In Ber­lus­coni’s Italy, sex, pol­i­tics and Snooki

Nina Burleigh learned about Italy’s at­ti­tudes to­ward sex while work­ing on a book there.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Nina Burleigh’s book about the Ital­ian trial of Amanda Knox, “The Fa­tal Gift of Beauty,” will be pub­lished in Septem­ber. nd­burl@gmail.com

This past week might have been one of the most serendip­i­tous in the his­tory of global re­al­ity tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming. MTV an­nounced that Snooki and the rest of the very racy “Jersey Shore” gang are headed to Italy to film their fourth sea­son, just as Italy has been gripped by a tor­rent of wire­taps and court doc­u­ments al­leg­ing a very racy sex scan­dal in­volv­ing Prime Min­is­ter Silvio Ber­lus­coni.

Chris Linn, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of pro­gram­ming for MTV, made the an­nounce­ment of the show’s sea­son abroad: “ The cast is headed to the birthplace of the cul­ture they love and live by. We can’t wait to see what erupts as a re­sult.”

But even be­fore “Jersey Shore” ar­rives, Ital­ians have been cap­ti­vated by their own sala­cious — and ac­tu­ally real — “re­al­ity show.” The 74-year-old prime min­is­ter’s bed­room an­tics have been com­mon knowl­edge for years, but now they threaten to push him from power and land him in jail. This month, Ital­ian in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­leased a spate of au­dio­tapes on which 18-year-old Ruby Rubacuori (“Ruby Heart-stealer”) talks about how Ber­lus­coni promised to pay her mil­lions, to “cover me in gold,” if she would keep silent about their in­ter­ac­tions. The po­lice started wire­tap­ping her af­ter she was ar­rested for al­legedly steal­ing 3,000 eu­ros from a friend and Ber­lus­coni him­self called the po­lice sta­tion urg­ing her re­lease, vouch­ing for her char­ac­ter and telling of­fi­cers that she was a grand­daugh­ter of Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak. Ruby, whose real name is Karima el-Mahroug, is in fact the run­away daugh­ter of a Moroc­can im­mi­grant in Si­cily.

Mahroug — who looks more like 30 than 18 — would not be a prob­lem for Ber­lus­coni, given the well-known con­text of his sex life, ex­cept for the fact that she was ap­par­ently only 17 when they met. In Italy, the age of sex­ual con­sent is 14, but hav­ing sex with a pros­ti­tute un­der age 18 is il­le­gal. In the widen­ing scan­dal, pros­e­cu­tors have ac­cused the prime min­is­ter of com­pen­sat­ing “a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber” of women for sex, nam­ing el-Mahroug among them. Both she and the prime min­is­ter have de­nied they had sex.

That charge, and al­legedly us­ing his po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion to get her sprung, could send Ber­lus­coni to prison for 15 years.

And if he falls, Ital­ians could en­ter a new era in gen­der pol­i­tics. The pres­i­dent’s at­ti­tude to­ward women is the of­fi­cial ver­sion of the na­tional norm in Italy, which ranked 74th out of 134 coun­tries, be­low na­tions such as Kaza­khstan and Ghana, in the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum’s 2010 global in­dex of gen­der equal­ity.

Ar­guably, Ber­lus­coni’s en­tire ca­reer has been built on sex­ism. His tele­vi­sion em­pire — the ba­sis of his cult of per­son­al­ity and po­lit­i­cal suc­cess — was rooted in his raunchy early-1980s talk shows that in­vited real-life Ital­ian housewives to take their clothes off. Ber­lus­coni and these happy re­al­ity show strip­pers to­gether pro­duced the next gen­er­a­tion of young women, called “ve­line”: show­girls who, start­ing at pu­bes­cence, train with the de­ter­mi­na­tion of Olympic ath­letes to ap­pear on news shows dressed in biki­nis and dance dur­ing lulls to keep the au­di­ence from chang­ing the chan­nel.

For some Ital­ian women, these po­si­tions have be­come the equiv­a­lent of clerk­ing for a Supreme Court jus­tice, or at least serv­ing as a con­gres­sional staffer.

Ber­lus­coni has re­warded many of these women with po­si­tions in his po­lit­i­cal party; in 2009, he se­lected and groomed a cadre of 20-some­thing ve­line to rep­re­sent Italy in the Euro­pean par­lia­ment. The most prom­i­nent velina-turned-politician is Mara Carfagna, his min­is­ter of equal op­por­tu­nity, de­creed the “world’s hottest politician” by Maxim mag­a­zine. Af­ter wire­taps came out in which Carfagna’s oral abil­i­ties were dis­cussed, Mas­simo Donadi, an op­po­si­tion mem­ber, re­marked to the Cor­riere della Sera news­pa­per: “What would have hap­pened if Bill Clin­ton made Lewin­sky one of his sec­re­taries?”

It’s quite pos­si­ble that Ber­lus­coni thinks he’s a cham­pion of women and that his trans­ac­tions are wor­ship­ful, if not sanc­ti­fied. It is as if for cer­tain men, young women have a medic­i­nal qual­ity; they think main­lin­ing young fe­male flesh main­tains their vigor.

