Pipeline. Human trafficking in Italy

A book review by Sabin Bors

In the Photography Series

Documentary photographer Elena Perlino embarked on a project focusing on the trafficking of Nigerian women to Italy back in 2005. For eight years, she has taken photographs in the Italian cities of Rome, Turin, Naples, Palermo and Genoa, all considered to be major hubs of Nigerian trafficking to Europe. While Pipeline is the culmination of this particular project, Perlino’s work on urban cultures and societal marginals is not new: Lyon: des corps dans la ville in particular, a research project on prostitution, city suburbs, and the Algerian travesties is iconic for the photographer’s subtlety in revealing psychological and emotional momentums in her images, the intimacies and frailties of humanness amid most unexpected, degrading, sometimes impossible conditions. Schilt Publishing’s attention to the investigation on Nigerian trafficking is by all means bold, since it is never easy to address the harshness and horrific scenes of the everyday through photography, and many continue to misrepresent the depth of the tragedies and issues at stake or the merits of efforts to reveal them and educate our viewing and our understanding. One commenter in particular has questioned how photographs such as Perlino’s could show the complexities and contradictions of the situations they claim to portray since “photographs, by their very nature, are reductions of complexities and thus not exactly apt at showing them.” [1] The commenter discusses the framing and composition of the photographs and looks at the book as a “document that makes use of very diverse images to highlight a social problem” agreeing it “succeeds” in doing so. For a so-called author of photography books and reviews [2], comments such as “Some pics were (intentionally, I suppose) blurred, often I had to guess what I was looking at. It would have been helpful had the circumstances of the picture taking been explained” do not only vulgarize the subject, its gravity, and its character, but reveal the intention to aestheticize the image of/and the real, without any understanding of the conditions the photographs were taken under, the context, or the subject. And without any interest, for that matter. Focusing on the irrelevant, the formal, and the conventional, the commenter completely misses any of the photographer’s, subjects’ and book’s effort. Yet this, unfortunately, may reveal more than just an isolated view on the matters.

Pipeline does not look at trafficking through the lens of physical violence and control; instead, it subtly investigates the psychological and emotional pressures, the struggles to survive and the silent scars that most carry throughout their entire lives. To understand the lives these women live – and this photographic documentary – one must plunge deep into how politics, ritualistic beliefs, legislation faults, transnational policies, and poverty each draw distinctive and multilayered contexts that need to be addressed in order to understand the project’s implications. [3] “The local papers call the routes travelled by the sex slaves the pipeline“, says Giuseppe Carrisi in the fragments from his book La fabbrica delle prostitute quoted in the opening of Pipeline. “And to tell the truth there is not much difference between the girls and the oil: both mean big money.”  [4] Prostitution and trafficking cannot be understood outside the corrupt, ineffectual institutions and governments, unjust and discriminatory international policies, the Nigerian voodoo and “secret cults”, or the Libyan prostitution rings. Women who ‘borrow’ money to reach the imagined promised land of Europe are most often threatened with death, madness or fatalities if they don’t pay back their debt; magic and fideistic rituals, together with ethnic connections and influential lobbies, are used by Nigerian groups as forms of intimidation and coercion. “Once in Libya, usually Tripoli, the Nigerian girls are usually forced to enter a prostitution ring. This is when Libyan traffickers, the epicentre of the transnational criminal organisation, enter the picture. They are the girls’ passport to Italy: to get them embarked without any hitches there has to be a Libyan to interface with the local police forces that patrol the coasts.” [5] Nigerian “secret cults” are confraternities using voodoo and tribal initiation rites, while also being involved in extremely violent criminal activities, from drug trafficking to fraud and armed robbery; these activities are divided between different ethnic groups: as we learn, Igbo organisations deal with almost all trafficking, while fraud and computer scans are handled by Yoruba groups. [6] Perlino’s photographs do not explicitly reference any of these situations, yet the photographer’s view of landscapes and quotidian rituals in the first part of the book leave the viewer with a sense of difference, disquiet, and concern. Images of the landscape or settings such as a bar mix with glimpses into the intimacy of apartments, daily routines and isolated situations to reveal the fragmented and distorted living conditions these women must face upon their arrival in Italy.

