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July 28, 2002 08:02pm
Italy's Prostitutes Fear New Laws
Source: AP
by: Tom Rachman

(ROME, ITALY) -- A customer reaches out of his car window and squeezes Cristal's bare flesh like a shopper testing fruit. Without a word, he drives on. Another car pulls up, and Cristal purrs "Ciao, ciao," and grabs for the door. The driver smiles coldly and guns his car out of reach.

Cristal, a 25-year-old transsexual prostitute from Colombia, decides it's time for a break. Flipping her long blonde braids from her face, she squats in the gutter as the drivers gawk.

Sordid, unsanitary and dangerous - that is the prostitute's life in one of their hangouts, the dim side streets around the ruins of the third-century Baths of Caracalla. Almost anything would seem better than this, and Italian lawmakers have come up with a proposal: legalize brothels.

But talk to the prostitutes working in this underworld, and few have anything good to say about the plan. Under the proposal, they would have to register with the government - impossible for the illegal immigrants who constitute the majority of prostitutes in Italy. And those who stuck to the streets could face harsh punishments.

Cristal, who is in Italy illegally, would never be able to join in. "No way," she said.

Her friend Chiara, a 28-year-old transsexual from Ecuador in zebra-print hotpants and a bulging black bustier, said the government should just decriminalize her trade.

"Prostitution goes as far back as Sodom and Gomorrah - excuse me, but we're people who think with our brains," she said. "Why can't we do our jobs? Why can't we sell our bodies? Why can't you do what you want to do with your body?"

Supporters of the proposal, however, say prostitution is out of control in Italy, with women trafficked across the border and forced into sexual slavery, diseases rampant, and the public nuisance of finding prostitutes on the road to the beach or on side streets off Roman ruins where tourists visit.

The problem exists throughout Europe, where human trafficking for the sex trade has boomed in the last decade. The fall of communism brought a gush of women from Eastern Europe, while illegal smugglers have also been shuttling women from African countries, in particular Nigeria.

A parliamentary commission began hearings last week on the proposal sponsored by a lawmaker in Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party. Besides registration and legal brothels, the plan calls for regular health checks and taxation of prostitutes' incomes.

Prostitutes would have to pass medical checkups, then would receive a certificate to sell sexual services from private homes. The brothels - hosting a maximum of three prostitutes - would have to keep financial records for tax purposes, and minors would be banned from the premises.

The legislation would also include harsh penalties for those caught still on the street, although lawmakers were still working over this and other elements, according to the member of parliament sponsoring the proposal, Gianfranco Pittelli.

Italy had legal brothels until 1958, when they were closed and hookers took to the streets. The law today does not consider prostitution a crime, although many of its offshoots - pimping, solicitation and brothels - are illegal.

According to most official estimates, there are at least 50,000 prostitutes in Italy, with most of the women from Eastern Europe and Africa and large numbers of transsexuals from Latin America.

Italy has been trying for years to change its prostitution laws.

"For 15 years, no one has wanted to confront this seriously," said lawmaker Pittelli. "It's a matter of public order. We want to do it for it the women and for the public."

"To leave things as they are would be a grave irresponsibility."

However, activist groups say the plan is unrealistic.

"On one side, they want to regulate prostitution. But to make those who want to prohibit it happy, they've added restrictions, setting severe, really absurd penalties for prostitutes," said Pia Covre of the Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes.

"For years, we've talked about changing this law, but we've never done it," she said. "But this proposal seems like something out of 1850."

Whether the proposal gets somewhere or not, those who work this trade are unlikely to abide by it.

Prostitutes who are forced to work the streets would never be allowed by their pimps to join in a government plan. And those working independently often pride themselves on their freedom and aren't about to accept official rules - even if some long for the safety, comfort and indoor living that a brothel would offer.

"Unfortunately you get the good and the bad out here on the street," Chiara said. "I'd be a bit better in a brothel, I'd be a bit safer."

"But for me, the streets aren't a problem. I've grown up here. Since I was 11, I've been here - I'm 28 now.

"Unfortunately, it's a part of me."

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