No More 'Bunga Bunga' for Berlusconi

The former prime minister was convicted of having sex with a minor and trying to cover it up. Here's how extensive his sexual antics were, and how he got away with them.
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Italy's former Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, was sentenced today to seven years in jail and a lifetime ban from holding public office for having paid sex with a minor and for abusing his power in an attempt to cover up the relationship.

The country's most famous playboy is unlikely to ever see jail time, though: Italy generally allows convicts over 70 to live under house arrest, and he still has two appeals left in the country's notoriously convoluted and slow justice system.

Berlusconi's case has been in the works for years, but it stems from an incident in which he allegedly paid to have sex with a then-17-year-old Moroccan woman named Karima El Mahroug, and then pressured local police to release her when she was arrested for a theft. (Berlusconi had previously also been found guilty of tax fraud in a separate case, but he has appealed that conviction and a decision is expected within a few months.)

The El Mahroug case is no ordinary affair, though: Berlusconi is thought to have had countless such liaisons during his epic Bunga Bunga parties, or orgies at his Milan estate. El Mahroug has said that she attended half a dozen of these parties and was given an envelope with $3,900 in cash inside after each one.

In a 2011 Atlantic article, writer Anna Louie Sussman delved into the origins of the Bunga-Bunga parties and how they became synonymous with Berlusconi:

Berlusconi, as with many Italians, is [likely] familiar with " Civilization ," a song from the late 1940s whose chorus runs " Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't wanna leave the Congo ." Berlusconi is also known for telling an old, vulgar joke about two colonial officers who are captured by a sodomitic African tribal chief who forces them to submit to "bunga bunga." In his updated version -- political humor at its finest -- the colonial officers are replaced by two opposition ministers.

El-Mahroug, the exotic dancer who unleashed BungaGate, told prosecutors that "Silvio told me that he'd copied that expression -- 'bunga bunga' -- from Qaddafi : it's a rite of his African harem." ...

Bunga bunga, said [University of Notre Dame Italian Literature professor Sabrina] Ferri, "perfectly captures the essence" of what Italians call Berlusconismo: unbridled consumption, endless beautiful women to toy with -- in short, an ideology in which wealthy white men rule. Or, as Ferri defines it, "a combination of geriatric infantilization and racism."

One reason these bacchanals went on unchecked is that the country struggles with a sort of endemic sexism, which touches on everything from womens' employment to the unsavory ways many female performers there make it into show-business:

Sexism, of course, thrives on the soil of many nations, but Italy's indicators for women's status are particularly poor compared to those of its European neighbors . As Newsweek reported , a 2010 Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum found that "in every category but education, Italy lags badly: in labor participation, 87th place worldwide; wage parity, 121st; opportunity for women to take leadership positions, 97th."

For young women, opportunities are especially limited.

"We have a very high percentage of young people who are unemployed, about 25 percent, but about half of young women are unemployed. This is the real fact we have to keep in mind," said Fernanda Minuz, President and legal representative of the Orlando Association, one of Italy's most prominent women's rights organizations.

With employment prospects so dim, is it any wonder that more and more young women covet a career as a velina, or TV showgirl, on one of the stations privately owned by Berlusconi?

"Being a professor or policymaker pays very badly. They have this model of womanhood that says they are only successful if they are beautiful. Then you can go on TV and have a very rich husband," said Robustelli.

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, Berlusconi's control of the airwaves -- he owns the country's largest public broadcaster -- also helped normalize the kind of wanton female exploitation he seemed to be fond of, and it helped him push back against his critics when "BungaGate" finally erupted. Sussman writes:

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....

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."

It may be years until the case is resolved for good, but this verdict could be a sign that perhaps Italians are finally fed up with "Bunga Bunga" and the blatant abuses that come with it.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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