16 Apr 2018

Prostitution: freedom or exploitation?

The Italian Constitutional Court will soon decide whether the law prohibiting the exploitation of prostitution conflicts with the right to sexual freedom, a question that has been discussed by feminists for decades.

Cinzia Sciuto
Cinzia Sciuto MicroMega, Italy
Source: MicroMega
Prostitution: freedom or exploitation? - NewsMavens
High heels. Pixabay.

Why this story matters:

Does the freedom to have control over one’s body include the right to sell sexual services? Or does prostitution -- even when it's voluntary -- exploit the female body and is therefore always a form of violence?

It is a question that has always divided not only society as a whole, but also the feminist world. And governments have adopted the most diverse approaches to managing the issue, from the "Swedish model" that punishes customers to decriminalization in Germany.

On the one hand, sex workers want their work to be regulated to have more safety and support. On the other, many feminist associations are concerned that regulating prostitution legitimizes the sexual exploitation of women.

When discussing the issue, some facts simply cannot be ignored. As Tringali reports in the article below, in Germany, where prostitution has been significantly decriminalized, the vast majority of prostitutes come from Eastern Europe, which suggests their "freedom" of choice is very limited.

The basic question, in fact, is the following: is it possible to "freely" choose prostitution given the current economic power dynamics?

It is of course conceivable that a free and financially independent woman would choose to sell sexual services. After all, what is work if not a partial sale of one's physical performance? But it does not mean we should be blind to the power relations that govern our societies when it comes to discussing prostitution.

From this perspective, prostitution can be viewed as a job like any other that is typically carried out by the disadvantaged classes of society. This would mean that prostitution is not a problem in itself, but simply a symptom of the profound inequalities that characterize our societies, both within individual nations and globally. And perhaps that’s what should be addressed.

women's issues, work

Details from the story:

  • In Italy, prostitution is currently regulated by the Merlin law from 1958, which prohibits "houses of ill-repute", criminalized exploitation and aiding prostitution (but not prostitution itself).
  • The Merlin law is currently being examined by the Constitutional Court, who must decide whether it conflicts with the principles of sexual freedom and self-determination.
  • This question has been raised by various courts, including the Bari trial involving Silvio Berlusconi: between 2008 and 2009 "elegant dinners", as he described them, took place at Berlusconi's home, with about thirty women "recruited" by Gianpaolo Tarantini, who was later accused of exploiting prostitution.
  • In Europe, many different models are in place, ranging from prohibition in Sweden to decriminalization and legalization in Germany. 
  • The vast majority of prostitutes working in Western European countries are immigrants from Africa or Eastern Europe.
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