I realize something must be said for linguistic subtleties, so that certain things may sound harsher to my ears than they're perceived by native speakers. But it troubles me how easily "slut" and "whore" can roll off the tongues of Italians. They'll even use them in--dare I say it?--affectionate terms. E' arrivata un'altrazoccola al mondo! are, I've been told, the words a man I know used to announce his daughter's birth. "Another whore has arrived in the world!"
I suspect (hope?) something's getting lost in this translation.
According to the site Malafemmina, which provides a long list of Italian variations on the word "whore" (its title meaning "bad girl" - from the original Neapolitan malafemmena, pronounced with a langurous stress on the femme):
The term zoccola is undoubtedly synonymous with "whore." There's just one difference: a zoccola is not interested in money alone, like the whore. A zoccola is a female that's hungry for sex and uninhibited desire. In the eyes of the orthodox, this makes her even worse than a whore, who may be driven solely by need to sell herself for money.
This site too takes a rather sympathetic view of promiscuous women, despite its regrettable sexually-objectifying banner. And herein lies yet another one of those Italian paradoxes.
Italians have a long history of celebrating sluts with an earthy gusto that is uniquely theirs. My own sexual awakening was helped along by the soft-core sexy Italian movies that Toronto cable station City TV played late-night on Saturdays in the 1980s. I still remember being around 10 years old and sneaking a tiny portable TV into my bedroom to watch them, or on the pull-out couch downstairs for a sleep-over in front of the TV, muffling nervous giggles with channel changer at the ready in case I heard my parents coming down the stairs.
But then there's the despicable Silvio Berlusconi, who recently subjected businesswoman Angela Bruno to adolescent sex banter as she publicly presented him with a contract. He followed this up by deciding her offer was good after evaluating her backside. Bruno has since became known as the "how-many-times-do-you-come girl" (in reference to his double-entendre, hardy har har) and the exchange has gotten over a million hits on YouTube:
Berlusconi has taken the relatively-innocent-if-severely-dated appreciation for loose women alà beloved Italian film star Totò to grotesque levels.
And on the other side are moralisti like the equally despicable Catholic priest Don Piero Corsi, who posted a Christmas message on the door of his church in Lerici last December suggesting women provoke violence by dressing too provocatively. Which, yes, is pretty much the pinnacle of slut-shaming.
If you're unfamiliar with the term, here's a handy explanation from Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog:
Put in the most simple terms, slut-shaming happens when a person “publicly or privately [insults] a woman because she expressed her sexuality in a way that does not conform with patriarchal expectations for women” (Kat, Slut-Shaming vs. Rape Jokes). It is enabled by the idea that a woman who carries the stigma of being a slut — ie. an “out-of-control, trampy female” — is “not worth knowing or caring about” (Tanenbaum, p. 240). ... Policing women via what’s considered “normal” and “acceptable” boundaries for female sexuality is not limited to sex and sexual activity. For instance, women who wear “provocative clothing” ... are subjected to slut-shaming. As are women who are sexually aggressive and/or unabashedly lay claim to their own sexuality.
I'm quite proud that my hometown of Toronto hosted the first SlutWalk on April 3, 2011, thus spawning an ongoing international movement and bringing the concept of slut-shaming to the dinner table so to speak, at least in some parts of the world. Of course I'm not proud it was a Toronto cop, Michael Sanguinetti, who sparked it all by saying at a university assembly that women could avoid getting raped by not dressing like sluts.
It took a little while for Italy to catch up. I've been working on this post for several weeks and in an earlier draft I wrote that there had never been any SlutWalks in Italy. Then one happened in Rome on April 6, 2013!
Italians call these protest marches "prostitute walks" or "whore walks." Perhaps the closest Italian word to "slut" is sgualdrina, which I've never heard used. The most common way to refer to a "slut" the way we do in English is by saying zoccola or troia, both interchangeable with "whore." Cagna, or female dog, is also used, though I think much less, and may come closest in spirit, if not in context, to the Anglo meaning of "slut."
Hopefully this grassroots shift will start teaching Italians that you can like sex and be a feminist too, seeing as they seem to commonly mistake feminism for prudish moralismo. And believe me, I get how much more attractive it is to side with the sexual freedom fighters if you're faced with a ridiculous false binary like this. Especially because Italians have this gift for making sex appreciation verge on the holy. There is something intoxicating about it if you aren't sexually repressed. As I've mentioned before, I discovered how to celebrate my feminine side here, and it felt wonderful. The shitty, confusing and ultimate paradox for women in Italy is how we are at once raised on a pedestal and made to feel like second-class citizens.
