Sex, the Church and Human Trafficking on the ‘Mafia Coast’

While men blithely rationalize prostitution in Italy, there is little thought for the Nigerian women caught up in the sex-slave racket behind this dirty business.

Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times via Redux

Giovanni drives his white Fiat Uno up and down Italy’s Domitiana Way, window-shopping for sex almost every Sunday morning while his wife thinks that he’s at church.

Giovanni’s ruse is an excuse for him to take a shower and put on aftershave without making her suspicious. By his own admission, his goal is to experience a blowjob by as many different Nigerian women as he can because, in his words, the “dirtiness of having a black woman’s mouth on him” is a turn on. Plus, if he never goes to the same woman twice, he can never be accused of having a relationship outside of his marriage. If he errs and accidentally stops his Fiat beside the same woman two Sundays in a row, he says he apologizes and moves on.

Giovanni is a short, balding man with a thick neck full of gray stubble and a potbelly that flops over the top of his trousers, which could easily describe half the Italians who live in and around Castel Volturno. He is around 55 years old and runs one of the little shops along the Domitiana. He dotes on his wife, calling her amore (love) and tesoro (treasure) as she minds the till, and seems like the very last person in the world who would frequent the girls on the street.

I discovered that Giovanni was a client by accident when I was looking for someone to explain to me just who the patrons of the many women standing on the Domitiana really are. Because he was a local, I thought he would know about them; I really didn’t suspect he was one.

I often stopped at their business whenever I was on a reporting trip as they had an exceptionally clean bathroom, which is a rare treat anywhere around Castel Volturno. I had been there several times before I finally asked his wife about the clients who go to the girls lined up on either side of their shop. She gave a sideways look at her husband standing behind the deli counter and shrugged. “No lo so,” she whispered. “I don’t know.”

I then asked Giovanni, who handed me a sample of smoked cheese and pondered my question. After a few minutes, he told me to come back later that afternoon when he reopened at four o’clock after his siesta break. He would try to have someone come to the shop who could help me with my questions.

When I returned, he was there alone. He said his wife was at home with their children. He was not at all embarrassed and extremely candid about paying for sex. It seemed almost natural to him, and as is often the case when it comes to discussing sex with Italian men, he was not reluctant at all to talk in what turned out to be quite explicit detail about it. While in no way do I wish to protect the clients who keep this lurid business of sex slavery alive, I promised Giovanni, which is not his real name, relative anonymity if he was honest with me about being a long-time client. I keep that promise out of respect for his wife and their children.

He said his first experience with a prostitute was when he was 18 years old and stationed outside of Pisa, doing what used to be mandatory military service, which was discontinued in 2005. Many Italian men were first introduced to paying for sex during this time; apparently it was an open tradition that went back many generations. Both before and after the Second World War, it was a highly accepted rite of passage for Italian men to lose their virginity at brothels, which were regulated by the state until 1958, at which point Italy deregulated sex work but kept prostitution legal. It was frowned upon by the Catholic Church for young women to lose their own virginity before marriage, so it was accepted that the boys had no other choice. Usually their fathers and uncles would take them, or, alternatively, they would wait for military service and go in groups.

Giovanni described weekend furloughs from the military academy when he and the other cadets would go into Pisa to find mostly Eastern European prostitutes who would hand them a condom, lift up their skirts and bend over in the dark back alleys behind the Leaning Tower of Pisa for €5– €10. He said dozens of service men, all around 18 or 19 years old, would simply line up, drinking beer between blowjobs and quickie sex. He saw nothing wrong with it. “How else do you learn?” he asked. “No one wants an Italian woman who is a whore, so what are the options?”

That said, Giovanni did not lose his virginity to a prostitute. He had lost his confidence after the first time he had had sex with an Italian girlfriend and says that the prostitutes in Pisa “cured him.” By his account, he went dozens, maybe 50 or more times, during his year of military service. “Once a weekend,” he said.

When a girl has been conditioned to believe that her only option is to sell her body, she often starts believing it.

Then, when he returned to Castel Volturno, he met the woman who would eventually be his wife. They had a healthy sex life and two children, plus a late-term miscarriage. He says he refrained from frequenting the girls on the streets during most of his early marriage, but occasionally during each pregnancy he “gave in to temptation once or twice.”

In 2006, his wife was in a car accident in Naples that left her with a fractured spine, which made sex terribly painful for her, so he eventually stopped asking. He said that he never had intercourse with the Nigerian women and that he felt that fellatio did not count as betrayal. “It’s not in the Bible,” he said.

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He suspects his wife knows about his encounters, but that she would surely forgive him because, as he says, “she can no longer please me.” In retrospect, I should have asked if his wife ever performed fellatio on him, or if he still tried to satisfy her orally or in any other way.

“What does she expect me to do? It’s not like I’m having an affair. That would be cheating,” he says. “Paying the whores is not an affair.”

I asked if the constant availability of so many women on the streets made it easy for him. “You mean like a fat man living in a candy store? Sure,” he said. “If someone tries to sell you something you are missing every time you pass by, eventually you are going to give in and buy it.”

He didn’t seem at all bothered that many of the women were kept on the street against their will. “No one will hire them to do any other work,” he shrugged. “If they want to live in this country, they’ve got to do something for society.” He seemed even less bothered about the Neapolitan organized crime syndicate Camorra’s involvement in the Nigerian racket, reminding me of the 2008 massacre at the Ob Ob Exotic Fashions tailor shop and the fact that the Camorra and Nigerians were partners.

“They all work together to make money,” he said. “There is no other way here.”

Many women on the frontline of the sex trafficking crisis believe that prostitution should be made illegal in Italy to combat the exploitation of Nigerian women and others, but not everyone agrees that it would stop the problem. If prostitution were illegal, there would easily still be sex trafficking. And criminalizing it would take vital work away from thousands of sex workers who, however coerced, choose prostitution to support themselves and their families. By some estimates, more than half of the Nigerian women who finally pay off their madams stay on the streets as legitimate prostitutes, free from debt bondage. Even some of those who are rescued from sex trafficking eventually return to the street out of financial desperation. When a girl has been conditioned to believe that her only option is to sell her body, she often starts believing it.

Others argue that regulating sex work could be beneficial, even though allowing the existence of brothels might actually make identifying trafficked women even harder, precisely because they would no longer have to be out on the streets. The reality is, however, that most Nigerian trafficked women already work in brothel-like conditions, like the connection houses in Castel Volturno and the rat-infested street-level apartments in Palermo. Legalizing brothels wouldn’t likely have any impact on their madams’ business models and methods because the madams surely wouldn’t be able to open legitimate brothels without the risk of being found out as traffickers. One benefit such regulation might have would be putting more pressure on clients, because they, too, would potentially have to register to go to brothels, although it’s unlikely any of these rules would ever apply in a place like Castel Volturno. The priority, therefore, should be to adopt measures that would provide a means by which trafficked women can be identified before they get on the street, not after.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other advocacy programs are instead aimed at educating clients like Giovanni, who may be oblivious to the true nature of “what they are purchasing.” Carlotta Santarossa, the IOM’s program director on trafficking, would like to see a system in place that tries to break through that barrier of ignorance in the sex market. “They should know that with the sex, they are buying a woman who has been raped and abused,” she says. “The men should know they are facilitating more misery.”

Adapted from ROADMAP TO HELL: Sex, Drugs and Guns on the Mafia Coast, Copyright © 2018 Barbie Latza Nadeau. Published this month by Oneworld Publications.