World News

Italy’s #MeToo Moment: Shrugs and Rolled Eyes

Posted December 16, 2017 1:57 p.m. EST

ROME — The women took their seats behind each of the more than 600 desks in Italy’s lower house of Parliament and listened to Laura Boldrini, the chamber’s president, talk about how the “Weinstein scandal” had set off a worldwide reckoning with sexual harassment and misconduct.

With one notable exception, that is.

“In Italy, it certainly hasn’t had the same effect. In our country, there are no harassers,” Boldrini said sarcastically, drawing chuckles throughout the hall.

In truth, Boldrini said, harassment was rife, but Italian women feared the repercussions of speaking up: “They know that in this country, there is a strong prejudice against them.”

By turning Montecitorio Palace into a women-only institution on a recent Saturday, Boldrini hoped to emphasize how sexual harassment and abuse against women are often ignored by what she and many others consider a stubbornly patriarchal society.

Since the revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women were exposed in October, politicians, actors and powerful media figures have resigned in disgrace in the United States, and women have flooded social media with their own stories of sexual harassment and assault, using the hashtag #MeToo.

In Italy, it’s mostly “meh.”

“This historic moment doesn’t mean much to Italy, sadly,” said Asia Argento, an Italian actress whose accusations of sexual harassment against Weinstein drew signs of solidarity abroad but a good deal of eye-rolling and insults at home. “Nothing has changed.”

That apathy extends beyond the Italian entertainment industry. In Florence, defense lawyers for paramilitary police officers accused of raping two young American women sought to ask the accusers if they had been wearing underwear that night. In Sicily, a court cleared a man of sexual harassment charges, determining that sophomoric humor, rather than sexual intent, had motivated his groping of colleagues.

And the former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is staging a comeback six years after being forced out of power amid mass protests and trials examining his role in so-called Bunga Bunga bacchanals with underage women and prostitutes.

“For us, defending women is a priority and it always has been,” Berlusconi, who was cleared of soliciting underage prostitutes but is still fighting charges that he bribed a witness, said in a recent television interview.

That is not to suggest that the 81-year-old, whose girlfriend is nearly 50 years his junior, has changed his ways. In October, he told a crowd of supporters on the island of Ischia that he had introduced the bidet to Moammar Gadhafi and in so doing “taught these lusty Africans that there’s also foreplay.”

The audience applauded.

“It’s not shocking, because in the end, Italians think it’s normal,” Lorella Zanardo, a women’s rights advocate and filmmaker, said of the muted reaction to reports of sexual harassment in the country. Especially in high-profile fields such as film, politics and the media, she said, “the idea of a woman advancing her career by giving or selling her body, it’s taken for granted.”

Berlusconi himself has contributed to the perception of women as decorative objects of desire, Zanardo said, by casting them as scantily clad adornments on his television channels. But she acknowledged that the popularity and durability of those shows over the last 40 years showed an eager audience among Italians, many of whom still think of women in archetypes of care-taking madonnas or corrupting Jezebels, with little room in between.

Perhaps nowhere has the view of sex as a transactional feature of Italian life been as stark as in the backlash against Argento.

The daughter of Italy’s most famous director of horror movies, she describes living a nightmare since becoming one of the first women to publicly accuse Weinstein, whom she said performed oral sex on her against her will. She says she is afraid to leave her house, and plans to flee the country over virulent attacks in the media.

Alessandro Sallusti, the editor of the conservative daily Il Giornale, said on Italian television in October that Argento’s public accusations decades after the events took place amounted to her being an “accomplice.” Another right-wing paper repeatedly argued that Argento knowingly entered into a transactional relationship to further her career, and even people whom Argento might have expected to count among her allies instead cast doubt on her innocence.

In a Twitter post, the transgender Italian actress and former member of Parliament Vladimir Luxuria blamed Argento for not “saying no” to Weinstein “as other actresses did,” and for failing to report the alleged assault at the time. Natalia Aspesi, a self-described feminist, said that Argento should not have been surprised by how things progressed after she agreed to give Weinstein a massage.

In response, Argento has cast herself as the avenging angel of the Italian Twitterverse, promoting the hashtag #quellavoltache, or “the time that,” which was conceived as an Italian answer to #metoo but has had far less impact. Her avatar depicts her raising a fist, and her account bio reads, “I was born for such a time as this #noshamefist.”

She has accused an unidentified Italian actor-director of exposing himself to her when she was 16, and a “Hollywood big shot director” with drugging and raping her when she was 26. She warns that abused women know where sexual predators sleep, has resurfaced accusations in tabloids and maligned the “misogynistic patriarchal Italian society” where “sex assault victims are shamed.”

Zanardo, the rights advocate and filmmaker, said that to institute cultural change would require teaching Italian children to respect women as equals.

Until then, the limited media interest in sexual harassment accusations in the Italian film industry reflects a country with greater interest in Hollywood scandals than in introspection.

“If the actresses had started accusing big producers here, no one would have been interested,” she said. But with women expected to play a major role in national elections in the coming months, Italian politicians are starting to seize on stories of rape, disfigurement, murder and other violence in Italian newspapers. Anti-immigrant politician Matteo Salvini, for instance, said at a recent rally in Rome that women were increasingly at risk of being raped by migrants who had come to the country illegally.

The most high-profile woman in the center-left government, Maria Elena Boschi, the undersecretary of state, has listed on Facebook the government initiatives that she says are helping women in the country. And she has responded to Berlusconi’s attacks that she has done nothing for women by replying “the reality cannot be distorted by anyone, not even Silvio Berlusconi.”

She also came under attack by another critic, Marco Travaglio, who in the past has staged unflattering interviews with an actress pretending to be Boschi. The undersecretary responded on television this past week: “If I had been a man, I would not have been treated like this. He made money going into Italian theaters with a scantily clad actress who would mimic me.”

Back in Montecitorio Palace, Boschi sat near Boldrini, listening to women’s stories of harassment, rape, sexual slavery and general discrimination.

“This chamber shows many things,” Boldrini said, adding that women were united. “The country cannot ignore us anymore.”