The sordid tale of our oversexed selves
Women are now under pressure to be sexy from pre-teen to old age...and they have no one to blame but themselves
She manoeuvred the pole expertly, displaying significant gymnastic prowess as she climbed confidently to the top. Then, her legs wrapped around the pole, she threw her arms theatrically in the air, looked coquettishly at her transfixed audience, flicked her head so her long hair fanned around her face, smirked cheekily, then let go and leaned all the way back, her hair almost skimming the ground.
"Come on will ya, it's my go," a girl standing next to the pole shouted. "Yeah, stop hogging the pole, you've been on it for ages. Give us a go," whined another.
If ever there was a if-you-don't-laugh-you'll-cry situation, this was it. The pole dancers were no more than eight years old, their chubby little bellies sticking out between their leggings and belly tops. The pole was a bus stop at the side of a busy road in a north Dublin suburb and their audience comprised motorists and bus passengers, of which I was one, stuck in rush-hour traffic.
It was entertaining and disturbing in equal measure. And it was a perfect, damning example of our hyper-sexual culture.
The sexual revolution was supposed to give women the freedom to take control of our bodies and be as wild and free as we wished in pursuit of our carnal pleasures, to reclaim our sexual selves from the constraints of a marriage system moulded to serve and preserve a patriarchal society.
But somewhere along the way it went wrong and our sexuality has become yet another stick to beat ourselves with; another way of spending our hard-earned cash; another area in which we judge ourselves and are judged by others as not measuring up.
Ireland's first academic sexuality conference, with the rather po-faced but nicely alliterative title of Self, Selves and Sexualities, took place at Dublin City University recently and concluded that Irish people have replaced their fear of being too sexual with a fear of not being sexual enough.
We are a culture obsessed. Not with sex per se -- in fact, some studies claim that women in the 50s had far more sex than we do -- but with the illusion of sex, the idealised manifestation of sex, the idea of being sexy and appearing available for sex.
Where before women had to be attractive and sexually appealing in their late-teens and early 20s for the purpose of making a good marriage, now the pressure is on women to be sexy, and to present a sexual image almost from the cradle to the grave.
The porn industry has gone mainstream. Respectable, middle-class women go to pole-dancing classes to keep fit. A pole-dancing performance from tween icon Miley Cyrus at last year's Teen Choice Awards passed with only a token murmur of tired outrage from parents' groups, who had perhaps
given up the fight after failing to loosen the then 15-year-old Disney star's iron grip on our children after her semi-naked and highly sexualised Vanity Fair photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz.
In 2006, Tesco was compelled to remove its Peekaboo Pole Dancing Kit from the toys and games section of its website after a flood of complaints from parents.
The kit, which to be fair to Tesco was not deliberately aimed at kids, contained an 8ft pole, a garter, a DVD showing some moves and some fake money, presumably for your horny/ horrified (depending on your proficiency at dry-humping the steel pole you picked up at the supermarket) partner to put into the aforementioned garter. It was promptly moved to the fitness section.
Small wonder our little girls want to pole dance, and to play with dolls that look like cute hookers (anyone who has seen a Bratz doll or watched the cartoon will know what I am talking about); or go to school with backpacks and pencil cases bearing Hugh Hefner's Playboy bunny logo, and wear 'sexy' clothes -- bras, G-strings, belly tops and high heels -- long before they hit puberty.
And don't get me started on the 'funny' T-shirts aimed at kids: Tight Like Spandex; Porn Star; Too Many Boys, Too Little Time; and, wrong on so many levels, one for babies that I can't get out of my head that read Excuse My Nipple Breath.
Children generally don't have salaries so somebody is buying this stuff for them. And I would wager it's not the menfolk. I doubt any Irish daddy would buy his little girl a T-shirt saying Porn Star, and if he tried he would probably be arrested.
Little girls are acquiring this sexualised behaviour from us -- their mothers, sisters, aunts and, indeed, grannies. We are the ones giving in to and perpetrating this pressure to be sexy.
Our boyfriends and husbands may buy us fetish-lite gear from Agent Provocateur on Valentine's Day (AP, by the way, are soon to launch a range of bed linen and furniture -- next step, sexy houses), but we buy most of these porn-inspired consumer products ourselves.
We buy ourselves the sexy underwear. We give each other vibrators and other 'fun' sex toys at hen parties. Admit it ladies, you are more likely to wear your lovely, comfy granny knickers on a romantic weekend with your partner than you are on a girlie weekend away, for fear one of your gal pals would see them and judge you.
