Foreign Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in Italy | Diana Cagliero


This paper was submitted for the ANT 280 Mediterranean Europe course taught by Dr. Peter Brown, exploring the anthropological discussions surrounding the nature of prostitution in Italy both historically and in present day. The values such as the importance of sex for reproduction, female faithfulness, and known paternity are widespread throughout Italy, mainly because of institutions such as the Catholic Church and historical attitudes. In an anthropological domain, Mediterranean Europe is known as a place defined by its sexual segregation, a honor/shame complex, and the virgin or whore paradox. These complexes not only affect all women throughout the Mediterranean, but they especially disenfranchise women who are working as prostitutes because of the extremes of the stigmas placed on them. This allowance of seeing prostitutes and sex workers as the “other” prevents community or government actions against violence or sexual trafficking that plagues these disenfranchised, often minority workers. Italian society embodies the Mediterranean concept of sexual segregation in a way that allows for foreign prostitution and the trafficking of ethnic sex workers to Italy to become products of culturally accepted male domination and patriarchal values.

Background on the Anthropology of Prostitution

An important issue to note is the difficulty for anthropologists to study prostitution. While many other marginalized people have been studied for extensive periods of participant observation, it would be impossible for an anthropologist to live the daily lives that prostitutes live without ethical issues. Therefore, the primary sources that have been written about prostitution rely heavily on interviews with prostitutes mainly retired, or with aid workers who have developed relationships with prostitutes over time. This issue is perhaps best summarized by Cole & Booth, who write “The criminals who…monitor the women are best avoided; women have good reason to conceal parts of their story”, because of either shame about their situation or fear of their pimps (Cole & Booth 108). At the same time, it is through understanding the culture of prostitution and sexual that solutions to the disenfranchisement and sexism that affects prostitutes in Italy can be found.

No discussion of modern-day foreign prostitution in Italy can take place without the important aspect of human trafficking and sexual slavery being discussed. The definition presented to differentiate between the two is that “trafficking involves the recruitment, transportation, and long-term exploitation of a person’s body or labor through the use of deception, coercion, violence and intimidation, and debt bondage” (Cole & Booth 109). However, while foreign prostitution and trafficking cannot be used interchangeably, both are institutions that “allow a person to have some dominating power over another person’s body” (Trappolin 341). Many issues discussed will affect both victims of trafficking and prostitutes, but ignoring or overgeneralizing one of the two aspects of the ongoing debate will overshadow the voices of individuals who should be represented in anthropological literature. However, the association of prostitution, immigration, and trafficking is important when looking at the social representation of the women involved in these aspects of Italian culture.

History of Prostitution in Italy, 1860 to the Present

An incredibly interesting source written in 1893 by Cesare Lombroso was a book on the criminal anthropology of “La donna delinquente, La Prostituta, e La donna normale”. This 640-page study focused on the physical and psychological differences that Lombroso found between normal Italian women and Italian female criminals and prostitutes. Almost every factor imaginable was collected, ranging from onset of menstruation to head circumference. The study is filled with analyses that have findings such as “menstruating criminals commit more crimes than non-menstruating criminals” or “prostitutes have a more limited visual range than normal women” (Lombroso 373 and 390, respectively). This study really illustrated the Italian frame of mind when it came to prostitution in the late 1800s. When Italy became a unified nation-state in the 1860s, the Cavour Law of 1860 (named after the first prime minister of Italy), called for a state-regulated registry of prostitution. This law restricted the civil rights of prostitutes by several measures. First of all, a woman could be arrested as a prostitute “simply on the grounds that she was homeless and unemployed”, and “Arrest was often followed by forced registration as a prostitute” and “women in police custody usually underwent a routine vaginal examination with or without their consent” (Gibson 2). Not only was this program immoral by not recognizing any form of women’s rights, it also conveyed the sexist attitude that was the norm in Italy at the time by “disciplining women and ignoring their clients” (Gibson 8).

