (L. 269/98)

Partly connected to this was the emergence of a need to criminalise clients using underage workers. Engaging in sexual activity with someone under 14 was already classified as statutory rape, but that still left many underage workers. While the age of consent is 14, paying to engage in sexual activities with teenagers between 14 and 17 years old, regardless of consent, is a crime punished with up to three years imprisonment. Publicity around underage workers has been a persistent concern in Italy as elsewhere, although in Italy it often appeared framed as homosexual molestation of male minors.

In 1996 two female politicians, Anna Serafini and Daria Bonfietti (DS) introduced legislation to penalise the use of underage workers, responding to a series of international forces, including Programme of Action Against Sexual Exploitation of Children for Commercial Purposes (Stockholm 1996), UNESCO and ECPAT. They received the support of Rosa Russo Jervolino, Minister of Internal Affairs. This initiative unified a number of legislative proposals.

The media reported abuse and murders (particularly an 8-year old boy in Ostia in 1998,)[53] internet child pornography and sex tourism, with the terminology shifting from 'teenager' to 'child', and frequently conflated 'women and children' as equally vulnerable. Parliament responded rapidly and the Penal Code was amended[54] to deal with sexual contact with minors or possession of child pornography with no opposition.[55]

There was however division over the issue of the defence of ignorance, the final decision being it was not a defence. One feminist MP, Ersilia Salvato (RC) complained about the rushed legislation and abstained. Because Italian law prohibits gender discrimination (another legacy of Lina Merlin), the language was neutral, although not the effect. It was however considered impossible to enforce since it would require the worker to lay the complaint. The issue was never on the agenda of the women's movement, not even by the shelters, and who played no part in the debate, nor did the Equal Opportunities Minister (Anna Finocchiaro). Nor was the policy environment receptive to feminist input, since the Government was anxious to be seen to be responding to media and moral panic on pedophilia.[6]

Assisting migrant sex workers

In 1998 the Chamber of Deputies ordered an 'Inquiry to increase knowledge about the social and sanitary aspects of prostitution'[56] in response to concerns about foreign workers on the streets. Anna Finocchiaro, the Minister of Equal Opportunities, was a key player in this, as was the Justice Commission President Marida Bolognesi (DS). The Inquiry interviewed many stakeholders during six hearings but there was relatively little representation from the women's movement. The main framework was the idea that foreigners were 'invading' the streets of Italy, as a public order issue. This was a heavily gendered debate. In the end the commission adopted three principles – harm reduction, education of clients, and the importance of upholding the Merlin law. The deliberations included proposing a law to finance local government programmes to assist sex workers with protection permits. At the same time the three women ministers were promoting education campaigns in the countries of origin of migrant sex workers (e.g. Nigeria, Eastern Europe), while other programmes assisted police in their responsibilities regarding permits were initiated, and help lines set up, while 8 million euros were allocated to NGOs to carry out their responsibilities under article 18 of the Turco-Napolitano Act.

There was little feminist input into this discussion, with the exception of Elsa Antonioni of the Anti-violence shelter who stressed the continuity between sex for money and sex for free, pointing to the vulnerability of sex workers' civil rights (e.g. their children could be taken into care). This was not pursued, although the strong role of the Equal Opportunities Ministry can be seen as an insider women's voice.[6][56]


An influential group of sex workers is the Comitato – Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes (Comitato per i Diritti Civili delle Prostitute, or CDCP), formed in 1983 in response to violent attacks on sex workers and run by Carla Corso, a feminist, and Pia Covre from their national offices in Pordenone.[57] Their campaigns include trafficking prevention, sex worker rights, and campaigning for decriminalisation and an end to stigmatisation. Their demands saw a number of bills introduced in parliament, which despite support from three leftist parties were unsuccessful. However, attempts to change the law continue in parliament. The Comitato has been one of the major women's voices in sex work debates in Italy, at least in comparison with the women's movement overall, and worked closely with the women's shelters. Their position of minimum interference was shared with both the women's movement and the policy agencies. This has only been partially successful. A frequent target has been the provisions of the Merlin Law that punish those involved, of which livia Turco was a prominent political voice. Positioned against this cause has been the law and order agenda of both centre-left and centre right coalitions.[6]


Prostitute talking to a potential customer in Turin


Accurate estimates of the numbers of workers in any particular country are hard to obtain, and prone to error and bias.

