Italy is one of the top destinations of American study abroad students, and when American students who identify as female go to Italy for the first time, they can become hyper-aware of street harassment (“cat-calling”). Granted, no urban sidewalk anywhere in the world is free of commentary from strangers, but when the language is different, the harassment seems more noticeable and feels more threatening.
If you’re a student reading this blog and preparing to study abroad, you should certainly not dismiss safety concerns or your personal agency, but you should be ready for a higher level of street harassment than you have experienced in the States, especially if you don’t live in a metropolitan area. I hope to prepare you by giving you some helpful information as well as some cultural background.
Disclaimer: Not every Italian man fits the descriptions in this blog, but if you’re in a popular area with other study abroad students (e.g., nightclubs, touristy areas), you can expect to receive unsolicited comments ranging from flattery to declarations of love. Typically, the men wouldn’t catcall women from their neighborhood; harassing the tourists comes with no scoldings from their Italian mothers.
The Questions I’ve Heard from Students
“What does Italian cat-calling look like?”
- Imagine walking on a sidewalk with many open markets, street vendors, and small groups waiting for a table at a café or just hanging out.
- Imagine small groups of 2-4 men leaning against a storefront, smoking, and wearing nice clothes and dress shoes. All of them are talking with each other but not necessarily giving eye contact because they are alert to what’s going on around them.
“What does it sound like?”
- Excessive compliments. “Ciao, bella,” is the most common unsolicited comment, but the catcalling can be more creative. What it generally won’t be is the American-style crassness and attention to specific body parts or actions that the harasser is imagining.
- This video, recorded in Naples over a span of ten days, depicts a woman walking alone while men call out to her. If she doesn’t speak Italian, she might perceive that their commentary is packed with profanity, but in general, that’s not how Italian men speak to women. Here are all of the comments in the video, followed by my admittedly literal translations:
- Sounds of whistling (fischio) and kissing (bacio)
- Bella/bellissima = Beautiful/very beautiful (sometimes repeated several times for emphasis)
- Sei stupenda = You are wonderful
- Ciao = Hello/goodbye
- Sono lentine o sono proprio gli occhi tuoi? = Am I slow, or are those really your eyes?
- Ha molta classe = She has a lot of class
- Ma é piccola però d’età = She is small but is of age
- Cara = Dear
- Però è una ragazza unica! = But she is a unique girl!
- Ma già quando cammina mi fa uscire pazzo! = But when she walks it makes me crazy!
- Che fascino, ragazzi! = What a charm, boys!
- Buonasera = Good evening
- Di dove sei tu? = Where are you from?
- Ma cos’e una sfilata? = But is it a fashion show?
- Amore! = Love
- Guarda che ha dietro, Tonino! Guarda che tiene dietro! = Look what’s behind, Tonino! Look what’s behind!
- Aspetta un attimo! = Wait a moment
- Guarda c’è la sfilata! = Look, there is a fashion show!
- Ue carina! Stella! = She’s cute, a star
- Mamma mia! Mamma mia, che eleganza! = My mother, what elegance!
- Ti puoi fermare un attimo? = Can you stop for a moment?
- Sei meravigliosa! = You are wonderful
“How should I respond?”
Regardless of the translation, street harassment sounds bad in any language. It’s objectifying, sexualizing, and disturbing to the point that the sidewalks no longer feel like safe public space. The harassers are performing their hypermasculinity, similar to the costumed performers who ask for a euro to pose for a photo with them. The harassers aren’t asking for money, but their reward is getting a reaction–any reaction–from their targets and from their peers. Here are some strategies if you’re catcalled:
- Act like an Italian woman—that is, ignore it. Do not change facial expressions, provide eye contact, adjust your walking pace, or acknowledge the comments in any way. Italian women tend to view street harassment and cat calling like so much street noise that doesn’t deserve their attention. Check out #anchio (“me too”) and #voltache (“that time”) posts on Twitter to see how Italian women have joined the #metoo movement.
- Keep walking, walk confidently, and avoid them. Watch how the woman in the video cited above responds—i.e., NOT AT ALL. In general, the men who perform such hypermasculine behavior do not expect a response and will stop at one or two comments only to repeat the process when the next bella approaches.
