Pinching Italians

Recently asked on the Fodor’s travel forum: “We’ve been told it is customary and acceptable for men in Italy to pinch women’s bottoms. Is this true and, if it is, what is the customary and acceptable response?”

Over the years I’ve lived in Italy I’ve been asked this question several times. And it always makes me laugh because, while it may once have been normal behavior for Italian men, I experienced this kind of thing far more in India (where it’s called “eve teasing”) than I ever have in Italy.

When I was a teenager in India in the late 70s/early 80s, foreign women were considered “easy” and therefore worth a try (verbal or physical), though Indian women out alone were also harassed. I don’t understand what drives men to do this. How stupid do you have to be to believe that some woman whose bottom you grab or to whom you say “Hey, sexy baby” is going to swoon into your arms?

By the end of my high school years in India I had been groped and “hello darling’d” enough to know how to avoid it (as far as that was possible). When I returned for a college year abroad in Benares, I was surprised to find myself the only woman in our group who was never bothered at all. In retrospect, I think I went around that year with such a forbidding expression that no one dared come near me. (I am also taller and heavier than many Benarsi men, which may have scared them off.)

I didn’t know much about Italy when I first began travelling here, so it never occurred to me to expect such. (I was always accompanied by Enrico in any case.) And, in all these years, it’s never happened. Except once, riding in a very crowded bus in Rome, I got groped. If I could have identified the culprit I would have slapped him, but of course these slimeballs judge their situations very carefully, and I didn’t want to slap the wrong man.

An Italian colleague tells me that she’s been groped a few times in the metro in Milan. It’s called palpeggiamento, and the favored technique is the mano morta – the “dead hand” left dangling where it will brush up against something, but the culprit can claim innocence if confronted.

My colleague’s response is to step back hard onto the guy’s foot with her sharp high heel, then turn around and say sweetly, “Did I step on you? I’m soooo sorry.” This or something similar would be the response of most Italian women – who do NOT consider being fondled by strangers to be expected or tolerable behavior!

Someone else in the Fodor’s forum said that her daughter, on a study abroad year in Florence, had been warned by her university to expect verbal and physical harassment, and that the best response was simply to ignore it. She duly was hassled, and, as instructed, ignored it.

It seems to me that the administrators of these college programs are encouraging bad behavior by instructing their students to put up with it, when no one else in Italy would, and the girls themselves would not tolerate such treatment back home. So the Florentines obligingly perpetuate their grandfathers’ myth of the butt-pinching, wolf-whistling Italian man. (Perhaps if we pointed out to these young men how desperately old-fashioned this is, they would be embarrassed into stopping.)

Then there are the American women tourists who, having heard all the stories, claim to feel disappointed if they don’t get grabbed in the street – they feel they’ve missed out on a quintessential Italian experience. Umm, well, the guy who pinches your bottom is surely not one you would actually want to have sex with – it’s not exactly a smooth approach, is it? Wait for the one who hands you a good line and buys you a good dinner. Quite a few tourists have had a great vacation this way, and some have even ended up married!

(On the other hand, don’t be surprised or shocked to learn that he’s already married. Adultery is something of a national sport, and what could be easier or safer than a fling with a woman who will soon be leaving?)

Some Italian terms for seduction can be found here (along with a lot of very rude words).

So… ever been pinched in Italy?

6 thoughts on “Pinching Italians

  1. Maria

    I was travelling in Italy a few years ago, and at the airport a young Italian man grabbed my arm and spun me around to look at my bottom. He looked at his friend and said “these canadian girls have beautful bums”. I was shocked…but also kind of liked it!

  2. sherill

    ya once when i was on a world tour , i went to italy. i was wearing a tradition indian clothing called saree , and travelling in crowded bus. in saree a little bit of hip remains exposed. while stepping off the bus i felt a sharp pinch at my hip. i saw the culprit but couldnt do any thing becoz of the crowd had some similar experience at the theaters too like squeezing ass and grabbing boobs accidently and then say sorry…

  3. Kohp

    In Italy nobody use to pinch butts, today as in the past, it’s considered a sexual harass by the whole population. if a man pinch a woman’s butt in public would at the least pinned down by people around while others call police, I think it’s obvious, I’m scared to realize that strangers depict Italian men as animals, in Italy a man who touch an unknown woman in the privates is labelled as sexual persecutors, as it happens everywhere in civilized world!

    I’d really like to know why americans have intented that idiocy about italians.

  4. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    Apparently it was “acceptable” behavior 50 years ago, when many Americans’ cliché notions about Italy were formed. I and other women I know have been variously groped and fondled in Italy, for example in crowded busses. Usually the perpetrators are clever enough to make it hard to be sure even who did it. The women I know have not been shy about retaliating when they were sure.

  5. rosemary

    love your blog and your perspective- just found it; My story – About 8 years ago I was solo in Sienna for a day trip and a deluge of rain and lightning turned the city into what sounded like a war zone. The runoff was ankle deep in the tiny cobblestone streets. After a long wait for the lighting to stop, and while it was still raining hard, I made my way past the university campus and down the hill to my parked car. A young college aged guy was walking the same way (btw this is 2 in the afternoon) so I just stopped and waited for him to go ahead through the big city wall gates, and I dallied for a bit to get my keys our of my bag. Despite an umbrella and hooded rain jacket, my corduroy Armani pants pants were soaked through and through. I noted that the same guy as I walked down the road had stopped to ‘tie his sneaker’ , and I knew I needed to keep my eye on him. I could either go back up the hill or trudge on to my car… Other people were around, and it was broad daylight so I kept on my course. So right when I had to walk into the road around a huge mudslide, he must have rushed and caught up to me. No, he didnt grab my purse….- Suddenly a hand cupped /squeezed my ass and when I spun around the guy looked like a stunned little boy when I reacted in my limited Italian…So – despite being well-dressed, self aware, and expecting a potential pickpocket, gypsy, or guy wanting a date, the infamous “grope” happened. (Women travelers – stay aware- if you have an intuition about something you observe- take it seriously. When you have the same impression twice – something probably is about to go down so don’t be shy about taking action.).Despite this rare occurrence for me, I’d suggest you expect that a random grope, pinch, or the ‘mano morta’ can still happen despite the predominantly polite and sophisticated Italian gentlemen. Have a mild Italian swear word to say (see this authors blog post on that) and let it go…. I guess this is a good lesson that we should be vigilant and aware of our surroundings here in US or when abroad even in the most chaotic of circumstances and know our intuition is probably right when things seem askew.

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