Cagne, zoccole e troie: slut-shaming in Italy By MapleLeafMamma.Com

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At the recent SlutWalk in Rome (click on photo for source).

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’altra zoccola 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 synonimous with “whore.” There’s just one difference: a zoccola is not interested in money alone, like the whore. Azoccola 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.

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striscia velina Cagne, zoccole e troie: slut shaming in Italy

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.

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At the inaugural SlutWalk in Toronto (click on photo for source).

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.

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Cafe owner Laura Maggi attracts a lot of male attention.

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.

3 thoughts on “Culture

  1. This is all very nice and idealistic, but it’s incredibly naive, and obviously it’s the product of inexperienced young women who know little about the facts of life. Just because you wear revealing, sexy clothes and talk explicitly, and-oh-so-shockingly about your sexual organs, your thongs, and your sexual practices, doesn’t mean you know shite about real life. In fact, ironically, it’s this nonsense way of thinking that makes many men not respect women as equals. There are some very basic facts/laws of life at play here – what you put out, is generally what you get back from life. If you walk down the street oozing “sex” because you want the freedom to wear skimpy, revealing (sluttish) clothes that do indeed make you look like a prostitute (at least prostitutes are honest about why they are dressed the way they are), then you will get back sexual responses from men. Why? (and oh my gosh, how bloody terrible) because sex is a powerful force in this world, and both men and women, particularly those who are very instinct driven and have a more primitive state of consciousness (closer to the animal level), will react automatically to that which stimulates their sexual desire, with often lewd comments and suggestions. In short, you are being seen and treated as a sexual object because THAT is what you are putting out, and you are saying “this is me. I’m a sexual object.” The first thing people see in you, is not YOU, as an individual being (female or otherwise), who is worthy of being seen as an equal, sentient being, but as “SEX”, and actually, as the “promise of sex”, and worse, the “promise of easy sex”. Obviously men who are evolved will not make such comments to a woman just because of the fact that she is advertizing sex, and her ‘need’ for sexual attention (and oh yes ladies, dressing sexy IS based on a NEED for attention, so don’t balk when you get it. Don’t dress like a prostitute unless you plan to play the game to the full), such rare individuals will see beyond the facade of sexy clothing etc, and instead look for the true person inside that body. BUT, most men/people, are not like that. Welcome to the real world, it’s just the way it is, wherever you go, no matter what nation.
    Italian women are actually pretty wise, unlike many American women (especially the younger ones) today, although sadly they are copying America too much and losing their common sense.
    “Elegance” – not “sexy” or “slutty” are the key words and dress/behaviour sense to aspire to. Elegance is sadly now considered to be old fashioned, whereas in fact, it is the perfect balance between freedom of expression in celebrating your beauty, femininity, and individuality as a person, as well as grace, and sexuality. Elegance is subtle, artistic, magical. It does not mean fuddy duddy (often termed as “classic”). It is an individual dress sense that you create yourself, and brings out your own expression as a person. It’s sexy, yet it doesn’t scream “SEX!”, because it’s ellusive and mysterious. It’s the perfect balance between sexy and intelligent. It defines the woman’s unique physical attributes, but without vulgar exaggeration (ridiculous, torturous high-heeled shoes, too much make-up, etc, that you feel compelled to wear because you want to be oh-so-original, just like every other young women your age who copies the latest Hollywood ‘stars’). If America rules the fashion world we’d all be going around wearing disgusting g-strings (with the top showing above your shapeless, sack-like ‘exercise’ pants), talking explicitly about our sexual organs and sexual habits, and generally aspiring to be just like prostitutes, except that men who are as vulgar as us, aren’t allowed to even look at us, let alone comment. Or if they do, we can sue them for sexual harassment. Be honest with yourselves, do you want to attract sex? If so, dress sexy. If not, dress elegant instead, since this does not give out any obvious, definite sexual message. Stop griping about how the world should or shouldn’t be, and get realistic. NOBODY is going to change just because you want them to. If you see a young, good-looking man in tight pants walking about the street, you too will look at him and be sexually inspired. You may have the decency and respect to not make any audible comments, but dont’ expect others to be like you, because if you do, you’re probably on the wrong planet, or century. Women’s sexuality is a very powerful tool, use it wisely, respect it, or suffer the consequences. We all want respect, but the question is, do we respect ourselves enough to go out into life and seek respect from others through how we behave and appear – what we “put out” to the world, the first thing they see. Do you want their fist impressions to be “your body” or “you?”. If you’re a prostitute, then you are selling your body, you want the world to see your body as the first impression. This is your business, and you do it properly. If you are not a prostitute then stop pretending to be one and then complaining when people treat you like one. Just a thought, for what it’s worth.

  2. I found this article recently. I must say as a long time resident in bel Italia. I find a lot of Italian woman really puzzling. the behave like the Madonna at home and around their inlaws, but they seem to have a secondlife where they really do behave like whores. Not in the way that a prostitute does in selling her body. I make no judgements on that. Im not a moralist, but rather they do anything for male attention.
    while we are always slagging off the Italian male for being unfaithful before and after marriage. Who are these men having sex with. yes thats right you guessed it, married and attached italian women! who dont want to be called zoccole! Yes im no prude and I have lived in a few different countries including my own so Ive seen a bit of life, but I find Quite a few of the Italain women I meet, and I meet a lot, through work, to be Whorish.
    heres an example. Simona who befriended me as she wanted to speak English.. when we met she was still in Love with an ex who she had been with 10 years ago before she married her husband. she used to hook up with him whenever she could and tell me all about it. Her husband a really kind gentle man was of course expected to help around the house and look after the child while she was having these secret escapdes. I asked her once what she would do if he did the same. He wont she said he loves me too much.
    Some months later she was on a holiday in the mountains with her husband and child. After dinner her and her husband went outside with some of the other couples in the resort to chat and have a drink. there she met a salesman, a married man also there with his wife. when simonas husband went inside to put the child to bed. She pounced on this man who see told me she found very attractive. They began by sending each other texts. Her first text to him she told me was… I want you to F my brains out. A man she had never laid eyes on. throughout the follwing weeks she delighted in telling me how they would have skype calls where they had sex and sent each other texts constantly. The most recent development wss he wanted to meet up in Milan and his request he wanted to have sex with no condom. anal sex too. I had to listen to this crap, Until I told her Id rather she didnt share this with me. She has since resigned her job, her husband is the only breadwinner, shes very unhappy with him because hes boring unlike the salesman.

    Apparently lots of Italian housewifes engage in online sex.
    Im sure the husbands prefer not to know, of perhaps thats why they call them Zoccole. I myself have met way too many Simonas. All of them where quite happy to tell me what they were doing. I do not want to hear this stuff. All of them expected their husbands to not find out because hes a kind good father and husband.
    a whole lot of whores yes!

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