Dirty Tricks

Rome’s New Open-Air Markets for Sex

There are prostitutes all over Italy, many of them trafficked women and girls. Now there may be special districts in the capital set aside for their activities.

02.11.15 3:00 AM ET

ROME — The EUR neighborhood south of the city center was developed in the 1930s by Italy’s Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini to re-create ancient Rome’s splendor ahead of the 1942 World’s Fair, thus the name Espozione Universiale Roma.  That World’s Fair, during which Mussolini planned to showcase 20 years of fascism, was quashed thanks to World War II.  The neighborhood has since become a commercial Mecca with posh apartments and wide boulevards.  But of late it is also an open air market for sex.

Drive down any of 20 or more EUR streets after dark—and often during the day—and you can’t miss prostitutes who are grouped according to race, sexual orientation and, it would seem, sexual titillation level.  There are streets for transvestites, male prostitutes and Nigerian women; there are also streets lined with eastern European women and others with Asian girls.  Some use campers they keep parked around the street corners. Others conduct their business on the hoods of parked cars.  Street cleaners have long complained that the morning sweep contains sticky condoms and hypodermic needles.  The scene repeats itself in other districts of Rome outside the city center, but not to the same extent as in EUR.

Now the mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, wants to corral the street workers into red light zones where prostitution would be allowed in an attempt to “strike a balance” between residents and sex workers. He also wants to make it illegal to use city parks and other family-designated areas for the open sex trade.  If the experimental plan works in EUR, Marino says he will open other zones in Rome’s high-sex-traffic areas. None will be anywhere near the city’s tourist venues or the Vatican’s main churches.

This is no simple matter in Italy, where prostitution sometimes seems as common as pasta. The selling of sex is not illegal in this country, but pimping and soliciting is (which is why most of the sex workers act uninterested at first when the customers pull up).   There are around 100,000 prostitutes currently working in Italy to service more than 2.5 million regular mostly male customers, according to national research statistics.

High-ranking government officials and notable figures, including the husband of Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra, have been among those implicated in recent prostitution scandals.  Mussolini’s husband was caught in the center of a ring involving teenaged girls who were selling sex for cell-phone credits and smart phones.

Several years ago, Rome’s regional governor Piero Marrazzo was caught in a transvestite ring that allegedly included Catholic cardinals and city workers among the clients.  One of the transvestites Marrazzo favored turned up dead after he started talking.

Italy’s most famous john, though, is former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was convicted for abetting underage prostitution in the infamous “Ruby Heart-Stealer” scandal.  He was later cleared on appeal after he convinced the court that he thought she was of age.

Marino’s idea to try to contain the sex trade in officially designated areas is based on a concept that works in German cities where prostitution is legal.  In Rome, anyone caught working outside a designated area would be fined €500 ($566).

“In that country [Germany], it works,” Italian author Vittorio Emiliani told Corriere Della Sera. He lives in the area and supports the measure, noting that when prostitution is controlled, sex workers even pay taxes.  He says it also makes it harder for human traffickers and pimps to harm the women.  “If it works in the country with the best government in Europe, we should use that as a model.”

Sex workers have voiced opposition because they say the designated area is just a cover to conduct regular controls for documents to find illegal immigrants and tax evaders.   Residents of the area are largely in support of the plan, so long as the designated district does not cross any residential streets.  Marino has not yet unveiled the map where the zone will be.  “EUR is already the city’s red light district,” resident Cristina Lattanzi told La Repubblica newspaper.  “We residents need a little bit of peace.”

The Catholic Church dislikes the whole idea.   The director of the Catholic charity Caritas, Enrico Feroci, told reporters that the initiative was morally wrong. “Prostitution always involves human exploitation,” he said.  “Trying to regularize it or tolerate it is therefore always mistaken.”  The Catholic newspaper Avvenire warned that what it called a “shameful” plan would send a message that the center of the Catholic faith is a den of inequity.  “It can’t happen in a city that is the cradle and heart of Christian humanism.”

Rome’s Pope John XXIII Community, a center that deals with victims of human trafficking, staunchly opposes the measure.  The center’s spokesman Giovanni Ramonda says that in 2013, Italy had more than 120,000 women who were victims of human trafficking.  Of those, 37 percent were minors.  He says 65 percent were made to work the streets, and the rest were forced to work in what he calls the “invisible” market, likely in illegal brothels where they are treated like sex slaves.  Romonda says the women do not go into prostitution by choice.  He told AFP that the plan would be introducing “tolerance zones for the slavery of women.”