Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. (Photo by Francesco AMMENDOLA / Quirinale Press Office / AFP)

The feminist divide between a woman's rights and her safety

Italy's Georgia Meloni's partner accused of victim blaming for admittedly ill-timed comments about avoiding rape

A potential scandal for Italy’s prime minister, Georgia Meloni, has erupted over remarks following a series of sexual assaults in Italy over the summer made by her life partner, conservative journalist Andrea Giambruno.

Acting in his capacity as anchor for a TV “News of the Day” program, Giambruno spoke his mind about rape in words that provoked instant blowback on social media. “If you go dancing you are fully entitled to get drunk,” he opined. But, he added, “if you avoid getting drunk and losing consciousness, perhaps you’d also avoid getting into trouble, because then you’ll find the wolf.” His theme was reinforced by his interlocutor, Pietro Senaldi, editor of the conservative newspaper, Libero, who also condemned rapists as “wolves,” but similarly warned women: “If you want to avoid rape, above all don’t lose consciousness, keep your wits about you.”

Cecilia D’Elia, a senator for the government’s centre-left opposition Democratic Party, and vice-president of a commission of inquiry into femicide retorted, “They just can’t help but blame women. Don’t go out alone, don’t go where it’s dark, don’t dress provocatively. All this is no longer acceptable.”

Alessandra Mussolini (the dictator’s granddaughter) and a Member of the European Parliament for Forza, Italy, labelled Giambruno’s attitude “medieval,” stating, “If I want to, I should have the right to walk around with my bum fully on display. There is nothing that can justify a man turning to violence. Rape is rape and if that is not understood then for us women, it’s all over. We should no longer be hearing these things in 2023. This type of mentality is really worrying. It risks undermining years of battling for women’s rights,” she said.

Giambruno stood his ground, responding that he would have apologized if he felt he had said something wrong, but he hadn’t. He added, “I said rape is an abominable act. I took the liberty of telling young people not to go out on purpose to get drunk and do drugs. I advised them to be careful because, unfortunately, the bad guys are always out there. I never said that men are entitled to rape drunk women.”

It would be an understatement to say Giambruno’s lecture to women on their drinking habits was tone deaf. One of the background incidents to his remarks was a gruesome Palermo, Sicily gang rape in July. Seven men aged 18-22 stand accused of raping a 19-year-old woman and filming the attack. Details of the assault — including publicly released chats between the men — sparked fury and disgust rising to the level of a call by Matteo Salvini, chairman of the hard right Northern League, for chemical castration of the perpetrators.

With such an egregious story hovering over my response to this news item, I expect that what I have to say will also be subject to ridicule and worse for its timing. Nevertheless, I believe that as a general rule, Giambruno’s advice is not wrong. Some men are wolves. That is a fact.

So Ms. Mussolini’s remark that if she wanted “to walk around with my bum fully on display,” she has the “right” to, is to me as surpassingly ill-considered a message to naïve young women as Giambruno’s remark was surpassingly ill-timed. Is the issue here one of women’s sexuality rights, or of women’s safety from predators? Ms. Mussolini is all about women’s rights, Mr. Giambruno all about their safety. The chasm between their positions is representative of a larger divide in the feminist movement.

Mussolini’s stance aligns with the short-lived, but influential #MeToo movement. The feminist activists behind it framed #MeToo as a social movement, in which the moral agency of individual women played no role. Every woman who suffered any kind of alleged sexual harassment, from the most trivial — a look, a bawdy joke, a date that didn’t live up to expectations — to actual rape was the victim of a pervasive sexism so systemic that it was beyond the control of any one woman to avoid with common sense choices of the kind Giambruno recommends.

Drunk, sober, conscious, unconscious, one’s “bum fully on display” or sensibly dressed to avoid lascivious attention, it’s all the same. Women are all lambs, and the wolves cull them from the herd at will. The problem could only be solved with an all-of-society commitment to women’s right not to suffer sexism. And that required wholesale punishment of men, whose guilt was to be determined by women’s “word” rather than through due process.

Here in Canada, we saw the most stunning example of that very rubric in the 2016 alleged-rape trial of Mustafa Ururyar — a he said, she said affair — in which Ururyar was convicted of rape by a #MeToo-inebriated judge who relied more on activists’ hypotheses than the defendant’s plausible and persuasive testimony (the judgment was thankfully overturned on appeal.)

#MeToo assumptions undermined the principles of an older form of feminism, in which women have moral agency, and are held responsible for their choices. Like Giambruno, this tougher breed of feminists recognized there are plenty of wolves out there, and it is up to individual women to deal with that reality.

In an ideal world, there would be no sexism, and no wolves. But utopians who themselves act, or encourage potential victims of predation to act, as though such a world can be willed into being by insisting on women’s “rights” are deluded. They do women no favours with such wishful thinking.

Mussolini and her ilk call for suppression of common sense (“we should no longer be hearing these things in 2023”), but I daresay most fathers of young daughters — Giambruno and Meloni have a seven-year old daughter — are more inclined to emulate his clear-eyed assessment of the world, understanding instruction in a woman’s best odds for negotiating a safe path through it as an act of loving empowerment.