12 Mar 2019

All rapists are awful, but some are more awful than others

The media in Italy has two very different rape narratives depending on who the attacker is. If he's Italian, it's likely the victim's fault. If he's an immigrant, his guilt is never in doubt.

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All rapists are awful, but some are more awful than others - NewsMavens
People walking down a street in Florence. Pexels.

According to data from the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT), for 2014-2016, nearly one woman in three has been subjected to either physical or sexual violence, with more than 6% of them being a victim of rape or attempted rape. As Il Sole 24 ore notes, however, most cases still go unreported. Among those interviewed, only 11.4% of Italian women and 17% of foreign women who admitted to being victims of sexual violence actually reported it to the relevant authorities.

Statistics show that sexual assault is most likely to occur within a family or a relationship, and yet myths of strange men in dark alleys still prevail in the media. Italian media outlets often cling to antiquated beliefs that women conspire to lure or trap men with rape accusations.

Furthermore, major differences can be found between the media’s coverage of sexual assaults committed by Italian men and those committed by foreigners: in the case of locals who rape or harass women, the news is more likely to blame or question the victim, whereas if the perpetrator is an immigrant or person of color, attention switches almost entirely towards the demonization of the rapist.

Raped by the “good guys”

Looking at the national media’s coverage of rapes perpetrated by locals, one notices how often suspicion is cast upon the female victims. See, for instance, this article by Ansa, one of the leading news agencies in Italy. Last May, a young English woman was raped in Sardinia while on holiday. She had chosen the off-season in the hopes of a relaxing holiday, but this is what the article reported:

"An unusual choice for a girl her age: this time of the year, Cardedu -- a coastal municipality with less than 2 thousand inhabitants -- is almost uninhabited and lacking in services, it only gets busy during the summer."


"According to the first information collected by the investigators, during her stay the young Englishwoman had come to be known to the locals in the village because she loved going out and in the evening she went to the bars in the city center."

Is it relevant to concentrate on her holiday destination or her partying and ignore the fact that someone felt entitled to take advantage of her? The article basically suggests that she put herself in a dangerous position by travelling alone in a sparsely populated area, while also making herself an easy target -- the focus is not on the crime.

The Italian media also frequently impugn women for their lack of caution or fatal naivety by questioning, for example, how much alcohol they had or what constitutes consent.

As we can see from another report on the same case by Il Resto del Carlino, the woman is perceived as complicit in the violence while her rapists are described sympathetically:

"Both dreaming of becoming policemen, but they will never wear the uniform. A terrible accusation is hanging over their heads: gang rape. Pointing the finger against them, [is] a German tourist, slightly younger than them, only 19 years old. And yesterday these two senior students of the Polgai police school in Brescia found themselves on the other side of the barricade, first as suspects and then as the accused. In front of those policemen whose career they dreamed of, but without having their caliber."

The journalist adopts the boys' perspective by focusing on their aspirations, and insinuates criticism in the way the girl "points the finger" against them.

The pattern repeats itself

The same victim-blaming can be found in this article found by NarrAzioni Differenti. The author reports on the case of a 65-year-old professor who harassed a 15-year-old student in 2017 and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

Translation of the underlined parts: "Sexual groping of a 15-year-old student, or affectionate caresses which were misunderstood by the girl? This is the doubt that the court of Ascoli Piceno must dispel [...]. "

Although the man had already been charged, the use of the rhetorical question casts suspicion on the validity of the girl's testimony. According to her, the man "came from behind, hugged [her] lightly touching [her] breasts, legs, and bottom, he pinched [her] face and brought his face close to [hers]", and yet the journalist wonders whether these might simply have been “affectionate caresses which were misunderstood”. The author then adds: "It was the student who got the teacher into trouble". As in the rape case from Rimini described above, the writer puts responsibility for the criminal prosecution on the victim.

Then, further on in the article, the journalist wonders whether the man will be able to return to his teaching position. This focus on the man’s career makes it seem as if he was the victim in this case -- even though he was convicted and sentenced.

And yet again...

Rape victims see their credibility regularly questioned, as happened to a young Peruvian woman who saw her alleged rapists cleared of all charges partly because she looked too masculine and unattractive to the male gaze, according to the judges. The decision was taken in 2017 by an all-women court, but its motives were made known only on March 8, 2018. More than 200 people protested outside Ancona's court of appeal against the groundlessness of an acquittal based on the judgment of the looks of the alleged victim by the defendants and judges.

