Cicciolina’s Sexual Politics

A Porn Star Uses Sex as Her Claim to Power

Should women use their sexuality for political gain? Or is it better to avoid this route to power?

One woman who famously used her sexuality as a political tool was Hungarian-born Ilona Staller, best known as the Italian adult film star, Cicciolina. In 1987, 20,000 people in the district of Rome hand-wrote her name on their ballots, preferring her over forty-seven other Radical Party nominees. Cicciolina's political campaign included striptease, live snakes as props, and her signature flashing of breasts.

Max Riflessi
Cicciolina was elected to represent the district of Rome. She received 20,000 votes, coming in second only to the founder of the Radical Party, Marco Panella. View Larger >


AP Photo / Marco Ravagli
Blond hair, red lips and emphasized eyebrows were Cicciolina's trademark. Even as Member of Italian Parliament, she refused to trade her signature look for a more conservative mien.View Larger >

Not Your Usual Politics

Many saw Cicciolina's exhibitionism, promiscuous persona and victory at the polls as a national embarrassment. Although she is unofficially credited with establishing one of Europe's first green parties, she had little political experience when she got elected to the Italian parliament. And lest anyone forget that sexuality was her claim to power, she acted in an adult movie whileserving her term.

But many others recognized that she was using sexuality not only to get elected, but also to poke fun at the hypocrisy she saw in the Italian government. Italian writer Umberto Eco is reported to have said of Cicciolina's election, "Immorality for immorality; we've seen worse." Eco was alluding to the famously and chronically corrupt Italian government overrun by thieves, convicted criminals and mafia-sympathizers.

As member of parliament, Cicciolina critiqued the oligarchy of Italian patriarchs who lorded over Italian politics. She irreverently called male members of parliament cicciolini, an Italian term of endearment that does not have a single-word English equivalent but can be loosely translated as "cute little tubby boys." The Prime Minister was a cicciolino. The all-powerful head of the Italian Socialist Party was just another cicciolino. By calling them cicciolini instead of prefixing their name with "Your Honor," Cicciolina insisted that they were just "cute little tubby boys," some woman's naughty little children. And indeed, three years into Cicciolina's term, a bribery scandal brought down two major Italian political parties. 

Cicciolina's Legacy

Historically, Italian women have held only 10 percent of total parliament seats and were not allowed full political participation until after World War II. As one of the few women in parliament, Cicciolina's victory was significant. Furthermore, she was unafraid to chastise the male parliament members, calling attention to a political system that forbade new faces: "The rules of government change," she said, "but your faces always remain the same ... and the bigger issue is that our problems are always the same, but you just pretend nothing is wrong and continue asking for votes and continue to make your governments fall only to revive them again. The years go by, but your faces remain."

While in office, Cicciolina supported sex education in schools and, not surprisingly, "Love for all!" as she proclaimed. She also stood for protecting the environment, stopping nuclear proliferation and defending animal rights. On two occasions, Cicciolina is reported to have attempted to end the buildup to the Gulf War by offering her own body. "I am available to make love to Saddam Hussein to achieve peace in the Middle East," she said.

For all her attempts at challenging the status quo, Cicciolina was not re-elected after her five-year term. But she did stir things up: she was an outsider and a woman--an over-sexed woman by some standards--who forced her way into the boys' club upsetting their sense of comfort and entitlement over politics. Cicciolina unapologetically used her sexuality: she was both positioned because of it and used it to position herself politically. Perhaps her legacy can best be summed up by her own self-assessment: "I am a combative woman." Her sexuality, along with her outspokenness, was a poweful tool in her political arsenal.

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