IES: Italy



Children in 17th-century Venice were allegedly vulnerable to various forms of violence, and especially sexual abuse (Martini, 1986)[2]. The punishments for such crimes were in theory very severe, but in practice they were rarely applied and punishments were relatively light, especially for crimes against girls. However, in the second half of the century a new respect for childhood can be seen in the courts. The concept of childhood innocence, which always existed in theory, became more evident in practice. Sexual responsibility was restricted to childhood (Ruggiero, 1985:p148-52, 154)[3] and changed “suddenly” after age ten in males, some 2-4 years later in girls.

Haeberle (1997)[4] pointed out the central role of Italy as providing the first sexological journal, and the first pioneers in the field, building forth on ancient Roman and Islamic proceedings. The early writings of Mantegazza (“the first true sexologist in the modern sense [...] a truly pivotal figure in Western intellectual history”) are of interest here.


Mantegazza[5] regarded the Dawn of Love as announced by three facts: pollutions [which are said to be natural and calm rather than to boost the senses…but not more than 2 to 3 times a week], erections and a mighty longing to approach a woman to honour her with a first impregnating [?] kiss. He complained about the depraved and hypocritical nature of his society to corrupt such ideal, reducing its “idyll[6]” to a mere rarity. He regarded pubertal sexual dreams [the Angel of the Night] as a sublime sex educator, and recommends young readers to subside with their content. He also mentions the artificial awakening of unripe, innocent organs by means of example and the Maid’s seductions, by this arousing feelings that previously slumbered and polluted the immaculate purity of the first years of life, producing “unripe Onanists and Lovers”. In a chapter on masturbation, he again warns for maids. On children’s masturbation he complains: “The innocence is dead, before it was born, and the satirical cramps of lust have carved the first grooves on the face of the angel” [transl. from Dutch ed., DJ].


Similarly, Marro (1899:p214) [7] had argued that “[i]n man at the age of puberty the sexual emotion awakes powerfully […]”. Marro[8] further pointed out that early masturbation was rampant among criminals (cf. Lombroso)[9].


Jagstaidt et al. (1996)[10] provide some contemporary data on childhood sex play and masturbation in Italian bulimics. Caletti (1980:p145)[11] gives some data on childhood and adolescent sexual milestones in the early 1970s in regions of Venice.

In the second “ASPER” study by Cafaro (1992:p110)[12] adolescents indicated to have masturbated before age 10/10-11/12-13 in 7.2%, 30.2% and 35% (not accumulative figures), respectively; for females, these figures read 3.1%, 22.3% and 40.1%. The first “sexual experience” occurred mostly at ages 15-16, with 1.5% in twelve-year-old males, and 2.1% in 12-year-old females (p49). More than forty per cent had either their menarche or polluarche at ages 11-12 (p48). According to a generational study[13], mean age at first intercourse in Northern Italy was 20.7 for the cohort born in 1910-19 and was fairly stable in men born after 1919, ranging from 18.4 to 18.8. For females, the mean age at first intercourse decreased from 23.6 years to 23.1, 22.7, 21.3 and 19.7.


Parca (1965 [1967:p20-36])[14] gives a rather elaborate view of Italian boyhood significant mostly for before 1950. According to this study (N=1,018), 20% was sure not to have played sexually in childhood, another 20% said not to remember anything like it, while more than half indicated they did. The age at which this occurred was typically 6 or 7, the exception being rural south Italy, were the age of 8 or 9 is the most common timing [p25-8]. This may not be in discordance with observations by Whyte (1943a:p25; 1943b)[15], who writes on slum “corner boys”:


“In Cornerville children ten years of age know most all the swear words and they have a good idea of what the good “lay” means. Swearing and describing sex relations by older people and by the boys that hang on the corner are overheard by little children and their actions are noticed and remembered. Many of the children when they are playing in the streets, doorways and cellars actually go through the motions which pertain to the word “lay”. I have seen them going through these motions, even children under ten years of age”.