At the beginning of September 2017, two American students in Florence accused two Italian Carabinieri police officers of raping them after they gave the young women a lift -- illegally, because they were on duty and any passenger must be reported, which they did not do. The men denied all the allegations at first, but stated later that, although the girls were quite drunk, the sex was consensual. Further investigation led to the suspension of both policemen. Eventually, both were charged with sexual assault and abuse of authority; Mario Camuffo, received a sentence of four years and eight months, while Pietro Costa is still waiting for his trial to begin. 

This case is the perfect example of victim-blaming: the Italian media immediately cast suspicion on the girls by insinuating that the students were deceiving and promiscuous money-seekers. Their testimony was further downplayed by spreading fake news -- according to the Italian newspapers, the girls had purchased insurance against rape before leaving the US, thus insinuating that they falsely accused the police officers to get the money.

The media also reported incorrect data by claiming that 90% of rape reports made by Americans in Florence were completely false. This news also appeared on several famous newspapers including Il Secolo XIX and La Repubblica (a left-wing newspaper, which later updated the article, leaving out this note):

Translation: ”There are three theories about what happened. There was the off chance, which has been immediately discarded, that the students made the whole story up. Another theory is that of consensual sex between the girls and the uniformed carabinieri which was then denounced as sexual assault; the third and way more serious case is actual rape.  In support of the second scenario, the two girls have, apparently, an insurance against rape; whereas the third one is supported by the fact both were drunk and therefore not able to defend themselves.”

The theory was discarded by the girls’ lawyer, who stated that they were covered by the university’s general insurance which included rape, but that they were not aware of it.

Despite the lack of evidence for these allegations, the girls' testimony was attacked in all possible ways. The media emphasized that they were drunk, and that no one in the building heard anything (again), not even a scream, which is basically saying “no cry, no rape”.  The girls were even asked whether they found men in uniform sexy during the questioning.

The “good guys” confirmed they had sex, but that it was consensual. “Everyone knows that more often than not these Americans make advances” Costa told the police, while Camuffo stated that he “realized that there was a chance of sex and so we [they] behaved like boys do”.  

What seemed to be a clear cut case, was quickly mutated in the press into a story which was -- according to Il Corriere della Sera  -- “Still dark, weird, full of doubts and contradictions, a bringer of truth or lies and that risks throwing shadows and mud on an institution, the Carabinieri, that is a symbol of legality and justice.” The men were presented as respectable professionals and family men, as we can see in Il Mattino:

Translation: “He is just under forty and has twenty years of service, he’s a high-ranking officer, has a wife and a son. A professional [and a] great connoisseur of Florence. He comes from Tuscany as the colleague from Prato does, who’s thirty years old, a carabiniere scelto (with distinction), dreams of entering the dog handlers, a "good guy”, a military man who “loved his job”, his friends say. This is the first and brief identikit of the two carabinieri suspected of the rape of the two American students.”

And from: Il Corriere della Sera

“Now -- this could be the defense -- things like this are done only if there is complicity and not between strangers. [The men hadn’t known each other for long, ed] Moreover, it is easy to imagine that in the presence of more certain scientific elements, the defense will insist on the path of consensual sex. This instance could alleviate the crime of violence, but not the situation altogether, given that the military were still in service, in uniform and armed. [...] Unless it was a moment of madness that will still cost them very dear.

To their advantage, then, is that they are known to be two Carabinieri with a calm temperament, who have never given problems.”

The men are described as good Carabinieri, a job that seems to grant intrinsic great reputation and respectability. Even politicians supported the police officers:

Translation: “In Italy there are more than 100,000 Carabinieri who do their job well.They have all my admiration, woe to those who touch them. If two of these in Florence, uniformed and on duty, had sex with two girls, even if with consent, they made a huge mistake and should immediately leave the job and the uniform.Should it have been rape, they should be treated like all the other infamous people who put their hands on women or children. Allow me, however, until proven otherwise, to have doubts that it was "rape", and to consider the whole story very, very, very strange. Am I the only one who thinks so?”

And according to Dario Nardella, the Mayor of Florence (Repubblica):

"If confirmed, the Florence case would be a very serious matter, causing serious damage to the reputation of Carabinieri, which have worked alongside citizens and in support of those who live in discomfort".


It is important that American students learn, even with the help of the universities and of our institutions, that Florence is not a city of drugs and alcohol abuse."

