ITALY-PROSTITUTES

JUNE 8 2008 14:18h

Italy Mulls Red-Light Zones To Stem Prostitution

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Exchanging money for sex is not illegal in Italy but coercion or exploitation of prostitution is.

Italy's new conservative government is mulling proposals to stem rampant street prostitution, including "red light" districts, legalising brothels and life in jail for pimps.

Italians have been alarmed recently at the growing number of prostitutes, many of them illegal foreigners from Eastern Europe or Africa, who seek drive-by clients on the streets of most cities, even in daylight.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni made a surprising proposal at the weekend, saying he was in favour of setting up officially sanctioned red light districts.

"This would guarantee health controls and protect citizens," he said in a newspaper interview. But he acknowledged that such a move would be complex in a Catholic country like Italy and would need "ample reflection and agreement".

According to some estimates there are between 70,000 and 100,000 prostitutes in Italy. More than half are foreigners and 65 percent work on the streets.

An amendment to an immigration package due to be discussed this week by the government would allow authorities to expel foreign prostitutes on security grounds or arrest them if they refused to leave the country.

Exchanging money for sex is not illegal in Italy but coercion or exploitation of prostitution is.

"Prostitution has a ripple effect on the security of Italian families and the condition of public places," said Justice Minister Angelino Alfano.

The centre-left opposition has balked at the proposals, saying the law should crack down on those who traffic in humans, exploit prostitutes and reduce them to conditions of slavery.

Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in an interview on Sunday that existing laws against "exploitation of prostitution" were not enough to solve the problem.

"We must apply norms which punish slavery with life sentences," he told the Turin newspaper La Stampa.

Some politicians have also suggested the return of state-regulated brothels, which were legal in Italy until 1958, when they were closed after a 10-year legal battle by a woman senator named Lina Merlin. In 1958 there were 700 such brothels.

Known as "Closed Houses" or "Houses of Tolerance," they have served as background for a number of classic movies over the years, including the 1964 "Matrimony Italian Style," starring Sophia Loren, which was nominated for two Oscars.

Frattini said he was not sure if Italian public opinion would be in favour of red light districts or controlled brothels.

An unscientific poll by Sky Italia television showed that more than 80 percent of callers favoured limiting prostitution to red light districts.

"It is a question of customs. Certainly they (red light districts) exist in (other parts of) Europe and there prostitutes are not slaves," Frattini said.

He added that prevention of sexually transmitted diseases was "effectively better" in countries with controlled brothels.