The next phase in the legislation of prostitution in Italy was the abolitionist movement. This movement decriminalized prostitution itself, but maintained that trafficking in women for prostitution or brothels and pimping were still to be illegal. The opinion of these abolitionists was that “Decriminalization would prevent the two major abuses inherent in the Cavour law: the restriction of the civil rights of prostitutes and the unequal application of the law according to sex” (Gibson 47). The abolitionist movement failed to take off in the early 1900s, and Italy was left with regulated system that lagged behind those of its European peers.

It was only in 1958 that Italy adopted the Merlin Law, an abolitionist stance taken by senator Lina Merlin. As the law stands today (similarly to the original but with several amendments), private practices of prostitution are allowed, but solicitation and prostitution in public places are still forbidden. Furthermore, any person who profits from the prostitution of another individual is acting illegally (Cole & Booth 111). While the Merlin Law has helped prostitution by decriminalizing the activity itself, it has not changed the attitudes of the Italian pubic around prostitution, which continue to find it an immoral and contemptuous activity.

History of Sex Trafficking in Italy, 1980s to the Present

The history of trafficking in Italy has a much more modern past than that of domestic prostitution. Foreign prostitutes began appearing in Italy in the 1980s and in ever-growing numbers to the present day. Before these immigrants appeared, the sex market was mainly dominated by Sicilian prostitutes, who were preferred and more expensive when compared to the occasional by drug addicts, who were significantly less desirable due to the chance of them carrying the HIV virus or other sexually transmitted diseases (Cole & Booth 113). As immigrants started entering Italy in the 1970s, “Occupational and employment opportunities for foreign women still reflect[ed] the ones that were available to Italian women who migrated from rural villages to urban centers at the end of the 19th century, i.e., domestic work and prostitution” (Trappolin 337). Starting in the 1980s, the ethnicity of prostitutes in Italy had a wide variety, especially based on location. Nowadays, on the streets the majority of women are Nigerian, with the occasional Italian or Albanian prostitute. On the other hand, “indoors, the situation is reversed with Colombians, Italians, and some Easterners rotating though small luxury brothels” (Cole & Booth 113). It is also important to note that not all foreign prostitutes are trafficked. In the research conducted for this paper, different studies have produced numbers that range for the most part around 10% (Trappolin 342).

The major legal development with regards to human trafficking has been Section 18 of the 1998 immigration law. This law allows for victims of trafficking to pursue two different legal paths in order to remove themselves from the situation. The first path, which involves working through the police system, is almost never taken. This requires a woman to provide a testimony against her trafficker, and then she would qualify for police protection. This path is rarely taken by trafficked women in fear that the traffickers might go after her family at home (Kara 94), or her reluctance to work with the police, who may be corrupt or even clients of the prostitutes (Kara 85). The second path, more frequently taken, is through social workers. Women must simply “declare themselves victims, renounce the activity of prostitution, and enter programs run by accredited local associations funded by national or local government” (Cole & Booth 112). A major issue with this is the high rate of recidivism into prostitution, as it pays significantly higher than what the women make through these government-funded programs (Cole & Booth 121).

While the Italian public has no trouble being horrified after hearing stories of the sex slave trade and the conditions of trafficking, the occupation of these women still results in little sympathy from the public. Even the attempts of the campaign against the white slave trade in the 1910s was riddled with wording describing “ridding the world of prostitution, by…redeeming the sinning woman” (Gibson 60). Regarding foreign prostitutes, the Italian media and politicians see them as “victims of cultures that allow men to play a dominating and hegemonic role over women” (Trappolin 340). Anthropological analysis in the Mediterranean reveals that these themes of sexual segregation and male domination are more than present in the domestic Italian culture as well, which results in the stigma that affects all women who partake in the sex trade.