In Southern Italy, it is likely the young boy has his penis “singled out for teasing admiration. This open phallic admiration is characteristic of the behaviour of mothers and sons, and in teasing infrafamily behaviour the genital organs may be poked or referred to with provocative gestural indications. Children may also share beds with their parents or with each other even at advanced ages (crowding often makes this necessary) though precautions are taken to prevent their observing intercourse. One man was asked what he would do if he saw this; the answer was “I would kill them”. Except for small children, modesty taboos are very strict, and while physical proximity within the family is very close with respect to anything except genital activity, this latter is surrounded with some secrecy” (Parsons, 1964 [1969:p255-6])[16]. Also, around the age of six or seven, “the growing attractiveness of the little girl is the focus of considerable teasing from father and older brothers, uncles, etc.”.

In a report on young adults (Signorelli et al., 2000)[17], the median age at first sexual experience appeared 18 years for both genders. In another study (De Seta et al., 2000)[18] of symptomatic patients attending an outpatient clinic for sexually transmitted diseases between April 1995 and April 1999, the age of sexual intercourse was below 15 in 44.4% of patients (vs 7.7% of control women aged 20 to 40).

Nearly four in 10 Italiajn teenage maleshad their first sexual experience with a prostitute, according to a survey in Rome's la Reupplica newspaper. Some of the contacts were with transvestites[19].


In a study by Amann-Gainotti (1986; etc.)[20]  in Southern Italy, half of the postmenarcheal girls expressed a negative evaluation of their first experiences with menstruation, generally due to lack of advance information. As to sources of information, importance of the peer group was confirmed, especially for boys; the influence of the mother and the cultural environment accounted for the positive acceptance of menarche. Fathers appeared to be uninvolved in the transmission of information about menstruation to either boys or girls.


At puberty, a girl becomes a Vergine, Virgin[21]:


“The innate vulnerability of women- defined in terms of their ability to be physically penetrated- is commonly cited to explain and justify their strict surveillance, which begins at puberty. On the one hand, puberty indicates the potential to create life, a potential that should come to fruition following marriage, But Garrese [Garre, Sicilian town] also believe that puberty marks the beginning of a woman’s sexuality- her own sexual urges as well as her sexual appeal to men. Therefore from that point on a woman must be carefully guarded if her virtue is to remain intact”.


Giovanni observes how, through negative and positive terms, women “[…] are socialised to accept and even desire the role of la Vergine”.


As excerpted from Wanrooij (2001)[22]:


“Men start masturbating earlier than women: 16.3 percent before age 12, 33.3 percent between age 12 and 13. In any event, the vast majority - both men and women - consider masturbation part of the sexuality of every normal human being. This idea is the outcome of radical changes in the consideration of masturbation. In the nineteenth century, masturbation was the object of severe repression, and was said to be the cause of numerous physical problems. Moreover, masturbation, especially if performed in the presence of other people of the same sex as might occur in boarding schools, was believed to lead to homosexuality. In the twentieth century, opposition against masturbation was based above all on the idea that masturbation undermined the individual’s capacity to use sexuality as a form of communication. Alternatively, masturbation was considered a substitute for “real sex,” an act which could be performed by young people without stable partners, but which denoted a lack of sexual maturity in the case of adults”.

“In the beginning of the twentieth century, expressions of infantile sexuality were considered a form of perversion, and were severely repressed. Today, on the contrary, most Italian parents acknowledge the sexual curiosity of children, but at the same time fear that games with a sexual overtone may lead to over-sexualization. Moreover, Italian parents are afraid of the sexual abuse of children by adults, which is the object of general severe condemnation and repression. From a legal point of view, sexual relations with minors under age 14 are considered statutory rape. The age limit is higher, 16, in the case when the adult person cohabiting with the minor is a relative, guardian, or other person with educational responsibilities over the minor. A minor who has sexual relations with another minor is not guilty of any crime, on the conditions that the younger partner is at least age 13, and the age difference between the partners is not more than three years. […] In Italy, no specific rituals exist marking the passage from childhood to adolescence or adult age. […]Most males discover their homosexual desires during puberty, between the ages of 11 and 15 (42.6 percent), or adolescence, age 16 to 20 (20.9 percent). Females become aware of their desires at a later age”.



In a 2001 sample of men and women representing Italians born between 1946 and 1975[23], it was shown that


“[…] the pattern of men and especially of women has evolved through the cohorts: synchronisation between first sexual intercourse and first marriage has progressively decreased; median age at the event, after a phase of decreasing, has increased again and the most recent generations display an age at first intercourse close to that of the oldest generations but much more spread out along the age axis”.



