Terni, Italy: Ordinance inflicting barriers on women’s self-expression

Eye does not see, heart does not grieve (Italian proverb)

In Terni, Umbria (Central Italy), the Mayor Leonardo Latini has issued an ordinance that has as its Subject: Contingent and urgent provision aimed at overcoming the degrading of the territory for decency and and quality of life in the area by combating the phenomenon of prostitution.

Faced with this object, one expects that finally someone has taken the issue of prostitution seriously and that, addressing the people (mostly women) who are exploited, trafficked, treated and abused, the Mayor decided to take on the responsibility of putting in place measures to combat and safeguard those who, as we know, live in the shadows because they lack fundamental rights. We know how complex the debate on prostitution is on a global level, and how many different positions are held by various organisations and governments. We were able to analyse and test different approaches and models on prostitution at a global level, trying to understand strengths and weaknesses.

We have debated (and we are still debating) the principle of self-determination and free choice over our bodies, we have done so from a feminist, inclusive perspective, aimed at combating all exploitation, at fighting against human trafficking and the abuse of the bodies of women and children, deprived of their dignity and their documents, put on the street or locked up in private flats, raped in the indifference of the world, disturbing to the eyes of those who walk the streets with their families; considered the waste of a society to which it is more or less sufficient not to see, not to hear, not caring about violence as long as it takes place in remote or private places.

I am not discussing the concept of sex work here, because I am talking about prostitution linked to exploitation, to human trafficking, which has increased in Italy with the increase in migration flows, and Organised crime has made a profit from it.

We know that sexual exploitation and trafficking mainly affect women, because it has to do with the dimension of inequality. All this has a name and it is called slavery, a slavery nourished by organised crime and by clients who do not care to know whether the woman who has sex with them for money is underage, whether she has been induced into prostitution or whether she is doing so by choice even though there are alternatives.

The mayor of a city is expected to build a network of experienced organisations, competent women, and police forces that are up to the task and not just in terms of punishment, in order to safely detect a phenomenon that is as widespread as it is hidden, and to guarantee care and protection for those who have no freedom to decide on their own bodies and lives. Starting from their needs, their stories, their individuality.

To do this, it would be enough to use the many dossiers on the subject, both at national and international level, it would be enough to talk to the organisations and finally consider all the women who know more as experts, because all this concerns us women more. Because we know that what the institutions treat as an emergency has deep roots. But the Mayor of Terni does not particularly care about the women of the city, and in general he does not care about fundamental civil rights, being an expression of the same radical right (the party of the Lega, the same that supports the World Family Congress and Agenda Europa) that denies a law against homophobia, and boasting in his council those who believe that violence against women can be fought with a “pepper spray”.

Isn’t it the Mayor’s priority to set up a round table with all the expert voices on the subject, in order to have concrete references, points of view, research, data, proposals, and maybe to object looking people in the eye, instead of signing from his desk an act that, rather embarrassed, I try to summarise and contextualise.

The Mayor is the authority responsible for the administration of the Municipality and representative of the local community. He adopts contingent and urgent decrees when there is a risk of degradation of the territory, and in case of risk for damages fo urban decorum , quality of life and etc.

The Mayor has signed an order to take into consideration the spread of prostitution in some streets of the city, which undermines the peace and safety of the citizens. Since I am addressing people who do not know my city, it has a population of around 150 000 inhabitants, I was born there and I live there, don’t get the idea of streets full of prostitutes stopping cars which in turn create traffic jams and chaos. Instead, several flats were discovered in which women forced into prostitution were segregated, including in the city centre.

It seems that the attitudes of clients and prostitutes are affecting the fundamental values of citizens, i.e. public morality, the common sense of decency, health, serenity and civil coexistence, and are also hindering traffic. The only thing I can recognise in all the considerations in the ordinance is the fact that there is filth caused by condoms, kleenex and all that is used during sexual intercourse, but this is in every secluded place in the city where even couples of young people and lovers go, heedless of respect for the common interest, nothing new. The Mayor makes a general mention of police action to “reduce prostitution”, which has been unsuccessful, and we now have an uncomfortable situation for citizens. In each of his premises, the Mayor does not address what is illegal in Italy, which is not the exercise of prostitution, but the exploitation of prostitution. The Mayor only talks about citizens’ discomfort, urban decorum, noise and traffic, never mentioning the victims. He talks about protecting the city community. All this is the premise for establishing the bans, which only refer to certain streets in the city and only for the period from September to the end of January:

  • to adopt behaviour unambiguously aimed at offering sexual services for payment, which consists of invitation, allusive greeting, or the wearing of improper or indecent clothing in relation to the area concerned, or in showing nudity, creating the idea of prostitution.
    The violation takes the concrete form of stationing and/or stalking the person and/or the solicitation of clients and the entertaining of clients and/or any other attitudes or behaviour, including clothing, which may give rise to the belief that the person is engaged in prostitution. is practising prostitution;
  • to request information from persons who engage in conduct consisting in the assumption of attitudes of recall, invitation, allusive greetings, wearing indecent or inappropriate clothes in relation to the area concerned or showing nudity and/or agreeing with them to provide services. agreeing with them the acquisition of sexual services for payment;
  • driving vehicles, performing dangerous actions or causing obstruction to road traffic in order to requesting information from persons who engage in attitudes and behaviours of invitation, of allusive greeting, wearing indecorous or obscene clothing or displaying nudity, and/or to request information from persons who behave and behave in a way that is suggestive, inviting, allusive, wearing indecent or obscene clothing or showing nudity and/or agreeing with them to provide sexual services for payment;

After including the punitive measures (economic and penal) in the order, the Mayor at the end specifies that if a situation of violence and exploitation involving prostitutes as victims is verified by the police, then they will be sent to the competent services by an apposite report.

The Mayor never addresses the issue of human trafficking, exploitation and invisibility in the order. The mayor does not even know how to use competent language, dealing with the issue in a few lines at the end of the document. The Mayor does not consider that women who are trafficked, exploited, raped, abused, do not put their arms around the neck of the policeman who goes to identify them. Because they are afraid, because they do not trust them, because they suffer such strong traumas that can be compared to those of people living under bombings.

The Mayor, when the ordinance was made public through social media, defended himself by saying many things, but they do not explain HOW he wants to fight trafficking and sexual exploitation and how this order will protect the victims. He only said in many ways that those who spread information about the order wanted to make people think that it is forbidden to walk around in a miniskirt in Terni, and it is not true: well, this suggests that he divides women into first-class citizens (the good ones) and second-class non-citizens (the prostitutes, the bad ones).

I could report many other justifications and excuses, but the fact remains that this mayor (and others who have signed similar ordinances in Italy) does not care to address such an articulated, painful, global issue, and does not consider that women’s organisations should have governance because they bring a perspective that puts the victim at the centre of the solution process and considers the influence of the dominant patriarchal culture.  He takes care to keep the problem away from the people’ eyes, since in the most remote and isolated areas, in private flats, in basements and in the countryside, this does not get his attention. In those areas we can be abused. I have seen people feeling indignant because the freedom of women to dress as they wish is being questioned, or being ironic about women who dress like prostitutes. I am not offended by being compared to a prostitute, I am deeply offended by a mayor who does not even mention abused and treated women, he simply considers them a problem of urban decency, like a damaged walkway, or rubbish thrown into the street (which is abundant in my city).

I find nothing to be ironic about, my city has made it to national TV, tiktok, instagram, celebrity profiles, for being the city of the ‘miniskirt ban’. But we are one of too many cities where radical right-wingers turn their ideas into actions. For example, the Mayor of Perugia (Umbria’s chief town), Andrea Romizi, has also issued a similar order, in which he states that (quote) ‘the phenomenon of street prostitution gives an unpleasant image of the city and is the cause of pervasive feelings of illegality’ and considers it essential to counter ‘urban degrade, linked to the visibility reached by street prostitution and the damage to the city’s image, as well as to protect public decency; avoid discomfort for the people living in the mentioned streets, who have the right to use the spaces in conditions of decorum, absolute tranquillity and safety; avoid interpersonal contacts as a further guarantee of the social distancing established by national regulations linked to the Covid 19 emergency”. Obviously, he also forbids the wearing of clothing that might give the impression of being a prostitute.

I hope, while you are reading my article, that the order will be cancelled thanks to the pressure of organisations and citizens, and that the experience of this Mayor will end soon. Because it is getting dark, very dark: and we need to be informed and united, so that every violation, discrimination and abuse rebounds from one part of the world to another, so that we can raise our voices in the streets and in the squares, because we are all involved.

Written by Silvia Menecali, WAVE Individual Member, Italy

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash