FEMFACTS
21 Mar 2019

Rape will never be love -- no matter the spin

A young Italian woman claims she was raped at the age of 13, but one Italian newspaper has downplayed her experience into a failed “love story”.

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On Wednesday, March 3, Il Corriere Adriatico (The Adriatic Courier), a local newspaper which covers cases from the Marche region in Italy, published the story of a young woman who pressed charges and is now asking for 50,000€ in compensation from her alleged rapist.

Currently aged 18, she maintains that the incident took place in Jesi -- a town in the province of Ancona -- in October 2014 when she was only 13 years old, and the man, 23. He was a family friend and part of her local community; both of are from South America and members of the same church congregation.

The man confesses to having had sexual intercourse with the girl, although he stresses that the act was consensual. However, the legal age of consent in Italy is 14, meaning that individuals aged 13 or younger are not legally able to consent to sexual activity. If the latter occurs, it may result in prosecution for statutory rape, as stated by Article 609 of the Italian penal code.

The preliminary hearing has been postponed until June, as Judge Paola Moscaroli requested more time to look into the case. If he is found guilty, the man could be sentenced to up to ten years in prison.

So far, all seems clear. However, Il Corriere Adriatico didn’t stick to the facts in its reporting; the article written by reporter Stefano Rispoli is strongly biased in favor of the man.

What’s the claim?

As first noted by the NGO Differenza Donna (a women's association fighting violence against women) on Twitter and as further criticized by the magazine Lettera Donna, the headline is itself controversial:

“Love story between a 23-year-old man and a 13-year-old girl. He risks being tried for sexual abuse.”

Despite the fact that the girl was a minor and only 13 years old, and the man 10 years her senior, in the article the journalist describes the event as a “romantic night under the stars”:

The boy confirms the sexual encounter, he maintains that it was consensual, but the girl’s age (13 at the time) is not considered [mature] enough to be aware of what she was doing. It makes little difference that on that October night, with their arms around each other in the countryside, looking at the stars, she didn’t resist her friend.

What are the facts?

The article does open with the journalist describing the relationship between the two from the girl’s perspective, starting from the of the encounter and highlighting the consequences of the event on the girl’s psychological condition. Stating that the experience has “scarred her so deeply and turned her into a woman too soon”, the author continues:

It’s impossible to remove the memory of those caresses, kisses, attention, which were received when she was yet too young to give herself completely to another person. She did. She trusted him. She flirted back, only to bear the consequences in time, to the extent which -- according to her lawyer Silvia Bugatti -- she suffers from psychological damage.

Once he analyzes the young woman’s experience, the author moves on to describe to the man's, and how his life might change following the trial.

[...] The boy, who is currently 28, works for a company in Northern Italy and is accused of engaging in sexual acts with a minor, an offense that makes any sexual intercourse with a partner below the age of 15 equivalent to sexual violence. If prosecuted, he would risk being sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

Although the man admitted to having had sexual intercourse with a minor when he was 23, the investigation is still at an early stage, and therefore it is important for journalists to be as neutral as possible. In order to avoid either victim blaming or unfair accusations, they need to stick to factual reporting, especially local media outlets. When the area described is well-known to the readers, it’s easier to recognize the protagonists, which leads to the risk of long-lasting social stigma.

Unfortunately, the framing of the above-mentioned article is anything but neutral.

First of all, the story is strongly romanticized. Despite the fact that the girl is suing for rape, the reports treats the events as a failed love affair. He depicts romantic scenes of the man and the girl caressing and kissing each other, looking at the stars in the countryside -- a narrative that diverts readers’ attention from facts.

This attitude is in stark contrast with the girl’s statements, and contributes to her claims being downplayed. This unbalanced reporting shows bias in favor of the man, whom the journalist empathizes with, first describing him as a “boy” even if he was 23 when the events took place, and then highlighting that he risks being sent to prison

On the other hand, however, less understanding is given to the girl, who is described as fragile -- but consenting. Rispoli indirectly suggests she might have been asking for it: he underlines that, after all, she didn’t “resist” the man whom she considered “an example, a reference point”. The author agrees on the unlawfulness of the act, and yet stresses the agency of the girl with his choice of words: for instance, the young woman “gave herself completely”, which hints at an active choice and casts suspicion on her claims which she made “only three years later”.

Conclusion

Given the empathy shown towards the complainant, we deem this article biased reporting that may lead the readers to justify violence against women -- in this case, an underaged girl.

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