ROME, Italy - Women rallied across Italy on Sunday, incensed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's sex scandal which they say has hurt their dignity and reinforced outdated gender stereotypes.
Thousands of protesters marched through Naples and Palermo, carrying banners calling for Berlusconi to resign and chanting "Italy is not a brothel", television pictures showed.
Organised with an online petition, the protests reflect growing anger among women with the premier, who could soon face trial over a prostitution scandal in a country where middle-aged women have long been among his key voters.
Led by actresses, politicians and other prominent women, marches are due to take place in more than 200 cities across the mainly Catholic nation later in the day. Protests are also planned in other countries from the United States to Greece.
"We are asking all women to defend the value of our dignity, and we are asking men: if not now, when?" organisers said on the protest website.
Prosecutors filed a request on Wednesday to bring Berlusconi to trial, accusing him of paying for sex with a nightclub dancer when she was under 18, which is illegal in Italy.
The 74-year old premier has dismissed the accusations as "disgusting and disgraceful" and said the Milan prosecutors' office was acting for "subversive purposes" to target him.
The scandal has revived opposition calls for Berlusconi to resign at a time when he is clinging to power after a split in the ruling PDL party last year.
He has survived sex scandals in the past and many of his female supporters seem unperturbed by the latest case, decrying what they see as a puritanical and politically motivated ploy.
Several of his female supporters took part in pro-Berlusconi rallies this week in a show of support.
"We support him with all of our hearts," protester Stella Falcetta said with tears in her eyes at a rally in Milan on Friday. "Because, as he says, love wins over hatred."
President Giorgio Napolitano has warned political tensions are too high and told Berlusconi at a meeting on Friday that Italy risked facing new elections as a result.
Leaked wiretaps from the investigation have appeared in newspapers for weeks with references to bundles of cash, talk of sex games and gifts that women received after attending parties at Berlusconi's villa.
Campaigners say the one-sided image of women as sex objects has harmed gender relations and promoted a culture in which women see selling their good looks as the only route to success.
"Big boobs, small hips, and always available: it's almost become a dictatorship because television, the newspapers, only present this model of women," said Lorella Zanardo, author of Il Corpo Delle Donne, a book about the image of women in the media.
"The image of a strong and emancipated woman struggles to emerge here even if Italy is full of women like this."