Italy and Its Man Problem

110606_r20959r20958_p465 Ariel Levy's article on Berlusconi in the New Yorker is a must read. She starts off giving the particulars of Berlusconi's excesses, including his habit of putting his former girlfriends in positions of power. But then she explains that Berlusconi's behavior has been excused for so long, because women are still second class citizens in Italy.

Ninety-five per cent of Italian men have never operated a washing machine. Until 1981, a “crime of honor”—killing your wife for being unfaithful or your sister for having premarital sex—could be treated as a lesser offense than other murders; as late as 2007, a man in Palermo was sentenced to just two days in jail for murdering his wife after their children testified that she had been disrespectful to him. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2010 Global Gender Gap Report, Italy ranks seventy-fourth in women’s rights, between the Dominican Republic and Gambia. Women constitute a smaller percentage of the workforce in Italy than in any other country in the European Union, apart from Malta, and those who work make barely half as much as their male counterparts. Emma Bonino, a Radical Party leader, told me, “When I was Minister of European Affairs, in 2007, I had to prepare a report on the status of women in Italy. The data came in, and I remember that I rejected it twice, saying to my staff, ‘That’s impossible: it cannot be so bad.’ ”

There is growing dissatisfaction with the status of women in Italy. In 2009, in response to rising sexual-assault statistics, Berlusconi said, “We don’t have enough soldiers to stop rape because our women are so beautiful.” Several months later, fifteen thousand people signed a petition to the wives of G8 leaders, asking them to urge their husbands to show support for Italian women by boycotting a summit with Berlusconi.

Americans have long been mocked for being puritanical next to the open-minded European. After this spring of scandal, the Puritans are looking damn good. 

20 thoughts on “Italy and Its Man Problem

  1. “Never” operated a washing machine? Does this mean that (i) most college students use a laundry service, (ii) most college students live at home, or (iii) most male college students get a female friend to do their laundry? I don’t really believe any of those.
    I might believe that 95% of married men have never operated a washing machine since they got married, but I’m not sure this means much. I would guess that a similar percentage of American married women have never operated a lawn mower. My wife has surely never operated a power tool since we got married.

  2. I think they live with mom for a very long time or live close enough to take their laundry home every week or two.

  3. My friend just came home to Canada from a month-long stay in Italy at her Italian boyfriend’s place. He is 40 years old and only moved out of his parent’s house when he was 35, after having a huge fight with his mother, who still makes his supper everyday and sends it over to his apartment even though he has not spoken to her in 5 years. Before moving out he had never cooked, bought groceries, done laundry or dealt with anything relating to setting up a household such as getting utilities, etc. He is not the exception. What is exceptional is that he actually moved out before getting married. Typically, men live at home and are cared for by their mothers until they marry, then they are cared for by their wives.

  4. My husband and I were just finishing up an Italian movie from 1962 called Mafioso. The hero grew up in Sicily but he’s now a successful engineer in Northern Italy. After many years’ absence, he returns to his home in Sicily with his wife and daughter.
    There’s a wonderful scene in the movie where the hero is at the beach with his childhood friends, and he’s trying hard to fit in with them. They ask about the women of the North, and he (very uncharacteristically) obliges them with a few stories of his bachelor adventures. He’s very loud about the duality of Milanese women–blond and icy outside, but also passionate (he’s a bit more graphic than that). Anyway, just as he’s wrapping that very interesting monologue, he notices that the group of men he’s with is eying some new arrivals at the beach, namely his own Milanese wife, who is bending over her beach bag. An awkward moment ensues.
    It’s a great little movie, with lots of little cultural moments.

  5. Well, but what’s the scoop about Spaniards? Are the men just as bad? And are Catalonians different from the standard Spaniard.
    (The Italians perceive the north south divide as being pretty big).

  6. what’s the scoop about Spaniards?
    It’s my opinion (and I’m not changing it) that everything one needs to know about the Spanish one can learn from watching Pedro Almodovar movies.

  7. Unfortunately, the women are not fighting the sexism by demanding equality with their husbands, but simply by not marrying them. Because of late marriages, and men living with mamma until they get married in their 30s, the average Italian woman has less than 1.5 children, leading to southern Europe’s huge population problems.
    It seems like there should be good marriage prospects for a man who is willing to offer one cooked meal and one load of laundry per week. But no.

