The Italian law no. 75 from 1958, which carries the name of Senator Lina Merlin, has turned 61. This law, as we know, abolished brothels – 560 of them when it was approved -, the embodiment of State regulation of prostitution. It abolished the keeping of records of prostituted women, freeing them from the heavy stigma and providing an opportunity for them to escape from prostitution. Essentially, this law aimed to avoid any woman being forced, coerced or encouraged to get into or to remain in prostitution.
The Merlin Law can be seen as a pioneer for recent abolitionist laws, approved in various countries around the world and it serves as our point of reference to reflect both culturally and politically on prostitution itself.
Nonetheless, or perhaps precisely for this reason, the law periodically comes under fire and recently its constitutionality was called into question. On 5th March 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the Merlin Law, upholding it, in response to the challenge brought against it by the Bari Court of Appeal in relation to the Tarantini case. This famous case involved the businessman Tarantini, who was accused of aiding and abetting the activity of prostitution, by recruiting ‘escorts’ for the then Prime Minister Berlusconi.
The challenge was dismissed by the court and the State’s lawyer, Gabriella Palmieri, made her position very clear, requesting on behalf of the Council Presidency that the challenge be deemed inadmissible. She said, “the fundamental consideration is that of human dignity”, adding the point about the difficulty of “identifying the blurred limits of free will. The risk is that a regulatory gap lead to a gap in protection and safeguarding against harm of the most vulnerable people.”
Two days after the Court’s verdict we hosted Julie Bindel, a British journalist, and Rachel Moran, activist, survivor and co-founder of SPACE International, at an event in collaboration with the university’s Department of Culture, Politics and Society and CIRSDE, the interdisciplinary women and gender research centre, and supported by local activist Marcella Gilardoni.
Julie, who has visited Italy a number of times, was here to present her latest book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, the first global investigation into prostitution, with data and reports gathered from 40 different countries, cities and states, in Europe, Asia, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Africa. Her book has been published in Italy by VandaEPublishing and Morellini Editore.
Julie’s book takes a journey within the economic and political system that has grown within prostitution, that has come to be referred to as the sex industry. She tells the story of two international movements that brought the difference between two positions on prostitution to the fore: on one side the liberal COYOTE group, founded in 1973, who recognised prostitution as an expression of sexual freedom; one the other side WHISPER, a movement that began in 1985 in opposition to COYOTE, from the determination of prostitution survivor Evelina Giobbe.
COYOTE presented itself as fighting against the ‘old morality’ in order to give a voice to prostitutes, and the idea of the ‘happy hooker’, explains Julie Bindel, stems from here. This concept later developed into the so-called sex worker and it has normalised the sexual abuse that is prostitution, transforming the language around this phenomenon, making it ‘softer’, in an attempt to justify the sexual violence that is rooted in prostitution, or rather rooted in ‘compensated rape’, as Rachel Moran defines it. This is actually how the title of the Italian version of her book Paid For (in Italian, Stupro a Pagamento) can be translated.
Prostitution is not, and can never be, a job like any other. It is not an expression of a woman’s freedom or self-determination. Proponents of prostitution – the senator Gianfranco Rufa is but one example – use concepts like decency and women’s freedom. As highlighted by Valentina Pazé, professor of political philosophy at the university, during our event on 7th March, “in support of these claims, there is a tendency to see the world in black and white: on one hand there are the women who are victims of trafficking, forced against their will to prostitute themselves, or at least ‘pushed’ by conditions of desperation; on the other hand, the ‘escort’ or ‘sex worker’, people who have chosen freely to enter into a contractual exchange between third parties seeking pleasure and their voluntary supply of their sexuality, the power to gain significant economic advantage. Reading Rachel Moran’s book, this vision of prostitution in black and white (on one side victims, free professionals on the other) falls apart.” Rachel, as Pazé told us, explains that “the defining characteristic of free people is the inviolability or the sanctity of their body, while the distinctive feature of a prostitute is the very fact that her body is NOT inviolable.”
The concept of personal freedom is, therefore, closely linked to this inviolability of the body. As has been made clear repeatedly in speeches by the German trauma psychologist Ingeborg Kraus, “to allow strangers to penetrate one’s body, natural phenomena must be extinguished: fear, shame, disgust, alienation, contempt, self-blame. In their place women put: indifference, neutrality, a functional conception of penetration, a reinterpretation of this act as a “job” or “service”. These women have learned very early on how to dissociate.”
Several studies have shown a direct correlation between involvement in prostitution and experiences of violence suffered during childhood. According to data published by the German Ministry for Family Affairs in 2004, 87% of prostituted women had suffered physical violence before the age of 16. According to Kraus, no job exposes people to the same level of trauma and violence as prostitution: post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, drug use, psychosomatic pain, nausea, vomiting. “Prostitution can only be endured in a state of pathological dissociation”, concludes Kraus.
