Prostitutes chat on a sidewalk in Rome. Rome authorities have approved plans for a red light zone where prostitution will be officially tolerated starting in April. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

The Eternal City is colliding with the world’s oldest profession — and the sparks, as they say, are flying.

The ranks of streetwalkers have surged here in the heart of Catholicism, a swell that Rome’s officials are decrying as a stain on the dignity of the city’s citizens. But in a town of sinners as well as saints, outright bans on selling sex have failed before, leaving city authorities to put their faith in a new approach.

Their plan is to corral the growing number of sex workers into an unpopulated set of designated streets — in short, a tucked-away red-light district. Proponents reason the working girls can still serve male clients, but beyond the delicate eyes of wives, grandmothers and children.

The “zones of tolerance,” however, are meeting strong resistance from the Catholic Church, the national government and the prostitutes themselves, raising the curtain on a very Italian opera centered on a plan that critics call a classic attempt to sweep “sin” under the rug.

Some are also bristling at the gender characterizations implicit in a plan that would, in effect, segregate the unreformed Mary Magdalenes from the “respectable” women of Rome — mostly to the benefit of men. With prostitutes confined to uninhabited parts of town, husbands, boyfriends and other johns could enjoy greater anonymity.

A prostitute walks in an alley of Rome’s Esposizione Universale Roma district on Feb. 8. (Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

The ensuing clash is bringing to the surface the uncomfortable question of rampant prostitution in a country that, despite being home to a certain brand of catcalling machismo, has what experts call an incredibly hard time talking about sex.

“Am I surprised by the mess this has created?” said Andrea Santoro, the plan’s architect and president of the Roman district of EUR. “No, not really.

“Whenever you talk about sex in this country, people start to tense up,” he said.

Rome is grappling with a vice as old as the city itself. Sex workers were branded as socially inferior in the times of the ancient Roman Empire, even as male patrons maintained high standing. Some here argue that not much has changed in 3,000 years.

“There is still a big hypocrisy in Rome,” said Eva Cantarella, author of books on sex in ancient Rome. “The streets are now filled with prostitutes, but if you speak with an Italian man . . . he’ll say, ‘Oh no, this is horrible’ and ‘I’ve never gone out with one.’ But somebody is giving them business.”

In part because of an unwillingness to fully address the issue, Italy’s prostitution laws are vague and still largely guided by a half-century-old act that banned brothels but left unclear the legality of street solicitation. Religious groups that work with prostitutes say the “streetwalker problem” is now critical, with the population at roughly 12,000 — about double the number a decade ago.

Experts blame the increase on more criminal gangs funneling sex slaves into Rome from Eastern Europe and Africa, as well as the effect of tough economic times in a bevy of European nations, including Italy.

The controversial plan to corral sex workers into “zones of tolerance” comes at a time when prostitution has soared in Rome. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Nowhere is the situation quite as dire as in EUR, a neighborhood of monolithic Fascist-era buildings south of Rome’s historic center and the place where the zones of tolerance are set to be piloted in the spring.

In the district, hundreds of prostitutes in lingerie and ­vertigo-inducing heels start peddling their wares well before sundown, often soliciting near parks and sidewalks where young lovers, older couples and families take their evening strolls.

On a recent afternoon, Paolo Lampariello, head of a citizens group that supports the new zones, combed through the grass behind bushes and indignantly pointed out used condoms and pantyhose wrappers.

No place, he said, is sacred anymore. Sex workers are now operating on the steps of a local church, “even behind the statue of Gandhi,” Lampariello said. He added that his wife recently had to endure an oversexed john exposing himself after the man apparently could find no available sex workers in the immediate vicinity.

“This is not a problem for us men, but women — wives, mothers — should not have to see this,” he lamented. “We now have grandmothers going out on their balconies and looking down at, at, at you know what.”

Yet growing opposition to the plan has made unlikely allies of the Catholic Church, which is fighting it on moral grounds, and prostitutes themselves, who are resisting it based on more earthly commercial concerns.

On a recent evening in the EUR district, many sex workers fled when approached by a journalist. But those who lingered — including Nicola, a buxom 24-year-old transsexual from Uruguay — were overwhelmingly opposed to the zones.

Although much of the public debate centers on what to do about female prostitutes, aid groups say almost half the streetwalkers in EUR are male transvestites or transsexuals — a fact some here seem to be even more uncomfortable discussing. Although females tend to have “protectors” — pimps — who closely monitor their movements, males frequently work as free agents, and several sex workers insisted the authorities were asking for trouble if all prostitutes were forced to be clustered together.

“You put us all in one small zone and the competition is going to be too fierce, baby,” said Nicola, who declined to give a last name. “I’m telling you, this is going to be a river of blood. There are too many of us.”

An official representative to Rome from the national government — headed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, a former Boy Scout and devout Catholic — has sought to block the plan, though local officials insist they still have the legal wherewithal to move ahead.

In editorials and pronouncements, Catholic Church officials have strongly denounced Roman officials, saying the city, and Italy more generally, should instead move to ban prostitution — or at least adopt the legal path pioneered by Sweden that targets johns, not prostitutes, by criminalizing the buying, but not the selling, of sex.

The Rev. Aldo Buonaiuto, representative of a Catholic aid group that works with prostitutes, called the plan tantamount to legitimizing the exploitation of women. “Basically, what they want to do is have the state become the pimp,” he quipped.

Yet Rome’s mayor, Ignazio Marino, said opponents simply do not grasp the scope of the problem.

His predecessor, for instance, tried to ban streetwalking as well as the “provocative clothing” worn by prostitutes in what became widely lampooned as the “miniskirt law.” Both measures failed spectacularly because there were not enough police to enforce the new ordinances and vague national laws made it difficult to charge patrons or sex sellers with actual crimes.

Citing an elderly grandmother who recently wrote to him after taking her 4-year-old niece to a park, only to have the little girl return holding a “used condom,” Marino said an “imperfect” plan was better than none.

“A big turmoil has erupted in the country over this, but we have to do something,” he said. “The answer is not to keep things the way they are.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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