Silvio Berlusconi has been in the news recently for having quite a lot of sex with lots of women in various arrangements and situations (up to the point of driving his wife to divorce him).
Now, personally I don’t see much point in getting hugely het up about this, given that there’s plenty of other stuff to hate Berlusconi for (rampant corruption, electoral coalitions with Fascists, and racist policies spring to mind) but it seems to have been picked up at least in the media. And I stumbled across this article, entitled ‘Naughty, Silvio, but nice one’, the main thesis of which is, look, men just want loads of sex and so we all secretly admire this guy and wish we were like him, because, look, I believe in sexual equality and everything, but men are polygamous by nature and women are monogamous by nature* so there’s always going to be a tension between those two and we shouldn’t worry too much about.
A nice quote is “[Berlusconi’s behaviour] brings a smile to the face and puts a spring in the step” of this Telegraph writer.
And of course there’s the recurrent trope “Men and women are made differently, think differently, act differently…Men are simple creatures and, in matters sexual, are bound by a rudimentary arithmetic. Two women are better than one, three women are better than two.”
Now, this ‘made differently’ is one possibility. But let’s recall Occam’s Razor: if a phenomenon can be explained in a simple way by already known causes, we shouldn’t introduce some alternative cause to complicate the picture. And whatever trend there is of more promiscuous men can be very simply and parsimoniously explained by reference to a known fact.
That fact is that society defines men as people and women as objects. This is undeniable for up until the last 50 years or so in the West, and if people want to suggest that those millenia of history have been entirely undone in the last few decades, well, they can go ahead but I’ll ignore them. Note that both of these definitions are wrong – humans are both people and objects.
How does this fact neatly explain anything? If men are people and women are objects, then sex is the possession and enjoyment of an object by a person. A person is never made poorer by possessing another object – the logic of possessing objects is indeed “bound by a rudimentary arithmetic”. Conversely, an object is profoundly compromised by being possessed or enjoyed. In particular, if an object is enjoyed by lots of people, it follows naturally that it is easy to enjoy it, and objects that are easily available are worth less. So the logic of being an object follows a much more ambiguous and complex arithmetic.
The result would be that insofar as people accept the identities given by society (which is as far from being ‘completely’ as it is from being ‘negligibly’), sex will appear to a man as a fairly straightforward ‘gain’, a benefit without cost. There may be indirect costs – the food may give him indigestion (STIs) or eating too much may make others call him greedy – but there’s no cost inherent to the act. While to a woman, sex will appear as half attractive and half frightening, as a ‘giving up’ of herself, a ‘surrender’ that, pleasant or otherwise as it may be, is as likely to leave her symbolically worse off (‘cheapened’, ‘degraded’, ‘used’) as better off.
Which would be pretty close to what’s observed. It would also explain a further fact. The article linked to says “Man is polygamous…Women monogamous”. Interestingly, this doesn’t appear to mean that men are happy to have their wives and girlfriends off shagging other people. In that sense they are just as ‘monogamous’ as anyone. Rather, these two tendencies are defined in reference to male sexuality, male fidelity and infidelity (I wonder why). But if it’s true that men are just naturally keen on polygamy instead of monogamy, this makes no sense. So clearly that’s not what’s going on.
Rather, it makes sense if what men (in proportion to accepting the script they’re given) are interested in is possession – maximise the quantity (how many women) and quality (how fully they’re ‘yours’ – e.g. can you keep other men off them) of your possession, and this appears to be merely an interest in sex because for men sex is defined as possession.
Conversely, whether or not women are interested in possessing as many people as possible, that desire can’t easily become a sexual one because for them, sex is not defined as possession. Having sex with men won’t be earn you respect and admiration at their expense, but rather the opposite.
So if the obvious and already-known fact that patriarchy objectifies women and hyper-personalises men explains these observations, to whatever extent they are true, there’s no need to posit some ‘made differently’ factor as an alternative explanation.
What does this mean about particular philandering men? Well, someone who acts in a certain, fitting a certain social script, may either be doing it out of personal inclination or be reading from that script. A philandering man may prefer having sex to other uses of their time for reasons fairly unrelated to social conditioning – or because they accept the script that says that each new woman they bed is a new victory, a new affirmation of their power against the world and against the women they thereby objectify (or, perhaps more likely, multiple motives combine). We shouldn’t assume that patriarchal society determines everything in each individual.
But I feel no inclination to extend such a benefit of the doubt to Berlusconi, given his long history of sexist quips, generally disgusting politics, and all-round sleaziness.