An Italian showgirl, a US general, and the weaponization of sexual misconduct

Michela Morellato spent months getting flirty texts from the US military’s top man in Africa, before he was finally fired. The case showed how there’s a heavy price to pay for those who receive unwanted sexual advances.

When does a mere flirtation cross the line to become sexual misconduct? Flirtation is an important part of life – attraction enhances almost everyone’s human experience. But sexual attraction often becomes about power and a tool of coercion. Sexual harassment is a problem that can strike at the heart of women’s struggle for equality in the workplace and the world. And it’s troubling that institutions are often not consistent with their responses to sexual misconduct.

Recently, I discussed this complicated topic with Michela Morellato, a former Italian showgirl and author and activist who has had her own share of challenging situations and public scandals. In her warm northern Italian accent, she told me, “I am a sexual assault survivor. I know what sexual assault is, and like you, as a young woman I was sexually assaulted by a powerful man.”

She went on to explain how a man in the entertainment industry assaulted her when she was 18 years old, and tried to blackmail her into a sexual liaison, promising her work. Against the advice of her family, Michela went to the police and a lawyer and sued him. “This experience changed the way I looked at the world. I became feisty and rebellious. I would not accept people calling me a whore and other names because I was a victim of sexual assault,” she told me.

Michela went on to write a book ‘A Talent for Trouble’, a fictionalized memoir that describes her interactions with men, including a scandal that played out in real life. US Army Major General Joseph Harrington came on the scene in 2017. Michela was going through a rough patch at that time with her husband, a soldier in the US military. They had a baby son and the marriage had grown into domestic familiarity. “It just became routine. He was exhausted from his work as a paratrooper and paid me less attention,” she said.

Michela went to the gym daily to work out, and General Harrington began to take notice of her. Unbeknown to Michela, he was in charge of the US Army in Africa from a base in Vicenza. The flirting started with an innocent compliment from him.

At first, Michela said it felt so good to be noticed. The general would watch her work out at the gym so often that her boxing coach noted his presence. Michela shrugged it off. “I love men and the flirting,” she said. “This is Italy and here it is a way of life. My husband knows I am flirtatious and my ways, he understands. I love the good attention of a man and he was just very sweet and kind to me.

“But I think they should explain to American soldiers the culture of the country they are visiting in so they are respectful. I think the problem is that American soldiers who come here think they can do whatever they want, especially the high-ranking officers.”

Michela’s point is a valid one, as sexual misconduct in the American military is a serious problem. The Department of Defense estimates that over 20,500 soldiers are victims of sexual misconduct every year, but only a fraction of these cases are reported. The military was recently called out in a Senate investigation by victim advocate whistleblowers including Amy Franck for not helping victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse, with some cases resulting in murder and suicides.

Michela had high hopes for a friendship with the general. She continued, “At first, I thought he will be a nice friend; I can meet his wife, we will all have dinner together. But he wanted to keep us secret, and I did not like that. He kept trying to get me to come alone to his house but I never had an affair with him. He was smooth with his flirting, not vulgar.”

There were hours of phone calls, thousands of texts and video chats between Michela and the general over a period of months, all hinting that he wanted more than a friendship from her. In some conversations, it was clear he was pleasuring himself. But she said she was not going to be unfaithful to her husband.

“Eventually, I think he became tired of knowing I would not have an affair with him and suddenly he cut me off like he never knew me, threw me away like a tissue,” Michela explained, adding that she was hurt.

Obviously, a senior military man flirting with the wife of one of his soldiers was potentially big news, and the interactions began to leak out after Michela spoke to a member of an organization called ‘Protect Our Families’. This individual asked Michela if she would speak to a reporter. The scandal, which was already being whispered about, quickly gathered momentum. Michela agreed to speak to a USA Today reporter, on condition of anonymity, and the journalist promised her name would not be made public. The piece was published, and the base started buzzing with speculation over who the woman was who had engaged in inappropriate exchanges with the general. A Facebook group of soldiers and spouses seemed determined to figure out her identity.

