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Approaches to the Regulation and Governance of Prostitution in Contemporary Italy


This article offers a critical analysis of the prostitution policy reforms pursued in Italy in the 2000s by center-right governments led by Silvio Berlusconi. It investigates the construction of prostitution underlying the punitive laws proposed and the discourses invoked to sustain them. It shows that governmental policy approaches pursued during this period were based on a narrow understanding on this complex phenomenon, dominated by a discourse of danger which centered on the need to protect the country's imperiled public safety. The article also discusses the outcomes of these proposed changes. It shows that while the bills proposed by center-right governments in the 2000s failed to be passed into prostitution law, their key principles have been incorporated and implemented at the local level as part of new public safety measures.

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  1. Silvio Berlusconi has been Italian President of the Council (the equivalent of a Prime Minister) three times since 1994, leading three center-right coalition governments: the first from May 1994 to January 1995; the second from June 2001 to May 2006; and the third from May 2008 to November 2011. A wealthy entrepreneur and media mogul, he is president of the People of Freedom center-right party and has also become well known internationally for his involvement in various corruption and sex scandals.

  2. The discussion presented in the following two sections is based on the analysis of public statements made by political leaders, governmental policies proposed and implemented in the course of the past decade, government documents, statements and reports made available by local authorities and NGOs operating in this field, newspaper and magazine articles and relevant scholarly literature. The ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted in Italy between 2002 and 2006 and the interviews and informal conversations that I carried out during and after this period with political actors, national and local-level activists, social workers, and migrant prostitutes in Italy also inform this analysis.

  3. Italy also signed the so-called “Palermo Protocol” in 2000 and ratified it in 2006. In 2003, it passed a new law (223/2008) introducing the crime of human trafficking and providing for the prosecution of traffickers. The definition of trafficking in Italy, however, remains subject to interpretation, being based on vaguely defined concepts such as vulnerability, abuse, and exploitation. This has inevitable consequences at the level of practice where variations are seen in the implementation of anti-trafficking measures and in the assistance to victims of sex trafficking (Andrijasevic 2010; Crowhurst 2012; Petrini and Ferraris 2002).

  4. For more details on the differences between these organizations, see Bertone & Ferraris (2002) and On the Road (2002).

  5. Don Benzi died in 2007. However, his association has remained very active in this field with its many branches across the country.

  6. Local mayors across the country had issued fines against clients and street prostitutes since the late 1990s (see Maluccelli and Martini 2002; Simone 2010). However, this was the first time that the government had included and encouraged these measures as part of its national security agenda.


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Correspondence to Isabel Crowhurst.

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Crowhurst, I. Approaches to the Regulation and Governance of Prostitution in Contemporary Italy. Sex Res Soc Policy 9, 223–232 (2012).

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  • Prostitution policy
  • Sex trafficking
  • Public safety
  • Punitivism
  • Discourse
  • Italy