Last week, news of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conviction for having paid an underage prostitute for sex shocked the world. The shock came not from the crime itself (who hasn't heard of Berlusconi's infamous bunga-bunga parties?), but from the fact that he was actually convicted. Throughout his political career, Berlusconi became more famous for using his position of influence to cover up scandals than he has for any of his policies. No matter how heinous the crime, the cunning businessman turned politician managed to weasel his way out of the law's reach. Not anymore. The prosecution claims that the prostitute implicated in this case was just one of many in an organized prostitution ring set up for the politician's personal sexual satisfaction and delight. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment, the case brought the issue of prostitution back into the limelight, leading many to question whether paying for sex should be illegal at all.
I never thought that I would write anything in favor of prostitution, and in fact, I'm not. However, the Berlusconi case highlights how extremely distorted society's outlook on sex really is, and how illegal prostitution is a symptom of that. While it should not be considered mandatory to uphold sex as a sacred act between two individuals who are deeply in love (and it most definitely should be practiced for purposes other than just procreation), it ought to be upheld as something deeply personal to be practiced between two consenting adults in a more or less equal power relationship. The dynamics of prostitution rule out any chance of equality between the client and the prostitute, but illegal prostitution even more so. Illegal prostitutes are offered no protection from law enforcement whatsoever. He or she can be manipulated by a pimp, trafficked illegally across borders, beaten, raped, or infected with an STD without any hope of retribution.
Unfortunately, we live in a world in which sex is still commodified. To make matters worse, a strange dichotomy exists in which society is either hyper-sexualized (think popular culture's obsession with sex and beauty) or sexually repressed (for example Christian communities that teach young people that sex and lust are sinful). This dichotomy leads to obsessive sexual behavior such as that displayed by Berlusconi, himself culpable of having aided in the sexualization of the Italian media in an atrocious way. If we are ever going to change this phenomenon, however, brushing the problem under the carpet by criminalizing prostitution and convincing ourselves that it doesn't exist, only perpetuates and worsens the situation. No matter how disgusting prostitution may appear to many of us, illegalizing it does nothing to curb its practice. It is a similar to heroine or crack cocaine (albeit hopefully not as addictive!). Declaring a war on drugs does nothing to help the addicts or to make them go away.
The only way to eventually put an end to prostitution is to educate people from an early age about sex, to stop making sex taboo and to allow it to be what it is, a natural and healthy part of life. The human body should never be for sale, but as long as it is, every effort should be made to protect the legal and social rights of prostitutes. I agree with the thousands of women in Italy who believe that Berlusconi's actions are degrading to women around the world. However, I also know that even if the judges do manage to put Berlusconi behind bars after what will inevitably be months of appeals, there will be another man behind him waiting to use his position of power to exploit another human being sexually. In the meantime, we need to address the issue holistically and practically instead of hysterically.