By Selena Handler
“Run!” Molly Dickman yelled to her three friends as the piazza opened up in front of them.
Uninhibited by untied laces and crooked cobblestones, the four young women began to pick up the pace as eight men chased them and yelled out Italian phrases they could not understand. Luckily, Dickman and her friends managed to rush up a side staircase as the Italian men continued down another ally.
Moments earlier the four women had left a bar in Campo dei Fiori when a man had catcalled them in Italian. Dickman had shrugged off the comment as nothing out-of-the-ordinary until the man and his friends had begun to mimic their every turn through the winding roads of Rome’s historic center.
“It was scary,” Dickman said. “Thank god I was in a familiar area, because I wouldn’t have known how to get home so fast.
Dickman never formally reported the incident. Instead, she stored the unpleasant memory in a virtual filing cabinet among a slew of other incidents of harassment and assault.
Although almost every student at John Cabot seems to have a wealth of these stories, very few students report these encounters to the university or police. Title IX Coordinator Kathryne Fedele said there has only been one report of sexual assault in the last 18 months and none have resulted in an internal trial.
“Either this is an amazingly safe city and a great campus, or it is happening and we just haven’t heard about it,” Fedele said. “I tend to think it may be the latter.”
Indeed, JCU’s Title IX reports only show part of the picture because the data reflects incidents that have been directly reported to campus officials.
Last semester, administrators—like Fedele and Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Pamela Harris—participated in an open forum where students shared their stories of sexual harassment and brainstormed solutions. Harris said most of the students seemed concerned by problems coming from outside the university.
“Many students wanted to come forward and complain about being catcalled in Trastevere or in Rome and about the difficulties of navigating a Latin patriarchal culture,” Harris said. “And what we can do here is have training sections and encounters to teach people how to respond.”
To help address assault that occurs on the streets of Rome between a student and a citizen, the university can provide psychological support, practical training and assistance with going to the Italian police. But they cannot punish someone who is not a member of the JCU community for harassment that occurs off-campus, Harris said.
In Fedele’s experience, the Italian authorities tend to deter students from moving forward with prosecution. Fedele said Italian society tends to blame victims and the authorities often pose certain questions that make people doubt what actually happened and whether their experience was sexual assault.
“It’s the same thing that you would see on any American campus, but what makes it more difficult here is that we are dealing with a different type of outside law enforcement,”
she said. “They may ask ‘What were you wearing? How much did you drink?’”
This mentality is tied to Italy’s rich history of lax penalties for sex crimes. It took 20 years of active social and political debate in the 1980’s and 90’s to reclassify rape as a criminal felony rather than a moral offense.
And only a few years after this reported “feminist victory,” a judge in southern Italy overturned a rape charge because the alleged victim was wearing tight jeans at the time of her assault. The ruling from the court stated that the attacker could not have removed her jeans if she had been actively fighting him at the time.
Underreported sexual assault is not an issue unique to Italy, however; it is prevalent in the United States, too. In the Association of American Universities’ survey of 27 major American universities, 23 percent of undergraduate women said they had experienced sexual assault. The AAU’s findings revealed far greater numbers of assault on campuses than had been reported to the authorities.
Students at JCU come from a variety of nationalities and traditions, but almost universally students do not formally report sexual misconduct. Even when students do come to Fedele’s door to report an incident, they often do not want to seek any legal or punitive action for their alleged attacker and the university’s job is to accommodate the victim’s wishes.
Fedele said that when students are asked what they want, the answer is usually that they want to move on as quickly as possible. This often means separating the accused from the alleged victim, offering counseling services and ongoing administrative support to the students.
President of John Cabot’s Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) club Lauren Cater believes that the best way to deal with a harasser in the short term is to confront them immediately and label the behavior unacceptable.
“It’s not good to stay silent about it,” Cater said. “Because staying silent tells the person that they can treat a woman this way.”
Although Cater acknowledges it is not the responsibility of the university to deal with incidents of harassment off-campus, she believes in the benefits of carrying on the conversation within the university’s walls.
The WLI will continue to hold open-forum discussions throughout the semester where students can talk about women-related topics, their experiences and the best ways to handle incidences of assault.
“It’s very easy to point your finger at the administration—even with rape—which is such an awful, nasty conversation, but it is something we have to talk about,” Cater said.