Progress and Problems: Sexism within the Italian Culture

By: Julia Cripps

March 16, 2015

“What’s the Italian national sport?” the chief inspector of Florence quizzed us during our January orientation at the Villa Le Balze. “Soccer?” No. “Rugby?” No. “Cricket?!” No. “It’s women!” he laughed. While his intent was comical, there is certainly truth behind the quip; the men in Florence have lived up to their “Italian Stallion” reputation. Any venture outside of the villa would not be complete without at least a handful of “Hey, bella, why don’t you come back with us?” propositions, a few car honks, and dozens of staring, hungry eyes.

Catcalling occurs across the world, but for the Italians, it is very much associated with their cultural identity. As my professors here have explained, Italy has a very aesthetic culture. Italians would never dream of leaving the house without looking appropriately “put together” and, of course, their fashion industry is world-renowned. Moreover, they have an expressive culture; the Italian language is spoken as much with hand gestures as with words, and when Italians ask how you are doing, they actually expect a reply of more than two words. I am speaking in generalizations, of course, but such features do create a more flirtatious, receptive culture. In this way, the majority of male attention is simply harmless flirtation. As such, I feel more comfortable walking around Florence at night than I ever would in London or Washington, DC.

On the other hand, the catcalling is the superficial aspect of a darker side of Italian culture that can become harmful to women. My government professor, Debora Spini, has explained how there is a deep-seated power imbalance at large, where “men can judge women for their attractiveness.” This allowance is threatening to women, and it is rampant in Italy. Silvio Berlusconi, the on-and-off prime minister of Italy from 1994 to 2011, set a precedent during his time in office, where he hosted notorious “bunga bunga” parties at the Palazzo Chigi and hired sex workers, a number of whom were underage. In April 2009, Berlusconi was photographed at the eighteenth birthday party of aspiring model Noemi Letizia. Soon after, his wife Veronica announced that she wanted a divorce, saying she could "no longer stay with a man who frequents minors” (Reuters). Berlusconi’s corruption went so far as to help establish political careers for some of his mistresses. Nicole Minetti, Berlusconi’s former dental hygienist and current showgirl, sat on the Lombardy regional council from 2010 to 2012; Mara Cafagna, a former nude model and showgirl, served in Berlusconi’s cabinet as minister for equal opportunities from 2008 to 2011. His current girlfriend, Francesca Pascale, was a councilor for the Municipality of Naples. Berlusconi’s antics make for amusing reading, but their implications are bleak. Italian politics was prioritizing the appearances of women over intelligence and capabilities.

However, this sexist environment has changed in the last decade and continues to change. In 2011, protests sprang up across Italy against Berlusconi with banners declaring, “If not now, when?,” “Berlusconi resign now,” and “No prostitutes, no Madonnas, just women” (Telegraph). Berlusconi was eventually convicted of charges in 2013 for underage sex with prostitutes (but he was acquitted on March 11, 2015). Although for some citizens change has been long overdue, there has been progress against institutionalized sexism. “It is now known that women have other purposes than to be attractive to men,” Professor Spini said to me. Now sexual harassment is recognized as more than just “a bad joke” by society.

Change is happening, but there is still drastic progress to be made. Sexual, domestic, and gender-based violence is the most prevalent problem. Despite recent anti-femicide laws, it is estimated that one in three women experience domestic abuse in Italy, and over 90 percent of domestic violence cases go unreported (STCPMs, Forbes). While the laws may be changing, the power imbalance between genders remains ingrained in traditional society. Indeed, until 1981, the criminal code provided for mitigating circumstances for honor killings in such cases where “he who causes the death of a spouse, daughter, or sister upon discovering her in illegitimate carnal relations and in the heat of passion caused by the offence to his honor or that of his family”(Guida al Diritto). Italy has a history of treating women as sexual objects, and this cultural trait has a long-reaching grasp on contemporary Italian society. Some of this manifests in the harmless male attention that I witness on the street, but it is the underlying side effects of institutional sexism and serious violence that remain harder to eradicate.

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Progress and Problems: Sexism within the Italian Culture