Has Sexism Gotten Worse? Or, What Teens Can Learn From Speculum Play

British feminist Natasha Walter says it was more acceptable to complain about sexism in the 80s than it is today. Have women really sacrificed feminism for "fake nails, fake tan and, finally, fake breasts?"

According to a profile by Kira Cochrane of the Guardian, Walter once believed feminists could ignore women's "private lives: how women made love, how they dressed, whom they desired . . . I believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of the old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away." But it didn't wither — Walter now thinks it may have flourished. She's written a book called Living Dolls (we wrote about one excerpt from the Times of London), and she tells Cochrane,

You know, when I was at university [in the 80s] it was OK to be annoyed about ­sexism, to take it quite seriously – if you argued about it, it didn't make you the ­subject of ­mockery. Even if you didn't ­particularly identify yourself as a feminist, you could choose where you wanted to be on a spectrum, and you could still say, 'I really don't want Page 3 in the ­common room,' or, 'I ­really hate the idea of porn' . . . I was surprised when I was ­interviewing young women that they felt ­uncomfortable engaging in that way. Of course, a lot them would say, 'It's fine, we can choose whether to [interact with the sexist culture] or not,' and then you dig a little deeper, and you realise that it is more ­problematic than that.

Cochrane paraphrases the thesis of Living Dolls thus:

Walter takes on the ­notion that, for example, stripping and pole dancing are ­empowering, ­liberating choices; instead, she ­suggests, it has become increasingly difficult for young women to opt out of this culture, to take any path other than that which leads inexorably to fake nails, fake tan and, finally, fake breasts. And, if they do, there are ­serious social penalties.

Were these penalties imposed by a society threatened by the successes of feminism? Walter seems to think so — Cochrane writes that her book is "an anatomy of regression, of a culture that has responded to the assent of women with a reassertion of sexist values: the objectification of young women, the suggestion that men and women are simply programmed to behave in certain ways, and that inequality is therefore inevitable." Certainly these sexist values will be familiar to anyone who's picked up a magazine lately — it doesn't have to be Maxim, since pop evolutionary psychology has injected the gender programming argument into articles on everything from relationships to weight. And the rise of pole-dance-power has been documented by Ariel Levy and others. But have things really gotten worse?

Some of Walter's arguments to that effect fall flat. In the Times of London, she conflated objectification with having multiple partners and seemed to assume that women couldn't possibly enjoy casual sex. And in an article in the Daily Mail, she writes,

Many young women now seem to believe that sexual confidence is the only confidence worth having, and that sexual confidence can be gained only if a young woman is ready to conform to the soft-porn image of a tanned, waxed young girl with large breasts.

Whether sexual confidence can be found in other ways, and whether other kinds of confidence are worth seeking, are themes that this obsessively sexual culture does not seem able to address.

Here she sort of buries the key point amid a bunch of generalizations. I don't know the young women who "believe that sexual confidence is the only confidence worth having," and the women Walter interviewed for her Times piece don't necessarily believe this either. But the idea that "sexual confidence" is best achieved by conforming to a particular mainstream image of attractiveness is pretty widespread, and may be getting more deeply entrenched.

I didn't experience the eighties university environment Walter describes, but I know that by the time I went to high school in the nineties, it was cool for girls to like lad mags and other images of women performing for men — and pretty uncool to be offended. And while none of my friends participated in glamour model competitions like the one Walter describes, it's all too often the case that being sex-positive, even as a feminist, has come to mean supporting a pole-dancing, pube-shaving, kissing-girls-to-turn-on-dudes aesthetic that, in addition to being pretty divorced from female desire, is also fucking tired.

The increasing acceptability of porn has often been blamed for this aesthetic, but it's actually possible to imagine a world where porn — especially Internet porn — would be good for young women. It's now easy and relatively risk-free to seek out all kinds of kink on the web, and the sheer existence of, say, speculum play ought to be evidence that human sexuality isn't all about breast implants. Plenty of people like to be watched, and I fully believe that many girls get off on pole-dancing. But I also know that girls today get the message from many quarters that whether they get off isn't important. And the solution to this may not be less sex, as Walter has sometimes implied, but more — or, at least, more sexual awareness.

Paradoxically, the whole fake-nails-fake-tan-fake-boobs culture may feed on the notion that women aren't naturally sexual, that they are damaged by casual intercourse and care only about relationships. If that's true, then sex becomes all about gratifying male urges, and sexiness becomes all about appealing to one very specific patriarchal ideal. So instead of teaching girls that sex with multiple partners is like putting tape on your arm and ripping it off a bunch of times (what they told me in high school), we should be explaining that sexuality is individual and various, that some women want casual sex and some men don't, that the definition of "sex" is actually not set in stone, and that figuring out what you like and what you want is part of being a happy adult who doesn't take shit from other people. I think learning about porn and kink could actually help with this, and while we probably won't have furries visiting sex ed classes any time soon, I do think our horrible adolescent health curricula would do well to embrace a kind of sex-positivity that's more about masturbation than Maxim (and yes, I am old enough to remember when Joycelyn Elders was fired for saying basically this). Right now the average teenage girl in America is hearing that she's pure and virginal and only wants love, but also that she'd better get on the pole if she wants to be "hot" — she deserves to learn that she's nobody's madonna, and nobody's whore, except her own.

Natasha Walter: 'I Believed Sexism In Our Culture Would Wither Away. I Was Entirely Wrong' [Guardian]
Land Of The Living Dolls: Feminism Has Spawned A Promiscuous Generation Who Believe Their Bodies Are The Only Passport To Success [Daily Mail]

Earlier: The "Promiscuity" Problem: Why Hookup Culture Is Not The Enemy