When in Rome, don’t do as the Romans do. Public masturbation was recently ruled legal in Italy, following a case where a 69-year-old man performed the act in front of female students at the University of Catania in Sicily.
A country already facing a “birthrate apocalypse” and where about half of 25- to 34-year-olds still live with their parents has now loosened the rules about showcasing one’s spaghetti and meatballs in public places. The man will still face a stiff fine, but he’s free to do his thing in public from now on.
Europe is struggling with tourism numbers due to terrorism and increasing instability, not to mention serious problems with rape culture. Germans, who incidentally have surpassed Japan as having the lowest birthrate in the world, were recently advised by their Interior Ministry to store food and water in the case of a national emergency, for example.
Giving leering perverts in Italian alleys a license to choke the chicken doesn’t seem likely to put those European tourism numbers up, especially when turning a blind eye to that kind of behavior is already likely a factor in the kind of mass sex assaults that took place around Germany last New Year.
Practical and marketing considerations aside, there are also basic norms of decency to consider. Women, especially (not that none would ever be among the perpetrators, although it seems much less likely), shouldn’t have to face legally sanctioned randos popping around corners with their junk out. That just seems like common sense and common decency. But in 2016 it’s far from it.
Sweden already has one hand up on the competition for whose country can become the most degenerate in the public sphere: it allows public masturbation so long as it’s not directed “towards a specific person.” The landmark case involved a man, a beach, and, yeah, don’t ask.
From Michelangelo to Public Touching
Italy has a storied history, playing host to blossoming creativity and knowledge during the Renaissance from the fourteenth to seventeenth century, and overcoming internecine conflict during the Italian Wars in the 1500s to eventually come together into a kingdom during Risorgimento (unification) in the 1800s. It was a founding member of the European Union in 1957. Now that arc of history ends with a lone tourist or local jerking it by the Trevi Fountain or fondling on the Bridge of Sighs?
Europe has been known as somewhat more sexually open than its American cousins, and as having a heightened “comfort level” with things like nudity on public beaches and so forth, but this ruling pushes it into refusing to protect the vulnerable and the public.
Opposition politicians in Italy have claimed the center-left government of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is taking it too easy on perverts, with center-right Forza party MP Elvira Savino saying “the government’s law is an invitation to every maniac to molest women.”
While this political rhetoric may be slightly exaggerated, there’s no doubt the ruling reflects a troubling decline in public standards and in the idea that a legal body decides what is right or wrong. What sort of civilization lasts that doesn’t have public standards of behavior it can effectively enforce? Answer: only a poor excuse for a civilization. Nobody wants to be on a bus next to a gentleman shampooing his private parts.
Why Public Decency Has Declined
The late Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce understood the distortion of authority within the West, and wrote about it eloquently. As he notes in the linked paper, authority in contemporary Western society is seen as inherently “repressive” by forbidding pleasurable or liberating actions. In fact, the root word of authority means “to make grow” and conceptually refers to how following one’s proper course as a rational and moral being leads to freedom and improvement.
This is in contrast to the ersatz freedom of atomized, anomalous individual pursuing his or her momentary instincts. Purportedly, no church, court, or person can forbid another’s choices of self-expression. As del Noce writes:
Today the crisis of authority does not undermine only religious-transcendent thought; it calls into question the aspirations themselves of secular-Enlightened thought, since the question that arises is whether nihilism might have to be regarded as the endpoint of the ascending line of the western process of liberation.
This ruling seems only one small footnote in Europe’s growing social enabling of rape culture and its lack of defense for the vulnerable. It’s giving up the public sphere to whatever manifests the strongest force of moral inertia.
In American popular culture, standards of public decency have also fallen lower than a rapper’s pants and vocabulary, not to mention even lower than the output of mainstream pop stars. I still remember being in a small convenience store around 2011 buying a chocolate bar as the lyrics to Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” came out of the radio speakers. Upon catching a snippet of the lyrics I realized it was a nihilistic, revolting song, especially for a medium such as radio that anyone can listen to.
“Last Friday night/ We went streaking in the park/ Skinny dipping in the dark/ Then had a menage-a-trois.” Songs about spontaneous threesomes from an album called “Teenage Dream,” uncensored on the radio, playing in convenience stores where anyone and his young family could just walk in? Brilliant. What a role model for youth. Harmless fun.
Why Public Masturbation Isn’t Cool
Compulsive over-masturbation, including public masturbation and the urge to compel others to look at one doing such an act, is often rooted in childhood trauma and abuse, according to Psychology Today:
Choosing masturbation over intimate relationships, the person can become isolated, or end up spending all their time and money on porn to further fuel their compulsive behavior. Still others become addicted to the point where they find themselves unable to control the urge to masturbate in public or otherwise inappropriate places. This is addiction, and it can have just as grave, debilitating consequences as drugs or alcohol.
Being accosted and masturbated at or touched inappropriately in public is also a common (and traumatic) experience for women, according to The Guardian. The disgusting occurrence affects many places, including India, where men rule the roost and rape is rampant. There, taxi drivers are often reported masturbating as they drive, many times especially around foreign women.
Women often don’t report when it happens to them, out of the “inconvenience of getting involved in legal tangles” and complaints this rarely makes it to court. But India’s tourism minister is on it, taking a page from his European counterparts: he recently advised women not to wear skirts.
What to Do About Public Masturbation
Some countries go too far in punishment. Indonesia hands out up to 32-month sentences, while in Saudi Arabia even discussing the possibility that some masturbation is acceptable in private life can land you in jail and with hundreds of lashes. U.S. states have a roster of differing punishments. In Alabama public stimulation of oneself is illegal only if an artificial device is being used. In North Carolina, public masturbation is a misdemeanor that can carry a $1,000 fine and three months behind bars.
A lot of research indicates public masturbation and compulsive public sex acts are both a mental health and cultural problem, as mentioned above. It should be punished, certainly, but also probably treated. Since this isn’t always an option, the wider problem is best seen as the symptom of a kind of societal malaise. This should send us back to examine root issues affecting a culture such as family, community, faith, and media. Rather than going after every deviant, maybe it’s time to delve into whatever is eroding core of norms of decency in the public sphere and addressing them step by step.
Italy’s ruling is revolting and surprising, although there is at least one sad, recently separated individual who might find jerking off under the Tuscan sun just what he’s looking for at this point in his life: “Welcome to Italy, Mr. Weiner—I mean Signor Salsiccia.”