Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism

In 1998, Natasha Walter said young women were fed up with being made to feel guilty for wearing mini-skirts. Feminists should forget policing women’s clothes and sexual behaviour, she argued in The New Feminism, and concentrate on financial and social inequalities.

The personal, it seemed, was no longer political.

A year later, Walter complained that her words had been used to undermine feminist critiques of the beauty and sex industries. She pointed out: “Young women were being sold personal rather than political empowerment, and young women particularly are under the constant blandishments of a culture that tells them that the only way to feel empowered is through shopping and plastic surgery.” She was “shocked by the way ‘new feminism’ was taken as a code for a watered-down, depoliticised kind of empowerment, the very opposite of what I was arguing”.

In her latest book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, Walter distances herself further from her earlier work, admitting: “I was entirely wrong.” Living Dolls builds on existing critiques of the ‘hypersexualised culture’, such as Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, and shows how the poorest women are bearing the brunt of its effects as they increasingly see lap-dancing and glamour modelling as the only route to a better life. “The middle classes can dismiss it as being of no relevance to their own lives or the lives of their daughters,” she argues. “Some of the men who create and support this culture do so in the belief that they can protect their own families from its effects.”

Walter interviewed Dave Read, director of Neon Management, which manages glamour models. He says he would “die” if his daughter wanted to follow in the footsteps of model Jodie Marsh. Phil Edgar-Jones, creative director of Big Brother, says he hopes his daughter would have “different aspirations” from the surgically enhanced young women on his programme. “I encourage her to read books,” he says. “Other people have different backgrounds.”

This is strong stuff, as is the section which rips into the return of biological determinism, or the belief that differences such as mathematical ability or desire to nurture between men and women have biological, rather than social origins.

A chapter on pornography is less successful: it’s five years since Pamela Paul’s Pornified was published and Walter’s critique adds little in the way of new evidence of the effect of porn on relationships, libidos, and mental and physical health, relying instead on anecdote. Walter observes: “Now the classic feminist critique of pornography – that it necessarily involves or encourages abuse of women – has disappeared from view, there are few places that young people are likely to hear much criticism or even discussion about its effects.”

Could this be a welcome indication that feminism has been successful to a degree in eradicating the stud/slut dichotomy?

But the same chapter criticises this “classic feminist” perspective as “too simplistic to embrace the great range of explicit sexual materials and people’s reaction to them”; a statement which apparently contradicts her own observations that a “vein of contempt for women” seems to characterise much pornography.

Later Walter segues from criticising the pressures on young women to be sexy and have sex to implicitly criticising the women themselves for their promiscuity.

In a passage reproduced in the Sunday Times, she reports a trio of teenage girls’ accounts of seeking out and enjoying sex without strings. She notes that all three have “learned from the vulnerabilities of women of previous generations” and quotes one girl saying she didn’t want to be in her mother’s position: “My father left my mother and since then she hasn’t really had a relationship. He’s had lots of girlfriends. I never want to be in that position. Never.”

Walter later asserts that “a new cage” in which “repression of emotions takes the place of repression of physical needs” is holding such women back.

Having introduced absent fathers as a possible cause, she goes on to suggest that feminism is to blame. “Women who celebrate promiscuity are often seen as the true feminists”, she argues, before describing a culture in which “shags and threesomes, orgies and strangers fucks seem to be replacing the culture in which sex was associated with the flowering of intimacy.”

As the chapter relies on anecdote rather than quantitative analysis, it is impossible to tell from it whether “women who celebrate promiscuity” outnumber their male counterparts and if a majority or tiny minority feel this way. Neither do Walter’s interviews tell us anything about how youthful sleeping around affects ability to commit to relationships later on in life.

While focusing on promiscuity in young women, the chapter fails to mention the same, long-observed phenomenon in young men. Just as some boys rampage through their teenage years screwing everything in sight, many others form tender relationships, others are entirely uninterested in sex while still others long for sex and/or love but fail to find a partner to provide it. That some women are now unashamedly seeking out no-strings sex could be taken as a welcome indication that feminism has been successful to a degree in eradicating the stud/slut dichotomy.

Walter correctly points out that the “cheerleading” of promiscuity by the second-wave feminists took place against a social context that constrained women’s sexuality and held up marriage as the ideal. But she implies that today’s feminists and female authors are promoting promiscuity as a path to liberation in a new context, where the social constraints that informed the second-wavers’ “cheerleading” no longer exist.

Walter successfully debunks the myths and pseudo-science surrounding the differences between the sexes in one part of the book but fails to apply the same hard-headed approach to sexual behaviour

Walter does not acknowledge that a culture which promotes a female ideal based on marriage and monogamy can exist alongside the “porn culture” she identifies. Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs pointed out that Playboy is more popular in Conservative Wyoming than liberal New York. While arguments that a single woman is an unfulfilled woman prevail, feminists will need to point out that other lifestyles can also be fulfilling. To suggest that these voices are in some way responsible for the heavy pressure she describes as weighing on women to have uncommitted sex is to do them a disservice and to play into the hands of the opponents of feminism.

The extract in the Times, headlined ‘Feminism seen as promiscuity?’, ends with a quote from a youth worker, saying: “Feminism is now seen as sexual promiscuity, which is such a narrow view of empowerment. Liberation isn’t just about promiscuity. For some women, liberation may be about having a new sexual partner every week, but for a lot of women it will be about finding someone to be with for your whole life, growing together over the years, and you never hear about that any more.” That Walter did not challenge the youth worker’s statement that “you never hear” about women’s quest for a one true love is astonishing given the rom-coms spewing out of Hollywood, the acres of relationship self-help books on Waterstones’ shelves and stories like this in the press.

In summary, Walter successfully debunks the myths and pseudo-science surrounding the differences between the sexes in one part of the book but fails to apply the same hard-headed approach to sexual behaviour.

Martin Amis, the author and former lothario, was quoted in the Sunday Times’ magazine on 24 January saying: “In came sex before marriage, and the girls didn’t care, and started behaving like boys. And the men thought, wow, this is good for us. You could see them observing what the women were doing and thinking, how’s this all going to end? Because it’s women who are going to come a cropper. There were casualties – because when do you have a revolution without casualties. The sex revolution wasn’t a bad thing. In fact it was a cornucopia of opportunity. But it is a massive project to rethink an entire gender, and behaving like men was the only model women had. It was never in their interests to be like that. The sex wasn’t in their nature.”

Sadly, Amis would find support rather than challenge to this all-too-common view of women’s “nature” in Living Dolls.