The Merlin Law
Following the end of the Second World War there were growing calls for the abolition of brothels and a fierce debate ensued splitting the country in two.
The main arguments used were the appalling condition of the prostitutes themselves and also the exploitation they received mainly from brothel owners who were involved in organised crime.
On the other side were members of Merlin's own Socialist Party and monarchists, to name but a few. Here too were the owners of brothels who financed newspaper advertisements against Merlin who promoted the idea of a patriarchal society where men could enjoy themselves before marrying a virgin. (Until 1968 adultery was considered a crime for women, but generally ignored for men.)
In one Milan brothel visitors who signed a petition against the proposal were given one free visit.
The anti-Merlin camp also argued that closing regulated brothels would lead to prostitution going underground and thus it being impossible to regulate; furthermore it would lead to an increase in STDs.
The debate raged for some 10 years, partly because the parliament (dominated by men) would not add the bill to the agenda. Finally it was passed and Merlin became the first signatory. The so-called Merlin Law came into force banning brothels and state controlled prostitution and subsequently more than 700 brothels were closed.
The law, however, did not (and does not) specifically ban prostitution. It abolished state run prostitution and punished those involved in procuring and exploiting prostitutes.
Since 1959 many attempts have been made to reform the Merlin Law, but without a consensus of how it needs to be reformed, nothing has happened.
The main result of the Merlin Law was that prostitution went onto the streets; in every city there are areas where streetwalking occurs. In almost every town of any size there is usually a country road outside where prostitutes ply their trade.
In border regions, especially between Italy and Switzerland (where prostitution and brothels are legal), there is growing traffic of Italians crossing for a few hours to visit one of the legal and regulated brothels. Known as the Ticino Phenomenon it sees an upsurge in business each time Italy clamps down on street prostitution.
In Italy itself brothels do still exist but are usually well hidden. They tend to be more upmarket.
In 2008 a poll in Donna Moderna magazine showed that the majority of respondants were in favour of re-opening brothels in order to get prostitution off the street and to regulate and protect sex workers. The poll showed 85% of Italians supported an initiative by politician Daniela Santanche to repeal the Merlin Law. Of these, 47% saw it as a way to clean up the steets and 38% saw it as a way of protecting prostitutes from exploitation and violence.
In Pompeii there are numerous examples of brothels where the walls are lined with erotic frescoes. And since that time various figures have tried to regulate or abolish brothels.
Following unification in 1861 prostitution was regulated; for example in 1888 a law passed saying brothels could not sell food or drink or operate close to churches or schools. A system of health checks on sex-workers was implemented although never entirely effective. Under the Fascists prostitution was repressed.
However, during the Second World War the army did sanction semi-official brothels (in 1940 in Libya the British Army captured one such establishment). These were run by Madams who organised the girls while the military organised the location and moving the brothel to where it was needed. They were under strict medical control.
In 1942 8 brothels were open in North Africa for Italian troops. They were divided into the following classes:
- Italian women for officers and government employees (tariff: 50 lire)
- Italian women for officers (40 lire), NCOs (35 lire), troops (30 lire), civilians (40 lire)
- Italian women for officers (35 lire), NCOs (25 lire), troops (20 lire), civilians (30 lire)
- Libyan women for Europeans (from 25 to 15 lire)
- Libyan women for natives (12 lire)
In 1949 the Ministry of the Interior collected something like 7 million euro in tax from 722 brothels employing almost 4,000 girls.
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