Officials in Rome's EUR neighborhood, filled with ministries, office high-rises and residential blocks, want to designate certain streets for prostitutes, starting experimentally in April, 2015. AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

EUR was once one of Rome's more exclusive areas. It wasn't sex workers who caused its recent problems.

Did Rome’s mayor see the firestorm of debate coming when he went public this weekend with plans to create a legal red light district in Italy’s capital?

Slated for launch this April, the zone would mark out a largely non-residential area within which sex workers could solicit publicly, albeit under official supervision. It was always likely to prove controversial, but even at blueprint stage, the plan has ignited a firestorm of commentary in the Italian media. “Red Light Zone: Oasis or Ghetto?” asked La Stampa. “Transvestites and Prostitutes: We Must Protect the Family” shouted Rai News’ headline, setting Italy up for a major debate about sex work and public order.

On first glance, the battle lines being drawn are simple. For the plan’s proponents, it’s a way of fighting pimping and trafficking and reducing public nuisance. For its more prominent detractors—including the Vatican—the plan breaks Italian law and provides legitimacy and protected space for exploitation.

Look more closely at the backstory, however, and a more complex picture develops. While the plan certainly reflects ongoing debates about the visibility of sex work, it's also the culmination of years of botched, murky city planning decisions that have blighted what was once one of Rome’s more exclusive neighborhoods.

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Admittedly, the idea of a tolerance zone for sex work hovers on the edge of legality, even in Italy. Prostitution is decriminalized in the country, but aiding and abetting it carries a criminal penalty. This means that running a brothel falls foul of the law, while allowing sex businesses to cluster within a district could also be deemed illegal.

The point of the law is to prevent pimping, but it has some curious side effects. Last year, Italian sex workers took to the streets to fight for the right to pay their taxes like everyone else. State bodies have obstructed this partly because taking their money might look like abetting their trade. While Rome's tolerance zone advocates claim their plan would enable the city to freeze out pimps and traffickers, it’s actually laws designed to prevent these practices that might make it impossible to create.

Beyond these legal impediments, critics have damned the plans as giving official license to the exploitation of the vulnerable. Actor Carlo Verdone is among those who have come out against:

“Because it aims to regulate an eternal problem, and because it is at base an ethical error, because it admits that the female body can be put on sale. I may be old and I am naive, but I cannot accept such a thing.”

There’s an issue with this argument. Bodies, female and otherwise, are already being put on sale near the proposed zone on a daily basis. The neighborhood isn’t being set up as a center for street prostitution. It already is one. The newspaper La Repubblica estimates that around 90 sex workers currently use it as their primary beat. Under the tolerance zone plan, these workers would actually be restricted and pushed out of old locations into new ones by police patrols, with €500 fines suggested for any customer picking up a street worker outside the zone. The zone plan is thus not one of tolerance at all, but one of containment and surveillance.

The reaction of local residents seems to be predictably mixed. Those who fear they may live within the (as yet un-demarcated) zone worry both for their own quality of life and for their property values. Those who predict they’ll be outside it are more positive. For sex workers, concentrating in one patrolled area might feasibly give them a greater degree of safety, but regular police check ups might also give sex workers a sense of persecution, their role as prostitute being recorded and formalized in a way they would prefer to evade.

All this could well encourage sex workers not to use the zone, to find somewhere else entirely to work. This is something that has happened with a similar proposal in the Swiss city of Zurich, where sex workers were flushed from one zone into a special facility, only to return to their old spots because they found both safety and the flow of customers better. Ex-Rome mayor Francesco Rutelli has highlighted how the zone could quickly become Kafkaesque:

“What would City Hall do? Certify which are prostitutes good and bad? And the police? Verify that there are no pimps in the dedicated streets? And customers? They will be forced to pay sales tax? And the girls to issue a receipt? Come on ... let’s get serious.”

Rome’s sex workers could also be forgiven for being deeply skeptical about any plan supposedly intended to help them. In 2008, Rome’s then-Mayor Gianni Alemanno (Rome seems to run through mayors pretty quickly) tried to introduce a ludicrous ban on miniskirts. Alemanno feared that sex workers sporting them posed a threat to male drivers, causing police to protest that they’d now have to waste time assessing the legality of skirt lengths. It must be hard for sex workers to believe in official sincerity about their welfare when quite recently the authorities were occupied mainly with how much thigh they were exposing.

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This isn’t just a story about sex work, however. The proposed zone would be located in one of Rome’s strangest and most distinctive neighborhoods, a place that has been beset with controversy long before the current plans were hatched.

A view of the Palazzo dei Congressi in Rome's EUR district. (Mzximvs VdB / Flickr)

The EUR district was originally planned under Mussolini as the grounds for a world exhibition that never happened (EUR stands for “Esposizione Universale Roma”). Following World War II it remained (as this photo shows) a largely empty plot only partly covered with clunky, fascist-era buildings, most of which remain. From the mid 1950s, EUR filled up with large modern office buildings, its grid becoming a form of CBD on Rome’s southern edge. In a city that has an embarrassment of beautiful old buildings, EUR developed an unusual specialty—high spec modern apartments—that transformed it into one of Rome’s more upscale places to live.

The rot set in about a decade ago, around the time that Renzo Piano was commissioned to design a new master plan for the area. As part of the plan EUR was carpet-bombed with major building projects. Many of these new projects ended up failing, victims of unrealistic expectations and slackening post-slump demand. Renzo Piano’s own conversion of the former ministry of finance remains unfinished, while LunEur, Rome’s old amusement park, remains derelict despite grand proposals being floated for its future. Worst of all is the fiasco of the New Congress Center, commonly called the Cloud due to its nebulous central pod. Still unfinished after its initial budget has more than doubled to €413 million, the Cloud has pushed the state company managing the area’s development (EUR Spa) towards bankruptcy.  

Many people continue to live and work in the area, but it’s increasingly looking the worse for wear. In fact just this week EUR hosted another major scandal—EUR Spa has been considering selling off the area’s fascist era buildings (which turned out to be illegal) to fill the black hole in their finances.

It may well be no coincidence that the bankruptcy threat and the tolerance zone plans have arrived at the same time. Just at the moment when the decline in EUR’s fortunes thanks to state mismanagement reaches its nadir, in rides the very same state promising to “clean up” the area. It’s entirely understandable if residents are unhappy about street noise and a concentration of sex work, but there’s also something disingenuous about these various state bodies casting themselves as regulators right when their grasp seems most tenuous. It wasn’t sex workers who caused EUR’s problems, and these problems won’t evaporate if they are moved here or there, or expelled.

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