Mary Kenny: ' Young girls see promiscuity as a means to personal empowerment'
Natasha Walter could be described as the rightful heiress to Germaine Greer: her forthcoming book Living Dolls is a kind of reprise of Greer's groundbreaking The Female Eunuch a generation ago.
Dr Greer's complaint was that women were lamentably conditioned -- by their powerlessness -- to smile and to please, instead of realising their true selves. Ms Walter's jeremiad is that younger women today -- instead of realising the feminist dream of moral seriousness -- have come to see their bodies as the passport to success.
Natasha Walter, who wrote a previous book in the '90s celebrating The New Feminism, is now appalled at the way young girls get themselves up like little tarts, and see sexual promiscuity as a means to personal empowerment.
They look like Barbie dolls, booze like navvies and take casual sex as the norm. In her research into the condition of young women in Britain today, Ms Walter found that it can be really tough being a 14-year-old virgin now: there is so much pressure on a youngster to 'just do it'.
In Jane Austen's time, a lass who was sexually promiscuous was at the margins of society. Now, it is the other way around: a girl who isn't sexually promiscuous is treated as some kind of misfit. Indeed, you wouldn't have to go back to the early 1800s to draw that comparison -- the '50s would provide a perfectly useful template. But it is an irony that Jane Austen, with all the restrictions that her world imposed, remains enormously popular as a narrative genre.
It's not that the progressive and free-thinking Ms Walter -- the daughter of high-thinking, left-wing secularists who sought to loosen the bounds of religion on society -- is disapproving or prudish about the exploration of sexuality. She thinks the cult of chastity was a "cage" which needed to be discarded.
But she remains dismayed that so many young girls are drawn to the cheap, pornographic fashion that abounds: "This new culture of shags and threesomes, orgies and sex with strangers seems to be replacing the culture in which sex was associated with the flowering of intimacy."
And there's another thing. If your mind is going to be focused on "shags and sex with strangers", it is unlikely to be developed by higher thinking. Brain development in the human species went in parallel with deferred gratification, and reflectiveness was advanced by the concept of self-control. If humans behave as "the brute beasts of the fields", then they don't progress much beyond the level of the brute beasts.
As Freud discerned, repression is an essential element of civilisation.
But what did Ms Walter expect, given the ideas and conditions that have prevailed over the past quarter-century? Where techn- ology has made pornography available to all; where commerce has encouraged the sexualisation of girls from a pre-pubertal age (one supermarket chain actually merchandised a line of provocative fashion for 12-year-olds called Lolita, until public pressure succeeded in having it withdrawn) and where the contraceptive revolution has aimed not just to promote responsible family planning, but to advertise the general notion that sex without consequences is a 'right'?
It is hardly surprising that Natasha Walter was distressed by what she found: feminism defined as nine-year-olds wearing boob-tubes, high boots and heavy make-up while be-bopping to disco music. But it is also predictable. Anyone who, in the recent past, warned that sexual freedom can be used to exploit women (and, indeed, men) was laughed to scorn by the liberal establishment. That was 'turning back the clock', if not 'totally medieval'.
And yet there have always been two strains in feminist thinking with regard to sexual liberation. The puritans, such as Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, greatly disapproved of sexual freedom: Christabel's slogan was 'Votes for Women -- and Chastity for Men!' (Feminist icons in Ireland such as Maud Gonne and Constance Markievicz were also sexually prudish, and Countess Markievicz thought that divorce was 'evil'.)
And then you had women who favoured sexual freedom and the abolition of censorship, from Alexandra Kollontai to Erica Jong and Helen Gurley Brown, who had an openly commercial agenda behind her Sex and the Single Girl. Sex made money, she said, and she proved it too.
It was Germaine Greer herself who observed that people often confuse the feminist revolution with the sexual revolution. They are not the same thing, even though, in her day, Germaine Greer did seem to symbolise both. But perhaps any liberation movement is like riding a tiger: you cannot always dismount when you choose.
Are Natasha Walter's concerns over-stated? There are many young women today who don't dress as tarts and don't buy into the trashy side of contemporary celebrity culture; don't define themselves by their bodies and don't view sexuality as a casual shag. But she is right to raise the questions that she does in Living Dolls, because they need to be examined and considered.