In 1963 Pier Paolo Pasolini was touring Italy scouting locations for his next film.
As it happens during creative processes, the trip turned into an occasion to develop another project the writer had been thinking about for a while: a documentary on the sexual education of Italians.
When released, Comizi d’Amore (Love Meetings, 1965) caused scandal.
For the first time in Italy, a film investigated a topic that was still considered taboo even among the most liberal.
From bourgeois holiday destinations to rural villages, Pasolini and his crew travelled the country far and wide, interviewing the widest range of people: farmers, workers, soldiers, university students, writers, passers-by, train conductors, and a very prudish soccer team.
Timing was perfect. Employing the ability to foretell cultural shifts that would make Pasolini so influential, the intellectual had realized the country was changing, and was changing fast. Within the next few years, a deep transformation of customs and morals – culminating in the protests of 1968 – would have forced Italians to come to terms to a series of sexual questions raised by the student, feminist and homosexual movements.
It was largely thanks to the feminists that the 1970s brought significant changes in Italy. A divorce law was introduced in 1970; one regulating abortion eight years later. In the meantime, the sale of the contraceptive pill had been authorized in 1971; in 1975 the country’s family law was reformed to remove adultery from the list of punishable criminal acts.
But in the early 1960s few could have predicted what was to come, although some signs were starting to surface. In those years, a witty criticism of the traditional family and its codes arrived on the big screen. Pietro Germi’s Divorzio all’italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961) and Sedotta e abbandonata (Seduced and abandoned, 1964), and Mario Monicelli’s La ragazza con la pistola (The Girl with the Pistol, 1968) play with obsessions and fears deeply-rooted in the Italian society of the time. In the films, premarital sex and sex outside relationships escalate in crimes of passion and bride kidnappings, to humorous effect.
Though somewhat caricatural, such dynamics were all but implausible, especially in the most rural parts of the country. Italian law even provided that the sentence for a murder could be sensibly reduced to those who had killed their adulterous spouse, following the logic the uxoricide had been committed to restore the honor of the family. The infamous “Delitto d’onore” (honour killing) had been pretty common until it was abolished only 40 years ago.
Comizi d’Amore intended to make sense of it all. But Pasolini soon realized that Italians lacked intimacy and had “absolutely no general ideas on sexuality”.
In the reportage, questions about marriage are the most frequent. Homosexuality is not openly discussed and goes under the category of “sexual abnormities”. Abortion isn’t mentioned, not even once. The Merlin Law, which in 1958 had abolished the regulation of prostitution, decreeing the closure of brothels, is examined in detail in two scenes set in Naples and Palermo.
“What would become of our country in the future?” asks an old lady, closing an animated and equally confused speech against divorce. And she sounds exactly like some Italian senators opposing gay rights today.
Italy’s hopelessly patriarchal nature, structural difference between North and South, and extreme class-consciousness are laid bare. A dramatic contrast between the then recent economic boom and Italy’s archaic culture emerges. “The Italy of prosperity is dramatically contradicted in spirit by these real Italians” the documentary concludes.
Interestingly enough, even Pasolini’s friends and fellow intellectuals end up sounding elusive when confronted on certain topics. Poet Giuseppe Ungaretti’s explanation on what it means to be against-nature is elegant and truly poetic, but refuses to address any sexual content in a direct way.
Fast forward 60 years, things have considerably changed. …with some exception, of course.
Although the latest national research on broad-spectrum sexuality dates back to 2006, a more recent questionnaire, submitted to 8,000 young students born around 1998, was conducted in 2017.
Among the results highlighted by the Selfy (Sexual and Emotional Life of Youths) survey, it emerges that the sexual behavior of Italian millennials is aligning to the majority of their European peers. Within our national borders, differences in behavior amongst regions have also diminished to the point they’ve almost disappeared. Marriage for straight couples isn’t a fundamental theme anymore, though it’s been for homosexual ones for years, until Italy recognized civil unions in 2016.
First time sexual intercourses happens at a younger age than at the beginning of the 2000s, and it is more protected. Compared to 20 years ago, students are less prone to cheating. In fact, an overwhelming majority believe that betrayal is incompatible with the very existence of a couple relationship.
Contrary to what could have happened in previous generations, it seems young Italians don’t associate sexuality to hedonism anymore. In this scenario, occasional sex is becoming rarer and rarer.
Are we witnessing the return of romantic love?
Whatever the answer is, Pasolini would have replied with the same wish that closes Comizi d’Amore: “To your love, let there be added awareness of your love”