ROME—Silvio Berlusconi standardized the use of blatant sexual harassment and icky innuendo as a way for young women to advance their careers long before Harvey Weinstein ever made his first movie. And at 80, Berlusconi is still getting by with it.
Over the weekend, he told a crowd that had gathered on the chic island of Ischia to hear the details of his political comeback ahead of elections next spring that he had “taught the Africans about foreplay” in an off-color joke about the importance of having a bidet to wash before oral sex and lessons he taught his old friend Muammar Gaddafi, the late Libyan leader. Gaddafi is said to be the originator of the bunga-bunga orgy that Berlusconi made famous in his Milanese villa basement. There, young women hoping to become showgirls or parliamentarians stripped and lap danced for the elder statesman and his cronies for decades. He used sex as a punchline at his comeback speech in a talk about his plans for Italy’s ongoing migrant crisis much as he has used it as a way to wield power during his lengthy career. At his side in Ischia was his fiancée Francesca Pascale, nearly 50 years his junior who ran one of his fan clubs.
And the crowd ate it up, cheering and chanting “Silvio! Silvio!”
While Weinstein has been spiraling from grace in the U.S., Berlusconi, a proven power pervert, is actually being applauded, allowed to make a political comeback. Berlusconi has been prime minister in Italy leading four different governments, handily winning elections three times. And while he is not allowed to run in early 2018 because of a tax conviction that bans him from serving in parliament, he could easily be the kingmaker in the election and, as such, still has power to bestow.
It’s not just that he has been forgiven; his comeback is because he never really got taken to task for his atrocious behavior. Sure, he has been prosecuted and found guilty of abetting an under-age prostitute who used the stage name Ruby “the heartstealer” Rubacuori, though he was later acquitted on appeal, so the charges never stuck. Berlusconi’s crimes against women in Italy have been dissected ad nauseam. But none of it is taken serious enough. In fact, when rumors first swirled that Weinstein was heading “to Europe for sex therapy” cartoonists and commentators alike joked that he’s probably headed straight to Berlusconi’s basement.
The only problem with the joke is that it’s not funny.
But what is especially troubling in the Weinstein era is that two of the women brave enough to share the lurid stories that led to Weinstein’s fall are Italian actresses. Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, the actress whose troubled pleas to Weinstein not to touch her breast were caught on audio tape, was also lured to Berlusconi's basement for a bunga-bunga party that she left. She later testified at his underage prostitution trial that she was offered Tiffany jewelry on a silver platter and had been chosen as the one “destined for Berlusconi’s bedroom.” She told detectives and a panel of judges that she witnessed women performing nude lap dances on the the man who had been elected prime minister three times, and kissing a penis statute apparently modeled after Berlusconi. When she said no, she told a court in Italy that she was touched by Berlusconi and his cronies. Berlusconi, she said, “repeatedly and aggressively groped my backside.”
This, told to a court of law, was not enough to stop Berlusconi. Weinstein, so far, has not had his day in court but has been stripped of the power he so blatantly abused.
The other Italian actress victimized by Weinstein, Asia Argento who tweeted over the weekend that she had been abused as a teen before being targeted by Weinstein, has been lambasted in the Italian press since telling The New Yorker how Weinstein orally raped her and then essentially held her in a captive relationship contingent on her getting work and paying her bills as a single mother. Oral rape, many Italian commentators have mused in columns with suggestive photos of Argento, is hardly a crime despite her description of what was surely a terrifying experience.
The abuse is so vile that Argento has threatened to sue the Italian newspaper Libero for a blasphemous article against her that essentially calls “sexual blackmail a rite of passage for actresses” as a statement of accepted fact rather than something to be outraged over. The article goes on to say that sleeping with your boss is not rape, it’s prostitution despite faxes the actress wrote to a journalist friend at the time that outlined the agony of what she felt was a lack of choice. “He’s a monster,” she wrote to journalist Daniela Fedi, who kept the handwritten faxes. “Sure, he’s my boss, but he has a three-meter-long tongue and he always wants to put it in my heat.”
The only Italian getting a pass in this story is Weinstein’s alleged girl hunter, Fabrizio Lombardo, the former head of Miramax Italy who denied to The Guardian knowing the girls he took to Weinstein were there to be bullied and assaulted, essentially saying it’s like blaming the doorman or a driver for what happens to someone. Never mind that at least four women name him specifically as the person who took them to the hotel rooms where Weinstein was waiting in the nude for a creepy massage. Model Sacha Voski told The Wrap that she denounced Lombardo for stalking her, though that has barely made the news in Italy.
Lombardo gets what amounts to a wink-wink, nudge-nudge treatment in the Italian press which prefers to victim shame by questioning the Italian actresses caught up in the saga who were brave enough to speak out. Berlusconi, for his part, did not make a reference to Weinstein during his comeback party over the weekend. No doubt he doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.