In the land of the “bunga bunga”, the Italy led by billionaire prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, there are women who dream of pole dancing for his pleasure — and those who do not.

“As a woman and as an Italian citizen I am indignant, angry and disgusted,” said a school teacher who declined to be named. She was talking about “Rubygate”, the prime minister’s latest sex scandal, in which he is accused of having underage sex with 17-year-old Moroccan runaway, Karima El-Mahroog, better known as Ruby the Heart Stealer.

The teacher is unlikely to appear on the prime minister’s guest list — or have any impact on his vote.

She is gay and teaches poor kids in the southern suburbs of Rome. She despairs about the bitter divisions among the Left while blaming Berlusconi for fostering a new generation who see their future as bikini-clad show girls or contestants on Big Brother, screened on one of the three commercial TV channels he owns.

Newspapers and magazines are overflowing with stories about the young women who cavorted at parties held at the 74-year-old leader’s mansions before he chose one or two to bed for the night.

Prosecutors claim that Ruby was just one of the women showered with gifts and thousands of dollars in cash. A dozen girls apparently also lived rent free in a Milan apartment complex now dubbed the “Doll’s House”.

The prime minister has always denied ever paying for sex, and sex with a prostitute under 18 is a serious crime in Italy.

As prosecutors called new witnesses to testify about the PM’s parties,  the scandal provoked more outrage from the opposition, the Catholic Church, and feminists, who gathered on the streets of Milan and Florence on the weekend with banners stating “Italy is not a brothel”.

The question is whether the Houdini of Italian politics can convince voters he is a victim of judicial conspiracy and achieve what  few other leaders could — call an early election and win a record fourth term .

“They have always known he was a dirty old man,” said Professor James Walston, from the American University in Rome. “What makes this different is that it’s very explicit, there is very little room for doubt. Now we have dates and places with descriptions of the parties.”

A  poll published in respected daily Corriere Della Sera on Sunday showed that 70% of those who took part had “little or no faith” in Berlusconi. But he could still pull off an election win with the support of his powerful coalition partner, the Northern League.

While there are plenty of men who openly chuckle “Good luck to him!” when asked about the sex scandal, there is one group of voters that may hold the key to his political survival — older conservatie women apparently indifferent to his sexual shenanigans.

Professor Chiara Volpato, a sociologist at the University of Milan-Bicocca, said these women had such a “sexist view of reality” and were “so in love with their leader” that they did not see what was happening.

“They are women who have probably lived their whole lives in a climate of benevolent sexism, content with the small compensations they are given,” Professor Volpato said.

“Recently I saw a woman in her 60s, interviewed on TV, and she said: “I know  (what he is up to) but I think he’s likeable all the same.”

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW