Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Is Italy a safe and healthy place for young women (and men)?

After having interviewed my daughters a few years ago after they had lived in Italy for a year during their teen years, I concluded that I was not afraid to leave my daughters and wife alone in most places in Italy. I wrote about this in Do Italian males live up to reputation for their persistent and flirtatious behavior? Now I have additional confirmation and statistics to support my thesis.
Italian girls and boys receive lots of practice in interpersonal relationships during the Italian passeggiata, one reason they may be more skilled socially than American young people. 

I’m reading a fascinating book, Amore, by cultural sociologist Roger Friedland, who is imminently more qualified than I to speak on the topic. Friedland studies and teaches on love, sex and God, and he has worked in universities in both the United States and Rome, Italy. During his seminar classes, students in both countries freely shared their encounters with members of the opposite sex. Friedland also brought his wife and two coming-of-age daughters with him to Italy, giving him additional first-hand accounts and insights.

He observed that young women frequently walked alone at night in Rome’s city center, waiting near midnight for the last buses home. Were they harassed or afraid, he asked the women in his class. They told him that boys routinely made unwanted remarks, came too close and sometimes touched them where they didn’t want to be touched. However, the women were not afraid.

Friedland discovered that American and Italian women were equally likely to endure harassment. “But,” he continued, “there is a difference, a big one: American men are much more likely to commit rape. One-quarter of female college students in America will experience either rape or attempted rape. Twelve percent of high school girls have already been raped. The real numbers are likely much higher, because many women not only don’t tell the police; they don’t tell anyone.”

Friedland’s Italian students were stunned to hear these statistics. Fewer than 5 percent of Italian women between the ages of 16 and 24 have ever experienced rape or attempted rape. Most of that—about 70 percent—was committed by their intimate partner.

“The question is, why?” Friedland asks. “It’s not because Roman men don’t look. They are voracious with their eyes, savoring the bodies of women as they pass. After all the time I’ve spent in Rome, I’ve come to think that part of the reason rape is so much rarer in Italy is that Italian men love women more than American men do. Beneath all the sexual jest, the lusty looks and suggestive remarks, Roman men respect women.”

Friedland’s daughters were subjected to this harassment as they entered their teen years, but they learned to cope along with the Italian girls. He said that Italians accept that flirting is part of human nature but is not a precursor to rape. Girls in Italy are free to “swear at the boys, to berate them, hit them on the heads or in the face, belittling them for their pathetic antics.” His girls didn’t regard the advances as dangerous.

“Roman women who grow up in the system learn to maneuver, to parry and resist the verbal and visual predations of men, because they feel relatively safe from violation,” he writes. “Roman girls learn early not to be afraid of boys. They grow accustomed to walking alone to the square to fetch olive oil or pizza bianca for their mothers.”

Friedland also contrasts Americans and Italians in their beliefs about marriage. The American students he surveyed while teaching at UC Santa Barbara wondered whether love is real; they seemed afraid to believe in love and lifelong marriage because they had witnessed so much disappointment in their parents’ relationships. Only about 60 percent of the UC students said they wanted to marry and stay with one person all their lives, and less than half said they actually expected to.

And why should they? Of American couples who married in the first five years of the 1990s, 42 percent divorced within 15 years. By contrast, only 8 percent of comparable Italian couples had separated. In the United States, close to half of all marriages are remarriages. In Italy, 95 percent of all marriages are first-time ventures for both parties.

Friedland also found that Italians are—to put it delicately—better lovers. To put it less delicately, he said that “young Italians—especially females, but also males—have more frequent orgasms than young Americans. Love makes for pleasure. Love radically increases the probability that a woman will have an orgasm. Italians still revere passion. Because the men love the women, they are more likely to care about giving them pleasure. And the women they love take pleasure from that love. Men’s love works.”

Again, the question must be asked, why this difference? Friedland goes to great length to answer this, and for a more complete explanation, you’ll need to read his book. But the heart of the answer has to do with how Italians experience family and family life. Italian families are all-absorbing, involving grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles.

“Roman kids are deeply invested in their families—forever,” he said. “Unlike middle-class American kids, who leave for college and return home just to rest and refuel, most young Italians continue to live at home while attending university. When Roman kids do move out, it’s to get married and set up their own households. That often happens nearby, even in the very same building their parents live in, frequently with their parents help. And overwhelmingly, they rely on their parents to care for their children when they can’t be there.”

I don’t mean to make it sound like Italian family life and male-female relationships are some kind of paradise. We’ve seen husbands and wives yelling at each other on the streets, families arguing loudly in houses as we pass by, and we read headlines in the Italian newspapers about murder and abuse. We’ve been warned that certain parts of large cities are unsafe to walk in at night. But to fear, as I once did, that Italy may be more dangerous for my daughters than the United States is nonsense—unless I was worried that they might fall in love and have stable marriages.

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