The Bottom Line
Is pinching a woman's bottom in the workplace ever acceptable? Amanda Castleman reports from Rome on molestie sessuali.

The boss’s "hands on"
approach initially
resulted in a hefty
18-month prison

A boss can pat a woman on the posterior – at least, that’s the message delivered recently by the Italian Supreme Court. Don’t worry though: an industrial poll revealed that ladies truly welcome such jolly gestures of affection. Eighty per cent enjoy being courted by colleagues and believe an office-born relationship helps them work better. So bottom pinching helps the bottom line. Honest.

I know, I know. This fulfils every over-sexed, Italian-stallion, Latin lover stereotype ever conceived. And it is foolish, pigheaded, wrong and unjust. But the situation could be worse. Sexual harassment is on the radar, if falteringly, and that alone is a huge stride forward.

Italy had no Rosie the Riveter, no graceful wartime transition bringing women into the workplace: uniquely, female employment fell when the nation industrialised, due to political and religious pressures. The feminist movement detonated in this chauvinist culture, rewriting the rules on abortion, divorce and male domestic authority. By the 1980s, Italy possessed some of the most enlightened legislature (and women) in the world. Then, predictably, came the backlash. And one of victims was the working woman: she had the right to be an employee, but little protection as such.

January’s controversial ruling - which effectively sanctioned butt groping - is a prime example of Italy’s confusion, both legal and social. A supervisor patted a female co-worker, then threatened to block her career if the incident were reported. She rebelled, sued and won. The boss’s "hands on" approach initially resulted in a hefty 18-month prison sentence.

Yet the Supreme Court, La Cassazione, ruled in his favour, as the incident occurred "only once and impulsively". Furthermore, judges concluded, there was no proof the gesture was sexual. This surprised Italians, who do not, as a rule, relish being swatted on the rump at work – regardless of gender. But most smiled and shrugged, long accustomed to contradictory and (seemingly) whimsical court decisions.

Italian law, unlike our own, is not based on precedents. Each case is evaluated in isolation, resulting in wild inconsistencies. Most memorably, La Cassazione announced that a woman could not be raped in jeans, as tight denim is impossible to remove without the wearer’s consent. Likewise, five minutes of resistance is merely symbolic and can not be taken seriously. No doesn’t mean no until you’ve struggled for a substantial amount of time. Ladies, synchronise your watches…

Ten days after absolving the bottom-swatter, the court jailed a man for squeezing a co-worker’s breasts: this swift ambush of the mammaries was deemed "unpreventable". To an outsider (and to many Italians) such decisions are inscrutable, indefensible and entirely arbitrary. Yet La Cassazione is only doing its job - weighing the intricacies and legality of specific incidents - not setting a standard of behaviour.

Here lies the rub: Italy has no yardstick, no consistent measure of molestie sessuali (sexual harassment). The law forbids gender discrimination, but the courts’ – and the people’s – interpretation shifts with the prevailing wind. Now the Union is wading into the fray, offering a Europe-wide definition of harassment, and forcing employers to police bad behaviour -- or face courts.

If approved, all 15 countries must enact the rules by New Year’s Day 2002. For many, this is a welcome amendment – the equal opportunities directive had not been altered for 25 years. Studies report that about 65% of women have been sexually harassed at work. But will a generic framework do the trick? France and Belgium already have a full complement of laws, while Greece and Portugal frankly don’t have a clue.

Italians, according to EU experts, turn a blind eye: "Sexual harassment takes place against a background of indifference and acceptance, as if it were a ‘normal’ type of human conduct". Ironically, for a country with a strong Communist party, there is no solidarity among the workers. Women are usually silent observers of abuse. Or worse, they think victims "were asking for it", the report reveals.

Obviously legislation alone will not solve the problem. Laws – especially inconsistently applied ones – don’t help the average woman, who most-likely has stoically suffered harassment. Unemployment is high, the economy unstable, and no one wants to rock the boat. Fair enough: but change then must happen on a grassroots level, a graceful, gradual erosion of chauvinist culture.

The first shaky step in this social revolution is talking. Luckily this is an art at which Italians excel. They holler, gesture extravagantly and pound home their points. Two prominent female politicians even resorted to fisticuffs while debating sexual harassment on national television. Much of the dialogue will be ridiculous (females invite harassment, powerful women have lousy sex lives, etc.) but it is no less vital.

And perhaps men will think twice if they get a dose of their own butt-slapping sexist medicine. On March 8th, the nation honoured womanhood with music and yellow puffball mimosa flowers. Yet the enduring image of 2001’s celebration was a rowdy crowd jeering at male strippers in Centocelle Nightmare, the Roman Full Monty.
Turnaround is always fair play. And that’s the bottom line.

Please note, this is my unedited copy. This article was published in one of the last editions of Underwire. Microsoft absorbed its content into the Women's Channel, but sadly has not yet archived the material.

Two prominent
female politicians
even resorted to
fisticuffs while
debating sexual
harassment on
national television.
Turnaround is
always fair play.
And that’s the
bottom line

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