LONDON -- In his impassioned defense of Bill Clinton
during the Senate's 1999 impeachment trial, Arkansas Sen. Dale Bumpers paraphrased a famous quote by the journalist H.L. Mencken:
"When you hear somebody say, 'This is not about money' -- it's about money. And when you hear somebody say, 'This is not about sex' -- it's about sex."
How true. Back then, we all said that what we really cared about was whether President Clinton had lied under oath. But what we really focused on was the prurient testimony of one Monica Lewinsky, with her sordid tales of stained blue dresses and the creative use of cigars.
The same could be said of two legal cases currently drawing headlines in Europe: those of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.
In Assange's case, the main legal issue at his extradition hearing in London last week
was whether the arrest warrant issued by the Swedish government for allegations of rape was executed properly. The hearing also addressed whether he could, in fact, get a fair trial in Sweden.
But what many people will remember most about this case long after it's resolved will be the closing arguments made by Assange's lawyers last Friday
. At one point, his defense attorney described the claim by one of the women in question -- known as Miss A -- who has accused Assange of ripping off her clothes, snapping a necklace, pinning her down and trying to force himself on her without wearing a condom.
The defense's interpretation of that act: Assange using the weight of his body to pin her down "describes what is usually termed the missionary position," the lawyer said. He added that "sexual encounters have their ups and downs, their ebbs and flows. What may be unwanted one moment can with further empathy become desired."
And then the coup de grace: "If Sweden [said] sucking toes without washing . . . is rape . . . then that would be an extradition offense?"
Sucking toes? The missionary position? Assange's attorney had a legal aim in dragging up all this titillating stuff. He wanted both to call into question the inherently murky concept of "consent" as well as to demonstrate the lack of "double criminality" – i.e., that the allegations made against Assange were offenses under both Swedish and English law. (Rape laws in Sweden are a good deal more flexible
than the narrower definitions elsewhere, including in the U.K.)
There's no question that rape is an inherently difficult topic to address legally
, as my colleague Sarah Wildman has argued on these pages before. And it's worth noting that the prosecution wasn't buying Assange's defense. Acting on behalf of Sweden, chief prosecutor Clare Montgomery said that, with respect to Miss A's claims: "In popular language, that's violence." She also referenced the claims of a second woman, "Miss B," who alleges that Assange had sex with her while she was sleeping: "If you penetrate a sleeping woman, there's an evidential assumption that she did not consent."
We'll know the outcome of the extradition hearing -- which will determine whether Assange must return to Sweden for further questioning about these alleged rapes -- on Feb. 24.
But I guarantee that regardless how the British court rules, what the public will most remember is the image of Assange sucking someone's toes.
Of course, all of that pales in comparison to the details leaking out of the investigation into Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's private life. Last week, Italian prosecutors requested that he be put on trial immediately for sex-related offenses
that carry a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
At issue is whether the prime minister paid an underage prostitute to have sex with him and whether, in turn, he used the power of his office to cover up the alleged crime. Early Tuesday, a judge decided to fast-track a trial, which will begin April 6 in Milan. A panel of three judges -- all women -- will hear the case.
But even though it is the abuse-of-office charge that carries the much steeper sentence (up to 12 years vs. up to three for paying for sex with a minor), it is sexual offense -- coming on the heels of several other recent disclosures -- that has attracted the ire of the Italian public, and Italian women in particular.
As part of the investigation, prosecutors raided a series of properties Berlusconi owns in Milan that were allegedly used to house a "harem" of young women who dressed up in nurse's outfits and policemen's uniforms and performed striptease for the Italian leader
. In these properties, police allegedly found sex toys, expensive jewelry and envelopes stuffed with 20,000 Euros ($27,000).
As I wrote in an earlier post, Berlusconi has always been the proverbial politician with nine lives, surviving scandal after scandal surrounding his often colorful relationships with women. But there is a sense that Italy has finally had enough.
On Sunday, thousands of Italians took to the streets in some 200 cities across the country to protest Berlusconi's attitudes toward women. The largest event was in Rome, where organizers said 100,000 people gathered under the slogan "If not now, when?"
Women's groups in particular are fed up with the way women are portrayed in the Italian media
(which is largely owned by Berlusconi himself). For them, the current scandal highlights a troubling message: the way for a woman to get ahead in Italy is to sell her soul, if not her body, to powerful men.
The Assange and Berlusconi cases hinge on whether each committed a criminal offense. But we already know way more about their sex lives than we possibly could have imagined back in the days when "Julian Assange" was just a weird, secretive computer hacker who seemed to have wandered off the film set of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
And that's just how we -- as a public -- want it.
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