As a busy afternoon has faded into a quieter evening, I’ve been unable to get thoughts of the Amanda Knox conviction out of my mind. For those not in the loop, Knox is a 22 year-old American woman who was found guilty today by an Italian court of murdering her British housemate while both were students doing a year abroad in Perugia. Knox and her Italian boyfriend were convicted on what the vast majority of American observers considered to be circumstantial evidence, with no convincing evidence of a motive, and after another man unconnected to Knox and her fella had already been convicted of the crime. The murder of the young English woman, Meredith Kercher, took place in 2007, and the story has been given sensational coverage throughout the European media, particularly in Italy and the UK. The allegations — never proved to the satisfaction of most — that Knox and her beau had killed Kercher as part of a bizarre sexual ritual were captivating; the prettiness of the young women involved and the luridness of the story spun by the prosecution generated tremendous global interest.
In the fall of 2000, I taught a semester abroad in Florence. I traveled with one other teacher and 45 Pasadena City College students, two-thirds of whom were female. The vast majority of Americans who study abroad are women, for a variety of reasons, and our trip was no exception. We warned our students about the attitudes that many Italians have towards young American women; we advised them about the different “street environment” they could expect to find in Florence. But even I, who had traveled extensively in Italy before going as a professor, was stunned by the attitudes we encountered. The reputation of American “girls” as sexually undiscriminating, freed for the first time from the watchful eyes of parents and at least most of their peers, was nearly universal. And while it is certainly true that for the young and not-so-young, travel is almost invariably an aphrodisiac and a notorious compromiser of inhibitions, the beliefs about American women students were grounded far more in myth and media than in reality.
Still, some of the young women on our trip did have flings with the locals; a few did find Italian boyfriends, as Amanda Knox did. There were some heartbreaks and some scares. I half-jokingly told my students, in one of our pre-trip meetings, that I had only three rules for them: No jails, no hospitals, and no unintended pregnancies. We had a couple of students picked up by the cops (and then released, for smoking marijuana with local lads), we had one tragic incident that left one of our guys paralyzed for life from the waist down. It was an eventful trip. But though there was a lot of drinking and quite a few short-term affairs, for the most part our students emerged unscathed. And whatever they were doing, they treated Florence and the rest of the country with respect and the kind of wide-eyed wonder so natural among youngsters from the New World making their first serious visit to the heart of the Old.
I hated the contempt for our students that I so often heard from some in Florence and elsewhere. Though it was often tinged with anti-Americanism (and this while Clinton was still in the White House), it was directed almost exclusively towards our female students — particularly the ones who were perceived as more attractive, or who wore more revealing clothing. The prosecutor in the Amanda Knox devoted extensive time to discussing the defendant’s sex life and her occasionally flamboyant dress, even her taste in (or lack of) underwear. Her diary, replete with the personal details one would expect in a private journal, has been read repeatedly in court. The vulgar British tabloids labeled her “Foxy Knoxy” and “No Knicks Knox”; it was a world-class exercise in cruelty and slut-shaming. Apparently, to the amazement of even Italian legal experts (familiar with the guilty-until-proven innocent style of jurisprudence in that country) the paper-thin case, built more on animosity towards sexually adventurous American girls than actual evidence, worked today. Knox and her boyfriend face a quarter-century in prison, but have a chance to have that reduced on appeal.
Before, during, and after I taught in Florence I never believed that Yanks abroad ought to be above the law. A dual citizen myself, I have no patience for the “ugly American” code of conduct. (I will note, having mentioned my British passport, that tourists from the UK were often far more poorly behaved on Italian beaches and in Italian nightclubs than were students from the States.) At the same time, I have no patience with reflexive anti-Americanism of the sort that many of my students, no matter how polite, ran into all too frequently. And as a feminist professor, I was and am particularly disgusted by the mix of prudish censoriousness towards and predatory fascination with the sex lives of young women from America who come to Italy to study.
When I look at the face of Amanda Knox, I see someone who looks a great deal like many of the students I taught. When I hear the details of her private life discussed with both salacious enthrallment and affected repugnance, I think of the experiences of so many of my students who went abroad with me. When I hear the twisted, groundless narrative that the prosecution offered, something along the lines of “American girl is sexually curious and open about it and she smoked pot: therefore it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to stabbing one’s prudish roommate to death”, I’m enraged and indignant. What happened to Amanda Knox — and I am nearly as convinced of her innocence as her parents — could have happened to a dozen young women I knew and taught in Italy.
Make no mistake, I grieve the loss of Meredith Kercher and the horrible way she died. But I have little doubt that if Knox had been a little less pretty, a little less sexual, and a little less American, she’d never have spent a day in prison for her roommate’s murder. On her behalf, and on behalf of others like her, I am very angry tonight.