A Nation of Cheaters?

Sex and Our City

Tova Piha
July 21, 2005

People keep warning me not to get seriously involved with Italian men; they’re apparently cheaters, as well as jealous and possessive lovers, the lot of them.  In his book The Italic British journalist Tobias Jones observes that extramarital affairs are far more frequent and acceptable in Italy than elsewhere.  He adds that this is perhaps because they have a ‘healthier’ and more realistic approach to human sexual nature – a statement that makes me wonder about the sanctity of his marriage vows – but that aside, I am fascinated by the contention that “Italians are Cheaters,” which I continue to hear from all sides.


I decided to do a little research a while back and asked a handful of my Italian male “friends” what they thought.  Every single one of them, without exception, took great offence at my insinuation.  When I took this response back to one of the women who had cautioned me against falling in love with an Italian, she scoffed, “Of course they’re going to deny it, Tova; it’s not good form to admit a lax policy regarding cheating when you’re chatting to a girl you fancy screwing at the end of the evening!”


Right, how naïve of me.  Even my Italian language and culture textbook reads, “Gli italiani dichiarano come importante la fedeltà coniugale, ma poi spesso hanno un’amante” (Italians claim to value marital fidelity but then often have a lover).  So I turned to someone I’d been out of touch with for some time; our romantic/sexual rapport was of a “been there, done that” nature, and so I figured my chances of getting his honest thoughts on the matter were better.  According to him, it’s not necessarily that Italians cheat more frequently, it’s just that when they do, it’s not as big a deal as it is for Anglo-Saxons.  It happens, the person cheated on feels bad, and then everyone just gets over it – exactly the opposite of the Clinton fiasco, he couldn’t help adding with a smile.


There’s no two ways about it, though.  Whether they regret it or not, people do cheat on their loved ones.  Another classic from my textbook:  “Pur amando sua moglie, non è riuscito a non tradirla” (Despite having loved his wife, he did not manage not to cheat on her).  Most of us can accept that; in fact, if you’ve never been the lover or the cheater, you’re probably close friends with someone who’s been one or the other, if not both.  But I wonder if the difference between making a big deal of such falls from grace and glossing over them without so much as turning a hair, is the difference between condemning and condoning them.


Furthermore, what I don’t understand is if people here don’t make a big deal out of cheating, how is it that Italians have the rep they do?  If when people cheat, everyone keeps mum about it, licking their wounds and swallowing their hurt in private, not making a fuss, a big deal, how did Italians become infamous for having extramarital affairs?  Perhaps it’s the lack of moral castigation, the fact that Italians can cheat with impunity (note the low rate of divorce), that leads foreigners to erroneously conclude they do so all the time.


But if cheating is not as pervasive as we prude foreigners seem to believe, why is it that one of the worst insults you can throw at a person here is to call him a cuckold?  Indeed, rather than stick your middle finger up at someone who’s cut you off, you fold in your ring and middle fingers, leaving your pinkie and index finger up (the horns), and with palm facing the offending party, you intimate something to the effect of:  “May you be cheated on” or “Your girl’s out screwing someone else.”  Surely such invectives, part of Italian cultural phenomena, are indicative in some way of a collective insecurity, whether grounded in reality or not, that is strong enough to leave its indelible mark on language and communication customs.


I reckon that such insecurity is the product of, as well as fuel to, a culture more understanding of, accepting of, and maybe also more engaged in sexual transgressions.  I knew an Italian guy who was fiercely jealous, even explosively so, because he was convinced that his Swiss girlfriend, off travelling for six months, was cheating on him with her ex-boyfriend, as well as a few others that she’d met along the way.  Meanwhile, he was the one who had happily tugged her away from her now ex, to whom she’d still been committed upon arrival in Florence.  Not to mention the fact that he saw no problem, maybe even viewed it as retaliation for imagined betrayals, in trying to get with me in her absence!


Which raises the question of double standards.  If cheating is accepted, even expected to a certain degree here, is it equally ok for both men and women?  Find out soon.


Tova Piha, a 23 year old New Yorker and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, has been living and working in Florence, exploring the city’s ins and outs, for the past 9 months.

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