Issues of Violence

One issue that plagues both women who have chosen to be prostitutes and victims of sexual trafficking is violence. While violence is disproportionately targeted towards trafficking victims, violence in many forms still affects any woman in the sex industry. Luca Trappolin identifies five main types of violence experienced by prostitution. The first of the five types is violence between foreign prostitutes and criminal groups. These causes of violence can range from territory issues, to intimidation tactics used by traffickers in order to force the girl to perform the services they demand (Cole & Booth 120). The severe violence that the media focuses on is the violence of traffickers on the women and girls they take from their native countries. Stories of rape and torture by the traffickers on the girls as punishment for running away are common, as well as forced reliance on drugs and alcohol in order to keep the sex workers submissive (Kara 86-87). While the Italian public reacts strongly against stories of foreign violence inflicted on trafficked girls, many types of violence from the Italian community on women are results of the same principles of male domination and female subordination.

Another type of violence identified is called “boyfriend violence”. Trappolin describes this as “the inequality that pervades the relations between the sexes in his own [Italian] culture, this individual takes advantage of his power to bend the prostitute with whom he is in a relationship to his will” (Trappolin 343). This asymmetric gender differences that still pervade Mediterranean culture is exaggerated in a situation with a prostitute, a woman who is considered “lesser”, which results in more leniency when it comes to violence in a relationship formed between a client and a prostitute.

The third type of violence identified is “street” or local violence. This is described as the hostility of local Italian residents of the neighborhoods where prostitutes work with the purpose of intimidating the workers and preventing their activity. These actions committed by Italian citizens against sex workers exemplifies the still prominent gender differences that result in these women being seen as less than human in the eyes of the conservative Italian public.

Police violence is extremely common towards prostitutes throughout the Mediterranean. Anthropologist Daniel Briggs writes in his ethnography on the island Ibiza about his interviews with prostitutes who said they were subject to frequent assaults and beatings by the police when they rejected the officer’s sexual advances (Briggs 139). The problem with the police harassment of prostitutes is that sexual transactions continue moving to more peripheral areas that are not under police control (Trappolin 343).

The major problem with lack of any law enforcement to assist prostitutes is seen most severely in the last defined type of violence: client violence. This violence, similar to the previously described boyfriend violence, operates under the Italian client’s assumption that “a prostitute guarantees unconditional access to her body, regardless of her will” (Trappolin 344). The assaults committed under this pretense are indicators of the male-female relationships based on female subordination in Italian male culture. Instead of focusing on these assaults, Italian media focused on the “Salvatore” complex that operates on the fact that 7.3% of calls to anti-trafficking helplines are from clients who want shelter given to the victims (Trappolin 344). This one-sided media attention upholds what Italians see to be a “moralistic” culture, resulting in foreign prostitutes and sex traded workers to suffer heavy social stigmas and barriers to enter the society instead of being seen as victims of complexes that rest on gender inequality (Mullenger 67).

Other Issues

  1. Illegal Status

While foreign prostitutes cannot be arrested for the act of prostitution itself as by Section 18 of the 1998 immigration law, they are frequently arrested for their status as undocumented immigrants. The problem that plagues undocumented sex workers not only in Italy but all over the United States is their inability to reach out to the police when it comes to cases of assault for fear of deportation. Although women are subject to exploitation in Italy or the US because of problems such as language barriers or criminal exploitation, many times better situations are not present back in their home countries. The explanation given is that “the surest way for a poor Nigerian to get to Europe and the riches it represents is by resorting to traffickers, the sponsor is viewed as a potential benefactor rather than as a criminal” (Cole & Booth 123). The issue with movement of undocumented sex workers is that the new country is seen as a place of opportunity, without accounting for the tough realities immigrants must face. Needless to say, a legal solution other than deportation is necessary when dealing with the issue of undocumented immigration and sex work.

  1. Racism

Not only are foreign prostitutes required to face the challenge of persistent sexism in Italian society, they must also confront the endemic racism and hated against foreigners. Examples of Nigerian women who are seen as “ethnic” result in “Sicilian customers hanker[ing] after the supposedly ‘hot’ African women” (Cole & Booth 114). According to a study by The Economist, “A prostitute’s rates also vary according to her ethnicity and nationality. What attracts a premium in one place can attract a penalty in another” (The Economist). Popularity is also the result of price; different ethnicities may offer lower prices and offer riskier sexual behaviors because of their status as recent arrivals (Cole & Booth 113). Not unlike the sexism that pervades the sex industry, it is male domination in combination with racism in Italian society drives these demands for foreign women, as one Italian journalist was quoted as saying white men get a sense of power “while possessing a woman of color” (Cole & Booth 114).