It’s interesting to note that these statements completely ignore the victims: all attention is on the shame brought to the institution of the Carabinieri and the city’s decorum. This interpretation completely ignores the truth of the story. Blaming the girls because they were drunk and partying is rape culture, it is the men who felt entitled to take advantage of them who should be in the spotlight.

From the analysis of media reports and the reactions from the public and politicians, we can say that more often than not victims in Italy tend to be blamed for their attack, whereas the perpetrators are to be empathized, understood, cared for. But is this always the case? What happens when the offender is not Italian?

“Don’t touch our women”

In the event that the offender is a foreigner, especially if they are non-white, the public debate focuses mostly on his nationality, revealing an underlying political agenda to promote anti-immigrant sentiment. Take, for example, the Rimini case: at the end of August 2017 four men -- originally from Morocco, Congo, and Nigeria -- gang-raped a Polish girl, beat her friend and sexually assaulted a Peruvian trans woman while fleeing.

This time, the rapists were not “boys with a dream” but cold, cruel animals (they were called beasts, worms, a pack, etc) coming from abroad to threaten “our” women’s safety. Several Italian media outlets adopted a nationalist rhetoric based on the concepts of invasion and clash of civilizations. The extreme emblem of this attitude was Forza Nuova’s (Italian far-right party) adaptation of a fascist poster which was made against the Allies by Gino Boccasile and used by the Republic of Salò back in 1944.

The new poster -- on the left -- says “protect her from the new invaders, she could be your mother, your wife, your sister, your daughter”. The background depicts a black man reaching for a white woman while trying to take off her shirt, perpetuating the stereotype of over-sexualized black men who threaten white women’s decency. According to the message, moreover, women are to be protected from sexual violence not because it is an act of violence, but rather for how it affects the men around them. Womens’ figures become, therefore, property; their bodies are national spaces.  

As Il Fatto Quotidiano reports on the poster: “According to the neo-fascist movement the cases of violence against women of those years are to be contextualized within the defeat they called 'liberation', in which even military men from Morocco marched in the French ranks as colonial forces. The violence is deceivingly compared to that of these years and days. The invective is against those who hide it shamelessly, keeping silent the fact that it’s perpetrated by the new invaders to whom we pay food, accommodation, bills, phone cards, mobile phones and cigarettes''”.

Forza Nuova makes a link between safety and immigration -- which is not supported by the data -- as did several newspapers by emphasizing the status of asylum seekers of the wrongdoers or disclosing irrelevant details about them in order to make them look as outcasts and born criminals not willing to live by the local values. Looking at the reports by Il Resto del Carlino, for example, the leader of the attack, Guerlin Butungu, is described as:

"Congolese of 20 years, asylum seeker with a thousand friends and a thousand jobs. Once taken he maintained a challenging attitude". [...] A determined young man, cold, violent. Guerlin Butungu, [..] was armed with a knife that according to the investigators he would not have hesitated to use in case of danger.”

"In short, nothing that made you imagine what would later turn out to be. His team-mates from Csi Delfino di Fano and the managers didn't have a clue of who he was."

"He had managed to create a strong network of acquaintances and friendships around him, finding accommodation here and there, hosted by fellow countrymen, whom he didn't even guarantee the payment of the rent. But despite being without a home he had a well-stocked wardrobe."

He is described as a callous and violent man -- very differently from the way the local rapists mentioned up above were presented. The fact that he has many acquaintances and jobs gives the idea that he’s neither stable nor trustworthy, in fact members of his former football team don’t even remember him: these details build a picture of an outcast who didn’t integrate in the Italian society.

Commenting on his homelessness while noting that Butungu is always well-dressed indirectly casts suspicion on the man and the way he makes money in ways were not mentioned when the media was writing about Italian wrongdoers. The reference to his clothing, moreover, mimics an anti-immigrant trope:

“If they are poor and are escaping a war, how come they are well-dressed, strong boys, all possessing a smartphone?”.

“Butungu, refugee for humanitarian reasons, arrived in Pesaro in November 2015."

"Butungu is legally in Italy thanks to a residence permit for humanitarian reasons. The permit expires in 2018. The man had also made request for political asylum. On his Facebook profile,  in addition to some photos that showed him at the sea, with some friends at the disco, or dressed elegantly in a suit and tie, the young man had posted on August 24, 2016 in French, a comment on the earthquake that had hit central Italy expressing his "condolences" to the families involved."

