Jul 14, 2023
Written by Sam Dordulian, Esq.
A judge in Italy ruled earlier this week that groping is not technically a crime if it lasts less than 10 seconds. The decision has rightfully sparked an uproar across social media, particularly among young people in Italy. The phrase palpata breve (a brief groping) has become a trend across platforms like TikTok, and many high-profile Italians including “White Lotus” actor Paolo Camilli have posted videos of themselves looking into the camera while touching their intimate parts for 10 seconds straight to demonstrate the impact of such a nonconsensual violation.
So, what could this judge have been thinking? Unfortunately, it’s an example of an inherent bias many sexual assault survivors face through the justice system – whether in Italy, the U.S., or anywhere across the globe.
I’ll analyze the decision a bit more from the perspective of a former sex crimes prosecutor and current civil litigator representing survivors. But first, let’s review the facts of the case.
In April 2022, a then-17-year-old student identified as Laura in court documents was walking up a stairway to class when she “felt her pants fall down, a hand touching her buttocks, and then a man grabbing her underwear,” according to a BBC News report.
The assailant, Antonio Avola, 66, was a caretaker at the school. Avola admitted to groping Laura, but claimed the act was merely a joke. “Love, you know I was joking,” he reportedly said after the nonconsensual touching occurred.
A public prosecutor in Rome asked for a three-and-a-half year prison sentence for Avola, but the confessed sexual assailant was acquitted of all charges. The judge’s ruling on the matter could easily be misconstrued as a headline from satirical outlet The Onion. Due to the grope only lasting “between five and 10 seconds,” he deemed it “too fleeting” to be considered a crime, The Guardian reported.
In his decision, the judge also added that the “modalities” of Avola’s inappropriate touching allowed for “margins of doubt” relative to the “voluntary nature of the violation of the girl’s sexual freedom… considering the very nature of touching the buttocks, for a certainly minimal time, given that the whole action is concentrated in a handful of seconds.”
In other words – he didn’t tough her genitals and it lasted a few seconds, so how bad could it be? (Also, the judge’s use of “voluntary nature” is deeply troubling given that it suggests this could have in some way been either out of the assailant’s control or, worse yet, could somehow be construed as consensual.) But it actually gets even more concerning:
“Furthermore, it seems likely that the brushing of the buttocks was caused by an awkward maneuver of the defendant which, due to the dynamics of the action, was carried out while the subject was in motion,” the judge added.
Following the ruling, the teenage student who was groped expressed frustration and disbelief to local Corriere della Sera newspaper.
“The judge ruled that he was joking? Well, it was no joke to me,” she said.
“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.“
“That handful of seconds was more than enough for the caretaker to make me feel his hands on me,” she added
As is often the case with survivors who are denied justice, Laura told the local newspaper that she felt betrayed by the ruling and believed it would likely deter other women who have experienced sexual violence from coming forward.
“I’m starting to think I was wrong to trust the institutions. This is not justice,” she said.
This is one of the most frustrating aspects of being a sexual assault attorney – constantly witnessing the cycle of:
In terms of why this occurs so often in sexual assault cases, there are a few trends I’d like to highlight which need to be addressed systemically within both criminal and civil courts:
The judge’s ruling is one of many within Italy that should be viewed as questionable. In 2017, a judge in Ancona reportedly cleared two men of rape, asserting in part that the victim looked “too masculine” to be a target of attraction. Additionally, the infamous “tight jeans” sexual assault case which sparked the Denim Day movement involved overturning a rape conviction because the victim had to help her assailant remove her pants, and therefore the Italian Supreme Court asserted it was actually a consensual act. The argument came to be known as the “jeans alibi,” and incited outrage across Italy and around the world.
But these wrongheaded decisions highlight a widespread bias inherent in not only the Italian justice system, but also here at home. Sexual assault survivors sadly face far more hurdles to justice than other victims of crime. That said, coming forward and reporting crimes continues to be the best means of holding perpetrators accountable and furthering the progress of the #MeToo Movement.
Sam Dordulian is a former Los Angeles County sex crimes prosecutor. He currently represents survivors of all forms of sexual violence in civil court. Dordulian is a member of the National Leadership Council for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence nonprofit organization.
Our law firm in Glendale, CA advocates for victims of sexual assault, injury, employment disputes, and personal injury concerns.