Proposed Solutions & Conclusion

The most successful solution to assist women who are subject to the problems of sex industry has been through NGO assistance. This usually takes place in either hotlines available for prostitutes to call for help, or street vans that provide women with condoms and health checks. These aid workers are usually not at odds with the pimps or traffickers as they allow the women to stay in good health, which is profitable for these criminal gangs.

Ever-increasing access to the Internet is helping change the way prostitution is conducted around the world. Not only are women now able to use online forums with other prostitutes to check if potential clients have histories of abuse, but “moving online means prostitutes need no longer to rely on the usual intermediaries—brothels and agencies; pimps and madams—to drum up business or provide a venue” (The Economist). Of course this can be challenging for women who are entrapped in criminal gangs, but the Internet can provide ever changing and empowering resources to women who continue to work as prostitutes.

Legislative issues in Italy are significantly more complicated, and frequently less effective than non-governmental intervention. With the massive influx of immigrants into the Italian population, there have been calls for many different movements; for either total legalization of prostitution or for criminalizing the entire industry. Arguments for legalization range from allowing women to control their bodies to providing health care to all prostitutes. However, there is the chance that legalization would provide “cover for brothel owners to purchase trafficking victims…behind legal doors” (Kara 100). Supposed benefits to criminalization include reducing subordination of women, but do not account for victim’s legal rights in situations of trafficking (Kara 100).

Italy has recently made some legal advances. These include “longer punishment terms for traffickers”, therefore hopefully showing legal commitment to the exploited sex worker (Mullenger 61). Unfortunately, these attempts have been unsuccessful mainly because a large part of the problem lies with the structure of the home country of the traffickers. In fact, most of these trafficking gangs are based outside of Italy (Mullenger 62). International support and cooperation will be a key factor in controlling human trafficking and illegal migration.

While all these proposed solutions can have positive affects on the well being of sex workers in Italy, the underlying problem that has been operating throughout the history of prostitution in Italy has always been the perceived gender differences and patriarchy that plague Italian societies. Italian society reacts to crimes committed by foreigners against these women, but not against their own domination. In this way, the concept of sexual segregation and female subordination from which the Italians are supposedly emancipated from is projected on the foreign sex worker. Italian women are seen as “free” but foreign prostitutes are victims of “their own culture of gender relations” (Trappolin 346). This label allows them to be stigmatized and victimized, and separated from Italian society. It is only through a change in the Mediterranean-wide notion of sexual segregation and male domination that cultural norms on foreign prostitution and sex workers can shift to one of acceptance, kindness, and sympathy.


Briggs, Daniel. Deviance and Risk on Holiday: An Ethnography of British Tourists in Ibiza. N.p.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Lombroso, Cesare. La Donna Delinquente, La Prostituta, La Donna Normale. Torino: Roux, 1893. Print.  Whelehan, Patricia. An Anthropological Perspective on Prostitution. N.p.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. Print.

Mullenger, N. Youth Prostitution in the New Europe: The Growth in Sex Work. Ed. D. Barrett. N.p.: Russell House, 2000. Print.

Kara, Siddarth. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York: Columbia University, 2009. Print.

Gibson, Mary. Prostitution and the State in Italy, 1860-1915. 2nd ed. Columbus: Ohio State University, 1999. Print.

“Prostitution and the Internet: More Bang for your Buck.” The Economist (2014): n. pag. Print.  Cole, Jeffrey E., and Sally S. Booth. Dirty Work. Landham: Lexington Books, 2007. Print. Trappolin, Luca. “Victims and Cultural Borders: The Globalization of Prostitution in Italy.” Dialectical Anthropology 29.3/4 (2005): 335-48. Print.


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