The article repeats several times that Butungu is an asylum seeker, while bringing attention to his Facebook profile to create a contrast between the permit for humanitarian reasons and the pictures at the seaside or of him partying -- these are not related . Moreover, when talking about the post on the 2016 earthquake, the author uses quotation marks when talking about the man’s condolences, as if they were fake.

The journalist from Il Giornale Chiara Giannini posted a picture on Facebook captioned “And these are the four Rimini rapists.  Nice faces, yes. When you see them? In my opinion, you could start to take them to the town square, in front of the Italian people.”  

She doesn’t suggest taking them to the police, but to the Italian people which is indicative of the “us against them” mentality. Moreover, the source wasn't verified, the post depicts four foreign drug dealers, and not the rapists from this case. If the offenders were Italian, would the media and politicians have been so thoughtless?

Let’s take, for example, current Interior Minister Matteo Salvini: in the previous case, he defended the Carabinieri institution as a whole, immediately siding with them and doubting the version of the victims. His attitude towards foreigners is, however, very different:

Translation: “I introduce you to Guerlin Butungo, accused of being the top dog of the Rimini rape. He arrived in Italy from Congo two years ago, hosted at the cost of Italians, in Marche as an ‘asylum seeker’, he was particularly active on Facebook, posting a lot of nice pictures… But what kind of war is he escaping from? I’m looking forward to CLEAN UP (this country, ed), Italian people are done with importing criminals from all over the world.”

Salvini links the pictures of Butungu’s life in Italy to his status as an asylum seeker, a term which was put in quotation marks, thus casting doubt on his motives for fleeing from the Congo to further foster anti-immigrant agenda.

The mob grows

This populist and anti-immigrant agenda took a wild and appalling turn when Saverio Siorini, a member of the party “Noi con Salvini”,  addressed the issue of violence against women on Facebook by asking when would Laura Boldrini (then Speaker of the House) and other female politicians of the Democratic Party be raped by their “immigrant friends”, since they supported the acceptance of refugees.

He then edited his post adding that “Rape is not to be wished to anyone obviously, mine was a misunderstood provocation”. His words cost him his place in the party, but they are a clear consequence of the hate speech spread by the Northern League. And the legacy of a leader who accuses anyone supporting immigration of being a “buonista”, the Italian equivalent to “snowflake”, and continuously advocates for chemical castration every time a (non-white) rapist is arrested.

Stefano Tunis, a right-wing politician, also spread fake photos of the rapists, with this caption: “I am against violence and I am not a racist. Today's newspapers were full of complaints about the excessive use of force in Rome's eviction. However, I have not heard anyone apologize to the victims of these beasts because our country, violent, has left them free to do what they did to those poor people. I’ll do it, I APOLOGIZE ON MY KNEES to those guys, praying that they can forget. I want to claim that the state cannot lose the exclusive use of force and will not lose it if it will use it when needed without its servants being impeached.”

This attitude is, however, not limited to right-wing parties or media, as we can see from a statement made a few months before by Debora Serracchiani (Democratic Party):“Sexual violence is always a hateful and disgusting act, but it is socially and morally even more unacceptable when it is done by those who ask and get welcome in our country.”

This approach also shows no genuine sympathy or concern for the victims nor respect for their privacy. The politicians decided to focus exclusively on the ethnicity of the rapists, while Libero published the entire transcript of the deposition of the victims, disclosing brutal details from the crime in a blatantly sensationalist ploy. 

What do the statistics say?

According to the ISTAT report mentioned in the introduction, Italians make up for the 61.4% of detainees for sexual violence whereas 3.6% are foreign. As noted by Il Giornale, however, the latter are a minority, they constitute only 8% of the Italian population: this is the reason why Il Giornale asserts that immigrants are more likely to commit sexual offences.

This statement needs some context though: first of all, most cases occur within a family or acquaintances, which impacts the number of victims who choose to speak up: in fact, as stated above, only 11.4% of Italian women and 17% of foreign women who to confessed being victims of sexual violence actually reported it to the relevant authorities. Moreover, according to ISTAT (2006-2014), women who experienced sexual assault are more likely to speak up and press charges if her attacker is a foreigner.

The problem is that we cannot really trust the data exclusively when it comes to understanding the situation as a whole. Sexual violence is endemic, and it’s a structural issue which needs to be fought on the community's most basic level. It also has no color, therefore it’s deceiving to use it to serve a xenophobic political agenda.

Both narratives that have been analyzed above reek of deep disdain and disrespect towards the victims: on one side, questioning and moral persecution and on the other, being silenced and their story exploited to make a racist point.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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