Things started to unravel. Michela says the reporter gave her name, without permission, to Army Intelligence at the Pentagon. The Pentagon contacted Michela to testify under oath about her communication with General Harrington, assuring her she was somehow protected by the Whistleblower Act. Then they released her name publicly without her permission.

All of the hostility on the base about the affair began to be directed at Michela. She was treated like an outcast when at the gym or picking up her children. The group of mostly American officer wives became quite openly hostile to her. She was a social pariah.

Then, the US military retaliated. One day, when out walking, she was almost hit by a car on a blind corner at the front of the base. She asked the local Italian police if she could take a picture of the dangerous corner, and reported what had happened. This image became the basis of a charge of espionage (even though a photo of the same army base gate is on the internet). The US military prohibited pictures of bases, and Michela had posted the photo on a private Facebook chat between soldiers and spouses. The military implied she had committed a serious breach of security.

Espionage is a serious charge in any country. In Italy, even if the charge is thrown out it is ‘stackable’, meaning if you are ever in court again it can be brought up. To Michela’s relief, the Italian court threw out the charge, although the stress and difficulties it caused her husband at his work took quite a toll.

She told me, “It is lucky I was already a familiar figure in the Italian media. Imagine if this was another woman from Russia or some other country? it would have been a horrible result for them. Lucky for me I am known in my community and country and these charges were absurd.”

I understood her bewilderment at the charge, as I had faced my own accusations simply because I spoke truth about my experiences as a Senate staffer. Reporters would accuse me of being a “Russian asset.” Bill Maher, dripping sarcastic monologues, dismissed the sexual assault I experienced as some sort of sabotage of Joe Biden, because I loved Russia and publicly supported the Russian leadership. This led to me being called a traitor.

The tactic was to not attack the veracity of what happened to me, but just make me so despicable to Americans that no one cared about what had happened. Neo-McCarthyism serves a multi-tiered purpose for the American government agenda, from dismissing misconduct by its elites to character attacks on those challenging policies and justifying military conflict. It’s a dismal approach to geopolitics, and disastrous for anyone in its path. The whack-a mole approach by US government officials to accuse people of being spies or Russian agents has become redundant, and lacks the impact it once did due to so many false allegations.

For Michela, the repercussions rumble on. Even though the espionage charge was called ridiculous by the Italian judge, she is banned from the army base except to pick up and drop off her children. She is escorted by military personnel everywhere and, in her own words, “treated like a criminal.”

Michela is very remorseful about her interactions with the general, who was stripped of a star, forced to retire, and called “dissolute and immoral” for his behavior. She said, “I think he was grooming me to be his mistress, to have sex with him. I was contacted by other female soldiers who had the same experience with the general. For them, the retaliation would have been even worse. But I am curious why they take such harsh action against him and not go after other soldiers who are violent and rape? So, I wonder if there was another reason they wanted him fired.”

The mystery around his sudden dismissal deepens when you consider his involvement in covert actions by the military in Niger and other regions of Africa. In Niger, several soldiers were killed in an ambush on 4 October, 2017. Just days later, Harrington was fired. Did the military, which is normally so slow to respond to sexual misconduct allegations, use this situation to get rid of the general? An anonymous source stated, “General Harrington was not fired over text messages; they didn’t want the connection of deaths of American soldiers in the Niger ambush to a sex scandal.”

The weaponization of sexual misconduct against those who are inconvenient is part and parcel of a deeply misogynist approach by patriarchal institutions. For victims of abuse, it is a frustrating reality that powerful people rarely face the consequences they deserve, unless there is some agenda by the power structure.

Michela has moved on from all the drama caused by her being interrogated by US officials, and says her marriage is strong and her husband devoted to his career in the armed services. Michela helped found the Never Alone advocacy group with Amy Franck, Victim Advocate and whistleblower about the lack of military response to sexual violence and domestic violence. “I like to help survivors of violence get resources and justice,” said Michela. “I will continue to do this work and speak up for victims.”