Twice now I have been the recipient of unwanted physical attention from Italian men. Once was a traumatizing hand-on-ass experience on the 90 bus, for which irrational reason I refuse to take that particular bus ever again, and once just earlier today with a man squeezing my cheeks— the cheeks on my face this time. What the hell, Italy?
As I’ve mentioned a few times, Italian men are not afraid of complimenting a woman. From the ciao, bellas to sei bellissimas and the occasional whistle and blown kiss, it eventually forms a part of one’s daily life. One particular instance was rather endearing, while a Filipina friend and I were walking around Termini a pair of Italian men called out “maganda!” and “mahal!” roughly translated they mean “beautiful” and “love.” However grammatically incorrect, it was endearing first of all because they spoke Filipino and second, because I was identified as such. Most men on the street begin with ni hao, which isn’t a bad attempt either.
In any case, these two instances of assault were very different from typical Italian flirtation. On the 20th of November, as I was in a 90 bus bound for Viale Pola I noticed something strange going on. A man’s hand seemed to have found its way to my ass. ‘Must be accidental,’ I thought, ‘maybe I should move.’ So I shifted position and I thought that was it. Then the hand returned. ‘Maybe he really doesn’t know what he’s doing?’ I thought, and shifted once more. Then the hand returned, more insistent than before. It’s like he lost something in my underwear, god knows what. This was the third time said hand groped around my butt, and I had shifted position enough. I turned, looked him in the eye, and stomped down with my beautiful leather boots, made in Italy. Then I hopped off on the next stop and ran to class.
Earlier today, after picking up a parcel at the Piazza Bologna post office, I was minding my own business, looking around for potential shops to purchase presents from while listening to a Christmas playlist when an elderly gentleman stopped me, yanked out my headphones, cupped my face in his hands and said “bella signorina!” then walked away. I recoiled the moment I saw him come close to me and after the incident— it all happened so fast— all I could do was keep walking, this time to the metro to go home. My head was whirling with questions, the primary one being ‘what the hell?’ I also felt an urgent need to wash my face.
Now you may ask me, what was I wearing? And I would then ask you, what does it matter? If you’re truly curious I’d answer that I was in a sweater and skirt (and tights and boots) during my bus encounter, hence being able to feel every sickening move that hand made, and earlier today I was in jeans and a large zipped up poofy winter coat. Don’t even ask me about whether there was cleavage, its cold up here. And if you’re the type of person who says it’s probably my fault for wearing a skirt or my incredibly sexy puffer jacket (this is sarcasm, google the jacket) then all I can say is, come here and let me stomp on your foot too you sexist chauvinist pig.
Some men believe that encounters such as these are complimentary. A reaffirmation of one’s femininity and/or attractiveness, so to speak. For myself, not only are they a disgusting commodification of women but I fiercely detest being touched by people whom I don’t give express permission to. Let’s not go into the details of why exactly this is so, but suffice to say that I even hesitate before giving or receiving a hug if someone isn’t truly a friend. Case in point: physical affection— hugs, kisses, and so on— are rare even within my family. The only person who I hug and receive hugs from is my baby brother, who I miss dearly now that I’ve been away for a few years.
Considering all this, it isn’t surprising that after today’s encounter I had to head straight back home to calm down. It wasn’t just a man on the street telling me I was beautiful, it was an invasion of my personal space, an attack on my person. And this time, perhaps because the act was so intimate— he touched my face!— I froze and couldn’t even say anything in protest.
Are women so commodified in Italy? Is this how Berlusconi stayed in power for so long? Is it because I’m Asian? Too many questions, perhaps best left for another time when I’m in the right frame of mind to bring in the big guns. Simone de Beauvoir would have a lot to say, I’m sure. For now, what can I do but try to be as inconspicuous as possible when walking around without company. And maybe learn how to say “don’t touch me!” in Italian.