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Politically, economically and socially, the issue is dynamite. It has already become the subject of a passionate national debate. Hookers and pimps have been pouring into Italy in recent years - drawn by a seemingly prodigious appetite for commercial sex among Italian males. A police study released this week concluded there were 25, foreign prostitutes in the country, 59 per cent of them Nigerians. On average they had 30 clients a week. If the police estimates are accurate it means around one in 25 of all Italians between the ages of 18 and 65 has some form of contact with a prostitute every seven days.
The visible evidence does nothing to contradict this. Not only are there inner-city areas dense with prostitution, but it has become almost impossible to take a drive in the countryside without passing a lay-by inhabited by statuesque young African women dressed in little more than lingerie. They cut especially incongruous figures in areas like Tuscany and Umbria, where their 'pitches' are set up in landscapes straight from the background of a Renaissance Madonna and child.
The council in Rimini, bent on cleaning up the Adriatic resort's seedy image, was the first to act this month. The mayor, Giuseppe Chicchi, said one favourite gathering place was drawing up to transsexual and transvestite prostitutes at a time. Police anti-prostitution patrols have been established in Florence, while in nearby Prato the authorities ordered a mass impounding of hookers' cars. New measures are on their way in Bologna and under consideration in Rome and Genoa.
The drive against vice slices through party differences. Mr Chicchi heads a centre-left administration. The clampdown in Milan was ordered by the deputy mayor from the formerly neo-fascist National Alliance.
Some local authorities have claimed they were motivated by no more than a desire to stop the traffic congestion prompted by kerb-crawling 'johns'. In most cases, the fines have been imposed under bylaws against careless driving. But councillors have also been responding to growing disquiet about an issue with implications for public health, law and order, and social morality.