On the margins of the Santa Maria Novella section of Florence, past the train station and toward the Parco delle Cascine, lived a pervert. The first time I encountered him, I was walking to the local market for some blood oranges. As I glanced across the street before crossing, I saw a man pull his penis out, stare right at me, and furiously start to masturbate. I shrieked and bolted back to my host family’s apartment, which was literally around the corner. In my fractured Italian, I managed to convey that there was a man jerking off down the street and that we should call the police. My hosts shrugged their shoulders, apparently familiar with this sex offender. “He is harmless,” they said. “He did the same thing to our daughter when she was parking the car.”
Since that day, I have seen other men masturbate in public, but this was my first encounter. It was also my first glimpse into the Italian cultural response toward sex crime: nonchalance and acceptance. After this confrontation, I became aware of my vulnerability as a woman on the street, and it was a nasty epiphany.
I suppose I was lucky; I had made it pretty far without encountering serious street harassment – both in America and in Italy. Maybe I should just be thankful.
But I noticed my behavior start to change. I became hyper vigilant and anxious. I developed strategies to fend off sexually aggressive men who honed in on my dazed and confused American abroad-ness: wearing cheap, dark sunglasses to avoid eye contact and plugging my ears with headphones to ignore catcalls.
The moment that man took his penis out, my fantasies of an ideal study abroad experience in Florence disappeared. The grim reality? I was isolated on the other side of town while fellow classmates lived in close proximity to each other and the University. I didn’t have a phone that consistently worked, let alone Internet access (it was 2004, after all). A notoriously poor navigator, either I got on the wrong bus or missed the last bus; I was constantly getting lost and crying into my map. I spent most of my time alone, depressed, and disillusioned.
Maybe that’s why I find the Ashley Ann Olsen story so compelling. Olsen, 35, Florida born and Florence transplanted, seemed to be living the expatriate dream. In 2012, the artist moved to Italy to be close to her father, a professor of architecture and design at Bianca Cappello Art Academy. Olsen became part of a close-knit group of artists and by all accounts was a kind, generous person, well-loved by her friends and family. Though her life was not without its ordinary troubles – problems with an ex-husband, quarrels with her boyfriend – she seemed to embrace Florence and flourished as a bohemian socialite. When Olsen was found murdered in her apartment in early January, shock and sadness echoed through the international community.
The story of Olsen’s death reminds me of the awful awakening I had while living in The Eternal City: that women’s bodies are vulnerable to public commentary or worse. But Olsen’s Florence – the Florence of extravagant gestures, glamorous sunglasses, and starving-but-not-really artists – also reminds me of my old dreams of Italy and its potential to transform me into a more interesting, cosmopolitan person. On Olsen’s Instagram account, she looks exactly like my idea of that person – Edie Sedgwick of the Arno, or a Free People or Anthropologie advertisement. Her motto was even “Live Free or Die.” These pictures of Olsen’s exuberant, expatriate life, existing on the Internet as if she were still alive, make her violent death all the more jarring.
It could have been anyone’s night out on the town. On Friday, January 8, Ashley Ann Olsen went to the Montecarla club with friends. They went home, she stayed behind. She eventually left the club with Cheik Tidiane Diaw, later identified as an undocumented Senegalese immigrant, and the two went back to her apartment. They had sex and argued. Somehow during the argument, Diaw allegedly killed Olsen. Diaw, who has since been arrested as a suspect, then stole and used Olsen’s smartphone, replacing the sim card. Olsen’s naked body was discovered by her boyfriend and landlady on January 9. She had bruises on her neck indicating strangulation.
The same investigator who handled the infamous 2007 Amanda Knox case, Domenico Profazio, is currently in charge of the Olsen investigation. Whether or not you agree with the Knox verdict or how the case was handled, one thing is clear: sex was an integral component in how the media reported on that crime. Knox was painted as a nymphomaniac, someone whose insatiable need for kinky sex caused her to murder her roommate, Meredith Kercher.
Much like with the Knox case, Olsen’s sex life is at the forefront of her crime story. In particular, Olsen’s Instagram account has transformed from a collection of artistic images of life in Florence to a disturbing forum of misogyny, racism and victim-blaming. Here, amidst photographs of Olsen walking her dog and shopping in the market, loving remembrances and sympathies struggle against violent, hateful rhetoric. Many comments fall into comfortable patterns of slut-shaming and victim blaming, such as “Wow I hope cheating on your boyfriend for a one night stand with a scumbag was worth it” and “It's sad but fuck her, cheating on her boyfriend with a negro, she got what was coming to her.” The disturbing message is that Olsen deserved to die because her behavior transgressed the bounds of how a woman should comport herself both in her public and private life – that her murder was the logical conclusion of her existence.
The fall from good victim to deserving victim happens fast. In an article for The Daily Beast, Barbie Latza Nadeau writes how quickly opinions about Olsen’s reputation shifted over the course of two weeks: “When Olsen’s death was first reported, she was described as a pretty, well known ‘Americana’ who everyone loved and who walked her beagle around the Bohemian neighborhood of Oltrarno in Florence. But as the days and weeks have worn on, she has been increasingly described in the oft-repeated stereotypic terms of a ‘wild American abroad’ and a ‘socialite’ whose late-night carousing didn’t go unnoticed by the conservative Florentines.”