What the images don’t say explicitly, the text does with disorienting chastity in the series of recollections from Laura Maragnani and Isoke Aikpitanyi’s Girls from Benin City scattered throughout the book. “Judith. My dear friend Judith. It took me a long time, months, years, to realise that she was my maman. My sister, my momma, my madam and pimp and boss. The woman who had ordered me from the Italos, who had bought and paid for me; and who now expected that I would repay her what she had spent. […] They’ve beaten Itohan to death. Itohan didn’t want to be a prostitute anymore. She said she wasn’t paying off her debt and she never would. She was twenty years old. They found her body months later on the outskirts of Turin, in the abandoned warehouse of a factory that had been closed for years. A pensioner’s dog found it during their evening walk. It had been there for a long time. Putrefied. All eaten by rats.” [7] Whenever one turns the pages, the daily scenes and settings are expressive of the enshrouding grimness, the austerity and harshness of living spaces. There is little account of the personal or the intimate here: the horrors of routines, the scenes depicting a girl being taken away by the police, or the quest for as little decency and style as possible are all shrouded by a shattering sense of silence and lurking anger. “I’m no better than the others who are dead. Survival, in itself, is not an absolute value. […] Listen: the girls from Benin City pay an incredible high price to survive, a higher price than the street and the beatings, the humiliation and the solitude and the sense of shame: they are alive because they have accepted the unacceptable.” [8] Here lies the subtlety of Perlino’s photographic approach: all images bear witness to this sense of the unacceptable, yet they do so with utmost respect, care, and deference.

“When it rained they’d shelter by holding a sheet of plastic over their heads, standing with their arms above their heads, and sometimes they’d spend the whole night with their arms up; the whole night, with the rain coming down around them. One morning one of the girls in the middle was dead. Her arms were still up. She’d died standing next to Osas and she hadn’t fallen to the ground because everyone was squashed together so tight trying to keep the rain off. No one had noticed. […] But if you don’t understand the anger and the fear and the anguish of the journey you can’t understand what it means to arrive. And if you don’t understand that, then you can’t understand what the lives of us girls who set out from Benin City are like, either.” [9]

A few girls in an image round up around a bag to eat. As we’re being told, none of the girls eat Italian food; they all eat African food and eat as they used to back in Africa. A market controlled by the Chinese brings products via London at higher prices, in a reflection of the difficulties of social and cultural integration, but also of the transnational networks that control and regulate these women’s lives. “They live in Italy but keep on living their African lives, no regular hours, living in the here and now. They have relationships with Italian men, but instead of those men helping the girls become more Italian, the men become more African.” [10] Most of the girls have been brought to Italy after they’ve been filmed at village festivals, weddings or funerals; most of them have gone through repeated (gang) rapes and stopped counting them; and most send back money to their families to maintain the fantasies and aspirations of the poor: “Everybody’s dream is to own a Mercedes, the white one with the long bonnet, that here in Europe you never see anymore. When money arrives for the family it’s the first thing they buy, if possible with air conditioning and fake leopard-skin seats, and then they drive through the village, little barefooted kids run after them.” [11] After a while, girls begin to buy themselves various small things, as if they’d somehow try to cope with their conditions and situation. A wall of posted magazine covers and pages in one of Perlino’s photographs is evocative of attempts to colour and to grace a room, as if attempting to make it liveable. Money are never enough, for anyone; most of the times, the families ask for more money to be sent and ramp the girls into sending more by using emotional arguments. If one girl returns or is sent back home, a sense of shame upon the family is used to seek new means to send the girl back. “This is a very sad ending, where justice doesn’t triumph and innocence is not rewarded […] And, moreover, the victim turns into an executioner.” [12] Through all daily rituals and urban settings, the peripheries and marginality, one can observe that the few images of enjoyment are but a distraction, a diversion from always having to remember and from the unbearable burden of both memory and misleading aspirations. Forgetting and deception can be sensed in Perlino’s photographs, along a constant need to escape and take refuge in silence and self-abandonment.

How can anybody accept that a friend or even your sister can turn out to have been your exploiter for years?

