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Roma(nce): Where does catcalling end and cancel culture begin?

Articles & Photos by Leila Herrman

When I'm asked "What's your favorite city?", I always answer "Rome!". Yet I've never been there. I only know the city from postcards sent to me by my aunts, from influencers posing with their gelato in front of the Spanish Steps and from movies like Eat, Pray, Love. So far, it's just an idea in my head – or rather an illusion formed from familiar clichés.

For two months, I want to test if I only love the idea of Rome or also the city with all its facets? Is it a coincidence that Roma finds itself in romance?

Tuesday, 3 p.m., between the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps: a middle-aged man stares at me, I avert my gaze, he approaches me, starts talking. My dismissive look is not enough. Even my clear "I'm not interested, thank you." is only half received. I have to repeat myself, become even clearer, my tone harder, I have to quicken my pace so that he finally leaves. Pissed off, of course. I mean, he even phrased the first sentence SO kindly. I almost feel guilty after he left and at the same moment I realise how wrong it is that I have these thoughts.

All female readers can probably make a list of encounters like these and know the feeling that comes with it quite well. Unfortunately, here in Rome, experiences like this are not uncommon. Italy – and this is probably the one thing that fits the least in my romanticised picture of the country – lives up to its patriarchal reputation. “Flirting“ – or rather catcalling – knows no age here. The lustful looks of 20 and 70 year olds are no different. Wild guess: Most of these men have probably never heard the word catcalling in their entire lives.

It gets worse when I go on a date with an extremely handsome guy my age. He's half Austrian, half Italian and looks a bit like a young Marlon Brando with dark curls. As I'm 45 minutes late I pay, after two hours of small talk and Aperol Spritz, for our drinks to make up for my delay. All evening long, when we stroll through the historic streets, he is lowkey pissed that I have paid. He says he is „offended in his Italian pride“. I can't take him seriously and can only cope with it by making fun of him. The feminist in me resists. Still, my desire to live the Italian dream with an Italian lover prevails.

On our next date I ask him what he thinks about catcalling. The conversation makes him uncomfortable immediately. He says he wouldn't do it in Vienna, but he would in Rome and adds that he would only do I in a group, not when he is on his own. He tells me it's "part of the culture" here and that italian women take it as a compliment. I am a little shocked that even though he is young and only half Italian he thinks like that. He doesn't even realise how contradictory this statement is. Why exactly am I sitting here having a drink with this guy? Am I throwing my own principles overboard for someone just because he is hot and lowkey intimidating? I finally realise I am living a double standard just like him.

I'm glad that two days later when I meet an Italian girl my world view is set straight. Gemma, who becomes my friend after this evening for obvious reasons, enlightens me. I tell her about the conversation with the guy and ask her if catcalling really belongs to the culture in Italy. She is horrified and replies, "What culture? The masculine culture?!". I am relieved as she assures me that women (my age) definitely don’t like to be catcalled. She tells me that these men are called "viscido", which means slimy, encroaching guy and that catcalling is a massive problem in Italy.

Then, at some point, I'm so trained to label every look that rests on me for more than two seconds as catcalling. I get immediately annoyed. I've become so sensitive to this issue that I'm no longer sure myself what's okay and what's not. And to put it in Carrie Bradshaw's words: I couldn't help but wonder: Where does catcalling end and cancel culture begin?

When the fish seller compliments me at the market, is that already catcalling in a broader sense? Should it already be cancelled when you are approached on the street? Or only when you are whistled at or the person gets persistent? Do we women want to be approached at all? And on the other hand: Do men still dare to make a move at all or are they so afraid of doing something wrong that they'd rather do nothing?

I don’t think these questions can be answered easily. Above all, it is important that our society gets more and more sensitive. I didn’t even think about this issue myself as much, when I heard a “Ciao Bella“ from the other side of the street on vacation. Before I lived in Rome for a while, I definitely romanticised the behaviour of Italian men and labeled encounters like these more as flirting than catcalling. However, when I walked alone through the streets now and it happend a lot – mostly with persistence and anger after a “no“ – my perception has shifted. Patriarchal structures like in “The Godfather“ are a little outdated, don’t you think?

I can only speak for myself, but I I think approaching someone on the street – talking, not whistling – can be a nicer way to get to know someone than through a dating app. I would say there is a simple recipe of kindness, acceptance and equality. And as far as I am concerned, I will always remember: No Italian hottie is worth giving up my principles for.

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