“When a girl has been conditioned to believe that her only option is to sell her body, she often starts believing it.”
Giovanni drives his white Fiat Uno up and down Italy’s Domitiana Way, window-shopping for sex almost every Sunday morning while his wife thinks that he’s at church.
Giovanni’s ruse is an excuse for him to take a shower and put on aftershave without making her suspicious. By his own admission, his goal is to experience a blowjob by as many different Nigerian women as he can because, in his words, the “dirtiness of having a black woman’s mouth on him” is a turn on. Plus, if he never goes to the same woman twice, he can never be accused of having a relationship outside of his marriage. If he errs and accidentally stops his Fiat beside the same woman two Sundays in a row, he says he apologizes and moves on.
Giovanni is a short, balding man with a thick neck full of gray stubble and a potbelly that flops over the top of his trousers, which could easily describe half the Italians who live in and around Castel Volturno. He is around 55 years old and runs one of the little shops along the Domitiana. He dotes on his wife, calling her amore (love) and tesoro (treasure) as she minds the till, and seems like the very last person in the world who would frequent the girls on the street.
I discovered that Giovanni was a client by accident when I was looking for someone to explain to me just who the patrons of the many women standing on the Domitiana really are. Because he was a local, I thought he would know about them; I really didn’t suspect he was one.
I often stopped at their business whenever I was on a reporting trip as they had an exceptionally clean bathroom, which is a rare treat anywhere around Castel Volturno. I had been there several times before I finally asked his wife about the clients who go to the girls lined up on either side of their shop. She gave a sideways look at her husband standing behind the deli counter and shrugged. “No lo so,” she whispered. “I don’t know.”
I then asked Giovanni, who handed me a sample of smoked cheese and pondered my question. After a few minutes, he told me to come back later that afternoon when he reopened at four o’clock after his siesta break. He would try to have someone come to the shop who could help me with my questions.
When I returned, he was there alone. He said his wife was at home with their children. He was not at all embarrassed and extremely candid about paying for sex. It seemed almost natural to him, and as is often the case when it comes to discussing sex with Italian men, he was not reluctant at all to talk in what turned out to be quite explicit detail about it. While in no way do I wish to protect the clients who keep this lurid business of sex slavery alive, I promised Giovanni, which is not his real name, relative anonymity if he was honest with me about being a long-time client. I keep that promise out of respect for his wife and their children.
He said his first experience with a prostitute was when he was 18 years old and stationed outside of Pisa, doing what used to be mandatory military service, which was discontinued in 2005. Many Italian men were first introduced to paying for sex during this time; apparently it was an open tradition that went back many generations. Both before and after the Second World War, it was a highly accepted rite of passage for Italian men to lose their virginity at brothels, which were regulated by the state until 1958, at which point Italy deregulated sex work but kept prostitution legal. It was frowned upon by the Catholic Church for young women to lose their own virginity before marriage, so it was accepted that the boys had no other choice. Usually their fathers and uncles would take them, or, alternatively, they would wait for military service and go in groups.
Giovanni described weekend furloughs from the military academy when he and the other cadets would go into Pisa to find mostly Eastern European prostitutes who would hand them a condom, lift up their skirts and bend over in the dark back alleys behind the Leaning Tower of Pisa for €5– €10. He said dozens of service men, all around 18 or 19 years old, would simply line up, drinking beer between blowjobs and quickie sex. He saw nothing wrong with it. “How else do you learn?” he asked. “No one wants an Italian woman who is a whore, so what are the options?”
That said, Giovanni did not lose his virginity to a prostitute. He had lost his confidence after the first time he had had sex with an Italian girlfriend and says that the prostitutes in Pisa “cured him.” By his account, he went dozens, maybe 50 or more times, during his year of military service. “Once a weekend,” he said.