Elena Perlino

Since it is only possible to consent to something if knowing all the facts and being free to consent or not, coercion and deception are enough to nullify a victim’s consent to be smuggled or to migrate, claims Sally Cameron. [13] For Cameron, the arguments of the feminist “split” between radical feminist theorists and (women) prostitutes, prostitution advocates and liberal feminist theorists have fuelled international debates around prostitution and trafficking. Radical feminists have condemned the sex industry per se as genially exploitative, denying that prostitution can be a form of work. This position, best portrayed by radical feminist academics such as Kathleen Barry, famous for not including prostitutes among participants to one of the early feminist anti-trafficking conferences she coordinated because “the conference was feminist and did not support the institution of prostitution” and it would be “inappropriate to discuss sexual slavery with prostitute women”, is not only dismissive, but manifests serious concerns as regards a comprehensive understanding of the very notions of ‘prostitution’, ‘slavery’ or ‘trafficking.’ While this perspective is continued by often appealing to highly charged emotive arguments, it fails to acknowledge that women can participate as actors in prostitution, since many prostitutes do not identify as victims but as sex workers, and many want to migrate to work as sex workers. On the other hand, liberal feminists who focus on the capacity of women to control their sexuality and reproductive labour, and argue that sex workers can have greater control of their sexuality than women in other heterosexual relationships, base their opinions on the fact that women have the right to control their body and sex work is a service offered under specific terms, abuse being a result of the failure of industry standards or regulations. Yet the very idea that exploitation, defined as the abuse of labour standards, could be removed from the industry and trafficking could be reduced if governments regulated effectively and focused on labour conditions, is intrinsically problematic. Any discussion around effective policies, laws and regulations aimed at stopping abuse must be grounded in a comprehensive understanding of the industry’s operation system. Industry standards created to empower workers cannot reflect exploitative practices in trafficked labour nor offer a frame to discuss criminal activities such as rape and sexual abuse. Trafficking for prostitution goes hand in hand with migration and labour demand, meaning that people are trafficked into certain regions because there is a demand for their services, raising equally problematic questions around the often unmentioned issue of the clients of trafficked prostitutes.

If we agree to Cameron’s claim that consent is only possible if knowing all the facts and being free to consent or not, it is easy to conclude that women trafficked into prostitution lack the basic right of consent. [14] Each of these women is a victim and is fundamentally exploited. Yet this reality coexists with the fact that trafficking victims have “agency” are may be responsible for some of the decisions, explains Cameron, something clearly eluded in media or government discourse. Not everyone is “blameless” and the recollections in Pipeline most certainly confirm this. According to Cameron, “notions that an individual must be entirely ‘blameless’ to be considered a victim of trafficking arise in part as a result of confusion between notions of ‘agency’ and ‘choice.’ Many people who are trafficked are active in seeking an escape from their current situation, particularly conditions of economic deprivation.” [15] In Perlino’s photographs, the sense of poverty and economic deprivation is captured with keen eye, even in tiniest of details, unveiling the social and emotional vulnerability of the subjects, but also their conflictual drives. Poverty is an expression of the few alternatives these women have to achieve survival. Having reached the promised destination, women often experience modest improvements in living standards. Yet poverty also relates to lack of proper educational opportunities, placing the subjects in always relative situations, some fully aware of of the risks associated with becoming victims of trafficking networks. What Perlino’s photographs lead us to view is how the power of the individual is ultimately limited in the context of the range of choices available.

Cameron argues that women’s economic disadvantages are not necessarily the result of long-term, entrenched social practices, insisting on the intersection between poverty and gender discrimination, and how women’s empowerment is limited by domestic violence and the treatment of women as a commodity. [16] Adding to political instabilities, conflicts, unemployment and lack of proper education as exceptional conditions further exposing women to the risks of trafficking for prostitution, gender bias translates parents’ choice to educate their sons and send girls to work to earn the income necessary to support the schooling of their brothers, thus creating numerous vulnerabilities targeted by the traffickers. “Not surprisingly, governance practices significantly impact on individuals and their vulnerability to trafficking, both directly, through laws, policies and programmes that increase or decrease vulnerability to trafficking, and indirectly, by governing (or not) the broad social and economic conditions under which individuals live.” [17] But vulnerabilities do not concern women alone; while Pipeline is subtitled Human trafficking in Italy, the book only references Nigerian girls and women enslaved or enrolled in sexual servitude, with no mention about the equally problematic issue of Nigerian boys who are generally enslaved as domestic labourers, as forced agricultural, mining, and stone quarry labourers, and as forced beggars and street hawkers. Lured into fraudulent football ‘academies’, they are turned over or abandoned to traffickers in Europe. All are subjected to seizure of identity documents, threats of brutality against members of the family, infliction of violence, beatings and rape, psychological pressures and voodoo rituals designed to bind victims to oaths of obedience and silence; and all endure the most terrible in order to survive. [18]

To fully understand the extent of Perlino’s investigation, the psychological drives that urge women into desperately clinging to the scattered dreams and promises of finding safety, fortune and generosity, one needs to be aware of the intermix between extreme poverty, discrimination, lack of education, and official corruption. Nigeria is a country with endemic poverty; despite its resources, particularly oil resources exploited now by India following Nigeria’s ceased exports to the US in July 2014, almost 71% percent of Nigerians live on less than one dollar per day, and 38 percent of the population is without access to clean drinking water, according to some of the World Bank’s available figures. This situation provides few opportunities to travel for work or schooling, which continue to count as the most reliable chances at survival. Unsurprisingly then, the exaggerated claims about life outside of Nigeria deceptively employed by traffickers to nourish the fantasies of victims who cannot properly assess them since educational opportunities and access to mass media is severely limited, create a deceitful ring of hope. The need to earn money continues to be among the top reasons for failure to attend or complete primary school, since families don’t have enough money to make a living, let alone paying for school books, uniforms, school-related expenses, transportation and sanitation costs. Because of this, Nigeria has one of the highest child-labour rates in Africa; and Africa has the highest child-labour rate of any continent. However, fact remains that many more girls than boys never attend school at all, access to education being also limited by discrimination and traditional family attitudes, but also other gender-discriminatory factors such as laws that prevent women from inheriting property and a culture in which “the will of men is to be respected.” According to Kathryn DuPont, these factors diminish a woman’s decision-making role not only at critical junctures in her own life, but when decisions are made for her daughters. [19] It is worth noting here that the exploitation of religious beliefs is an increased factor in human trafficking in Nigeria, in what concerns both girls/women and boys. While Muslim teenage boys in northern Nigeria often study with Islamic teachers in what is known as almajirci scholarship, many times involved in illegal activities and utmost precariousness, circumstances for trafficking can arise since this sometimes involves boys traveling with the scholar. In what concerns women, their adherence to voodoo practices can be speculated because their participation in ritual ceremonies eliminates the need to exert physical violence; Nigerian Muslim women are also in danger during haji, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five fundamental duties of Islam, when they run the risk of being preyed on in transit or by traffickers who offer to assist them with travel, selling them into slavery instead. [20] Not lastly, official corruption and inefficiency in prosecuting traffickers play a major role: while officials facilitate the production of forged or false documents and assist traffickers with border crossings and clandestine travel, law enforcement personnel often fails to intervene and judges tend to “conflate trafficking with smuggling” especially due to lack of awareness of trafficking, resulting in few convictions in spite of the number of prosecutions. [21]

Given the emotional, social, and cultural background, it is therefore not surprising that Perlino’s photographs lack any explicit affection, as if surfacing the situations; the photographer is left alone to resolve her inner conflicts and the camera can only capture the fleeting moments, fleeting views. By posing close her subjects, she must have felt what the gesture to break with this life requires for one to bridge the fears, the conditions, the expectations and misjudgements, one’s own limitations – to conquer one’s very own self. “You have to break with the street and the friendships on the street. […] And above all: break the shackle that is sending money home. Because this, perhaps even more than the debt, is the most difficult chain for the girls to break. The chain of a thousand family obligations and the thousand responsibilities that come with them. Of affection. Of pity. Of the desire to be accepted at least.” [22] Pipeline does offer a few yet significant frames of bitter hope and attempts to break with the harshness of conditions to live a ‘normal’ life, whatever that may mean after. But almost everyone seeks to hide the shame and disgrace one feels onto herself, in a terrible need to expiate. The last picture in the book lets all dignity surface: a portrait of an elderly woman hangs on a wall revealing her absolute dignity, the sapience and discretion that tells quiet histories bruised by memories and shrouded in reconcilement. It’s little wonder then that the photographer has thanked “all the Nigerian women portrayed in the book for giving me their trust and teaching me what dignity means.” But we can ask ourselves how many will eventually reach this serenity – “Don’t think you’re smarter than the other girls, I said. Don’t think you’re different. Don’t hope it’ll go better for you.” [23]

Sending and receiving countries are mutually linked and influenced by a number of factors, including the traffickers’ use of the local knowledge, key locations, border or migration control weaknesses, and only confirm that tribal ties are usually much stronger than national allegiance. Italy is not only historically and colonially linked to Africa, but its large immigrant population creates proper frames for the presence and tolerance of an extensive sex industry. Alexis A. Aronowitz states that it is not uncommon for countries to combine statistics on illegal migration, smuggling, migrant sex workers, and trafficking, and statistics collected by police and immigration officials are not always segregated by age or gender, making it difficult to determine whether individuals stopped at a border are being smuggled in or out of the country, or are being trafficked. Since statistics on repatriations often include illegal migrants, possible traffickers, and trafficked victims, confusions between illegal migrants and trafficked victims and their inclusion into a single group can increase the number of potential victims. [24] The author discusses the reasons why girls are more susceptible to trafficking abroad than boys and young men, as investigated by the Nigerian nongovernmental organization Girls Power Initiative, highlighting that the demand for their sexual services makes them marketable commodities and confirming they are also expected to sacrifice their education and assume domestic responsibilities taking care of their parents and siblings. Many of those who have repaid their debt become free agents and may themselves become involved in recruiting and exploiting victims. [25] Those who were forced into prostitution in Italy and then arrested and deported from Italy are often infuriated and belligerent as a consequence of the traumas inflicted on them by the traffickers but also the police and immigration officials who arrest and deport them with little more than the clothes they were wearing at the time of arrest: “After having spent weeks to months working in prostitution, the women are not even allowed to take the few possessions and clothes that they had been able to accumulate.” [26]

Trafficking is not just a question of sex, of whores and clients. Trafficking is first of all a colossal business. A business. It's a form of slavery that makes a stack of money, and whites and blacks share that money, in perfect harmony.

Lisa Maragnani, Isoke Aikpitanyi

Creation of debt is one of the main mechanisms used by traffickers to maintain control over victims, being incurred as a result of the cost of the trip of having been smuggled into the destination country. Sometimes the victim pays all costs before departure, and sometimes a girl is brought to a country as the trafficker’s “girlfriend”, but this does not eliminate trafficking. Victims may not always be free to leave after they’ve repaid their initial debt, being forced to remain in prostitution for a couple of years to repay their “madams.” According to Aronowitz, the patterns of exploitation and abuse are changing. While trafficking is increasing, fewer victims are coming to the attention of official agencies or organizations working with trafficked victims as the use of physical abuse and overt violence decreases in favour of psychological abuse and manipulation. Some victims may even be given small payments or moved into their own apartments – this is not only an attempt to buy a victim’s silence and ensure that victims do not denounce their traffickers, but is also a means to blur the lines between trafficked victims and freelance sex workers, making it difficult for agencies providing assistance and law enforcement “to identify who is a trafficked victim entitled to help and who is an illegal migrant and freelance sex worker subject to deportation.” [27]

In the selection of arguments included in Pipeline, Cristiana Giordano addresses institutional practices and the discourse on trafficking. “The migrant prostitute is the paradigmatic figure of exclusion. […] For the State, which confers rights, the migrant prostitute is an emblematic figure of singularity […], she embodies something extra, which is indigestible, an immeasurable difference that no prostitution policy wants to remove or mitigate.” says Pia Covre, an Italian sex worker and co-founder of the Italian Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes, quoted by Giordano; or, in Giordano’s words, “the migrant prostitute embodies the conundrum of difference that doesn’t have a language of its own and therefore creates a rupture within the dominant discourse of the law.” [28] Giordano’s analysis on the physical and psychological integration of Nigerian women into Italian social and cultural life relies on exposing the institutional vocabulary that enable migrants to receive forms of recognition “and, simultaneously, erase the singularity of voices and individual biographies.” Any attempt to integrate into the Italian society requires the adoption of cultural traditions filtered through religious or institutional stances, rehabilitation and social integration programmes, immigration policies, and the two legal procedures: the social itinerary (percorso sociale) and the juridical / legal itinerary (percorso giuridico), with authorities clearly favouring the second. Furthermore, the author highlights the paradoxical and perverse function of the residence permit: “it grants recognition without guaranteeing employment, meaning that, financially, women were better off when they worked as prostitutes.” [29] The institution of practices such as filing criminal charges against traffickers as the condition to receive a residence permit is carried through laws against human trafficking that induce women to constitute and re-present themselves as innocent victims who have been abused by criminal groups. These laws thus fail to address the structural and social conditions that may lead women to choose prostitution as a way to leave countries that offer no future prospects. In Giordano’s conclusion, the discourse on trafficking reproduces the marginalization of women by constructing them as victims: “The process of naming the victims confines her disturbing presence within the security of the language of the law. […] In this way, the state, the Church, and other institutions recuperate some sort of relationship with the rejected, and she is made into the object of their practices of recognition.” [30]

Pipeline also includes extracts from A. Akinyoade and F. Carchedi’s book Cases of severely exploited Nigerian citizens and other forms of exploitation. [31] The authors discuss the bilateral agreements between Italy and Nigeria for the investigation of exploitation of prostitution and illegal cross-border trafficking of persons, stating the lack of effective means to counter the phenomenon on a transnational basis. While strengthening social services must remain a categorical imperative, a number of conditions must be improved, according to the authors, among which: the ability to identify trafficking victims with complete confidence, a direct communication between NAPTIP (Nigeria’s national agency for victim protection and countering criminal organisations specializing in human trafficking) and the Department for Equal Opportunities (which is responsible for assistance and social protection for victims), and the setting up of a “specialist task group” on Nigerian trafficking.