This characterization of the wild American isn’t new; in fact, there’s a rich literary tradition constructed around the idea of women carelessly causing their own deaths by misadventure. For example, in Henry James’ 1878 novella "Daisy Miller," the titular character is described as a flirtatious American with a zest for life and a romantic spirit. Daisy is chatty, vivacious, and ultimately cast as a careless or dismissive reader of social cues. She becomes involved with an Italian man of questionable social standing, which causes a scandal and ruins her chances of making a triumphant debut in expatriate society. After staying out late with her Italian beau one night, Daisy contracts “Roman Fever” (malaria) and dies. It’s telling that she makes the choice to stay out past the appropriate time, despite the risk: “‘I don’t care,” said Daisy in a little strange tone, ‘whether I have Roman fever or not!’” After her death, friends and family shake their heads at what they consider Daisy’s recklessness: “'It's going round at night…that’s what made her sick. She's always going round at night. I shouldn't think she'd want to, it's so plaguey dark.’”
About a month into my study abroad experience, I made plans to sleep over at a friend’s apartment. We were going dancing at a trashy discoteca with a group of people from school. I don’t particularly enjoy clubs, but I was excited to have the opportunity to finally see what nightlife in Florence was like.
As I expected, the discoteca was smelly and hot, and the music was awful. But after weeks of feeling disconnected, I was grateful to experience this slightly seedy part of Florentine culture that I had been missing out on. My friend and I danced ourselves stupid and drank until three. At the end of the night, exhausted and slightly tipsy, we linked arms and started the 20-minute trek to her apartment. As we walked from the pulsing heart of downtown, joking about our night and wondering how we would wake up in time to get to our lecture at Santa Croce early the next morning, the street grew more residential. Houses were separated by arches and gates. It was dark and quiet, a beautiful, brisk night. I felt alive.
Suddenly, a few feet in front of us, a figure slowly leaned out from one of the archways – like in a horror movie. It was a man, and he was totally naked. Then, he slowly leaned back in, like he was being pulled by a string. My friend and I ran. Later, we decided that it wouldn’t matter if we told anyone; men pulling out their genitals in public would be something we’d just have to get used to. And after all, we’d been out late at night instead of tucked tightly into bed.
Living in a foreign culture that either doesn’t respect a woman’s sexual and physical boundaries or that has a different conception of those boundaries can be unnerving, especially if you’ve been warned that the men are “forward” and expect American women to be “sexually adventurous.” And while America is still far from being a country that takes sexual harassment seriously, we have made important strides that give me optimism about the future. I like to think that this shift is the result of insistent, persistent demands to take street harassment, slut shaming, and victim blaming as the microaggressions that they are. But when we recognize the pervasive sexual violence women experience worldwide, American complaints sometimes seem almost quaint in comparison to a rape victim being honor-killed in Afghanistan, a teenage girl enduring a forced clitoridectomy in Somalia, and the recent organized, mass sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, on New Year's Eve. We need to recognize that although violence against women exists on a spectrum, there is one commonality: the persistent conception that women are objects meant to be owned or possessed, either through language or physical force.
Living with these microaggressions – street harassment, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexist language and other forms of emotional violence – affects a woman’s psychology and her sense of self. While street harassment obviously doesn’t cause the same kind of catastrophic damage as being raped or assaulted, each time I am catcalled, told to smile, or threatened with male genitalia, I am forced to confront my status as an object. Even though I’ve become more resilient (and why should I have to be resilient?), I still experience feelings of simultaneous worthlessness and rage. There have even been days where I question my choice of attire depending on where I will be traveling to: Is this shirt too see-through? Is my eyeliner too dark? Am I setting myself up for commentary? Am I setting myself up for assault?
What does it mean to be a “good victim”? As I thought back on my street harassment experiences in Florence and Ashley Ann Olsen’s public shaming on the Internet, I came to the conclusion that the concept of the good victim is a myth. In a culture that obsessively champions a warped concept of personal responsibility, there are only deserving victims – and they are usually women. Women who are in the wrong place at the wrong time are punished. Women who behave in ways that threaten the status quo are punished. Women who make mistakes are punished. Not only they are punished but they are subject to vitriolic commentary that further violates them and perpetuates the fallacious distinction between deserving and non-deserving victims.
A few months ago, I was traveling from Bensonhurst toting a large bag of Sicilian pastries for dad’s birthday party that night. Oddly enough, the subway was virtually empty for a weekend afternoon. I put on my headphones, took out a book, and settled in for the ride. About two stops in, a man boarded and sat directly in front of me, despite having his pick of seats. I prickled but continued reading, scolding myself for being paranoid. After a few minutes passed, I glanced up. The man was smiling at me. His hand was moving underneath his coat. “Oh no,” I thought. “Not this again.” Sure enough, he parted his coat to reveal his penis.
I had a few options. I could get out at the next stop and move to the next car. I could scream so the elderly woman at the other end of the car would notice, but what would she be able to do? I could take a picture of the man with my phone and report him to the police.
Instead, I got out and moved at the next stop.
Later, at my dad’s birthday party, I told the guests about what happened on my quest to procure their cannolis and cassatina cakes. I don’t know what I expected – maybe outrage or sympathy. One of my dad’s friends turned to me and shook his head: “Next time, don’t take the subway alone.”