Does it count as groping if it lasts for less than 10 seconds? Yes, the question is outrageous. But if Italian judges are to be believed, it is not a sexual assault if it does not last long enough.
In a controversial decision, a court ruled that unwanted touching that lasts fewer than 10 seconds is not a crime. The case involved a teenager and a school authority.
A 66-year-old caretaker of a high school in Rome, who was accused of groping a student, was let off the hook because the harassment was not prolonged.
The incident dates back to April 2022. The 17-year-old student was walking up the stairs to a class with a friend when the caretaker pulled her pants down, grabbed her underwear and fondled her buttocks.
According to a BBC report, when the girl turned around, the man told her, “Love, you know I was joking.”
The teenager reported the caretaker, identified as Antonio Avola, to the police. He was charged with sexual assault and sent to trial. Prosecutors had called for a three-and-a-half-years prison sentence for the accused.
Groping for 10 secs doesn’t ‘constitute a crime’
While Avola admitted that he had touched the student without consent, he reiterated it was a joke.
A court in Rome has taken his word and cleared him of the charges. It ruled that the groping had “only lasted between five and 10 seconds” and that the man’s hand had not “lingered” down her underwear for a brief while. It did not “constitute a crime”.
The caretaker had not intended to seriously molest the teenager, the court said. Putting his hand inside her trousers was “bumbling” but had not been a sign of “sexual desire”, it added, according to a report in Telegraph.
Deciding to acquit Avola of the sexual assault charge, judges said that the defence that it was a joke appeared “convincing”.
This not a joke, says teen
The schoolgirl is outraged. Recalling the assault, she told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, “The caretaker came up from behind without saying anything. He put his hands down my trousers and inside my underwear.”
“He groped my bottom. Then, he pulled me up — hurting my private parts. For me, this is not a joke. This is not how an old man should ‘joke’ with a teenager,” the girl added. “A joke is something shared between two people. This is not the way that a janitor should joke around with a young girl of 17. I’m very angry. This is not justice. I feel betrayed twice over – first by the school, where it happened, and now by the court,” she said.
“Many people think it is shameful that the state does not recognise certain behaviour as violent acts,” she was quoted as saying by Telegraph.
The ‘brief groping’ protest
The girl is not the only one angry. The judgment has left Italy seething and has triggered an online protest, which is catching on. “Palpata breve”, a brief groping, has become a trend on Instagram and TikTok along with #10secondi. Angry Italians are putting up videos of grabbing their intimate parts.
Both men and women have posted clips on social platforms in which they are seen touching their breasts and chests unsettlingly alongside a timer, which counts down from 10 seconds.
One of the first people to join the online protest was The White Lotus actor Paolo Camilli. He can be seen rubbing his chest in silence.
Several other influencers followed suit. The clips are unnerving but they send out a strong message of how long and traumatising those 10 seconds can be. Chiara Ferragni, a social media influencer with almost 30 million followers, also reshared some videos.
An influencer Francesco Cicconetti wrote on TikTok, “Who decides that 10 seconds is not a long time? Who times the seconds, while you’re being harassed?”
“Men don’t have the right to touch women’s bodies, not even for a second… let alone 5 or 10,” he outraged.
Casual sexism in Italy
Clearly, Italy does not think the assault was a joke. However, this is not the first time a court in the country has cleared a predator for groping.
In 2016, a 65-year-old man, who was accused of inappropriately touching women colleagues, was found not guilty of sexual harassment. Back then, an Italian court ruled that he was driven by an immature sense of humour, reports Daily Mail.
A junior colleague had accused the man of touching her sexually, while another woman said that he gave her a “tight slap on the behind” treating her like a little girl.
While the court in Palermo, Sicily, admitted that the accused behaved as the women had said, it acquitted him.
Casual sexism is prevalent in Italy. Last year, former premier Silvio Berlusconi promised a football team he owned “a coachload of whores” if they won the next match. Last week, Italian minister Vittorio Sgarbi faced calls for resignation after he boasted of sleeping with 1,500 women.
If court rulings and public figures belittle women, it comes as little surprise that those harassed are reluctant to speak up. The BBC quotes recent figures from the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) which reveal that 70 per cent of Italian women who suffered harassment between 2016 and 2021 did not report the matter. “They feel reporting abuse is not worth it,” the report pointed out.
This is exactly what the 17-year-old girl from Rome said after the ruling – that it would discourage other young women from coming forward.
With inputs from agencies