Claudio Magnabosco, journalist, communications expert and former official of the European Parliament, believes the main elements of the power relationship that men seek en masse when they go to prostitutes is violence. In his book 10 million clients: Italian men, trafficking and prostitution, he stresses “that initiatives focusing on information, education and prevention can reduce the number of clients and contribute to men’s awareness, which is basically about combating sexism, on a peer to peer basis.” [32] In a different note, Turin magistrate / deputy prosecutor Paolo Borgna addresses the insufficiencies of the law, the lack of political authority, and the major role Europe could play in developing effective international judicial and police cooperation mechanisms. “Over the years the madams found ways to get around Article 18, which was very advantageous to the girls who reported crimes: they were able to get out from the madam’s clutches and above all they got a residence permit and a work bursary. Article 18 offered a very strong incentive to women to report crimes. The madams discovered that by applying for political asylum, the girls could circulate freely throughout Italy and Europe for a long period of time before the application, as happens in most cases, was rejected. The right to asylum was therefore exploited, with “heterogony of ends”, to stop the girls from reporting their captors.” [33] Borgna claims that the operative agreements between Italy and the countries women come from aimed at protecting the victims’ families, left behind in their home countries, is one aspect that has not been sufficiently strengthened, stressing this is more due to the overall weakness of Europe rather than Italy: “[…] it’s one thing to sign a convention and make a commitment on paper, and another to get international judicial and police cooperation mechanisms up and running when the systems in place in these countries do not actually function. At this stage we do not have enough power to make a stand: only Europe wields that kind of power. Many countries present a high level of disorder internally, and do not have a specific political authority we can interface with.” [34]

In the conclusion to Pipeline, F. Carchedi differentiates the four factors at the core of exploiting Nigerian women and girls: the instrumental and often criminal way that the maman and her collaborators / recruiters put in place in exploiting the tendency to migrate of many Nigerian young people (i.e. the psychological and actual propensity of many young people to accept proposals for migrating in order to improve their living conditions); the need to find enough money for travelling abroad, leading to the issue of sponsors who speculate the lacunae of laws and judicial systems and impose psychological pressure; the symbolic and ritual signification of girls having to swear in front of the sponsor that she will pay back to the organization the amount previously established and written in the contract; and the ways used for subjugating these women once they arrive in Italy. [35] Carchedi also draws attention to the depersonalization/dehumanization process involved in manipulating the victims’ identities and ages by falsifying the documents, but also to the ways fathers and mothers often condemn their children to this life.

As previously discussed, trafficking women for prostitution is always driven by demand; to that end, little attention has been given to the factors which make particular destinations attractive to traffickers. Governments rarely address the faults within their states that facilitate the operation of these exploitative practices. Focusing on “illegal” workers and ignoring their citizens’ demand for sex workers’ services, they also neglect the dynamics at work within the industry: increased competition and market saturation often make European-citizen sex workers blame migrants for ruining commercial sex markets by accepting bad working conditions and undercutting the prices of established (European) workers. [36] This view certainly reproduces discrimination mechanisms, dismissing the full implications of human trafficking and the multiplicity of reasons, practices and interests lying behind it. While the majority of studies focus on the supply for trafficked sex, neglecting its demand, several authors present the results of the first exploratory study conducted in Italy on clients of trafficked prostitution, in an attempt to answer two major questions: Who are the clients of trafficked prostitution in Italy? and What is the rationale behind their interest for this segment of the overall sex market? [37] The authors point to the fact that the Italian experience of immigration differs from that of the traditional countries of immigration in Europe, due mainly to Italy’s rather short colonial history. Like Spain, Greece, and Portugal, Italy experienced strong emigration in the past and a large number of their citizens continue to live abroad; they’ve become mostly countries of immigration at the end of the 1970s when North European states fully adopted restrictive immigration policies. Migrants from underdeveloped countries started to enter Italy in the mid-1970s and the migratory inflows have undergone important changes only during the second half of the 1980s, with the immigrant population doubling every ten years to date. Immigration and integration matters in Italy are based on the conflation of two laws dating back to 1998 (law 286/98, i.e. Turco-Napolitano) and 2002 (law 189/2002, i.e. Bossi-Fini): “From the early 1980s, at the beginning of the migratory flows to Italy, the migratory system was marked by a strong demand for foreign workers (from the informal economies, families and small- and medium-sized companies) and, at the same time, by the absence of real possibilities of legal entry. The majority of immigrants presently in Italy have undergone a period of irregularity at one point or the other of their migratory experience. Until very recently, and even today to a certain extent, Italian policy has mainly concentrated on managing the “back door” of illegal entry.” [38] Because of the Italian prostitution policy, or the so-called Legge Merlin (law 75/1958) still in force which explicitly prohibits the running of brothels, the exercise of prostitution is tolerated only if/when performed outdoors, though it is not officially considered a profession and prostitutes do not enjoy any workers’ rights or social security benefits. In 2003, the Bossi-Fini-Prestigiacomo bill proposal (3826/2003) intended to amend some parts of the Merlin Law and fight street prostitution as the most serious offence of sexual exploitation committed in Italy. The bill never entered into force, since it was considered to be a repressive law that did not provide a clear definition of prostitution, listed numerous obligations prostitutes should fulfil without being entitled to any rights, and failed to address the phenomenon of trafficking. Because prostitutes and clients would have been punished differently for similar behaviour, the bill was considered discriminatory and unconstitutional. Additionally, the enforcement of this proposal would have re-victimized the victims of trafficked sexual exploitation due to their confinement in hidden places and could have expelled them as illegal immigrants without verifying if they were victims.

