I had not heard of Franca Viola until today, and I am so glad I did because her narrative is so important to feminism. It’s a narrative revolving around the cult of virginity, male sexual privilege, and reclaiming female bodily autonomy. It is a narrative still VERY relevant to society today, as we witness more and more accusations of sexual harassment and rape against men on both the Left and Right. Just like these men who believe they have a right to grope and assault women’s bodies, Filippo Melodia believed he had the right to Franca’s body for his own sexual privilege. Here is a quick summary of Franca’s story:

Franca Viola (born January 7 1947 in Alcamo) is an Italian woman who became famous in the 1960s in Italy for refusing a “rehabilitating marriage” (“matrimonio riparatore” in Italian) with her victimizer after suffering kidnapping and rape. Instead, she and her family successfully appealed to the law to prosecute the rapist. The trial had a wide resonance in Italy, as Viola’s behavior clashed with the traditional social conventions in Southern Italy, whereby a woman would lose her honour if she did not marry the man she lost her virginity to.

Although Franca’s ordeal occurred in the 1960s, laws that allow rapists to marry their victims to avoid legal punishment have only just been overturned in Lebanon, Jordan, and Tunisia. Countries including Bahrain, Iraq, Philippines, Tajikistan, and Tunisia still allow this horrific legal loophole, and in countries such as Afghanistan and Malaysia, victims are forced to marry their rapists to “avoid scandal” despite there being no legal loophole in existence.

The reasoning behind this legal loophole is that the girl or woman who has been raped is dishonored because she is no longer a virgin, and thus no one else will marry her. It is the pinnacle of the cult of virginity. The focus on a girl’s virginity is enforced upon her and can be used against her by men such as Melodia. Thus even a girl’s virginity is not her own.

And in case one believes American women have been sexually liberated and thus we are no longer worshiping at the altar of the cult of virginity, consider purity balls in which a girl swears celibacy, promising to keep her virginity intact until she leaves her father’s house – and fathers often have a very creepy role to play in this whole virginity circus.

Also consider porn, in which “barely legal” is immensely popular, and the recently exposed Roy Moore, who assaulted teen girls, and whose actions have been defended as natural – according to the Bible – by fellow Christian Evangelicals. The reason young girls are so popular in both instances is because the younger a girl is, the more likely she is to be a virgin, thus sexually inexperienced and easier to control by the older male. In porn, the point is to take this virgin and degrade her; there is also a focus on how “tight” she will be for intercourse. We already know that porn is legal and widely used by men. What has also become a surprise for many is that despite laws concerning statutory rape, with the permission of a girl’s parents and the courts an older man can marry an underage girl in the United States. I would say this is Franca’s rape experience in reverse: first a girl is forced to marry an older man, and then she experiences statutory rape – which is legalized and sanctioned by marriage. If underage girls cannot consent to sex with adult men, then they cannot consent to marriage either, no matter what her parents and courts may think. We see child marriage not just in Evangelical circles, but in fundamentalist Mormon circles too – communities which need to be disbanded by law if the United States is serious about sexual abuse against girls. I specify girls because the reason the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals so horrified the public was because they involved boys. In these narratives abused girls were left out, often even denied to exist. When I was on the crisis helpline for a local DV organization, the reason became obvious during my conversation with a girl being abused by a priest – instead of a victim like the boys, her parents accused her of being slut and dishonoring the priest.

In the United States, there have also been instances in which the rapist reinserted himself into his victim’s life through custody battles over a child. In New Mexico, Mississippi, Alabama, Minnesota, North Dakota, Maryland, and Wyoming, there are no laws to prevent rapists from suing for custody of the children that resulted from their rapes. In fact, earlier this year in Maryland an all-male panel vetoed legislation to protect rape victims from such custody battles – so these rapists continue to have the same rights as consensual biological fathers.

How is this different from Franca’s situation and modern rape marriages? To me, it’s not much different. It still sends a clear message of male sexual entitlement and tramples on a women’s right to bodily autonomy and to live without the threat of sexual trauma. Furthermore, the legal loopholes in the United States that allow older men to marry underage girls can be used as shield laws to protect rapists. In the Fundamentalist Mormon and Evangelical sects – and really, many other parts of the United States that hold female virginity so dear – a girl’s family may still view her as ruined and believe marrying her rapist is the best option. Given the lack of social power of underage girls and continued social norms that over-sexualize young girls, a judge may believe she is consenting and thus approve the marriage despite statutory rape laws.

In many places, and in many ways, we have come a long way since Franca’s story. But in many places, and in many ways, we haven’t. There is still much work to be done.

Here is Franca’s (mostly) full story, from Wikipedia:

Franca Viola (born January 7 1947 in Alcamo) is an Italian woman who became famous in the 1960s in Italy for refusing a “rehabilitating marriage” (“matrimonio riparatore” in Italian) with her victimizer after suffering kidnapping and rape. Instead, she and her family successfully appealed to the law to prosecute the rapist. The trial had a wide resonance in Italy, as Viola’s behavior clashed with the traditional social conventions in Southern Italy, whereby a woman would lose her honour if she did not marry the man she lost her virginity to.

Franca Viola was born in the rural town of Alcamo, Sicily, the oldest daughter of Bernardo Viola, a farmer, and his wife, Vita Ferra. In 1963, at the age of 15, she became engaged to Filippo Melodia, nephew of the mafia member Vincenzo Rimi, then aged 23, but after Melodia was arrested for theft, Viola’s father insisted she break off the engagement, which she did. Melodia then traveled to Germany. By 1965 Viola was engaged to another man. Melodia by this time had returned to Alcamo and was trying unsuccessfully to re-enter Viola’s life, stalking her and threatening both her father and boyfriend.

In the early hours of December 26, 1965, Melodia and a group of armed companions broke into the Viola home and kidnapped Franca, in the process beating Viola’s mother and also taking Franca’s 8-year-old brother Mariano, who refused to let go of his sister. Mariano was released a few hours later, but Franca was held for 8 days in the home of Melodia’s sister and her husband, where she was repeatedly raped. Melodia told her that now she would be forced to marry him so as not to become a “dishonored” woman, but Viola replied that she had no intention of marriage and, moreover, that she would have him sued for kidnapping and rape. Viola’s father pretended to negotiate with the kidnappers, while actually collaborating with the Carabinieri police in preparing a successful dragnet operation. Viola was released and her kidnappers arrested on January 2, 1966, five days before her nineteenth birthday. She said her father asked her if she really wanted to marry Melodia and, when she said she did not want it, he told her he would do everything possible to help her.

Melodia offered Viola a rehabilitating marriage, but she refused, thus acting against what was the common practice in the Sicilian society of the time. According to traditional social code, this choice would make her a “donna svergognata”: a “woman without honour” (literally: a shameless woman), as she had lost her virginity without getting married. It is notable that these conceptions were not exclusive to Sicily or rural areas; to some extent, they were also implicit in the Italian Code of Criminal Procedure of the time, which equated rape to a crime against “public morality” rather than a personal offence, and formalized (in art. 544) the idea of a “rehabilitating marriage”, stating that a rapist who married his victim would have his crime automatically extinguished.

After Viola refused to marry her rapist, her family members were reportedly menaced and persecuted, to the point of having their vineyard and cottage burned to the ground. These events and the following trial had a wide resonance in the Italian media, and the Parliament itself was directly involved, as it became obvious that part of the existing code clashed with the public opinion. Melodia’s lawyers tried to maintain that Viola had consented to a so-called “fuitina” (a runaway to get married secretly) rather than being kidnapped, but the trial found Melodia guilty. He was condemned to 11 years in prison, later reduced to 10 years.