The Scotsman

Sun 10 Nov 2002

The Law's an ass for Italy's women

KEVIN BUCKLEY IN MILAN
The Scotsman

ITALY’S office lechers have been given the green light to pat the bottoms of their female work colleagues with impunity - as long as they do not make a habit of it.

The country’s highest court of appeal, the Corte di Cassazione, has ruled that patting a woman’s bottom does not constitute sexual molestation if it is a "one-off" gesture carried out on the spur of the moment.

The controversial ruling marks the end of an eight-year legal battle in which regional magistrates in Venice have represented a female office worker who objected to the unwelcome physical attentions of her manager who patted her bottom at work.

In 1994 Enzo Micheli was found guilty of molesting the woman, and sentenced to 18 months in prison, barred from working in public service for a year and ordered to pay £2,500 in compensation to his victim.

A series of appeals and counter-appeals spiralled up to the Supreme Court, which last year ruled in favour of Micheli, on the grounds that the act "contained no libidinous intent". The ruling by the Corte di Cassazione rejected a final appeal by the Venice public prosecutor.

The bottom-patting debate has provoked bitter protest among equal rights campaigners who claim Italy is in danger of slipping back into its chauvinistic past.

The final ruling has not surprised Maria Grazia Borriello, editor of La Donna, one of Italy’s leading women’s magazines.

"This attitude reflects the climate we are now breathing in Italy," she said. "It seems we are losing all the democratic values and customs we won."

Mina di Pavia, 32, a computer sales executive from Milan, added: "I’m not a puritan, but if any colleague tried that I’d kill him. Making a joke of equality of the sexes is, it appears, condoned by the law."

This is not the first time the country’s highest legal authority has astonished public opinion with its rulings on sex cases.

In 1999 it threw out a rape allegation on the grounds that the woman must have assisted her alleged attacker in removing her clothes because she was wearing skin-tight stretch jeans. The infamous "jeans ruling" prompted cross-party protests in the Italian parliament, where female MPs arrived for work wearing denim.