I remember my first trip to Rome. It was 1978. I was 22 years old and backpacking around the world. It was at night and I sat outside the Termini train station writing in my journal. I looked up. I saw two young women sprinting toward me, their backpacks bobbing up and down behind their long hair.
“CAN YOU PLEASE WALK US TO OUR HOTEL?” one yelled in American English.
“Why? Are you lost?”
“NO!” Then she pointed behind them.
Three men were running toward us. They’d followed them from the time they disembarked their train and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I didn’t have to ask what was the question. I walked them to their nearby hotel without incident. They were visibly shaken. Even I was, and I had just spent three years in a randy college fraternity.
The sexual harassment epidemic that is encompassing the United States like a new STD isn’t confined to the U.S. In 2014 the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights surveyed 42,000 women encompassing every EU country. It reported that one out of every three women had experienced some kind of sexual violence. That includes sexual harassment.
What’s true in the U.S. is true all over the world: Men are pigs. The stories I’ve heard, I’m surprised universal courtship isn’t club her in the head, drag her into a cave, shtoink her and then go draw on a wall.
Here in Italy, local elements complicate the issue. The Catholic Church. The media. The government. Sexual mores are steeped in tradition of a strong mother figure. A male population is weaned on female stereotypes that haven’t changed while women’s independence has. It’s a petri dish of sexual ambiguity where society is not accommodating a growingly angry female population.
How much sexual harassment goes on in Italy?
“A lot. Too much,” Cinzia Mammoliti, a law graduate specializing in criminology, forensic psychopathology and criminal psychology who counsels women victims of violence, wrote me in an email. “There always was, especially inside the home and on the workplace. Italy is a nation where chauvinism still reigns and no matter how much progress there is with equal opportunity there is still a lot to do.”
A 2015-16 survey conducted by Italy’s National Institute for Statistics (ISTAT) revealed that one million Italian women have been victims of sexual blackmail. This isn’t, “Heeeey! Want to go get a glass of wine after work?” This is hanging sex over their heads during a job interview in a country with 11.3 percent unemployment. It’s threatening their current job in exchange for sex. Italy even has a phrase for it.
Molestia sessuale. No translation necessary.
This came to mind this week as I read about the fallout from the Italian national soccer team’s inexcusable pratfall in World Cup qualifying. Carlo Tavecchio, the 74-year-old troll and head of the Italian soccer federation, had just resigned in disgrace.
Then the disgrace got worse.
A former federation executive told Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, that one time Tavecchio called her into his office.
“I went into his office to talk about football,” said the woman, who used the pseudonym Mary. “He did not even give me time to ask, ‘President, how are you?’ He looked at me and said, ‘You look well. I can see you have an active sex life.’ Then, ‘Come here and let me touch your breasts.’
“I was embarrassed. I tried to tell him to stop. But his only answer was to close the curtains of the office.”
She told the paper he continually harassed her and she finally quit. She came forward only when she learned he’d resigned — not fired — and could still take a job elsewhere in the federation.
American women’s public bull rush atop their #metoo platform has transformed into Italy’s #quellavoltache (#thattimewhen…). Italian actress Asia Argento and Filipina-Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez were among the 100-plus women accusing disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein of locomotive libido. Fabrizio Lombardo, head of Italian operations for Weinstein’s Miramax company, allegedly sent women to Weinstein’s hotel and then sent intimidating messages, according to La Stampa newspaper. Lombardo denied it and Weinstein claims all the sex was consensual. That’s understandable. All women want sex with a guy who looks like a fat mob goon after a three-day binge and a train wreck.
Weinstein wasn’t the only one.
Argento told La Stampa that an Italian actor-director once told her to come discuss something in his trailer where he pulled out his penis. She was 16.
Italian showgirl Miriana Trevisan recently came forward about an incident 20 years ago in the office of director Giuseppe Tornatore. She told Claudia Torrisi of 50 50, an Italian gender and human rights blog, that he “put me against the wall and started to kiss my neck and my ears and touched my breast aggressively. He may not recall it, but I do.”
She once went into the office of an unnamed Italian TV personality and discussed a potential job. She told Torrisi, “He said I had to be nice to him because we could only talk about work if we were close.” He tried to kiss her but she said no and left the office. On the way out, she saw his assistant who said, “You still have your lipstick on. I think we will never see you again.”
Italian men, however, aren’t nearly as aggressive as they were when I lived off pizza by the slice here nearly 40 years ago. Women say they leer more than touch. However, I still hear horror stories. My American friend, Loren, 38, has had it.
“I saw one of those freaky guys who decides to whip it out,” she told me. “The first time was five years ago. He just whipped it out near Largo Argentina. He purposely looked at me like he was getting off on it.
“Talking about touching you inappropriately, that happens a lot in buses. I told you about the bus experience where some guy rubbed it against me. It was a hardon. You could feel it. It was just disgusting.”
My girlfriend, Marina, said she’s never experienced sexual harassment at her travel magazine but she walks around practically with a STOP sign hanging over her neck. However, what has happened to Loren has happened to her. She won’t get on a public bus in Rome without me.