“During the fascist period the age of consent of then 12 years has been raised in 1930: to 14 for `morally corrupted" youths (Art. 519, 521 CF) and to 16 for the "uncorrupted" (Art. 530 CF). The higher age limit for "innocent" adolescents should serve as a basis for a moralising jurisdiction and i.e. for discrimination of homosexual relations. Fortunately the courts seemed to handle the law rather restrictively. More than 100 people a year have been reported to police for this offence but less than 10 convicted. Now [1996] the offence has been repealed and the new law establishes a uniform, non-discriminating age limit for all youths (whether "corrupted" or not) 14 years (Art. .609 quater CP). Moreover consensual sexual relations with 13 year olds are not punishable if the partner is not older than 16 (Art. 609 quater CP)[24]”.




“A castrato is a type of high-voiced male singer, produced by castrating young boys with promising voices before they reached puberty. Castrati rose to prominence in the Italian opera seria of the 17th and 18th centuries. They were the prima donnas, even the rock stars, of their day. Somewhat ironically, however, the era of castrati both began and ended in the church. Castrati are known to have existed in Western Europe by the 1550’s and were present for centuries before in the Byzantine church. The “last castrato,” Alessandro Moreschi (1858-1922), was a singer of the Sistine Chapel”[25] (cf. Peschel and Peschel, 1986/7)[26]. “At a time during the eighteenth century, when the reign of the castrati was supreme, it is estimated that as many as four thousand boys were castrated in Italy each year” (Pleasants, 1970:p38, as quoted in Ferranti, 2004:p20)[27].


See also:


§         Watkin, N. A., From mutilation to medication: The history of orchidectomy, Br J Urol 80:373-8

§         Roll, L. ([2000]) Angels We Have Heard On High: The Making Of The Castrati In 17th And 18th Century Italy, in Averbach, M., Marquez, E., Prale, Ph. & Young, J. (Eds.) Interpretations. 13th Edition [,Lindsey2.doc]

§         Many links:




Additional refs. Italy:


§         Mantelli (1967), in Caletti et al. (Eds.) Educazione Sessuale. Mestre: Ospedale Civile, p109-16

§         Scapari (1891) Le anomalie sessuali nei bambini, Arch Italiano Ped 9:219-22; Venturi (1892) Le Degenerazioni Psicosessuali, p363

§         Vinci, S. (1997) Dei Bambini non si sa Niente. Turin: Einaudi Editore s.p.a. [1998 Engl. transl., A Game We Play. London:  Chatto & Windus / 2000 Engl. transl., What We Don't Know about Children. New York: Knopf]

§         Borgoni, R. & Gabrielli, G. (2002) An attempt to explain geographical differences in age at first sexual intercourse. Affettività e sessualità degli studenti Seminario internazionale di studio Hotel Silvanetta, Milazzo (ME) 20-22 giugno []

§         Wanrooij, B. (2005) Sex Education in Italy, 1945-1980. Paper to be delivered to International Conference "Sex Education of the Young in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History", 16th to 17th April, 2005 at CollingwoodCollege, University of Durham, UK





Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Dec 2004


[1] See also Roman Empire

[2] Martini, G. (1986) Rispetto dell’infanzia e violenza sui minori nella venezia del seicento [Respect for childhood and violence against minors in 17th-century Venice], Società e Storia [Italy] 9,34:793-817

[3] Ruggiero, G. (1985) The Boundaries of Eros. New York: Oxford University Press, p138

[4] Haeberle, E. J. (1997) Sexology: from Italy to Europe and the world, in Simonelli, C. et al. (Eds.) Sessualità e Terzo Millennio, Studi e Ricerche in Sessuologia Clinica. Milan: Franco Angeli. Vol. I, p13-22

[5] Fisiologia dell’ Amore (1872). Dutch translation, 1889

[6] On idylls, he remembers a farmer's boy, who with a rare fortune had reached the marriageable age, without having been informed of the good and the bad. When it comes to passions in a dark stable, and to emission, the “powerful boy” ran back to his mother to confess all, in dread that he might be maimed forever. 

