This morning, I had coffee with a new friend and in talking about travel he asked me if I had ever been to Italy. I said that I had, but the most striking memory I had of the place was of the pinching, patting and propositioning that I experienced while walking in the streets.
That was a very long time ago, mind you. Almost fifty years, actually, but the discomfort I felt came flooding back. Then, I was a fairly attractive seventeen-year-old girl/woman in my first job working for a travel agency arranging tours for school groups. I was quite comfortable with travelling, in spite of its complexities, and I felt confident in my job. However, when it came to addressing sexual comments and approaches, I felt so uncomfortable and incapable of response that I spent most of my time in Italy hiding in my hotel room.
When I briefly referred to this experience, my coffee date said “Well, some women like that kind of thing.”
Really? Do some women like it or do they put up with it. Perhaps they have learned to be bold in their responses, or to forcefully reject those advances. If so, my mother would have said they were being unladylike. Kind of a no-win situation for me at the time; either try to ignore it, hide from it, or be unladylike. Being confrontational was never in my repertoire.
My new friend’s comment this morning came only a few hours before I read this article by Daisy Buchanan in The Guardian newspaper. It describes her experiences of street harassment in England, and it immediately struck a chord with me. It also saddened me to realize that fifty years and a women’s movement have gone by and nothing much has changed in this regard.
It also, unfortunately, made me realize that one of the reasons I felt ambivalent about my new pal was that we clearly did not see eye to eye on this issue. That seems to me to be important. It’s an “old school” attitude to women that does not seem to have gone away. (That and the fact that he was proud of having hidden large amounts of money from his wife during their divorce, but that would be another blog post.)
Strangely, the experience I had as a teenager in Italy has affected not only my opinion of Italian men, but also my view of the country itself. I have no desire to return. I know that is not logical, and I know it is a beautiful country, but that feeling of vulnerability and discomfort has lingered on. I didn’t realize that until today.
Image source: https://femfatality.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/street-harassment.jpg*
*An article describing the history of the photograph written by the woman in the picture: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jan/30/ninalee-craig-photograph-ruth-orkin-florence-1951