If, then, dissociation is a necessary mental state for the survival of people in prostitution, that confirms not only that the body is inviolable, but above all that prostitution is not an expression of freedom. ‘Sex work’ proponents actually most often claim an economic freedom of the ‘sex worker’, the so-called right to freedom to conduct a business (which, in truth, as Mia Caielli clarified, was referenced by the Bari Appeals Judge in defense of people who provide ‘clients’ for prostitutes, those who would in fact benefit from such a right).
In Germany prostitution has been regulated since 2002. There are 3500 registered brothels, not counting the illegal ones, the annual profits of which are as high as 15 billion euros. The demand for sexual services has increased, as has the sexual and economic exploitation of the prostituted women, 95% of whom come from the poorest regions of Eastern Europe – Romania, Bulgaria and many are from the Roma minority. 30% of them are under 21 years of age, don’t speak German, and are even ‘sacrificed’ by their own families in order to receive an income. So the question to ask is this: is it right to defend the freedom to conduct a business even when it goes against human dignity and risks undermining the protection of the most vulnerable part of society?
In a capitalist system which has turned everything – even the human body – into a commodity, the right to everyone’s self-determination is being used more and more often by those in a position of power. They say ‘you have the freedom to choose’, but the reality is that this ‘choice’ is almost always between extremely limited options. Self-determination is an individual’s ability and possibility to decide, with the necessary prerequisite not the act of making a decision, but that that decision be made independently of any restriction, between valid alternatives.
Prostitution is the fruit of a patriarchal mentality, that assigns power to men and feeds violence against women; it is men’s demand for sexual access to women’s bodies that sustains the global market for prostitution, exactly as Julie Bindel explains in her investigative book and as is highlighted by Rachel Moran’s book Paid For. This is why, difficult though it may be, it is necessary to recognise men’s responsibility in this system of power that overrides the freedom of all women, even the 0.1% composed of so-called sex workers, as Rachel explained in her speech. Prostitution is exploitation and is founded on a masculine idea of disrespect and the submission of women that becomes evident when we look at the language used. Julie Bindel accurately examines the transformation of language within prostitution, which has sought to frame it as a job. She told us that the most effective way to ‘clean’ any human rights abuse is to dress it up in a different name. For example, as Janice Raymond notes in her book Not a Choice, Not a Job, one supporter of slavery in the West Indies suggested, ‘instead of calling them SLAVES, let’s use the term PLANTATION ASSISTANTS and we’ll stop hearing violent protest against the slave trade’.
The reflection brings to mind the decision to define as ‘sexual assistants’ the (for the most part) women who prostitute themselves (voluntarily? Bindel’s book dedicates an interesting chapter to this question) offering ‘sexual services’ to disabled people, for a fee.
Professor Mia Caielli, the director of CIRSDE, speaking at the same event with Bindel and Moran, explained the different legal models and the principles upon which each one is based. From German regulation and New Zealand’s ‘decriminalisation’ to the abolitionist Swedish model and its latest incarnation, the French law that explicitly bans the purchase of sex acts. Even this recent legal change in France has had its constitutionality called into question, but the Conseil Constitutionnel, the Supreme Court, reaffirmed the ban and proclaimed that prostitution cannot be considered a job.
Caielli also reminded us that the Merlin Law was founded on “the conviction that maintaining legal brothels is in opposition with the Constitution, specifically Article 3, both in spirit and in words. It would amount to maintaining a system where many women are economically exploited, limiting people’s freedom and laughing in the face of human dignity, with the approval and complicity of the state which wields two forms of control – via policing and the health system.”
In Germany, Caielli told us, “very few of the thousands of prostituted women are registered. The others continue to live and operate illegally and are often victims of trafficking”. This is despite the original intentions of the law to regulate prostitution, which was to protect the women and reduce exploitation. Julie Bindel and Rachel Moran describe the policy of legalisation/regulation as a complete and total failure.
The ‘Letters from the brothels’, collected by Lina Merlin and Carla Voltina and published in 1955, are the testimony and the voice of prostituted women in Italy, the same voice that we hear today from survivors of prostitution, including Rachel Moran. These voices serve to completely disassemble the ‘Pretty Woman’ myth and they fiercely oppose the narrative constructed by the ‘sex work’ lobby.
This is why we maintain the importance of promoting abolitionist principles, first and foremost via legal changes in line with the Nordic Model, which, Bindel explains, decriminalises prostituted women and criminalises the demand, the buyers.
To learn more about the Abolitionist Model, the effects of regulation in Germany and the close relationship between trafficking and prostitution:
A lesson by Catherine McKinnon at the University of Chicago
The key role trauma plays in prostitution