The Rise of DIY Prostitution in Italy

The Rise of DIY Prostitution in Italy

Sex workers during a demonstration for the legalization of sex as work near the Colosseum on April 30, 2015, in Rome, Italy.

SourceMarco Ravagli / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Why you should care

Because sex workers are citizens whose welfare is important.

Deborah Malatesta runs a small clothing boutique in Rome that grosses just 1,500 euros ($1,685) per month. That’s why she has found a part-time job as an indoor sex worker. “This economic crisis seems never-ending,” Malatesta says. “With four kids, my husband and I have a hard time getting to the end of the month. This looked like the easiest way to earn extra cash. I prostitute myself in the evenings when my family is away — kids at the pool, husband doing extra shifts — just a few hours that allow me to earn 400 euros per week and double my income.” Her husband is unaware of her second job.

Now, wouldn’t it be better if sex houses were reopened … ?

Italian senator Maria Spilabotte

Italy has yet to exit from a triple-dip recession — the worst in its postwar history — and the protracted crisis has seen the number of Italian sex workers surge more than 26 percent from 2007 to 2015, according to a report from CODACONS, Italy’s top consumer lobbying group. The extended downturn also has fueled a proliferation of “good” women generating badly needed income by engaging in prostitution on the side as “house practitioners.” These otherwise normal bourgeois ladies have a university diploma, a neat house with a terrace, a good job, a nice husband, kids and a dog. This twist on the underground economy is going on all over the country, but it’s mainly found in big cities like Rome and Milan, where bankers and other white-collar professionals create an ideal client pool.

According to the Department for Equal Opportunities, 35 percent of the 20,000 prostitutes in Italy, or some 7,000 women, are house practitioners. “You’d be amazed by how many women do this,” says Angela Rossi, who runs a Milan bookstore by day and works as a house practitioner by night. “It could even be the sweet, elegant public employee living right next door who dresses in Armani.” Adds Michel Venturelli, a criminologist who has researched the issue in Genoa, “It’s do-it-yourself domestic sex work. These ladies, many of whom lead parallel second lives, do not just sell their bodies in exchange for money but also for furs, jewels and extra holidays.”

Politics also is driving the trend. The Italian parliament banned prostitution in 1958, shuttering brothels. Since then it’s been chaotic in the sex-for-sale industry. “The paradox is that selling one’s body [in Italy] is not illegal,” says Maria Spilabotte, a Democratic Party senator who sponsored legislation to legalize red-light districts. “What’s a crime is the exploitation of prostitution, [and that includes] not just pimps but also clients who are now getting fined.”

Spilabotte’s pro-sex workers bill has been stuck in parliament for years, along with other similar legislation sponsored by policymakers from a variety of political parties, many of which are in favor of reopening brothels. However, Italy is home to the Vatican, which opposes legalization, and devout Catholic politicians still follow what the church preaches.

In the meantime, the Italian police have cracked down on the street action and prostitution-linked online forums. According to Venturelli, clients now find the country’s house practitioners on websites registered in countries where the trade is legal. The foreign hot spot is Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland. The sex workers never leave their houses in Italy; it’s the clients who travel to them. Jessica Pili, 39, is a nurse and a part-time prostitute whose husband is supportive of his wife’s second job. He leaves their duplex apartment in the border town of Ventimiglia when clients arrive; some of them have driven all the way from France.

“No rules, no safe, regulated places for sex workers to practice their profession, fines for clients,” Spilabotte says. “Now, wouldn’t it be better if sex houses were reopened, or at least create red-light zones like in many other European countries?” In the eight nations on the Continent where the profession is legal, sex workers pay taxes and usually can benefit from welfare services, including regular free medical checkups. Unlike these pros, many house practitioners ignore health risks, Venturelli says. “Gynecologists’ facilities are crowded these days with fine women who have incurred sexually related diseases, especially in their mouths. They don’t use a condom when they practice oral sex.”

This new wave of second-job sex workers is just the latest of a series of changes that are pushing Italian prostitution indoors. Multinational streetwalkers share apartments and clients to cut down on expenses and boost revenues, while many massage rooms and beauty parlors now operate as brothels. In 2013 the baby squillo (baby ring) scandal rocked Rome’s posh Parioli neighborhood, where high school girls from affluent families were delivering “express” sex services in the attics of lawyers and businessmen to earn extra pocket money for designer clothes and the latest iPhone.

“Getting indoors is a good way to escape from pimps, police crackdowns and from the perils of pacing up and down the streets at night,” Venturelli says. “But it does not solve the problem.” Adds Spilabotte, “It’s like when madhouses were shut, crazy people were let to roam the country. The closure of brothels in Italy has only moved the practice from indoor to outdoor and now back indoor — but in a bad way.”

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