Silvio Berlusconi’s trial plays like a melodramatic soap opera. A powerful politician, lavish sex-fuelled parties, and an exotic foreigner with a shady past – the media couldn’t ask for a more sellable story. Indeed, Berlusconi’s trial has been splashed over newspapers and grabbed headlines worldwide since the scandal broke. Yet several aspects of the Berlusconi story that should be receiving due attention are being brushed over by a public glutting themselves on schadenfreude and a press hungry for salacious details. The truth is, the Berlusconi scandal has far more worrying implications that stretch far beyond the personal flaws of the ex-politician himself.
At the centre of the scandal sits Karima El-Mahroug, an exotic dancer whom prosecutors say Berlusconi compensated for sex at the age of 17. El-Mahroug has offered the press plenty of fodder – dishing out salacious details only to recant them later, granting interviews in tightly-fitting clothing, promoting herself aggressively and seeming to bask in every single one of her fifteen minutes of fame. As a result, El-Mahroug has been painted as a savvy liar, a vixen and a fame-hungry seductress. Yet, scrolling through the hundreds of stories of the Berlusconi trial, though El-Mahroug features prominently in each, she is very seldom treated as an independent entity. Very few articles examine her background and it is a herculean task to find a quote or any interview which focuses on anything other than the scandalous details she can provide about Berlusconi’s sexual escapades.
When it comes to El-Mahroug herself, very little can be confirmed of her history; she moved from Morocco to Sicily when she was young. In an interview, she said she was sexually abused by her uncles and ran away from home at 14. Undeniably a pretty girl, she began working as an exotic dancer and was noticed by Berlusconi’s dental hygienist, who then introduced her to the then-prime minister. What followed was the dramatic and unclear story of the relationship which has garnered endless attention in the press.
What we do know is that El-Mahroug came from a background of extreme poverty and like many young girls, was forced to use what resources were available to her in order to survive. Often, for these women, their sole possession is their bodies.
Prostitution is often a result of poverty. While it can be a voluntary profession, there is no denying that many girls and women – often underage – are forced into it by circumstances. This is so even in developed countries. According to AVA, 74% of women who engage in prostitution ‘voluntarily’ in the UK cite poverty as their primary motivation, and 75% started before the age of 18. The numbers are much harder to track in developing countries, but the staggering figures in a nation as socially supportive as the UK is disheartening. Moreover, these women are largely shunned by society and labelled irredeemable. It is much easier to condemn the El-Mahrougs of the world than admit our part in creating them.
El-Mahroug herself has behaved questionably in the press, and made herself a difficult figure to sympathize with. Yet throughout all of her interviews, she repeatedly mentions loneliness, fear and manipulation. Though it is impossible to independently determine which parts of her story are true, El-Mahroug is clearly a deeply psychologically scarred individual. Much of her life seems to be responding to forces much greater than her own personal agency, with most of her actions being simple methods of survival. This is the harsh reality for many young girls, in both developed and developing countries.
El-Mahroug’s representation in the media, down to her fame through her stagename – Ruby Heartstealer – rather than her own, is symbolic of a significant problem in tackling the sex trade. Even in cases where the sex workers aren’t criminalized by law – such as in El-Mahroug’s – they are often shamed and stigmatized. Though it seems self-evident that making villains of the victims of our system cannot possibly help, the attitude of hating those we injure continues to prevail. If nations are to tackle the problem of involuntary prostitution, the first step is acknowledging the problem, rather than enthusiastically blaming those who are most harmed by it.
Originally published on Girls’ Globe, 6/07/2013
Featured image from Wikimedia Commons, c/o Presidenza della Republica.