In Italy, A Sex Scandal to Rival Berlusconi's

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Remo Casilli / Reuters

Lazio Governor Piero Marrazzo holds a piece of buffalo mozzarella cheese in Rome.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's party-guy private life has dominated Italy's public discourse for more than six months. But his alleged dalliances with prostitutes and underage girls is getting some competition from another scandal unfolding in Rome. This one involves a TV-host-turned-governor who was forced to admit to a long history of frequenting transsexual prostitutes. This week, that scandal received the tangential frisson of murder.

Piero Marrazzo was forced to step down as governor of Rome's region, Lazio, on Oct. 27 after an alleged blackmail scheme set off the spiral of embarrassing revelations about his private life. Prosecutors have now opened homicide investigations into the deaths of two people linked to Marrazzo, who was first elected in 2005 after years as host of a popular consumer watchdog talk show on the RAI national TV network. Investigators say Marrazzo is not a suspect in the Nov. 20 arson that killed a Brazilian transgender prostitute known as Brenda, nor the September death of a Rome-based drug dealer named Gianguerino Cafasso that has now been ruled a homicide. But he has connections to both people. Cafasso had reportedly produced an incriminating video that showed Marrazzo indulging in both drugs and the transsexual prostitutes. And investigators say Brenda was one of the prostitutes at the center of the sex scandal.

Marrazzo's scandal is the third major public controversy in four years involving prominent Italian men and transgender prostitutes. In 2005, Lapo Elkann, the grandson of the former head of the Fiat auto dynasty Gianni Agnelli, was rushed to the hospital when he overdosed on cocaine at the Turin apartment of a transsexual prostitute. (He survived.) Two years later, photographs surfaced of Silvio Sircana, chief spokesman for then-Prime Minister Romano Prodi, having a conversation with what appeared to be a transvestite prostitute on the outskirts of Rome. Sircana insisted he was not soliciting the prostitute.

Marrazzo, who is married with three children, admitted to paying thousands of euros to be with several South American transgender prostitutes and to using cocaine. His fall came after four Carabinieri police officers were arrested for allegedly threatening to make public the incriminating video of the encounter he had with one of the prostitutes.

With the revelations splashed across TV and newspapers, Italians in bars and over espressos are asking themselves just what the attraction is for these men? Indeed, some see the iconic, often macho image of the "Maschio Italiano" (Italian male) coming a bit unraveled.

Dr. Alberto Caputo, a Milan psychiatrist and sex therapist, says that a third of the several thousand visits each month to prostitutes in the northern city are with the transgendered. "This is what we call 'sensation seeking,'" says Caputo, who treats patients of all sexual orientations and identities. "Men who frequent the transgendered are after ambiguity, which can create strong [sexual] excitement." Caputo says the common notion that relations with the transgendered are a form of latent homosexuality misses the mark. Instead, he calls the attraction "homogenital," whereby someone seeks all the characteristics of the opposite sex, save the genitals, which he or she prefers to be like their own. As a sociological phenomenon, Caputo, wonders if the growing power of women in contemporary life and relationships pushes certain men to seek what he calls a "neo-woman," who is hormonally and behaviorally quite feminine and protective, even while possessing the male sex organ.

The resignation of Marrazzo, a member of the center-left, serves the conservative Berlusconi politically. The Prime Minister can argue that he is hardly the only politician guilty of peccadilloes. Opposition supporters point out that Marrazzo rather quickly pulled out of politics after the revelations while the Prime Minister has never shown an ounce of contrition. But Vittorio Zincone, who writes on politics and culture for the weekly magazine of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, says there is an unconscious effect on the body politic. "The Marrazzo affair solidifies for many Berlusconi's reputation as the real ladies man," says Zincone. "And of course in the end, Italy is a Catholic country, where everything is eventually forgiven."

And where does all this leave the nation's reputation for machismo? "The real macho today pushes the limit," argues Caputo. "The real macho is transgression." In that view, from all sides of the political and sexual spectrum, Italy appears more macho than ever.