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 "bunga-bunga" 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 health-care 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.
Nina Burleigh's book about the Italian trial of Amanda Knox, "The Fatal Gift of Beauty," will be published in September.