‘Controlling the Cheating’

Sex and our city

Tova Piha
August 4, 2005

When worldly grandmothers discourage their granddaughters from marrying the men they’ve met while abroad in Italy, the offensive employed is usually a two-tiered one.  The first, addressed a couple weeks ago, is that Italian men are not the loyal type.  The second contention is that Italian men make very controlling husbands.  Indeed, the word on the street is that Italian husbands are far more controlling of their wives’ choice of clothing, company, and extracurricular activities than are their comparatively liberal Anglo-Saxon counterparts.


Sounds a bit harsh, especially when considering how charming all the married Italian men I’ve met are (go figure), but the issue of control is one that keeps coming up:  British wives having to watch who they talk to in the school playground, American wives being instructed to remove all hints of plunging necklines from their wardrobes.  Even when I was a little girl living in Milan for a couple of years, I distinctly remember that one of my mom’s friends, a South African national married to an Italian, spent hours maintaining her perfectly-manicured self, the house, her boys, not to mention hand-making fresh pasta, all just so and all under the watchful, exacting eye of her husband, who, if I recall correctly, monitored her comings and goings as well.


Apparently, the emancipated Italian woman is not willing to put up with these sorts of expectations any longer.  She is having fewer children, going out to work, and refusing to have her life revolve entirely around the needs, whims, and gastronomic intake of her husband and family.  Indeed, more and more Italian men are marrying foreign, especially Asian, women because, or so the theory goes, Italian women have stopped being the attentive and devoted mammas they once were.  So much so that, according to a friend, one can depend on a married Italian woman for an easy lay!  Quite surprised by this last comment, I began to wonder if Italian men had method to their controlling madness.


It seems at first that men can cheat, without getting into too much trouble; meanwhile women are to be controlled, no doubt by the men who are worried their own cheating behaviour will be emulated by their wives.  Of course there’s a double standard at play here, but what really got me thinking was a friend who claims that the control runs both ways.  The fear of being cheated on is mutual, and so both halves are super-controlling, with the women, mamme or not, wearing the pants just as much, if not more so, than the men.  Hmmm.  I should think that more often than not, the need to control stems not from deviant behaviour having occurred but rather from a fear that deviant behaviour has occurred or will occur.  Given that, Italians must be very worried that they are being or about to be cheated on, but where is this fear coming from?


Perhaps the answer lies partly in the fact that in other spheres, sexuality is approached with a certain nonchalance.  Women, even professional women working at banks and the like, wear tight-fitting, well-tailored clothing that, although still in the realms of tasteful, does accentuate and reveal curves a tad more than would be acceptable in an Anglo-Saxon workforce.  This summer, walking about Florence, I have seen an endless parade of visible thong panty-lines through white-linen skirts, white-linen trousers, white-linen shorts, white-linen what have you.  Apparently lining did not make the fashion do’s this season.


Of course, such clothing, whether donned with the express purpose of attracting the attention of male passers-by or not, cannot help but draw their appreciative and lustful eyes.  Not that men have to wander the streets of Florence for this sort of feasting – switch to any number of Italian TV (talk-, quiz-, game-) shows, and you will find the velina, the token TV showgirl who, prancing about with big breasts on display and in a miniskirt that leaves little to the imagination, seems perfectly superfluous to the content and running of the show itself.  No demure, ballroom-gown swathed Vana Whites here.  TV and print advertising employ similar tactics.  Even when trying to get hooked up with DSL, www.alice.it opens a page with a svelt, long-legged Italian beauty, smiling big and lying sexily across your screen.  Damn right I want Alice in my home.


This sort of visual promiscuity, topless beaches aside, is all part and parcel of Mediterranean, relaxed, understanding of transgressions, free-love culture.  But being easy-going and open in the sexual arena is only hella fun until you are faced with the possibility of someone you love taking advantage of its offerings.  A married man has plenty to look at, and a married woman, dressed a certain way, will attract plenty attention, making it “easy to be easy,” so to speak.  And with a look starts everything, right?  Or at least the fear of the start of everything, which leads to jealousy, possessiveness, a desire to control, and, finally, to your worldly grandmother’s tentatively-voiced, precautionary advice, which, in the face of love, should, as other stereotypes, probably be taken with a grain of salt. 


Tova Piha, a 22 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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