Italy’s longest-serving post-war premier already had a vision, two decades ago, of how he wished to be memorialised. The cruise-ship-crooner-turned-property-and-media-mogul changed Italian planning law to permit the construction, in the grounds of his mansion, of a giant marble mausoleum. Decorated by sculptor Pietro Cascella, it was adorned with things he might need in the afterlife, like fruit, keys, mobile phone.
Outside Italy, meanwhile, the Romeo who told one biographer “Think of how many women there are out there who would like to go to bed with me, but don’t know it”, and reportedly called Angela Merkel “an unfuckable lard-arse”, is immortalised in Bunga-Bunga, a Covent Garden restaurant serving metre-long pizzas.
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It is an achievement, I suppose, to have been the epicentre of a sex scandal so epoch-defining and internationally notorious as to have provided the name for a restaurant that isn’t even in your own country. The term “bunga bunga” was reportedly introduced to the world by Ruby Ruacori, real name Karima El Mahroug. Berlusconi was accused of paying El Mahroug for sex in 2010, when she was just 17; El Mahroug claimed it was a lap-dancing game, in which the winner got to have sex with Berlusconi.
The events mesmerised the press, nationally and internationally. The details were juicy, the settings opulent, the men powerful, and the girls pretty. The tabloids feasted. But could this larger-than-life figure reach such prominence today? Though Peak Bunga was barely more than a decade ago, the stories feel sepia-toned, as though they belong to a different age.
We’ve been through the looking-glass at least twice since then: first, the Great Populist Earthquake of 2016, then Covid, and all their respective derangement syndromes. Along the way, we seemingly abandoned the sinking ship of tolerance and shared values altogether, in a flotilla of quarrelsome social-media lifeboats.
Somewhere in there was #MeToo. There was Epstein. We swapped headlines for clickbait. Politics now comes pre-marinaded in competitive victimhood. An out-of-context video clip can trigger international social media meltdown. And in this dyspeptic climate, there probably is less political bandwidth for uncritically lionising the priapic, piratical, rule-bending alpha-male mafioso type than there was in the Age of Bunga.
Officially at least, modern politics runs on rules, procedures, and meticulous attention to everyone’s feelings. So is his death, as one internet mourner put it, “the end of an era”?
Well. Public mores have, perhaps, shifted somewhat. But have the underlying patterns that shape how sex, money, and power interact shifted too? While we may have declared, officially at least, that we are no longer at home to Mr Toxic Masculinity, it’s far from obvious that men have stopped wanting to be around attractive young women. Nor is there much evidence that male power and status are any less magnetic to women than they have been at any other point in the long history of hypergamy. And nor has the inevitable resulting confluence between high-status men and young, nubile women grown any less asymmetrical in terms of raw power. So whatever we may wish to tell ourselves about how #MeToo changed everything on this front, the reality is: #MeToo changed very little.
It’s true that there is a Berlusconi type: men (they are always men) of prodigious energy and appetite, boundless and infuriating charisma, and a cheerful indifference to the rules. The type, perhaps mercifully for the rest of us, is relatively rare – but Berlusconi is far from unique. Back in 1998, there was Bill Clinton: wildly charismatic, ferociously on the make, awash in rumours of perjury and nepotism — and, famously, lying about sexual doings with intern Monica Lewinsky.
Britain’s foremost contemporary exemplar of the type is the also charismatic and priapic Boris Johnson, who survived his own sex scandal only to leave No. 10 over that of Chris Pincher. In a 2003 Spectator interview with Berlusconi, Johnson betrays the wide-eyed admiration of a senpai for his sensei: marvelling at the energy, hospitality and sheer opulent extra-ness of this “balding, beaming, bouncing multi-billionaire”, whom he describes as “the fizziest old dog you have ever seen”. Game, we might say, recognises game.
In turn, when such men become game themselves, their hunters usually lead with sexual wrong-doing. The accusations didn’t stick to Clinton, and only partially stuck to Johnson. But another of the same type, the epicentre of many post-Bunga political derangement syndromes, is now wrangling his own intensely politicised sex scandal: Donald Trump. In 2018, rumours emerged that Stephanie Clifford, real name Stormy Daniels, had been paid $130,000 to keep quiet about their affair. (There were also rumours of a “pee tape”, of which the less said the better.) The allegations have since cross-pollinated with a flurry of others, all of which add up to a miasmic impression of general dodginess and yet another indictment (or, to Trump supporters, banana-republic-style persecution of a feared political enemy).
