MILAN — When the mayor of Modica, a Sicilian town known for its chocolates and churches, learned that a sex worker in the area had tested positive for the coronavirus, he immediately started to worry about an outbreak.
He made a frantic public appeal for clients to get tested, assuring them that their wives wouldn’t find out. But contact tracing proved difficult as the mayor, Ignazio Abbate, began receiving anonymous phone calls from men “asking for a friend” what the sex worker looked like.
The secrecy and stigma around unregulated sex work put “everyone in danger,” Abbate said.
Modica has so far not experienced a new outbreak, but as the sex worker recovered in a hospital in Perugia last month, news of her situation and occupation spread throughout the country, highlighting the ways in which the pandemic has affected some of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in Italy, and the dangers of keeping sex work in the shadows.
“Of course I am scared,” said Fernanda Ponciano, a 31-year-old sex worker from Torre del Lago, in Tuscany. Ponciano started taking clients again after a three-month hiatus during the lockdown. She works as a maid in the morning and as a sex worker in the afternoon, she said. She also supports her mother, her sister and a niece in Brazil.
“The fear of ending up homeless is bigger than that of COVID,” Ponciano said.
In Italy, prostitution is not illegal nor is it regulated as an official occupation, making the country’s 70,000 sex workers largely ineligible to receive economic relief. Many have been forced to take their chances by returning to work in order to avoid poverty.
Mery Sommella, a 54-year-old sex worker in Bologna, stopped taking clients in mid-March. By the beginning of April, she was unable to pay for groceries and started relying on bags of food from a local charity. She said she is too scared to return to work.
“For 40 years on the street I have been so careful to protect myself from viruses,” she said. “I can’t catch coronavirus now.”
In May, organizations that promote the rights of Italian sex workers sought to draw the government’s attention and get support, arguing that the pandemic showed the harm of forcing sex work underground.
In other European countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, sex workers can enter formal contracts with their clients. During the lockdown, those who were officially registered with the government were eligible for economic relief.
Scotland also included sex workers in its relief programs. In Greece, where prostitution is legal and regulated, brothels were allowed to reopen June 15, provided that sex workers kept their clients’ names and contact details for four weeks for tracing purposes.
In Italy, various charities and associations have raised money for groceries, medicines, bills and rent to benefit the country’s sex workers. But for the most part, Italian sex workers, who are often from immigrant communities, have had to fend for themselves.
In March, Regina Satariano, a 60-year-old sex worker in Tuscany, started hearing about colleagues who hadn’t eaten and a landlord who had threatened to evict a group of 17 housemates, all sex workers who were out of work because of the pandemic.
Satariano put together her savings and bought bags of pasta, tomato sauce, chicken and soap to distribute to her colleagues. But without support from the state, she said, many sex workers will continue to go hungry. If officials don’t change things now, she added, “they never will.”
A recent report by the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network and the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe showed that many sex workers defied lockdown rules in order to work, putting both themselves and their clients at risk.
The day after the sex worker from Modica was hospitalized in Perugia, a young woman in the Veneto region, who authorities said was involved in prostitution, was also hospitalized with COVID-19. Reports soon spread about another sex worker with the virus near Venice.
Last month, Antonio Guadagnini, a Conservative councilor in the Veneto region, said reopening brothels — illegal in Italy since 1958 — and regulating prostitution would protect society. In Sicily, Ruggero Razza, the top regional health official, said that authorities should reflect on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in high-risk, unregulated occupations such as sex work.
“Once again we were excluded from the system,” said Pia Covre, a former sex worker and the founder of the Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes, which promotes the legal recognition and regulation of sex work.
She added that, after being excluded from government economic support, sex workers were also deprived regular coronavirus tests and the opportunity to keep a record of their clients for contact tracing.
The regulation of sex work is opposed by those who argue that it would lead to more exploitation and human trafficking. The pandemic, they say, hasn’t changed that.
Sen. Alessandra Maiorino, spokeswoman for the 5-Star Movement, Italy’s governing political party, has said that up to 90% of sex workers are victims of human trafficking. Last June she signed a petition to demand that Escort Advisor, Europe’s largest sex worker review website, be shut down.
She and others argue that hitting demand is the only way to end prostitution while also protecting victims of human trafficking. But rights organizations claim that abolition would only put sex workers more in danger by pushing the industry underground.
Francesca Bettio, a professor of economics at the University of Siena who specializes in issues related to sex work and human trafficking, said that the regulations in the Netherlands and Germany, while better than those in Italy, are not perfect.
Even in those countries, she said, many sex workers, especially those who are living in the country illegally, have fallen through the cracks of the welfare system during the coronavirus crisis. And no approach has eliminated the persistent stigma around sex work.
In the hunt for those who might be spreading the virus, she said, “sex workers are the perfect target.”