Sex, Rape and ‘hot potatoes’

Last summer, as I sat spread-eagled  on my couch late at night, I came across a program on TCL titled Sex Sent Me to the ER (why didn’t I think of that…?) and through it I almost forgot about all the other night-time activities I could have been taking part in as a twenty-something in the middle of summer.

The show is divided into various segments, each telling of a sexual indiscretion so vehement that it sent the perpetrators to seek immediate medical assistance (on this particular episode that I saw, 2/3 of the cases were centred on the erotic accountability of women). There was one incident in particular where the show-makers obviously wanted to drag out until the smallest fruit of televised drama would be reaped; the girl was suffering from what appeared to be toxic shock syndrome – fever, lack of feeling in her legs, excruciating stomach cramps. It did not, however, end there – the girl was also a gypsy witch, something which the producers could obviously exploit to combine sex, the female body, and the erotically charged dangers of black magic, creating a fabulously morbid spell of T.V. story-telling . Finally, the source of her ailment was revealed…. the girl had inserted a small spud in her vagina which had stayed inside her for at least two weeks, as a form of (obviously faulty) contraception. The marvellous scan of her womb showed lovely vines which had sprouted from the potato as a result of the bacteria present in her vagina, as well as the dark and damp space which favoured the nourishment of flora.

That little piece of trash T.V. became immortalised in me as I noticed how neatly it summarised two very important parts of my own identity: my own sexuality, and the warm memories of my childhood. Let’s talk about the latter. The lovely little spud that had been cradled in that woman’s vagina only to sprout vines and leaves, reminded me of a game which was almost always a prime feature of children’s birthday parties. The game of patata bollente, or as English-speakers call it the game of hot potato, asks of participants to sit in a tight circle as they pass around a chosen object (usually a bag of rice, or in less resourceful households a crumpled up newspaper) while music plays… the last person to hold the object once the music stops is eliminated, and so on and so forth. It’s incredible that even after all those parties, and all those rounds… memories like this seem to drift off in a darker side of your mind, eclipsed by other things such as sex and schoolwork.

I find it very sad that what forced me to reminisce about this was the onset of rapes happening right now in Italy. There have been about 2,438 reported cases of rape in just the first seven months of 2017 (Huffington Post Italia). We may call this a rape crisis, with other countries such as the U.K. following suit. The way rape is used by the media in Italy in particular is interesting. Popular shows such as Porta a Porta (literally, Door to Door) feed on the misfortune of female victims for months of end, bringing in ‘specialist’ psychologists, criminologists and ‘feminists’ to assess the situation. Usually, an uniformed and extensive talk on the dangers of immigration comes into play, whether or not the assailant was a foreigner.

porta-a-porta-bruno-vespaufficiostamparai_1024x512_
Bruno Vespa, an Italian journalist, featured in the studio of his show Porta a Porta

Everyday I read or hear about rape cases in Rome, a country where I lived not too long ago… just yesterday, a woman was found naked and tied to a lamppost in the capital’s park of Villa Borghese. This woman was allegedly walking alone at night while in another case, a young Finnish woman accepted a lift home from a stranger. There are times, I admit, where I too succumb to the age-old question of ‘What was this woman doing alone at night near the park, a place where criminals hide in the bushes?’ or ‘Why was this girl so silly, to accept a ride from a complete stranger?’. But then I think about my childhood game, and how us too, like the kids in my memory, are damned to sit in a circle and hysterically pass a hot potato around in the hope that we won’t be the ones holding it as the music stops playing. It’s a frantic image, one which isolates every woman to an individual player, and also one which expresses an implicit message that as the circle wears thin, so do the chances of finishing off empty handed. And I also know why we do it, because in the fear and chaos of such realities, we try desperately to rationalise things, ‘it won’t happen to me, because I am never alone’, ‘it won’t happen to me, because I don’t wear provocative clothes’. Most of all, we must not allow the monetising of rape cases which is happening right now in Italy under its unscrupulous media.

