How do you know when a man’s hug or hand slightly creeping around your waist is not “Italian-ness,” but actually an unwanted sexual advance disguised as a warm gesture?
That was the topic in question at this Sunday’s after-brunch lunch among me and the other staffers when all of the customers had gone home. I told them the story about when I was alone with an elderly married man for business reasons. What seemed like an ordinary meeting turned into a reason for him to get me alone. His generous embraces left me confused and unsure about what was really going on.
The female staff present at lunch had also experienced unwanted touching by older men (sometimes relatives or family friends) in an ambiguous way. It was obvious that these men were betting on ambiguity, taking advantage of the girl being uncertain if he was being friendly or a pervert.
One of the waitresses retold the story of being greeted by a friend’s father with a caress to the back of her neck. In front of the friend, and with family present, she quickly reprimanded the father.
“Don’t put your hands on me,” she told us what she said with a firm and direct voice emphasized by a hand gesture that communicated “punto … basta.”
She said that out loud for her friend and her friend's family to hear. She explained to her friend that her own father never greeted her friends with a hug or caress, but only with a handshake, or the standard kissing on the cheek, and that only after the friend has become a part of the family. The friend was upset with her for calling her father out on the unwanted physical contact, but she absolutely refused to feel uncomfortable for telling someone not to touch her. Ironically, it was later discovered that the friend’s father had been molesting a little girl.
Many American’s that I meet in Florence are not accustomed to the Italian culture of kissing on both cheeks, but since it is known that Italians are warm, some of them step out of their comfort zone to return the cultural gesture. Nonetheless, the male staff present at lunch said that these little touches and side hugs are the Italian man’s way to slowly get close to a girl, full well knowing that an American girl may think the touch was a result of just being Italian. It’s their excuse.
“That’s how they do it. Have you ever seen how these guys act once their girlfriends have left the room? They are always hugging or touching other women,” my male American friend interjected into the conversation.
Unlike the waitress, I was not sure if the older man I spoke of was hitting on me, or just being warm. When the touching was happening, it was mixed with pleasant words and little side hugs. Then he brought me outside for a serious discussion about relationships. He walked beside me and wrapped his hand around my waist. I did not want to be rude. I thought of how upset his wife would be if I said her husband was getting a bit too close for my comfort. I did not want to ignite a fight between her and her husband, nor did I want to run the risk of being accused of false accusations, or provocation (I have heard many woman in Italy, say that men cheat because a woman is insisting he sleep with her, and since the woman does not let up the man will eventually give in since he is weak).
So I didn’t say anything. However, I know that I never want to be alone with that man again. I was so offended that an old, ugly man would even think I would be interested. In the moment that he was hugging me and putting his hands on my waist, I had thought that maybe I was reading it wrong; maybe he was just treating me like family. But then I realized that whether or not he was trying to get a feel, his actions made me feel uncomfortable, and in the end that is all that matters.
What is upsetting is that I am not the only one this has happened to. Many of my female friends have had similar experiences here in Italy. Of course things like this happen everywhere, but in the States we follow through on laws, such as sexual harassment, in order to make men think twice about turning a business meeting into an opportunity to make unwanted sexual advances on their colleague.
I left out significant details of my personal experience in order to avoid direct identification of the man, and to spare hurt feelings or misunderstandings of others.