In many ways it’s worse for American women in Rome than Italian. Some American women come over with the fantasy of, as my actor-friend and fellow-expat Tom Shaker once described, “falling in love with Francesco at Trattoria Yo Mama’s Ass” and then go home and tell their cubicle mate in Anaheim about it.
“Some,” however, doesn’t mean “a lot.” Still, some Italian men see American women more approachable than their Italian brethren who aren’t nearly as sexual as they dress. One frustrated Italian guy once told me at an aperitivo, “The problem with Italian women is they just don’t drink enough.”
“What I find abusive is I’ll find an Italian man will talk differently to an Italian woman rather than an American woman,” Loren said, “thinking the American woman is eager and willing and available for sex.”
Past laws, since improved, haven’t helped much and today the media still doesn’t. After Argento came forward, she became the villain rather than Weinstein. Libero, a Milan-based newspaper, lambasted the accusers, writing, “First they give it away, then they whine and pretend to repent.” On Argento, Libero wrote, “Surrendering to a boss’ advances is prostitution, not rape,” going on to say that sexual blackmail is “a rite of passage for actresses.” During a radio interview, Libero editor Vittorio Feltri went even further.
“Because there was no physical assault, it had to be consensual,” he said. “Besides, she should be thankful he forcibly performed oral sex on her.”
Sure, Vittorio. Lick this.
Keep in mind Italy’s history. It has sucked on a mother’s breast since Romulus and Remus, Rome’s founders, fed off the wolf’s teat. Women have been treated like third-class citizens — behind men and men’s pets — in every walk of life. Women weren’t even allowed to vote in Italy until 1946. Until the 1960s a man could kill his wife and call it murder of honor. Rape was considered a crime against morals, not against a person, until 1996. Sexual violence didn’t even used to cover harassment.
“Italian women are still suffering from an old point of view and an equally outdated education that still sees them as just brides without an income, who can be supported and happy only if married with children,” Mammoliti wrote. “There (is) just a small number of women that feel they are more than this and that feel accomplished even if they do not have a family depend on them. This way of thinking, in turn, makes women more fragile and easily attackable.”
Then came Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump without a nuclear weapon, who was charged with having affairs with everyone from a teenage belly dancer to underaged prostitutes. He introduced the term “bunga bunga” into the Italian language.
“We have 20 years of a government who basically sexualized every aspect of life,” said Loretta Bondi, a board member of Casa delle Donne (House of Women), a political, social and cultural space for women in Rome. “It’s difficult to basically uproot those kinds of perceptions.”
The Italian woman isn’t as passive and subservient as you think. Bondi, 60, joined her first women’s movement at 16. More women are earning college degrees than men. In more than five years over two stints in Rome, I’ve yet to meet an Italian woman who dreams of staying home and raising kids.
“Let me assure you that women, Italian women, have managed throughout these years to turn perception, turn legislation that would’ve remained stagnant without women’s actions,” Bondi said. “There are a lot of ways you perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination. It’s not just devising very good laws. If you don’t start from the very roots of this phenomenon, chances are that the struggle will continue to be uphill.”
What must change in Italy is women should start idolizing people like Argento. The media onslaught made her flee to Berlin but she struck a blow for Italian women everywhere. They need a guiding light. According to La Stampa, only 20 percent of women talk about sexual harassment. Only 0.7 percent come forward. Who can risk losing a job when they’re so hard to find?
“Sex is still a taboo topic,” Mammoliti wrote, “and in Italy a lot of women are afraid to come forward because of the shame that is attached to it and also because they are afraid to be blamed, which is not such an improbable outcome.”
I asked Bondi her thoughts on the theory that women like Argento have no right to scream foul after a five-year sexual relationship.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Violence can happen at any time of a relationship, even before a relationship is formed. How many women have been killed by their own husband? The fact that you have had any relationship with a partner or a boss doesn’t justify any form of violence.”
This flood of anecdotes figuratively castrating public figures has done more good than any law. It has made men reflect. I looked back on my past and asked myself … was I ever guilty? Fortunately, I have a lifetime fear of rejection. A bachelor my whole life, I always waited for a sign from the woman, even in college. I am terrible at picking up women. I sought phone numbers, not one-night stands. I always had a policy never to date anyone from work. The reason is a simple one that strikes at the heart: mine. If it doesn’t work, you have to look at them every day. Work is tense enough.
That’s why the lack of shame of the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys of the world baffles me. Rejection to them is no more than lint from a dry cleaner. Well, look where that got them. Two stellar show business careers are over, their legacies a disgrace.
Strong women are the reason. And men? It’s not over for us. You’d better think twice before you touch.
“It’s an excellent thing that’s coming out,” Bondi said. “Nothing will help if these issues are wrapped in silence. It does take a lot of courage to come forward, to press charges against a boss, a friend, or somebody who exercises that kind of power. I admire the women who came forward and should not only be encouraged but supported.
“And certainly not degraded.”