In this we are also even more unlucky, due to the fact that this crisis is also happening at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, where hundreds of thousands of refugees disembark on the shores of the peninsula. Due to this, it becomes very difficult for many Italians to rationally subtract immigration from the increase of rape at this time. The main issue with Italy and their views on immigration is based on two key factors. First, is the lack of regulation involved. Some Italians find immigration from geographic locations such as Syria and Northern Africa disconcerting because they don’t trust their government to properly distribute these people and weed out the ‘good’ ones from the ‘bad’ ones (although the issue of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigration is a lot more complicated than this). This leads into the second part which is an issue of integration –  where in countries such as the U.K. it is common to see a British family of colour with a great sense of national identity, the same cannot be said about Italy, where even second or third generation immigrants are not given the same quality of life as their White compatriots. Due to this, immigrants flock to areas which are largely populated by members of their same country of origin, not only hindering the integration process further but also angering Italians which find that they are suddenly outnumbered in a neighbourhood they had lived in their entire lives. So all in all immigration here is a great example of how incompetent the government is to protect those who are most vulnerable.

The rise of immigration and rape has given neo-fascist political groups such as the Forza Nuova (literally New Force, or New Strength) fertile ground. They use scare tactics to disenfranchise the great majority of honest immigrants who come to Europe in search of a better future for themselves and their families. They spread fake-news to create horrifying manifestos such as the one featured below, and use the increasing violence on women as a springboard for nefarious propaganda.

forza-nuova-manifesto-anti-immigrati-223x300
Manifesto for the anti-immigration views of the Forza Nuova. Featured above the image is the slogan ‘Defend Her from New Invaders’. Below the image the manifesto reads ‘She could be your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter’

But images like these, though frustrating, are hardly shocking. The female body has long been used in visual culture and politics to transmit messages. The idea that the woman could be ‘your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter’ reveals the obvious inability to feel empathy for a woman’s livelihood unless it has some bearing on a man’s own identity or status. The biggest problem with rape is that we are obsessed with it. We use it to sensationalise politics, to police women, and to titillate our darkest erotic desires.

What’s ironic is that people such as Roberto Fiore (founding member of Forza Nuova, recently deceased in Feb. 2017) casually gloss over the fact that 6/10 rapists in Italy are Italian. A few weeks ago, two Carabinieri (members of the Italian paramilitary force) were accused of raping two American students in Florence whilst on duty. Interestingly enough, after those allegations were made, shows such as Porta A Porta engaged in a speculation on whether the rape did actually take place, while the mayor of Florence Dario Nardella began his statement with ‘Se fosse vero…’ or ‘If this were true…’ (reppublica.it).

We must also remember that most rape cases go unreported, or in any case do not get the same media coverage as the more ‘exciting’ ones. Around 90% of rape cases occur when the victim knows the assailant personally, and in situations where the victim is the spouse of her rapist the chances of conviction begin to wear thin (facts based on statistics by the US Department of Justice and rapecrisis.org). Speaking to La Reppublica, Lella Palladino, a member of the association Donne In Rete Contro La Violenza (Women Online Against Violence) comments: ‘In 80% of domestic violence cases we are also dealing with sexual violence cases, and here we are talking about victims and assailants which are by far an Italian majority’ (own translation, see below for original).

Rape is like a hot potato. But the reality is it ought not to be. Our weakness is that we want to create order where there is suffering and chaos, we want to point the finger at the irresponsible woman, or the dark-skinned immigrant with an insatiable thirst for European flesh. But these are but myths, not dissimilar to stories such as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. We must, first and foremost, take a strong look at our own men, those still responsible for more than half of reported rapes. We must take a look at our law enforcement, and examine how those two Carabinieri slipped through the cracks unnoticed. We must take a look at our institutions and examine why they have been unable to offer women protection, perhaps even in the face of a female mayor in Rome.

*Lella Palladino, in Italiano: ‘…Tra le donne che si rivolgono ai nostri centri, gli episodi di violenza domestica si rivelano infatti nell’80% dei casi anche episodi di violenza sessuale. E qui parliamo di situazioni in cui vittime e stupratori sono in stragrande maggioranza italiani’

 

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