Italy: protests after school caretaker cleared of groping girl, 17, because assault was ‘under 10 seconds’
Italians are posting unsettling videos of them groping themselves on social media as a way to protest against the ruling
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A judge in Italy has sparked outrage after clearing a school caretaker of groping a girl because the assault only lasted for “a handful of seconds”.
The female student, 17, reported Antonio Avola, 66, to the police after he grabbed her in a stairwell at her school in Rome in April 2022. She told officers that the caretaker pulled down her trousers and touched her underwear and buttocks, before saying to her, “Love, you know I was joking”, when she turned around to confront him.
Avola admitted to touching the schoolgirl, but insisted that it was a “joke without sexual intent”. Despite a public prosecutor asking for a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence, the judge acquitted the man of all sexual assault charges - stating that because the grope lasted “between five and 10 seconds” it was too short to “constitute a crime”.
The judge added that while the teenager’s account was credible, there were “margins of doubt” surrounding the “voluntary nature of the violation of the girl’s sexual freedom” - arguing that the grope may have been caused “by an awkward manoeuvre of the defendant... considering the very nature of touching the buttocks, given that the whole action is concentrated in a handful of seconds.”
Incensed Italians have taken to social media to protest the ruling as a result, posting unsettling videos in which they look at the camera in silence and grope themselves for 10 seconds straight. The ‘10secondi’ hashtag and phrase ‘palpata breve’ - a brief groping - have been trending on Instagram and TikTok.
The trend was started by the White Lotus actor Paolo Camilli and picked up by Italy’s most prominent influencer, Chiara Ferragni. Another 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?”
The schoolgirl at the centre of the case has also spoken out against the acquittal, telling the newspaper Corriere della Sera: “The judge ruled that [Avola] was joking? Well, it was no joke to me.
“The caretaker came up from behind without saying anything. He put his hands down my trousers and inside my underwear,” she said. “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 that she feels betrayed by both her school and the justice system, and voiced concerns that the ruling will deter girls and women from coming forward if they are subjected to such assaults. According to recent figures from the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), 70% of Italian woman who suffered harassment between 2016 and 2021 did not report the incident.
Meanwhile, the case has also prompted discussion of how normalised sexual harassment and assault are in Italian society - with many pointing to controversial rulings previously made by judges. One example being given is a decision made by three judges in Ancona in 2017, who cleared two men of rape partly because the alleged victim looked “too masculine” to be a target of attraction.
The men had initially been convicted by a court of raping a woman from Peru - who was 22 at the time of the alleged attack in 2015 - but were later acquitted by the appeals court. In the judges’ reasoning document, there was a passage that argued the woman’s story was not credible enough because she resembled a man and therefore would not have been appealing enough to have been attacked.
Speaking to The Guardian at the time, the woman’s lawyer, Cinzia Molinaro, said: “It was disgusting to read. The judges expressed various reasons for deciding to acquit [the men], but one was because they said they didn’t even like her because she was ugly. They also wrote that a photograph [of the woman] reflected this.”