  8. I have heard some bad stories about Italian men from my friends who studied there (nothing Amanda Knox-level horrific, just more that they realized the whole “I will find a hot Italian husband” wasn’t going to happen given the behavior of Italian men). I also have to say, studies have shown that when women are treated equally and given the opportunities to have a career and a family (as in Scandinavia) they will do so. If not, women will choose no marriage and family over staying at home and waiting on their men and children. This is something Southern Europe needs to learn if they don’t want their birth rates to plummet any lower than they already are.

  9. An additional issue that I don’t see mentioned much is that a number of European countries have a completely different timeline for parents’ legal obligation to house and support adult children. It’s not cultural pressure–there is actual law involved. The stories pop up occasionally in the English language press.
    “Millions of adult Italians who refuse to give up the comforts of their parents’ home have found a champion in a judge who ordered a father to carry on paying a living allowance to his 32-year-old student daughter.
    “In a case that has provoked national debate in Italy, Giancarlo Casagrande, 60, from Bergamo, near the border with Switzerland, risked having his assets confiscated unless he resumed paying €350 (£310) a month as well as €12,000 in arrears after he decided three years ago his daughter Marina was old enough to pay her own way.”
    On the bright side:
    “Not all judges have been so sympathetic. Two years ago a Milan court threw out a bid by a 36-year-old engineer to force his father to pay him an allowance of €2,000 a month. Casagrande was easy to sue, said one legal expert, since he had broken off payments to his daughter without seeking a settlement.”
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/17/italian-adults-living-at-home
    I’ve heard similar stories about Germany, although the requirement to pay living expenses seems to only apply to adult children who are students. But Europeans often stay in college a long, long time.
    In this sort of legal atmosphere, parenthood is practically a life sentence, not the 0-18 term that Americans are familiar with.
    I’ve also heard of adult children in Russia being legally obligated to provide support for their aged parents, although I don’t have chapter and verse.
    Foreign countries can be really…foreign.

  10. I found a site with info on Russian family law. As I suspected, adult children can be legally compelled to support an impoverished, disabled parent.
    “According to Art. 87 of the Family Code of the Russian Federation adult able-bodied children are obliged to support their unemployable impecunious parents and take care of them.”
    “Children can be relieved from their duty to support their unemployable impecunious parents in case it is proved that the parents deviated from performance of parental duties. Children are relieved from alimony payments to parents deprived of parental rights.”
    http://russian-divorce.com/index.php?rub=10&p=4
    There’s a lot of talk about how the US has a much weaker social safety net than other developed countries, but in at least some of those countries, the law requires families themselves to provide quite a bit of that safety net.

  11. There’s a lot of talk about how the US has a much weaker social safety net than other developed countries, but in at least some of those countries, the law requires families themselves to provide quite a bit of that safety net.
    This might be true, but I doubt the people who complain about US standard of living re. other developed countries have Russia in mind when making those claims.

  12. Russia is a developed country (nukes, manned space missions, high literacy, chess masters, classical pianists, ballet, literary classics, etc.), has tremendous natural resources, and in Soviet days had many goodies that one does hear people pining for–universal healthcare, universal daycare, free higher education with stipends for college students, long paid maternity leaves, all able-bodied women working when they weren’t enjoying their long paid maternity leaves, etc. Why Soviet Russia wasn’t ever quite like Sweden is an interesting question.

  13. OK, I think a couple of the items on my list weren’t technically free in the USSR, but the fees were nominal. Also, I believe retirement age for women in the Soviet Union was 50 (55 for men), with perhaps the implicit understanding that grandmas would be home supervising school age children, keeping law and order in the courtyard and taking care of housekeeping.
    Italy is not my area of expertise, but I’ve seen it said that part of the explanation for the extended adolescence of younger Italian men is that it is very difficult to break into the job market. Italians have very strong job security, which is great for people who have jobs already, but a pain for those trying to start out in life (and I’ve heard of a similar but less pronounced pattern elsewhere in Western Europe). Although in the US we’ve had increased unemployment for recent graduates, US employers are much more free to replace expensive 50-something workers with cheaper younger workers. So, in a way, having parasitic adult children is the price older Italians pay for their own economic security.

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