Don Juan of Milan

Silvio Berlusconi can be faulted for many things. For using television to refashion Italian sensibilities. For buying votes. For making a mockery of an advanced, industrialized European country’s legal system. And, as many would insist, for reversing however far Italy may have traveled into the sexual revolution.

I don’t care how many Bunga Bunga parties Berlusconi holds. I’m more concerned with how his treatment of women is reported by the press. Instead of vindicating his behavior, by sensationalizing it, the media empowers him, spurring him on even more. Consistently, even in liberal foreign newspapers, Berlusconi is portrayed as a modern Don Juan, a thuggish slave to his passions who just can’t control himself.

This said, if you can get over being disgusted by his spectacle, there are some ironically positive aspects to Il Cavaliere’s licentious behavior that can be exploited. For example, nothing is wrong with prostitutes or sex as a trade. Everyone has a right to consensual sexual encounters, paid or unpaid. If prostitution was legal, it could be taxed, sex workers could unionize, the business regulated, etc.

Yet no one seems to take the Prime Minister’s transgressions as an opportunity to point this out. If Italy’s executive-in-chief feels no shame banging chicks for bucks, why not press to legitimize the profession? If Berlusconi is so committed to the sexual free market, why not take this opportunity to turn Italy into an exemplary sexual economy? To further complicate matters, why not make sex worker a formal category of migrant labor?

That would, at the very least, be one way to mitigate the immense damage the Prime Minister continues to wreck upon the country. Considering how powerless Italy’s parliamentary left appears to be to do anything about him, taking advantage of such opportunities else could in fact be quite subversive. Why cede the sexual to Berlusconi? It’s time to take it back.

As an American woman, who has lived and worked in Italy (in Berlusconi’s own Milan stomping grounds, to be precise) I wince when I think of what it would be like to be a girl growing up in such an environment.  The unemployment rate for youth is amongst the highest in Europe. Mix women in and forget it. It’s simply untenable to be female. Something will have to give eventually. Lets hope it’s not the ladies!

I’m fortunate to have been impacted by feminism as a child. I was raised in a middle class Los Angeles household where gender was never an issue. I was a tomboy. I wore white Hanes t-shirts and Levi’s by choice in kindergarten. I played sports – soccer, skateboarding, cycling – and was among the first girls to play in my hometown Little League. No questions asked.

The only time I recall gender ever being an issue was the first time I got my period. For my parents, my stepfather included, it was a cause of enormous celebration. It was a sign I was growing older, that I had crossed over the threshold of womanhood.  Compared to friends who could barely tell their own mothers about their dreaded period, my family’s welcoming attitude was a huge relief.

It is hard to imagine growing up in such a family now. All over the world, it appears some kind of reversal is taking place.  Whether it has to do with contending with glass ceilings at work, income inequality, or anachronistic ideas about gender in American fundamentalist families, there are multiple sites of struggle for women to contend with. “Berlusconi’s Bitches” are just the Italian version of what is otherwise a universal backlash against women.

Of course, the grrrls and women of Italy are much more savvy than they are portrayed by the media. As easy as it might be to admonish Karima El-Mahroug and Nicole Minetta for taking the money and staying loyal, we should be careful about how we appraise their actions. After all, they are simply doing what women have been taught to do, for centuries.  So what.

Rather, the onus is on us to look at how women are exploited, to use our stories as opportunities to advance necessary discussions of gender, in every national context. It’s about taking time to prioritize the source of the problem. Not the problematic people. If gender were not still a burning issue in Italy, men like Berlusconi would likely turn to other vices. Since he’s not the only stud on the market – not by a long shot – it’s obvious we have our work cut out for us.

 Photograph by Joel Schalit 


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