Why you should care
Because in today’s imbroglio of a political landscape, wild ideas are swirling up.
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Matteo Salvini would like to rid his country of all illegal migrants and ditch the euro. He’s a huge fan of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. He also happily admits to his constituents that he’s “met with many sex workers.”
Withhold your judgment a moment: Talking to prostitutes is for a good cause. Salvini, 43, leader of Italy’s populist Northern League party and prime ministerial candidate, would like to bring Italy’s sex trade out of the shadows in which it has dwelled since 1958. He doesn’t just want to regulate the black market industry to fight corruption and drain the Mafia of its revenues, though. Salvini wants the sex-work industry to play a seminal role in addressing Italy’s plummeting birth rate, the lowest in all of Europe.
He’s talking taxes. Make prostitutes subject to value-added tax, he says, and the country can use the revenues for all sorts of family-friendly initiatives, like boosting public funding of kindergartens and offering financial incentives to mothers for whom childbearing would be a financial hardship. Salvini claims the plan could haul in as much as 1 billion euros per year.
There are some estimated 75,000–120,000 sex workers in Italy, according to Catholic Association Giovanni XXIII, and some of them see Salvini’s plan as humanitarian: “We’ve been asking for this since ages. What we do is a job and must be recognized as such,” says Pia Covre, a former sex worker and head of Italy’s largest committee fighting for prostitutes’ rights. Others are eager to cash in on the state-given benefits that come from a legal job. Jessica Del Toro, a sex worker who shares a flat in Rome with three colleagues, wants to be “a regular worker” and abandon the darkness of illegality: “If prostitutes turn into taxpayers, we would get health coverage and a pension scheme as any kind of professional worker — a lawyer, artisan, banker,” she says.
Could Salvini’s unlikely alliance — moms hankering for babies, sex workers eager for health care and a good old-fashioned politician with national ambition — win out?
But Salvini might be a smidge overconfident. It’s impossible to tax sex workers who prefer to remain in the black market — meaning those who have an incentive to stay underground since they’re not being exploited, argues Antonio La Spina, sociology professor and a Mafia expert at Rome-based LUISS University. A handful of prostitutes in Italy are amateurs, often college students or teenagers who seek clients online and would eschew authorities purporting to “save” them from underground pimps, La Spina says. Plus, Salvini’s tax-avoidance crackdown would not affect foreign human traffickers and gangs who exploit prostitutes in Italy but take profits elsewhere. La Spina notes it’s also difficult to estimate the validity of Salvini’s 1 billion euro claim, as “it really depends on how many sex workers do come out and declare their profession.”
Born and bred in Milan, Salvini was raised by an entrepreneur father and a housewife mother. He studied classical literature and entered politics in his early 20s, lured by the dream of making his home region, Lombardy, independent from the rest of Italy. Before taking up party roles, he was a fiery reporter and radio commentator. He’s long had a fan base, so political analysts believe he might have a good shot at the PM spot — but only if he teams up with other right-wing parties.
This campaign is, of course, his calling card; Salvini is splashily touring Europe in search of best practices in the legal sex trade. Most experts say Holland has gotten it right, with policies like controlled sex districts and public health checks for sex workers — and presenting pro-prostitution bills in parliament. “I have met with many sex workers and have found a wide consensus among them. The majority would love to pay taxes too, so what are we waiting for?” After having visited Austria and Belgium, especially the red-light district close to the European Commission headquarters, Salvini got inspired and has taken it one step further. He would like to adopt their “enlightened” model and open new, elegant sex zones in Italy.
“I’m not talking of having messy brothels like in the past or putting women behind a shop window,” he promises, advocating instead for designated spaces within cities for the sex trade to play out undisturbed, like the luxury five-star resorts (“safe sex microcosms”) found in Austria, which are a magnet for Italians working near the Alpine border. Seeing all that good money slip out of Italy’s hands drives Salvini nuts: “It’s all precious sex cash that could be spent in Italy to further boost state coffers in hard economic times,” he bemoans — this as the country is just exiting from a triple-dip recession, the worst in its postwar history.
Could Salvini’s unlikely alliance — moms hankering for babies, sex workers eager for health care and a good old-fashioned politician with national ambition — win out? As they say in Italy, it would be like putting “the devil together with holy water.” But it just might work.