The peer pressure to depilate is also enormous. It may have started with the porn industry, but we bought into it hook, line and sinker and now there is no going back. Girls in their teens to women in their 60s are waxing off every strand of body hair. Men didn't force us to do it, but now they think it's normal and ergo; hairy bits are not.
Anna Richardson, who presents Channel 4's The Sex Education Show, spoke recently of a study which measured boys' reactions when shown images of hardcore porn and photos of unwaxed normal female bodies. No prizes for guessing which pictures made them gasp and recoil as if they had just seen a snake eat a baby.
Recently I spoke to a new mother who told me of her mortification, even through the pain and tears of labour, in front of the gynaecologist at her unwaxed nethers.
Apparently, waxing before your due date is the new thing and nobody had told her.
A Dublin-based beautician specialising in waxing confirms this: "Waxing during pregnancy is very popular. In particular, the Brazilian wax [leaves just a strip] or Hollywood wax [total removal] is a very popular treatment one week before the due date."
And that's only the start of the pressure on new mums. It's not just the likes of Angelina Jolie and Heidi Klum, with their personal trainers, who are expected to snap back to their pre-pregnancy figure within weeks -- us normal women must too.
A young mother of two living in south Dublin told me of how she felt the pressure of getting back to her pre-pregnancy figure much more keenly after her second baby. "I am definitely more focused this time around. The first time I was consumed by the glow of becoming a mother, but now I am determined to get skinny. I am meeting up with some girlfriends who I haven't seen in a few years in June and the pressure is on.
"It is definitely a pressure we women impose on ourselves. My husband doesn't even notice the baby weight. Coleen Rooney had her baby around the same time as me and I do compare our progress. There is no way I am going back to work unless I am skinny."
The pressure to be sexy continues right into our 40s, 50s and 60s. Then we have to be cougars, like Madonna, with a body as lithe and tight as a 20-year-old and an unholy sexual appetite for men under 25. If we don't conform to this ideal, there is something wrong with us. Enter FSD, aka Female Sexual Dysfunction.
You thought that you were just tired after being up all night with the baby, worn out by the menopause, annoyed that your boyfriend left his dirty underpants on the floor and you stepped on them, but you were wrong.
You have, according to the experts, FSD.
This is a disease so unspoken that Oprah called it "the secret epidemic". It is so secret that most of the women affected by it don't even know it.
According to a 2003 paper published in the British Medical Journal, 40 million American women have it, and more than half of British women are afflicted, having experienced sexual problems that lasted longer than a month.
FSD covers anything from lack of desire for sex to trouble getting aroused. (Anyone else thinking that maybe, just maybe, this could be a dysfunction with our men?) FSD is big business in the States, where the race is on to develop the female equivalent of Viagra.
Orgasm Inc, a documentary made last year by Vermont filmmaker Liz Canner exploring the quest to cure FSD, suggests that the pharmaceutical industry helped create a disorder in order to cure it.
Canner was commissioned by drug company Vivus to make erotic films for clinical trials of the female equivalent of Viagra. Vivus had invented the first drug to cure male erectile dysfunction, or, as they termed it, "bring life back into dead penises", but were out-marketed by Pfizer with Viagra.
Vivus claimed this was due to the latter's deep pockets, but I imagine the "dead penises" may have had something to do with it. It conjures up images that don't leave your thoughts easily -- rather like nipple breath. But back to the point.
All looked lost until one of the Vivus execs mentioned on a TV interview that their drug might work for women. Share prices shot up, so the company turned its attention to developing the drug for the ladies.
The problem was, however, that though they had a drug, they had, and I quote the head of clinical research, "no disease entity".
Canner also looked at other interesting 'work' in the field, such as Dr Stuart Meloy's Orgasmatron, a machine that planted electrodes in the spine to stimulate the sexual organs.
A middle-aged woman called Charlotte, whose FSD manifested itself as never achieving orgasm during penetrative sex (shock, horror), tried it out but, instead of an orgasm, got a jittery tick in her leg. It was enough to break the spell and make Charlotte see that Emperor FSD had no clothes: "The heck with all that disease stuff."
Dead right Charlotte. And Oprah should know better.
Feeling and looking sexy is important for our self-esteem and happiness. But trying to emulate the ideal of women as dictated by the porn industry is not. It leads to innocent little girls with suggestive slogans emblazoned across their tummies, pregnant women worried about waxing, performance anxiety, embarrassed hens with more vibrators than they know what to do with, designer vaginoplasty (Google it -- it's a whole 'nother story) and generally more stress for all of us.
Let's leave the pole dancing to the professionals. It can lead to injury and misunderstanding.
Trust me, I've been to Tesco.