Merlin law under attack: Italian prostitutes demand their rights

By Angela Bianchi

Rome - A virgin at 18 and a hooker by 19, Luisanna, one of Rome's top-paid prostitutes has been selling love for more than 14 years.

She's worked for a Sicilian racket, a Neapolitan pimp, the Milan hotels and now has settled in Rome to work the wealthy Parioli district.

Once a month, Luisanna pays her duty to Rome's police force. She says,"They know my working hours and regularly one or two cops come knocking on my hotel door to get compensated for my freedom. One lay and they don't hassle me for the rest of the month."

Last month Luisanna wasn't so lucky. Rome's police took her in for sharing her apartment with a man. Luisanna explains: "I served a 15-day jail term because the police insisted my boyfriend was living with me to exploit me. In the law's eyes he was acting as my pimp. That wasn't the case."

Many Italian prostitutes face the same dilemma as Luisanna. Current law makes it difficult for them to find rental accommodation because landlords or roommates risk going to jail if suspected of encouraging prostitution, explains Elena Marinucci, a member of the Socialist Women's Commission.

A husband or friend living with a prostitute can face arrest if believed to be encouraging or exploiting the prostitute for their benefit. Even a hairdresser can be convicted or a driver who gives her a lift," adds Marinucci.

She, along with Liberal MP Stefano De Luca, have been struggling since last March to introduce changes to the Merlin Law on Prostitution.

"We expect that by the end of next month, the amendments we're asking for will be approved by Parliament. The law in itself is of great importance, but has been badly interpreted by legislators," says De Luca.

Italy's Merlin Law, established in 1958, was named after Lina Merlin, who fought a hard battle to put an end to bawdyhouses in Italy. Up until then, prostitutes were only allowed to work in such places, under strict regulation by the State.

Treated like criminals, those prostitutes underwent periodical police checks and were obliged by law to undergo medical examinations. If a woman became ill, she would be thrown out of these houses, but at the same time, was prohibited to leave on her own will, if she chose to quit her activities.

The Merlin law was born in effect to close these houses and grant prostitutes their individual freedom - to protect them from being exploited.

But, the apparent protection of the prostitute today, from any form of exploitation, ends up persecuting them, says Marinucci. "In order to avoid the reappearance of these houses, severe regulation in the Merlin law prohibits prostitutes to move freely."

Owners of hotels, pensions or nightclubs that put up prostitutes risk being considered exploiters and often turn these girls away. Prostitutes in Italy are also forbidden to frequent suspicious people and places, or go out after midnight, according to the Merlin law.

"By making co-habitation difficult for prostitutes, it limits their rights and drives them into a state of isolation," adds Marinucci.

What was seen as necessary 30 years ago doesn't hold true today, say prostitutes. They complain that the Merlin law, in its present form, only makes life more complicated for them, instead of easier, as was its intent.

"This legislation is partially to blame for police harassing us," says Terry, a Como prostitute. "They've been able to do whatever they want with us. Withdraw our driver's licence. Take us in without a motive. Accuse us of reciprocal exploitation if we live with a friend in the same house."

The Communists, Liberals and Socialists are asking that reforms be made to the Merlin law that would grant the right to use one's body freely.

"Up to now prostitutes haven't been considered citizens with civil rights, so it's necessary to come to terms with reality and widen the confines of liberty," says PCI Senator Ersilia Salvat.

The three parties have suggested Parliament make the following changes to the Merlin law:

    Of some help to Italian prostitutes has been their union, formed in 1982 by Carla and Pia in Pordenone. They help their colleagues with minor disputes with the law, organize feminist encounters and have taken an active role in helping Friuli police investigate the murder of prostitutes in the region.

    "South of Rome we've had little success," say the two women. "There, the situation remains stagnant – the pimp and bordello system still exists."

    "In some major cities, the union has problems setting up. In Turin, Naples and Palermo, we're opposed by organized crime. In Milan, there are many South American girls, also victims of the racket. We also have housewives leading a double life that have no intention of coming out in the open," adds Carla.

    The Merlin law has been blamed for the increase in prostitution among children, homosexuals and drug addicts.

    "The problem with drug addicts, is that they're casual prostitutes and don't take proper precautions," says Carla. "For a dose, they're willing to do anything. We don't want to incriminate them, but they constitute a danger for themselves, the client and for us professionals."

    "Often they get sick and contaminate the client, and further increase the belief that all prostitutes transmit venereal disease."

    In her remarks to Parliament, Marinucci pointed out that the prostitute in reality is the true mirror of the society in which we live, and in consequence, does nothing other than respond to the need of society.

    "Nevertheless," she added, "to support a person's rights to prostitute her own body doesn't mean we don't have to reduce the causes that generate prostitution, like unemployment and drug addiction."