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‘We’re part of society’: Italy’s sex workers fight for decriminalisation

On June 2, on international sex workers day, Italian sex workers took to the streets of Bologna to ask for decriminalisation.
On June 2, on international sex workers day, Italian sex workers took to the streets of Bologna to ask for decriminalisation. Copyright @Danimale_sciolto
Copyright @Danimale_sciolto
By Giulia Carbonaro
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For the first time in almost 20 years, sex workers in Italy have gathered in the city of Bologna to discuss how the legislation around sex work in the country affects their daily lives.

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Maria Pia Covre, better known as Pia, has spent four decades working as a sex worker in Italy and almost as many years advocating for better rights for herself and her colleagues in a country where she says the stigma against the profession is still really strong.

This month, Covre was among the many sex workers reunited in the city of Bologna to discuss how the Italian legislation around prostitution affects their daily lives. It was the first such event to be organised in Italy in almost 20 years, symbolically held to coincide with international sex workers’ day -- the date commemorating the occupation of a church in Lyon by a hundred sex workers in 1975 calling for better working conditions.

This year's event, which followed a march on the streets of Bologna, was attended by groups, associations and individual sex workers fed up with the jurisdictional approach that the country has toward them, which has been fundamentally hostile since 1958, when Italy shut down its ‘closed homes’, also known as ‘houses of tolerance’.

These ‘houses’, which were introduced in the late 1800s, allowed sex workers to meet their clients within the safe space of a home, which was also their designated place of business.

@Danimale_sciolto
The march in support of sex workers in Bologna on 2 June, 2023.@Danimale_sciolto

Since then, sex workers in Italy have been forced to move to the streets, where conditions are often unsafe. According to 2019 data by a group studying human and sex trafficking in Italy and sex work, most of the country’s sex workers out in the street at night are, 79.4%, are women. Many among these, 19.6%, are trans women, one of the groups most vulnerable to gender-based violence.

At the same time as Italy decided to shut down the ‘closed homes’ with the Merlin law of 1958, the country also introduced the crimes of exploiting and aiding & abetting prostitution -- which means that any third party that’s not a sex worker or their client can be prosecuted if found to be involved in making a profit out of prostitution.

This legislation can be used in a positive way, when it's aimed at fighting sex trafficking and exploitation, but it presents a great many issues to sex workers. A landlord renting out their flat to a sex worker, for example, could be sentenced to several years in prison if found to have known about their tenant’s line of work.

While sex work has remained technically legal through the decades in Italy, sex workers complain that it is de facto criminalised because of the legislation criminalising third parties’ involvement.

“It’s a systematic repression of sex work enacted through the creation of crimes as aiding & abetting prostitution,” Covre told Euronews. “That means that people cannot work inside a home, and if they work in the streets they’re unlawfully occupying public land.”

The solution? Not legalising, but decriminalising sex work

Sex workers reunited in Bologna are not calling for the ‘closed homes’ to be reinstated and sex work to be legalised. Instead, they are asking for the legislation around sex work, which punishes third parties, to be eliminated, and for sex workers to have the same rights has any other worker in the country.

“Our request is to decriminalise sex work,” Covre said. “Sex workers are already punished by the legislation. If you add the fact that more vulnerable people can be sex workers, like migrants, refugees, or trans people, the situation becomes unbearably difficult.”

Italian sex workers are also calling for the stigma around the profession to be eradicated, and for the profession to be normalised and become socially respectable -- so that they can pay taxes, rent a home, or file a complaint to police if they’re assaulted while at work without fear of being diminished or mocked.

“Breaking down the stigma means educating people about our lives and change the narrative around sex work, which it’s not ours. They are victims who are exploited for sex work, but there are also many who decide to do sex work freely,” Covre said.

“The problem of sex workers is that we’re often considered ‘others’, someone to treat as if they’re dangerous, different,” Elettra Arazatah, an Italian sex worker living in London, told Euronews. 

“In our society the perception of sex workers is shifting, we’re slowly normalising sex, but we’re still very far from what we want. Sex workers are still considered victims to be saved or criminals to be handled. Not autonomous individuals,” she added.

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“We’re standing next to you in line at the supermarket, at the post office, outside of school to pick up our kids; you might not know them, but there’s a sex worker in your network of friends and acquaintances, for sure,” Arazatah said. “We’re an integral part of society, not others.”

The existing law around prostitution, according to Elettra, isolates sex workers and prevents them from creating a solidarity network or a cooperative where they can look after each other.

_eva.nescente_photo/Margherita Marcacci
Demonstrators hold red umbrellas saying "Sex work is work" during a march on 2 June._eva.nescente_photo/Margherita Marcacci

The Belgian model

In some countries in Europe, like the Netherlands and Germany, sex work is legalised, which means that a set of specific rules has been created around the sale and purchase of sex work.

While this offers a great deal of protection to sex workers from an institutional perspective, it does so with a degree of formality that could make the job inaccessible for many, according to sex workers, with severe consequences. Anything that happens outside of these rules is considered breaking the law and is subject to arrest.

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What sex workers in Italy are asking the government for is for the country to follow in the footsteps of Belgium, which has recently decriminalised sex work. Under this model, consenting adults can buy or sell sex without committing any crime, while laws against trafficking, violence, rape and sex work involving minors remain in place.

New Zealand also fully decriminalise adult sex work in 2003 with the passage of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA). Five years after the law was implemented, a government report found that the PRA had been effective “in achieving its purpose, and the Committee is confident that the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off under the PRA than they were previously.”

The law has allowed to shift law enforcement’s focus on protecting sex workers rather than criminalising them, defending them from exploitation from criminals and violence.

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