Italy’s highest court has overturned a decision that a woman was too “masculine” to be raped, in a turn of events that activists hope will bring about a change in attitudes toward sexual violence and its victims in Italy.

Last month, protesters took to the streets outside the appeals court in Ancona, a city on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, after it was revealed why a panel of three female judges had acquitted two men accused of rape in 2017. The protesters took issue with the jurists’ reasoning, disclosed last month through the Italian Supreme Court’s retrial order: The judges reached their decision to acquit in part because they agreed with the defense’s argument that the victim looked too masculine for the men to have been attracted to her.

Protesters gathered near an Ancona, Italy court after the acquittal of two men accused of rape was reversed. Italy's highest court later overturned that ruling. (Storyful)

The woman reported that she was attacked in 2015. Doctors said her injuries were consistent with rape, and her lawyer’s claim that her drinks had been spiked at a bar after an evening class was seemingly supported by the fact that her blood showed a high level of benzodiazepines, a type of tranquilizer. The men were convicted in 2016.

But the appeals court in 2017 overturned that conviction, arguing that it was possible that the woman had “organized” the gathering in which she said she was drugged and raped. The judges wrote that one man “didn’t even like the girl, to the point of having stored her number in his phone under the nickname ‘Viking,’ an allusion to an anything but feminine figure, rather a masculine one.” They added: “The photograph present in her file would appear to confirm this."

The woman had returned to her native Peru, but her lawyer, Cinzia Molinaro, who called the judges’ reasoning “disgusting,” filed an appeal.

On Tuesday, Italy’s Supreme Court overturned the acquittals, noting that the appearance of a rape victim is “wholly irrelevant” and a “non-decisive” factor in assessing a rape allegation.

The case brought to light not only misconceptions about who can be the victim of sexual violence, but also attitudes toward reporting rape and sexual violence in Italy. Molinaro said her client went back to Peru because of how the community in Ancona responded to her coming forward. Sexual abuse in Italy is more commonly reported by foreign women than by Italian women (17.1 percent to 11.4 percent, respectively, according to a 2018 report issued by Italy’s Parliament).

“The situation in Italy is very different from the situation here,” Federiga Bindi, a nonresident scholar in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Europe program, said. “On the one hand, there are more opportunities for women, more equality. On the other hand, what we consider here as sexist behavior is more accepted by men and women.”

“The level of tolerance in Italy is higher for the good and for the bad.”

Attitudes toward sexual violence are changing, albeit slowly, Bindi said, crediting in particular female parliamentarians. She pointed to the fallout from a 1999 court decision that a woman could not have been raped because she was wearing tight jeans - female lawmakers wore jeans to parliament in protest (the decision was overturned in 2008).

After the appeals court’s reasoning was revealed last month, Rebel Network, an Italian women’s rights group that organized the protests, tweeted: “Rape does not fulfill a desire for pleasure, but an abominable hatred and contempt for the victim. It does not depend on how feminine you are, but on the hatred inside the rapist.”

That’s a message the group hopes will be more fully understood after Tuesday’s decision.

“The Supreme Court has given justice not only to the victim but to all Italian women,” Luisa Rizzitelli, a spokeswoman for Rebel Network, wrote in a message to The Washington Post. “Rape is a horrible crime that does not depend on the appearance but on the contempt and cruelty of those who commit it.” The Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that certain reasoning is “unacceptable,” she added.

“Rebel Network hopes that this decision is a warning for future decisions,” Rizzitelli wrote, “and for greater attention and sensitivity of judges when it comes to male violence against women.”