But as these big beasts age, we might be tempted to think their time is past. Berlusconi is on his way to his “fascistic” (according to Vanity Fair) mausoleum. The Orange Man is in the mire. Even Britain’s own pound-shop Alpha, Boris Johnson, has left Parliament. And the times really have changed: in 2018, Monica Lewinsky resurfaced, reframing her previous statements about a “consensual” affair in the #MeToo language of “authority, station, and privilege”.
But it doesn’t follow from this that young, pretty women are any safer today. It hardly seems likely that the corridors of power are any less stuffed with rich, entitled, horny men than they ever were, just because Harvey Weinstein got a punishment beating. Nor does it seem much more likely than before #MeToo that a woman will automatically get redress, should they find themselves in a sticky situation with such a man. Consider, for example, the recent fall from grace of Observer journalist Nick Cohen. Cohen is, to be clear, not a classic Berlusconi type; he was, however, the subject of numerous complaints, over a great many years, from female colleagues about sexually inappropriate behaviour.
Nothing was ever done – until campaigning barrister Jolyon Maugham identified Cohen as an enemy on Maugham’s pet issue of transgender rights, and set out to collate the rumours about Cohen. The paper apologised, following his departure, for ignoring the allegations so long.
The lesson is bleak. If a lower status woman accuses a higher status man of sexual impropriety, few will pay much attention – except that man’s political enemies. And the greater the power differential (as, for example, that of children trafficked to Epstein Island, seeking redress against billionaires and politicos), the more likely a horny plutocrat’s horniness will go unjudged and un-criticised.
Silvio Berlusconi left behind two ex-wives, five children, and a 33-year-old girlfriend. It seems implausible that such a rampantly oversexed man got all the way to his seventies before suddenly developing a taste for “bunga-bunga”. So why did his appetites take so long to cause a scandal? Well, Berlusconi was, by his own lights, someone whose modus operandi turned less on rules and procedures than on webs of friendship, loyalty, power-broking and obligation. He was upfront about this, saying of his convoluted business interests “If I, taking care of everyone’s interests, also take care of my own, you can’t talk about a conflict of interest.”
We can perhaps catch a glimpse of this network of interests, via the relationship between Berlusconi and the half-English, one-time showgirl Nicole Minetti, another central figure in Bunga-gate. After appearing on Berlusconi’s TV show ‘Scorie’ in 2007, Minetti trained as a dental assistant, later helping to repair two of Berlusconi’s teeth after someone threw a marble statuette of Milan cathedral at him in 2009. The following year, Minetti was picked, age 25, as a Lombardy candidate for Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party, despite having no political experience, and was placed on Lombardy’s regional council a few months later. A couple of years after that, in 2013, Minetti was convicted of procuring minors for sex at Berlusconi’s notorious parties. During the trial, wire-tapped tapes appeared to show Berlusconi promising Minetti a seat in Parliament.
The most likely explanation of Berlusconi’s evading the Bunga Police for so long, then, is that despite decades of efforts to catch him breaking rules against (among others) drug trafficking, tax fraud, mafia links, bribery, and abuse of office, his carefully-crafted network of interests preferred to keep him in situ. We can only speculate as to what changed circa 2010, to inspire his enemies to turn bunga-bunga against him, but one thing should be clear: the exploitation of a prostituted child was the least of anyone’s concerns.
Some cases don’t even get as far as the one against Berlusconi. Clinton emerged largely untouched from the Lewinsky scandal. And when, in 2019, seven women came forward to accuse Joe Biden of sexually inappropriate behaviour, precisely nothing happened – #MeToo notwithstanding – except that supporters went in to bat for him. We can of course make no inferences about the truth or otherwise of the allegations. But it should be clear enough that “Believe Women” has a great many qualifiers, of which the foremost is “when it’s politically expedient to do so”.
What is the lesson, then, for those women young and beautiful enough to find themselves courted by (or attracted to) charismatic and powerful men? It’s a bleak one: nobody cares if you get hurt. Even those women who avoid being treated as wholly disposable, but build careers and their own power-bases in the shadow of such men, may find themselves pitilessly exposed once inconvenient. Ghislaine Maxwell got 20 years. And while Berlusconi contested every allegation, receiving a final acquittal last February, Nicole Minetti was jailed for five years in 2013. No equivalent efforts were made to appeal her sentence.
And should you find yourself used and discarded by a man with more power than you, the only way you will find redress is in being used again, most likely by another man with more power than you. Only this time it’ll be as a weapon. And #MeToo counts for nothing, in this mix, unless you were groped by a Republican. I wish I had a more upbeat message, but the cold truth is this: if you attract the attention of men with big appetites and bigger bank balances, and you don’t want to be used either as a sex toy or political weapon, heed the medieval proverb. “She who sups with the devil should use a long spoon.”