I’m spending my final semester of college studying abroad in Rome. When I arrived, I began settling into my new apartment and getting to know my roommates. I couldn’t wait to explore the city and eat as much Italian cheese as possible.
I was only here about four days when another story about sexual misconduct in Hollywood came out — this time about actor and comedian Aziz Ansari.
Typically, I do my best to keep up on current events, but I knew that studying across the Atlantic Ocean for four months would limit my ability to fully engage with America’s political and cultural landscape.
Still, as a consumer of media and a young woman, I knew it was important to remain knowledgeable about the recent increase in public sexual assault accusations in the film and media industry.
While the time difference and my preoccupation with exploring my new city distracted me from the news, when I did finally read the Ansari article published by Babe.net, I approached it through the context of my temporary new life in Europe.
In the controversial account of an anonymous 23-year-old woman’s encounter with Ansari last year, the woman, who goes by “Grace” in the piece, claims he ignored verbal and non-verbal cues that she was uncomfortable with his advances. I was all too familiar with this situation, having heard similar stories from friends and family members, and even having such experiences myself.
The precarious balance of male-female relationships, especially during young adulthood, is something with which almost every woman I know has struggled. I’ve heard stories of encounters that weren’t explicitly called assault, but where an unequal power balance or the pressure to be cooperative resulted in uncomfortable romantic encounters and painful memories.
I’ve been thinking about this idea a lot during my first few weeks in Rome. Italian men, while known for being romantic and handsome, are also infamously assertive toward women.
The female students in the program are warned repeatedly to avoid dressing inappropriately, making eye contact with or smiling at men and walking alone at night. The program manual even states that if you go home with an Italian, it may be assumed that “you are giving up your right to say ‘no.’” This is an unsettling thought at a time when affirmative and verbal consent is becoming a cornerstone of sexual encounters in America.
And it’s true that I’m often greeted with stares and cries of “ciao, bella” while walking the streets of Rome. But so far, my experiences here haven’t been that different from my experiences in Philadelphia, where I also garner unwanted attention simply for being a woman.
Still, as a woman in a city where I don’t speak the language, I worry about the times when expectations and consent may get caught in a web of cultural differences and translation errors.
Back in Philadelphia, my friends and I have systems in place that keep us as safe as possible. We travel in groups, make sure to text each other when we arrive home safely and many of us carry pepper spray. Of course, we hope that one day, the world will become a safer place for women. But until that day, we know it’s up to us to keep ourselves and each other safe.
So far in Rome, it hasn’t been all that different. I rarely see girls my age walking alone at night or engaging with strangers on the street. Young women in Italy seem to take many of the same precautions that we do in the United States.
There are a plethora of cultural differences between Philadelphia and Rome. I’ve had to adjust to everything from ordering coffee to crossing the street. But even a thousand miles away, the Ansari story feels all too familiar.
In the few weeks I’ve been learning the ins and outs of this new culture, I can’t help but think about how the woman in the article could have been a woman in any city in the world.
Despite the many differences between Rome and Philadelphia, some things, like the necessity for women to look out for each other and the lengths we still have to go to create a safer society, remain very much the same.