- Do not let them see where you live. If you are close to your apartment, stop somewhere else before entering your building. This way, the harasser won’t know where you live. Other methods of distracting the catcallers is to change sides of the street or to duck into a store or café. If you’re on a train or bus, change seats or deboard at the next stop.
- Enough! If the commentary persists, or if the man is eager enough to follow or walk alongside you, tell him, “Basta!” (rhymes with pasta), which means “That’s enough.” You might also say, “Mi lasci in pace?” with an angry tone, which means “Will you leave me in peace?” or more simply put, “Leave me alone!”
“What if I want to follow up?”
If an Italian man’s flattery succeeds with you and you accept his offer of a date, his courtship will follow one of two basic traditional paths:
a) If he takes you to meet his family, don’t think he’s preparing to propose to you. It’s a fairly typical dating behavior. And if he professes his love or proposes? It’s really not about you. It’s most likely his modus operandi with every American study abroad student who gives him the time of day.
b) If he takes you to a bar or buys drinks for you, it most likely means he sees you only as a sexual conquest.
“Why do Italian men think street harassment is acceptable?”
That’s a complex question. Culturally, Italy perhaps provides the blueprint for masculinity around the world. Some notable examples include artists and fictional characters whose reputations as rogues have nearly eclipsed their artistic contributions.
- Historical figures
Casanova: This iconic Italian man pursued women so persuasively in the early nineteenth century that his very name has become synonymous with a smooth-talking playboy or player. In actuality, Casanova’s pursuits were more harassment and assaults than his legend paints him.
Lord Byron: A British Romantic poet and ladies’ man, his revision of the libertine “Don Juan” character was probably influenced by Casanova. Both Byron and his poet-friend Shelley kept extramarital affairs going with women all over Italy, but not without problems: Byron’s premature death at 33 probably was a result of syphilis, gonorrhea, and alcoholism, while Shelley ultimately drowned at age 29 off the coast of Livorno, leaving a forever-romanticized legacy.
The Medici men: The Medici family crest with its three to six emblematic balls marks buildings and structures all over Florence (as well as modern pawn shops). These men liked to claim what they felt was theirs and to leave their permanent mark on it. Machiavelli worked alongside the Medici and wrote The Prince as a guidebook of sorts for (male) leaders, emphasizing the concept of vertu, or the ability to use strategic logic and prowess to achieve great things. The Medici employed this same philosophy in their pursuit of mistresses.
Petrarch: If you’ve studied poetry, you’ve probably heard of a literary device called “Petrarchan conceits,” defined as “exaggerated comparisons expressing the beauty, cruelty, and charm of the beloved and the suffering of the forlorn lover.” Petrarch, a writer of sonnets in fourteenth-century Italy, addressed a woman named Laura, a completely idealized and unattainable source of all Petrarchan woe.
- Fictional Examples
The Godfather: the book (1969) and film adaptation (1972) revolve around the males in the Corleone family, who hail from Italy and bring all kinds of Italian stereotypes to the entire of world of cinema-goers. The film exemplifies omerta, or the code of honor among men that requires silence, stoicism, and a strong sense of family loyalty, which brings with it a sense of ownership of women and children.
Saturday Night Fever: John Travolta’s breakout role as Tony Monero in this disco-fabulous film of 1977 further cemented the Italian male stereotype, focusing more on sexual escapades than friendships with other men. Travolta’s pose on the movie poster shows his white three-piece suit and perfectly shellacked hair, in mid-disco move of one arm lifted and the other outstretched, legs apart—i.e., taking up as much space on the dance floor as possible. In 2016, the back side of my apartment building in Florence overlooked a courtyard shared by a daycare in the morning and a community center for men in the evening; on many evenings I heard the entire soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever coming from the men’s direction.
Still, this long history of machismo does not excuse contemporary harassment of women.
Harassment is never welcome; it’s intrusive and should be illegal. However, when it’s happening in a country you’ve begun to love, it can potentially ruin your day, and if it grows into intense or frightening behavior, it could tarnish what should otherwise be a positive, life-changing time in your host city.
The patriarchal attitude of “boys will be boys” should not continue in our world order, but when the former president of the country holds “bunga-bunga” parties and Italian women who share their #metoo/#anchio stories are publically slut shamed, how can the country break from a powerful tradition of virile-turned-toxic masculinity. Rhetorical question, of course.