Ital­ian women — es­pe­cially Ital­ian work­ing women, whose num­bers are grow­ing — have put up with be­ing val­ued rel­a­tive to their breasts, their youth and their at­trac­tive­ness to older men for a long, long time, prob­a­bly be­cause they have other things to worry about. Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence is a huge prob­lem in Italy, af­ford­able pub­lic day care is al­most nonex­is­tent. And Ital­ian women have a harder time di­vorc­ing than most. It takes at least three years to get out of a bad mar­riage. The deck is es­pe­cially stacked against work­ing women, who are pre­sumed to be worse moth­ers and may lose cus­tody of their chil­dren.

In re­cent years in Italy, ever more X-rated re­ports have emerged from within the red-vel­vet or tiger-printed boudoir walls of Ber­lus­coni’s play­boy man­sions in Rome, Mi­lan and Sar­dinia: A Czech politician was pho­tographed pool­side vis­i­bly at at­ten­tion, stand­ing over a supine bikinied body. Gag­gles of women were paid to dress as nurses and cops and slowly strip for the prime min­is­ter (the po­lice union is not happy). Last fall, re­ports of Ber­lus­coni’s “ bungabunga” games sent re­porters to Swahili dic­tio­nar­ies, which still left them un­clear about whether Il Cava­liere (the cow­boy, as his fans know him) was en­gag­ing in stan­dard orgy be­hav­ior or some­thing else en­tirely.

In 2009, Anna Paola Con­cia and Donata Got­tardi, politi­cians with the cen­ter-left Par­tito Demo­cratico, filed an of­fi­cial com­plaint against Ber­lus­coni at the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights, ac­cus­ing him of “on­go­ing and re­peated dec­la­ra­tions of con­tempt with re­gards to the life and dig­nity of women.” They cited Ber­lus­coni’s 2008 cam­paign com­ment to a young woman with fi­nan­cial prob­lems, ad­vis­ing her to “marry a mil­lion­aire,” and a re­mark the next year that, be­cause Italy’s women are so beau­ti­ful, the nation would have to as­sign sol­diers to them to keep them from be­ing raped.

To his sup­port­ers, and they are le­gion, when Ber­lus­coni pays young girls to love him up, he is merely do­ing what pow­er­ful men need to do and have ev­ery right to do, and maybe even up­hold­ing a stan­dard for all Ital­ians. Be­sides, he misses his mother.

“ The pres­i­dent is sin­gle,” Emilio Fede, a vet­eran jour­nal­ist and friend of Ber­lus­coni, re­cently said. “Ever since he lost his mother, his life be­came ever more de­press­ing. If he wants to let him­self go and re­lax once a week, I don’t think there’s any­thing wrong with that.”

In late 2009, a pros­ti­tute pub­lished a book called “Gradisca, Pres­i­dente” — “ Take Your Plea­sure, Prime Min­is­ter.” Call­girl Pa­trizia D’Ad­dario wrote that she was hired to en­ter­tain Ber­lus­coni by a Puglian busi­ness­man seek­ing health­care con­tracts with the govern­ment. She was one of 20 al­most iden­ti­cally dressed young women who si­mul­ta­ne­ously ser­viced the prime min­is­ter in his Ro­man palazzo, within yards of the Fo­rum and the Colos­seum.

“He wants to be adored by all the women who are here, he likes be­ing touched, ca­ressed, by many hands at once,” she wrote. “He was on the couch and all of us, 20 girls in all, were at his dis­posal. Hav­ing been an es­cort I thought I’d seen a lot, but this I’d never seen, 20 women for one man. . . . Nor­mally in an orgy you have roughly the same num­ber of men and women, oth­er­wise peo­ple get up­set. But here the other men had no say. There was just one man . . . and that was the prime min­is­ter.”

Politician and art critic Vit­to­rio Sgarbi, mayor of Salemi, in an in­ter­view with Ra­dio 24, re­cently summed up the phi­los­o­phy in all its pi­quant, if un­print­able, glory. “Hav­ing a nor­mal sex­ual ap­petite isn’t shock­ing, I think. I don’t un­der­stand why Ber­lus­coni is deny­ing the facts. I be­lieve that sex can make you feel bet­ter. He who [makes love] well, gov­erns well. . . . Sex heals. Kennedy is Ber­lus­coni’s model. Not Obama or Clin­ton. Kennedy [had] a girl a day and he was the pres­i­dent of all times . . . and he al­most be­came a saint. Ber­lus­coni rep­re­sents the Italy that [em­braces sex].”

Rich, pow­er­ful, liver-spot­ted, hair-plugged, bunion-footed old goats might sus­pect that young women do not crave their touch. They might even in­tuit that their own charms do not make girls want to spon­ta­neously re­move their clothes and en­ter­tain them. Many a woman in Italy has gained po­si­tion and trea­sure by ex­ploit­ing that in­sight.

What the sen­sa­tion of Ber­lus­coni’s op­er­atic es­capades does, how­ever, is re­move the il­lu­sion that Italy’s pow­er­ful men are per­mit­ted to use women as they please, with no con­se­quences.

Whomever re­places the prime min­is­ter is cer­tainly not go­ing to in­stall his show­girls as cabi­net mem­bers.

PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY KRISTIN LENZ/THE WASHINGTON POST; RUBY AND BERLUCONI FROM AP; SNOOKI FROM MTV

Ital­ian PrimeMin­is­ter Silvio Ber­lus­coni is em­broiled in a sex scan­dal in­volv­ing Ruby Rubacuori, top left. Mean­while, MTV has said that Snooki, top right, and the rest of the sex-fu­eled “Jersey Shore” cast are headed to Italy. Co­in­ci­dence?

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