But as Ombretta Frau, a professor specializing in Italian women writers at Mount Holyoke College, pointed out, Berlusconi treats Italy's networks, of which he controls over ninety percent between his private channels and state TV, as a personal, nationwide casting couch.
"If women want to have a career in TV, that's fine," she said. "But it can't be that in order to do that, you must go through the beds and basements of all these powerful men."
Meanwhile, his government has taken measures to curb prostitution. In 2008, Mara Carfagna, the law degree-wielding former topless dancer whom Berlusconi appointed as Equal Opportunities Minister, introduced legislation that for the first time would fine sex workers for operating in public, something that Minuz called "a step backwards."
Giancarla Codrignani, a feminist activist and former Member of Parliament, said women are not the only ones for sale.
"We have this big debate about the immorality of prostitution," she said., "but what is worse is the prostitution of the men in parliament who are paid for voting for Berlusconi's laws, or the women in his party who were chosen not for their merits or capabilities, but because they are beautiful and perhaps were kind with him. For him, women and men are objects to buy and leave, for his own pleasure or interests, without any respect for any questions of their humanity, dignity, or liberty."
How does he manage to stay in office?
Before Berlusconi took the reins, television in Italy was a grim affair, dominated by the less-than-thrilling morals of the Catholic Church, and no match for the vibrant film industry based around Rome's Cinecittà studios. He introduced the concept of nudity to previously humdrum programming such as game shows or the evening news, and broadcast shows like Dallas and Dynasty. By skillfully catering to the baser instincts of his audience, he was able to expand his empire, which now includes real estate, supermarkets, sports clubs, including AC Milan, insurance companies, and more. He came from humble beginnings -- his mother stayed at home, his father worked in a local bank. Now he's the third richest man in Italy, the hero of a Horatio Alger story his supporters (or what's left of them -- his approval rating is around thirty percent) find inspiring and admirable.
Controlling 90-plus percent of television airtime and over 50 percent of the advertising market also goes a long way when you're trying to minimize dissent. In early February, Berlusconi convened his "Delta Squad" of TV and newspaper executives at the presidential palace in Rome, to formulate what one Italian columnist called a "violent counteroffensive" against the bunga bunga allegations. Instead of covering them, Berlusconi-controlled TV stations have tended to attack them as politically motivated or puritanical, pretend they don't exist, or wheel out resident court jesters to sing parodical songs about them.
"If you can't change the law sufficiently -- and his problem is he can't -- you can change morality so that people consider to be normal things that are not normal," said Erik Gandini, whose documentary Videocracy, about Berlusconi's TV culture, depicts a country perilously beholden to the idiot box. "That takes time; it's a much bigger project than political change or starting a party."
But in fact, Berlusconi can change the law, and has. Writing in the New Yorker in 2008, Alexander Stille noted that "Berlusconi has brought to the new parliament three of his criminal-defense attorneys (who devise legislation that may help their client)," a tactic that has helped him survive "some seventeen criminal trials without ultimately being convicted."
"It's a government of lawlessness, and bunga bunga is just the cherry on the pie," said Marco Ventoruzzo, a law professor at Penn State and Bocconi University in Milan.
Then came something no one expected: an Italian day of popular protest, on February 13th, which saw an estimated half a million women and men come out to protest Berlusconi's degrading treatment of women.
"The protests crossed different ideologies," said Stefania Benini, an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania who recently authored a paper entitled "Berlusconi and the Body of Women." "There were women from the left, right and center, nuns and prostitutes."
Because the protests took place in 230 town
squares all across the country, Benini said, "People could see it
without having to refer to media coverage." In a country where Internet
penetration is only around 50 percent,
that made a crucial difference. As long as TV remains Italians' main
source of information, the bunga bunga culture is likely to live on, not
as an object of scorn, but as something to aspire to.
"It's not just women, but all of Italian society who are victims of bunga bunga," said Ferri. "It's metaphorical. For me, it represents the commodification of Italian society, the corruption, the moral degradation, the desire to accumulate."
For Gandini, bunga bunga was the logical culmination of a process that has lasted since Berlusconi first launched Mediaset, the media empire that includes television stations, newspapers, and film production companies.
"For the past thirty years, he's been
spreading his subconscious all over the culture. For thirty years, he's
been feeding the small Berlusconi inside all of us, and now it's grown."