Women protest against sexual violence in Paris in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Photo: Somer/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
As the Harvey Weinstein scandal continues to erupt, there’s been an outpouring of allegations against powerful men, accused of committing similar abuses during their careers.
Experiences shared via the #metoo hashtag on social media have shown how widespread this kind of abuse of power is; women around the world face sexual harassment at work everyday.
‘women around the world face sexual harassment at work everyday’
In Italy, however, media coverage of the Weinstein scandal has been predictably outrageous, focusing on actress Asia Argento’s behaviour. Instead of focusing on abuse, and how to end it, we have been victim-blaming.
There has been no “Weinstein effect” here, and discussions around sexual harassment at work remain largely taboo. Of course that’s not to say Italy doesn’t have a sexual harassment problem; we do.
The only research on this topic is from 2008-2009, when the Italian National Statistics Institute (ISTAT) revealed that over one million women in Italy have been harassed or ‘sexually blackmailed’ at work.
This number is huge, but the true figure is likely even larger. The ISTAT study said almost 99% of victims do not report such abuse to the police. Women stay silent for many reasons: concerned over proof, shame, fear of being treated badly, or not believed at all.
An artist's effigy of Harvey Weinstein. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.
In 2015, an Italian journalist published a book entitled Toglimi le mani di dosso (“Get your hands off of me”) about her experience of sexual harassment in a national newsroom. She used a pseudonym, Olga Ricci, and anonymised the newspaper and identifying details.
In the book she described how her editor-in-chief promised her a contract, then began making advances, inviting her to dinner, before more explicit requests to spend the night in a hotel room with him, and finally blackmailing her. In the end, she lost her job.
Harassment and ricatto sessuale (‘sexual blackmail’ – when a man takes advantage of a position of power over women who want to start or progress in their career, or are fearful of being fired) is “pervasive in Italian media”, Ricci told me.
After her book was published, she received messages from other female journalists who tried to guess the identity of her harasser, suggesting editors and publishers who had behaved in similar ways.
These stories have yet to come out.
#Metoo protests continue in the wake of the Weinstein scandal. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
The lack of debate on workplace sexual harassment in Italy also means there’s a lack of awareness of what it is.
Ricci herself did not immediately realise what was happening to her. “I thought that my boss’s behaviours were normal,” she said. “He treated lots of women in the same way in the newsroom.”
She explained that harassment can be difficult to prove, as there may not be witnesses. Such behaviour may also be minimised by other women.
“We learn it as children. It is unimaginable, according to ‘common sense’, to consider a dinner invitation, a compliment, a shoulder massage, or a hand on a hip as harassment. Even sexual jokes are considered normal. And if you point out [these acts] to your colleagues...they will call you tragic or a bigot.”
“Sexual jokes are considered normal. And if you point out [these acts] to your colleagues… they will call you tragic or a bigot”
For her, awareness of this issue came only after she left Italy to study. She told me: “Now, I use the word ‘violence’ to describe what happened to me. Too many women still do not use it, because they do not know they can.”
“I still receive messages from women who say that after reading the book they finally are able to give a name to what they have been through,” she added.
Italian ‘showgirl’ Miriana Trevisan is one of the very few women on Italian TV who disclosed her own experiences of workplace sexual harassment in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.
Earlier this month, Trevisan said she had been in Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore’s office about 20 years ago, and that he “put me against the wall and started to kiss my neck and my ears, and touched my breast aggressively.”
“He may not recall it, but I do,” she said. Tornatore has denied the allegations and announced legal actions, while Trevisan has been engulfed in a flurry of piublic criticism.
She also described a case of sexual assault by an unnamed TV personality. “His approach was sneaky. At first he flattered me – which made me think I had an opportunity. Then the conversation became sexual,” Trevisan told me.
At this point, she remembers feeling confused, asking herself: “Did I do something he misunderstood? Am I dressed too sexily? Am I overreacting?”
Then, “he said I had to be nice to him, because we could only talk about work if we were close. Then he tried to kiss me, but I said no.”
Leaving his room, she met his assistant: “She gave me a quick look and said: ‘You still have your lipstick on, I think we will never see you again.’”
“Did I do something he misunderstood? Am I dressed too sexily? Am I overreacting?”
“I was not able to give a name to the discomfort I felt. I almost convinced myself that it was the way it worked. I felt that everyone around me was addicted to these behaviours,” said Trevisan.
But after Asia Argento came forward, with her allegations against Weinstein, “all the pain resurfaced, together with the anger” that she had previously repressed.
“I think there’s a problem in our media. Newspapers and TV are showing no courage in talking about the implications of Weinstein case,” Trevisan said.
“They talked a lot about Asia Argento and said almost nothing about ‘our Weinsteins’. We have them, and everybody knows it.”
Recently, a few actresses – some of them anonymously – have recounted experiences of sexual harassment on the Italian TV show Le Iene; though most of their abusers have not been named.
Harsh treatment endured by Argento is a clear example of why women may feel forced to choose between staying silent about abuse or being blamed – and if they talk after many years, they may be blamed for having waited too long.
“Public opinion is uneducated, sexist and fierce,” said Ricci. “Those commentators [who attacked Argento] will never change their point of view if the debate in the media doesn’t offer them new ones.”
“When a boss invites you to dinner, talks to you about his private life or his problems, says how beautiful or attractive you are, when he kisses you, hugs you, touches you, he is abusing his power,” she insists.
And this is the whole point: sexual harassment is not about sex. It’s about power. If we want women in Italy to speak up, Italian public opinion needs to understand this first. Our reaction to the Weinstein scandal has shown the dire need for cultural change.