A 2008 report stated that were some 100,000 prostitutes in Italy.[58] In 2007 it was stated that the total number of workers was 70,000.[59][60] The Italian Statistics Institute stated the number of street workers in 1998 was 50,000.[61]

Migration and tourism

A 2009 report from TAMPEP estimated that the percentage of foreign sex workers in Italy had reached 90%, an increase from previous years.[62][63] In that report only Spain was found to have such a high percentage of migrants in the trade, although most Western European countries reported a majority of workers were migrants. This was in contrast with the former Communist countries, where the reverse is true – most workers being of national origin.

Claims about trafficking vary widely and are difficult to verify. Estimates vary from 7%[64] to 100%[65] of migrant workers. The 2009 US State Department report on Human Rights states "In 2008, according to the Ministry of Interior, 4,350 persons were charged with trafficking in persons and pandering."[66]

Clampdowns by authorities often result in displacement of the trade across borders, such as that with Austria and Switzerland where brothels are legal.[67]


In 2008 it was estimated that 65% of workers are on the streets and 35% in private residences or clubs. 20% were stated to be minors and 10% to have been forced into prostitution by criminal gangs.[58] However lines between street and indoor work are often blurred, for instance by street workers using vans.[68]

Health of sex workers

A 1997/1998 study of 142 street prostitutes from Rome (102 women, 40 transsexual women) showed that most respondents (95%) reported always using condoms with clients. 8% of the women and 2% of the transsexual women reported injectable drug use. 38% of the women with a stable partner used contraceptives while 33% of them had had a voluntary abortion in the previous year. 38% of the women and 80% of the transsexual women had had checks for STDs in the last year. HIV-prevalence was 6% among women and 20% amongst transsexual women. 4/6 positive women and 1/8 of the positive transsexual women used injectable drugs. 5/6 HIV-positive women were Italian.[69]

However of 558 workers attending a STD clinic in Bologna between 1995 and 1999, only 1.6% tested positive for HIV. The authors concluded that "prostitutes do not have a prominent role in the transmission and diffusion of STDs"[61] Despite this opponents of prostitution continue to claim they are sources of disease.[70]

See also


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  5. ^ 1) che in luogo pubblico od aperto al pubblico, invitano al libertinaggio in modo scandaloso o molesto; 2) che seguono per via le persone, invitandole con atti o parole al libertinaggio
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  8. ^ 3.3 chiunque, essendo proprietario, gerente o preposto a un albergo, casa mobiliata, pensione, spaccio di bevande, circolo, locale da ballo, o luogo di spettacolo, o loro annessi e dipendenze o qualunque locale aperto al pubblico od utilizzato dal pubblico, vi tollera abitualmente la presenza di una o più persone che, all'interno del locale stesso, si dànno alla prostituzione (hotel, mobile home, retirement, canteen, club, meeting rooms dance, or place of entertainment)
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  33. ^ "Italy: Street prostitution a crime". GMA News, 9 November 2008
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  • Mary, Mary quite contrary Italy struggles to come to grips with the Madonna-whore complex. Amanda Castleman Continental Drift Spring 2010
  • International Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Italy
  • Luisa Leonini. IL SEX BUSINESS NELLA SOCIETÀ CONTEMPORANEA. Convegno Prostituzione e tratta a 50 anni dalla legge Merlin e a 10 anni dall'art. 18 D.Lgs. 286/98 Roma, 21 novembre 2008
  • Adriana Gracia Piscitelli. Tropical sex in a european country: Brazilian women's migration to Italy in the frame of international sex tourism (Sexo tropical em um país europeu: migração de brasileiras para a Itália no marco do "turismo sexual" internacional) Estud. fem. vol.4 Florianópolis 2008
  • Illegal immigration in Italy
  • Social Action Department – Prostitution and Trafficking
  • Feminismo a sud
  • TAMPEP position on migration and sex work 2001
  • The Evolution of Italian Immigration policy. Immigration legislation, 1986–2002 An inadequate policy for a major issue. European Migration Network 2003

Government inquiries

Indagine conoscitiva sugli aspetti sociali e sanitari della prostituzione, Camera dei deputati, Commissione XII (affari sociali) 1999, pp. VIII-160, Euro 6,71 (IC13022)

  • Audizione del Comitato per i diritti civili delle prostitute e dei rappresentanti delle organizzazioni sindicali 1-6e documento conclusivo (28 luglio 1999)
  • Audizione del Ministro per le pari opportunita' Anna Finocchiaro 16 luglio 1998
  • Audizione dei rappresentanti del tavolo di coordinamento nazionale sulla prostituzione e sulla tratta, nonchè dei rappresenta 13 gennaio 1999


  • Fernando Henriques. Prostitution and Society. Macgibbon and Kee, London 1963
  • Mary Gibson. Prostitution and the State in Italy, 1860–1915. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey 1986
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