[7] Marro, A. (1899) Influence of the puberal development upon the moral character of children of both sexes, Am J Sociol 5,2:193-219

[8] Caratteri dei Deliquenti, quoted by Havelock Ellis

[9] Lombroso, C. (1876) L’Uomo Deliquente. Milan. Translated as Criminal Man; Lombroso, C. (1883) Amori anomali precoci nei pazzi, Archiv di Psichiatria7:22

[10] Jagstaidt, V., Golay, A. & Pasini, W. (1996) Sexuality and bulimia, New Trends in Exp & Clin Psychia 12,1:9-15

[11] Caletti, G. (1980) Report on the sexual behavior of a selected group of people, in Forleo, R. & Pasini, W. (Ed.) Medical Sexology. Amsterdam [etc.]: Elsevier, p144-7

[12] Cafaro, D. (1992) Sesso 2000. 2° Rapporto ASPER. Roma: ASPER

[13] Negri, E., La Vecchia, C., Franceschi, S. & Parazzini, F. (1993) [Number of sexual partners and age at first intercourse in subsequent generations of Italian males and females], Rev Epidemiol Santé Publique 41,1:59-64

[14] Parca, G. (1965) Mentalità e Comportamento del Maschio Italiano. Dutch translation (1967), Italiaanse Mannen en de Liefde. Amsterdam: Contact

[15] Whyte, W. F. (1943a) A slum sex code, Am J Sociol 49,1:24-31; Whyte, W. F. (1943b) Street Corner Society. University of Chicago Press

[16] Parsons, A. (1964) Is the Oedipus complex universal?, Psychoanal Study Soc 3:278-328. Reprinted in Muensterberger, W. (Ed., 1969) Man and his Culture. London: Rapp & Whinting, p331-84

[17] Signorelli, C., Renzi, C., Zantedeschi, E. & Bossi, A. (2000) [Prevention focused on sexual behavior], Ann Ist Super Sanita 36,4:441-3

[18] De Seta, F., Riccoli, M., Sartore, A., De Santo, D., Grimaldi, E., Ricci, G., Wiesenfeld, U. & Guaschino, S. (2000) [Sexual behavior and adolescence], Minerva Ginecol 52,9:339-44

[19] The Observer, 19/8/01

[20] Amann-Gainotti, M. (1986) Sexual socialization during early adolescence: the menarche, Adolescence 21,83:703-10. See also Amann-Gainotti, M. (1988) La rappresentazione dell’interno del corpo: uno studio evolutivo, Arch Psicol, Neurol & Psychichia 4:480-98; Amann-Gainotti, M., Nenci, A. M. & Di Prospero, B. (1989) Adolescent girls’ representations of their genital inner space, Adolescence 24,94:473-80; Amann-Gainotti, M., Di Prospero, B. & Nenci, A. M. (1989) [Anatomical knowledge in relation to the female genitalia in adolescent girls], Minerva Ginecol 41,5:231-5; Amann-Gainotti, M. (1989) Knowledge and beliefs about the body interior during early adolescence: the case of menstruations, Acta Paedopsychia 52,2:143-9; Amann-Gainotti, M. & Antenore, C. (1990) Development of internal body image from childhood to early adolescence, Percept & Motor Skills 71,2:387-93

[21] Giovannini, M. J. (1981) Woman: A Dominant Symbol Within the Cultural System of a Sicilian Town, Man, N. S. 16,3:408-26, at p411

[22] Wanrooij, B. P. F. (2001) Italy, in Francoeur, R. T. (Ed. in chief) The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. Vol. 4. New York: Continuum. Online ed.

[23] Ongaro, F. (2001) First sexual intercourse in Italy: a shift towards an even more personal experience. IUSSP XXIVth General Population Conference, Salvadorde Bahia, Brazil, August 18-24, 2001 []

[24]Graupner, H.(1996) Italy Reduced Age of Consent to 14 for All - and to 18 for Some, EuroLetter [ILGA Europe] 34:11-2

[25] Boys Will Be Girls, Girls Will Be Boys: Cross Gender Roles in Opera. University at Buffalo Music Library Exhibit, October 1, 2003-January 9, 2004 []

[26] Peschel, E. Rh. & Peschel, R. E.  (1986/7) Medicine and Music: The Castrati in Opera, Opera Quarterly 4,4:21 et seq.

[27] Pleasants, H. (1970) The Great Singers: From the Dawn of Opera to Our Own Time. New York: Simon & Schuster; Ferranti, T. L. (2004) A Historical Approach to Training the Vocal Registers: Can Ancient Practice Foster Contemporary Results? Thesis, LouisianaStateUniversity. Chapter 3: The Rise And Fall Of The Castrato: