A group of Italian women MPs who had appeared in jeans to protest at the Supreme Court ruling had only just got back into power suits when another surprise sentence was announced. A magistrate in the lakeside town of Como had rejected a compensation claim from a secretary at an engineering firm who had been sacked for refusing her boss's overtures. The boss was in love with her, the judge concluded, so he couldn't have molested her.
"If he's in love, it can't be sexual harrassment," the Italian headlines trumpeted. In the ensuing fury, the magistrates claimed his ruling had been misconstrued. All he meant was the man's gropings and ticklings could not be "objectively proven" and were part of his efforts "to strike up a relationship".
"I suggest that we bind these sentences together into a handy little booklet," said Cristina Matranga, a centre-right MP from the Sicilian capital, Palermo. "We could entitle it `A manual on how to avoid prosecution for sexual crimes', and I'm sure it would be a hit.
"On the one hand the sentences are so absurd and offensive that they speak for themselves, but I have been inundated with faxes and telegrams from teenagers, mothers at home with children, and businesswomen."
The victim of the Como case was a woman in her 20s who had been taken on as secretary to a general manager. After his initial advances she took sick leave. She was later fired with no severance pay and suffered a nervous breakdown.
"These sort of sentences, and the magistrates who pronounce them, are becoming an almost daily occurrence," says Matranga. "The common thread is that the victim is turned into the guilty party." An even more bizarre case concerns a 50-year-old administrative secretary with the state railways in Rome. Her aggressor had been found guilty in the lower court but, at an appeals hearing, the verdict was overruled. Factors called into question included the woman's character ("certainly not docile") and why, afterwards, she had continued to enter the man's office alone. What's more, the molester asked for 1bn lire (pounds 700,000) for damage to his image.
"It's a shame I am not touring a show at the moment. We could get a lot of mileage out of these neanderthals," says Franca Rame, actress, writer and wife of the Nobel laureate Dario Fo. "I'd love to get my hands on that Como judge. I'd pinch his buns and kiss his neck. Then I'd whisper softly in his ear, `sorry, Judge, I know I'm molesting you but I can't help it, I'm in love'.
"I'm sure some of these judges, especially those from the provinces, are looking for attention and are just plain stupid. But the jeans sentence was the most frightening because it came from Italy's highest court.
"Taking off jeans implies consent, does it? I tell you, if someone was holding a pistol to your head you'd take off your jeans, your slip, your knickers... you'd take off your skin!"
During the "anni di piombo," the so-called years of lead, when terrorist bombings and kidnappings were a daily occurrence in Italy, Franca Rame was gang-raped by a group of right wing terrorists. It was a political act to humiliate her and punish her for her left-wing views.
Last year, after a 20-year political battle - and a lot of arguing among women of differing political views - the Italian parliament approved a new law on sexual violence. Rape was, finally, a crime against the individual, not against society. Journalist Ludina Barzini says the recent sentences may be a subliminal act of revenge against this. "First of all, it's latent male chauvinism. Every time a man is called upon to judge, voila, it emerges. They resort to preposterous excuses that in legal terms are unprovable. If a man says "I am in love," how would you set about proving that? Secondly, I have a feeling that good old Catholicism is emerging more strongly.Women are either madonnas or temptresses."
Anthropologist Ida Magli disagrees. "The error is to expect a court to be able to resolve something that society has to sort out. Italian society was massively backward until a few decades ago. Nowadays women here are as liberated as anywhere in Europe, but that has been a pressure-cooker process. The male of the species is disoriented. Once, it was quite clear from how a woman dressed, talked and walked whether she was open to being courted. Now women feel they can dress seductively and give out certain messages but not take responsibility for that."
Magli has a stern warning: Italian men are intimidated and turned off by women's behaviour. "There has been a steep rise in male homosexuality in Italy in the last decade, and if you look at TV you can see why. Female presenters are practically nude. Italian women ape that - and have lost their charm."Reuse content