What is happening to our daughters abroad?

Is being a foreign student in Florence a ‘risk factor’ for rape?

Alessandra Pauncz
September 21, 2006

When thinking of rape, we often imagine a woman alone, walking in a dark alley late at night, wearing provocative apparel. If we imagine her as a student, we might also assume she has been drinking and calling attention to herself. When discussing this issue, our tone of voice often shifts and becomes accusatory: ‘Winifred, these girls are completely naked! Their underwear shows from the top of their trousers and their bellies and shoulders are totally exposed. What do they expect?’ Even if we refrain from comments about clothing, by no means do we avoid condemning  their behaviour: ‘Frankly, who would ever think of trusting two men, just met at the train station, following them to their house and, I read, even asking them to wear condomsthat can’t possibly be rape. And furthermore, Winifred, I have seen foreign girls completely drunk and behaving in a totally undignified manner. They are only looking for trouble.’The truth of the matter? Few topics are as biased by such strong stereotypes as rape, and almost no issue sparks as many compelling feelings of fear, hostility and victim-blaming. The 2005 Italian statistic agency ISTAT report confirms all major research related to this topic: only 32 percent of rapes are committed by strangers; in 65 percent of cases, the rapist is a friend, a colleague, a husband (or ex-husband) or a boyfriend (or ex-boyfriend). Where are women usually raped? In their homes (16 percent), at work (12 percent), at friends’ houses (10 percent) and sometimes at the rapist’s house (7 percent)a far cry from dark alleys! Only 7 percent of rape victims press charges. Not a surprising statistic, given the public’s attitude toward sexual violence. Many women are afraid of people passing judgments (29 percent), or are ashamed and weighed down with self-blame for what happened (22 percent).So the truth, in Italy and around the world, is that women are most often raped by friends in their homes and don’t press charges. If these findings hold true in all cultural contexts, what makes Florence any different and foreign students any more vulnerable? I have been working at a domestic violence centre in Florence for the past eleven years. Not much concerning violence against women sur-prises me any more. Three years ago, I shared the tears and the hardship of accompanying a 19 year-old American student to have an abortion as a consequence of rape. I watched the potentially empowering experience of study abroad become the most traumatic event of her life, and I felt something should be done to help other girls protect themselves more efficiently. That experience led me to one of the most interesting and frustrating enterprises I have yet undertaken. I started out leading a general group discussion focused on standard safety issues with American students who had just arrived. We discussed the basic do’s and don’ts any wise ‘mother’ would provide: don’t drink, don’t go out alone at night, don’t talk to strangers, consider the cultural differ-ences that influence dating and dress code. Common sense—but guess what? A group of late adolescents (in terms of age, I should say young adults) in Florence on their own away from home were in no mood for my sound advice. They were here to party, have fun, meet new people, stay out late and have the time of their lives. They let me know in no uncertain terms that they were ‘streetwise, knew what they were doing and needed no advice on issues concerning their personal life’. In need of new, more effective ideas, I established a year-long internship with a very talented student, and we started having brain-storming groups with young American girls concerning their experiences in Florence and the advice they would have needed to guar-antee themselves a better, safer experience. During the group sessions, the girls felt free to discuss what they were going through. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined the quantity and persistence of the every-day harassment these young women were subject to. Group after group talked about harassment while taking the bus, walking the streets in broad daylight on their way to class, when they were out running or just trying to live their normal lives. Most all of them coped, but they did feel humiliated and degraded by many of these experiences. At least three out of ten in each group described very frightening incidents of violence or attempted violence they had experienced while abroad. Several factors contribute to making Florence a stage ripe for major cultural misunderstandings and loads of grey areas in which any-thing from inappropriate sexual innuendo to extreme violence can occur. Essentially, Florence is a big city like any other; yet its beauty and charm can create a false ‘small-town’ sense of security. Also, Florence is a city overrun by tourists, where the locals show little concern for the uneasiness of tourists. Stereotypes also play a significant role in contributing to cultural misunderstandings and its much more serious consequences. For example, the ‘American girls are easy’ idea matched with the ‘Italian men do it better’ stereotype can often serve as the backdrop for disaster. Also, due to waves of recent immigration from countries as diverse as Albania and Morocco, Florence has become a somewhat multicultural city. This factor brings in much cultural diversity, but also sets the stage for the clash of different cultures that have yet to overcome harmful stereotypes. I hope that the recent series of rapes in our city will serve the purpose of alerting both local and foreign communities and institutions about the urgent need to address this problem. Unfortunately, if serious provisions are not taken, many more horrible violent events will happen.

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