A number of men interviewed for the above-mentioned study [39] were habitual clients of foreign prostitutes who offered cheaper sexual services than Italians, who spoke little Italian and who showed signs of violence on their bodies, enforcing the probability of having entered into contact with trafficked prostitution. Mostly employed in the constructions sector, these men were 23 to 50 and mainly concentrated in their late 30s and 40s, with little education, unlike educated clients active in online forums; a significant number of the men had a wife/partner and some of them stated they had one or more children. [40] One client justified his choice of trafficked prostitution as a form of help in favour of women: “I’ll tell you something: between an exploited girl and a ‘free’ one, I choose the exploited one. Because a girl who’s being exploited has to give money to her pimp, otherwise she’ll be beaten. The others, when they’ve earned enough they stop working. The exploited ones no: even when they don’t want to work, they have to stay there and if they don’t pay the pimp they’re beaten […] If you think about it, you notice it is more a help than anything else. We all know they’re exploited, so it’s better to go with them, otherwise they’ll be slaughtered!” [41] The study reveals that the majority of clients favour the reopening of houses of prostitution, arguing they could guarantee medical protection, hygiene and privacy for clients, but also reduce or eliminate pimp exploitation, thus breaking the trafficking chain. Brothels are thus seen as instrumental in removing prostitutes from the streets, reducing social disorder, and could help regularize prostitution for fiscal reasons, since some of those interviewed stated women should pay taxes on the incomes of their work.

Clients who are active online are split between those who claim that forced prostitution does not exist and minimize the phenomenon on the basis of information produced or provided by other clients who have gained reputation among online communities, and those who are aware of trafficked prostitution and express preference for ‘free’ escorts. The first group includes what the authors call a more classical ‘faction’ made up of those who believe that prostitution has always existed and that prostitutes actually profit from the needs of men, as well as “tormented” persons sharing the role of victim and persecutor concurrently and thus reflecting the anxieties and disorders of the new generations. Both groups are convinced that foreign women decide freely to become prostitutes and avoid taking more backbreaking jobs. The study thus reveals that within online communities most foreign women are seen to be selling themselves at will, with few being forced into prostitution; exploitation is believed to be a negligible, almost inexistent phenomenon, since prostitutes may have higher incomes than the majority of ‘conventional’ men. This type of “first-hand” experiences reveal that in spite of research papers or media campaigns widely available on the Internet, awareness as to the real situations and conditions is affected by strong anti-feminist perceptions and tumid lack of self-esteem, resulting in oratorical convictions that modern man is target by society, that is women, most often feminists, and by other men too. Side slips can turn to be acute: Nature has imposed the burden that makes men suffer a permanent and irreversible state of arousal which makes men have the right to be satisfied by women, at no cost or agreed-in-a-contract obligation. One perception in particular raises most serious concerns: that men are induced to pay for sex. [42] The implications of this particular perception effuse beyond the frames of this discussion, show strong patriarchal reflexes, misconceptions and discriminatory beliefs that continue to nourish aggressive behaviours toward women on all levels of society. Clients in the second group tend to deliberately avoid streetwalkers but are aware of trafficked and forced prostitution closely connected to them. Condemnation of forced prostitution owes nothing to moral concerns and preference for women perceived as free sex workers is rather a (self-)justification of their actions: while they justify their sexual appointments with escorts because streetwalkers are exploited, they chat with escorts in online chats being largely convinced prostitutes are ordinary girls who simply “like” sex, appreciate it and show emotional involvement.  [43]