A recent online exchange I took part in with some other foreign mums in Florence prompted me to write this post. At issue was a provocatively dressed teacher at the primary school of one of the mother's sons. For some, this crossed the line of acceptability. And I do understand this reaction. After all, we are living in a country where many people grew up regularly watching TV shows like this as part of the family-hour line-up:
And I obviously agree this is unacceptable, not least for how it also fetishizes women of color. But I feel like we have to be extremely careful about where we place our blame. As Caroline Heldman says in this amazing TED Talk "The Sexy Lie," a woman who receives attention for her body "is part of a system where the rules are stacked against us. She is not a problem. She is a symptom of a problem." So, when you snicker at or tut-tut over "slutty" women you are part of the cause, not the solution.
The aforementioned fellow expat mums were specifically objecting to young boys being exposed to a woman dressed in sexy clothing to spare them the terrible embarrassment of an uncontrollable erection. But, as Jessica Valenti says here, "It’s not the responsibility of [females] to mitigate the male gaze. You find female bodies 'distracting'? That’s your problem, not women’s. Society teaches that women exist to be looked at, objectified and sexualized—it’s up to others to make sure that they don’t contribute to that injustice."
We've been so conditioned to view other women's bodies as public property, it's so ingrained in us, that we instinctually, unwittingly, constantly objectify them--and therefore ourselves--while rarely, if ever, doing it to men. And Heldman points out that, according to extensive studies, self-objectification can have some pretty severe effects, including depression; habitual body monitoring; eating disorders; body shame; depressed cognitive functioning; sexual dysfunction; lower self-esteem; lower GPA; lower political efficacy; and female competition.
The resulting sexual dysfunction is the ultimate irony. Viewing yourself as a sex object = bad sex. You'd think considering how much Italians celebrate sex, they'd want 50% of the population to enjoy it more.
We can't change this screwed-up, totally ridiculous double standard by dressing modestly, by rejecting and distancing ourselves from women we view as less worthy because they don't ascribe to our own sense of "decorum." Instead, maybe we can change it by making noise and bringing people's attention to this cultural sickness. (For example by planning and/or joining a SlutWalk.)
The Madonna-whore complex epitomizes the typical Italian man's (likely unconscious) love/hate relationship with women. This psychological term refers to a man's inability to view women as complex, multilayered beings who can give birth to their kids and be hot in bed. As Amanda Castleman explains in this great article, "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary":
Mussolini insisted that all women were whores, except mothers, sisters, wives and daughters—and this blinkered mentality continues. Traditionally, Italian men expect purity and obedience from their female relatives. Other women are sluts, not their own. And the Madonna-whore distinction is absolute, not fluid, not a continuum. Mixing the two extremes is unthinkable, as evidenced by the most terrible Sicilian curse, “puttana la Madonna” (whore mother of God). What could possibly be worse?
Men who suffer from this complex barely touch their wives sexually after impregnating them, as fictionalized by Tony and Carmela Soprano, and have little, if any, respect for "slutty" women, irregardless of the great pleasure they may derive from them.
I love this scene near the end of Ferzan Ozpetek's film Mine Vaganti. In it, a woman subtly insults a title character for having a gay son and the character smugly retorts that everyone in town knows the woman's future daughter-in-law is a slut. The scene closes with them calling each other sluts.
In English, I think "bitch" would be the word of choice for such an exchange. Andrea confuses "bitch" with "whore" for precisely this reason. "Bitch" is stronza in Italian, which is softer. Also, in dubbed or subtitled American movies, "bitch" is usually translated into variations of "whore" in Italian.
Of course, the trouble with demonizing "easy" women is that it perpetuates rape culture. (And if you still think women should dress or act a certain way to prevent from being raped, I urge you to read Andie Fox's "To the woman unconvinced.")
Instead of trying to "protect" our boys from sexually confident women, why don't we teach them that:
a) they don't need to fear female sexuality
b) sexual pleasure is nothing to feel ashamed about
c) it's OK to be vulnerable
d) ALL females deserve respect, regardless of what they wear or how they act.*
I'm going to do my damnedest to raise my Italian boy that way, and I hope others take my lead.
*Airial Clark has great advice here on how to talk about slut-shaming with your primary schooler, and the above link of Caroline Heldman's TED Talk is great for teaching useful techniques for resisting it.