The XX Factor

Why Berlusconi’s Sex Scandals Aren’t Just a Feminist Issue

Right-thinking Italians and anyone else who is following Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s latest sex scandal come away confused by an obvious conundrum: How can an elected leader behave so badly, have it exposed and yet refuse to step down?

The current scandal broke in late October. Berlusconi had pressured a Milan police station in May to release an underage Moroccan runaway cops had picked up for burglary into the custody of a friend of his without following proper procedure. He told police the girl was the niece of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and holding her could risk a diplomatic incident.

The bizarre tale became even more sordid when the girl, a stripper with the stage name Ruby Rubacuori, said she had been spending lots of time with Berlusconi at his villa in Arcore outside Milan. She talked about dinners and wild parties where it seemed naked girls danced and had sex with him in return for cash and gifts. Berlusconi called these “relaxing evenings at home” and the story faded from the media after a few weeks. Meanwhile, prosecutors decided how to proceed. Then, on Jan. 14, they dropped a bombshell, charging Berlusconi on two criminal counts: Sex with an underage prostitute, and abuse of power.

On Feb. 9, magistrates asked permission from a special judge in Milan for an expedited trial against the premier. She will rule within five days whether they can move forward and if so on one or both counts. In the past week, reports have also surfaced about Berlusconi’s alleged sex parties in Rome and Sardinia and naked photos of the premier in the hands of Naples mafiosi.

Despite the lascivious newspaper reports, outrage has been slow to ignite. Women’s groups were the first and almost the only ones to take to the streets. They framed the scandal as a feminist issue and organized the first large protest in Piazza La Scala in Milan on Jan 29. They are the leading force behind a national day of unrest planned for Feb. 13 with the slogan “If Not Now, When?-A Day of Protest for Women, and for Men who are Friends of Women.” The public petition, which has garnered about 75,000 signatures so far, says Italy has “stepped beyond the threshold of decency.” Sites like Unione Donne and PD Donna of the opposition Partito Democratico have helped women find each other and mobilize.

While I admire the work of these groups, I really wish Berlusconi’s transgressions weren’t framed as a women’s issue. This should be a national outrage: Berlusconi is dragging the country to the verge of a constitutional crisis and has turned Italy into a laughing stock. Politics is at a standstill with unemployment high and shaky economics in Italy and across much of Europe.

In addition to his current woes, he faces three separate probes over the next two months related to different parts of his business empire. He takes no responsibility for any of it but accuses the judiciary and press of persecuting him. He is trying to yank the case from the jurisdiction of Milan magistrates and pass a decree that would exclude incriminating wiretaps.

Making this women’s issue has unfortunately distracted the media from Berlusconi’s transgressions. Some pundits are mocking his mistresses: “I watch girls going in and out of the police station these days: They’ve got huge designer bags, Manolo Blahnik shoes, sunglasses that cost a month’s rent,” writes Concita De Gregorio, editor of left-wing daily l’Unita . “For that they spend nights dressed as nurses pretending to give injections to an old millionaire obsessed with his virility.” Others, like conservative columnist Giuliano Ferrara of Foglio lament that moralists he calls “virtuous Taliban,” are hijacking the nation. Please.

Fortunately it seems a broader coalition is emerging. Some 10,000 protestors of both sexes gathered last Saturday at a Milan arena to call for Berlusconi’s resignation urged on by Umberto Eco, Roberto Saviano and other writers, intellectuals and entertainers and organized by the group Liberta’ e Giustizia. The following day several thousand more gathered outside Berusconi’s villa in Arcore in a protest put together by the anti-Berlusconi Popolo Viola.

Let’s hope the Cavaliere, as he’s called here, may soon have overstayed his welcome with a majority of Italians.

Photograph of Silvio Berlusconi by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images.