The analysis carried out in Italy suggests Italian clients are drawn to foreign prostitution for three main reasons: price, the real or perceived quality of the affective relationship with foreign prostitutes, and their higher visibility. There are those who openly admit the existence of trafficking in human beings and going with trafficked sex workers, and those who fiercely deny it. The so-called “neutralization techniques” used in online forums which aim at denying the existence of trafficking are thus employed to justify the clients’ behaviours  [44] But, as the authors argue and I would like to stress, the existence of an Internet forum where a group of people who share similar ideas, have opinion leaders and often deny the existence of trafficking can itself be considered a big neutralization technique. [45] Elena Perlino’s Pipeline documents more than just the particularities of prostitution, trafficking, the cultural specificities of the Italian cities these women live in: it documents the very things we consciously chose to elude, ignore, and dismiss; its view upon the fleeting and unnoticed lives of trafficked sex workers reveals just how little do we understand about or are willing to confront the horrid aspects of the everyday and the conditions of those we always and consciously think of less and always in our service.

It is worth ending this review by stressing the arguments for the criminalisation, decriminalisation and legalisation of prostitution, mostly as a reminder of the difficulties that need to be addressed. More than just an Italian or a European issue, human trafficking and its derivative forms represents a complex societal issue that threatens to amplify in proportion as global society faces severe human and resource crisis entailing tectonic shifts of the everyday.

A reading of Sally Cameron’s article reveals the problematic aspects of these arguments. The most common legislative responses to prostitution continue to refer to criminalisation or prohibitionist arguments, based on strong – that is, often narrow – moral premises and assumptions that prohibition could abolish domestic sex industry. The complex criminological, social and economic factors at stake are solved via law and order, thus deepening normative societal reflexes which eventually come to reproduce both normative and dismissive mechanisms. If the police and governmental apparatuses hold all the power, issues of corruption, disempowerment and violation of human rights can easily, unnaturally and normatively be justified. While considerably expensive from an administrative perspective, it opens a broad spectrum of uncertainties, threats and abuses, and runs the even greater risk of transforming prostitution in an underground phenomenon. As emphasized by Sally Cameron, an underground industry or a splitting of the industry in a legal and an illegal part is particularly detrimental to trafficked women, as they would only be transferred to other illegal sectors. Based also on increased government control, sex industry legalisation or licensing can bring the industry into the mainstream, offer various degrees of legal protection, and stimulate conditions related to occupational health and safety. While the outcomes have not always proved positive and they too entangle significant administrative, police and health resources, it has often led to various forms of strigmatization, normative identifications, restrictions and differential access to medical care. Licensing can increase the chances of corrupt officials exploiting individual workers and, on the other hand, forces authorities to ensure the number of workers meets market demand, thus further extending the issue of sex workers as commodities. Several issues can arise, since workers could turn into illegal operators, differences in payments and conditions would be kept or emphasized, and illegal working would continue to bloom outside the legal frame. Licensing systems may be preferable to criminalization but only with increased administrative efforts that few seem willing to support. As Cameron points out, “a false sense of security may be engendered by an apparently comprehensive system of regulation”, while legislative and policy development does not pursue comparative research into the effect different legislative models have had and are likely to have on workers; international debates on sex industry regulation continues to perpetuate identical polarized opinions and funders lack interest to support any such research. [46] Decriminalization, or the removal of criminal penalties applying to adult prostitution, has been adopted in Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, parts of Australia and the Netherlands, with the regulation of the sex industry taking place outside the criminal justice system. Such models consider adults are free to chose working as sex workers and prostitution cannot be eradicated, normalizing sex work and the industry as a means to ensure highest degree of occupational health and safety. While there is evidence such systems can work and there has been no explosion of the sex industry or the recruitment of sex workers, systems such as these most often work in socio-economically developed countries.  [47]

Pipeline does not address any of these topics particularly, nor can it do more than make us aware by seeing into specific situations a case for addressing a web of contexts and complexities. Any law requires consistent enforcement, yet it also requires public awareness and accommodation to the inconvenient sight of the horrid situations some people must go through in order to survive. The book speaks of numerous levels of segregation, discrimination and discredit – but it does so with Elena Perlino’s merit that elegance and dignity can be seen even through the unthinkable and unimaginable, with undiminished hope and uncurbed struggle.


February 13, 2015

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