Women’s libbers for law’n’order
Why are once radical feminists joining the chorus of disapproval about young women in mini-skirts going out, getting hammered and having sex?
‘Horrifying!’ roared the UK Daily Mail after an 18-year-old woman, Cheryl Tunney, admitted on the BBC3 programme Sex… with Mum and Dad that her ‘hobby’ is having sex with men she meets on the internet (1). As a result, Cheryl apparently has 50 notches on her bedpost.
Despair and handwringing over what young women get up to was all over the place at the start of the New Year, too. Some British broadsheet newspapers printed a rogues’ gallery of skimpily dressed young women out on the lash and the pull. Such is the steady glug, glug of anti-drink whingeing these days that even the age-old ritual of ‘seeing in the New Year’ (preferably through beer goggles) is now taken as proof that the masses are festering in a sea of their own vomit. Clearly these complaining writers have been living in convents all their lives; haven’t we always drunk to excess on New Year’s Eve?
The big difference between the boozing of yesterday and today is that more young women go out socialising these days. It is called equality, grandad, and it seems many a newspaper columnist finds the notion of women ‘behaving badly’ to be dangerously intoxicating stuff. Nevertheless, it’s not just the colonel-minded blimps and cranks on the Daily Mail and Daily Express who don’t like to see women drunk; a surprising number of ‘modern women’ and ex-feminists are complaining about young women’s ‘loose morals’, too.
In a recent article, spiked contributor Emily Hill asked ‘whatever happened to solidarity?’, and noted that some American feminists, such as Carol Liebau and Ariel Levy, now argue that women are in the grip of a ‘raunch culture’ more obsessed with being sexy than clever and thus leading to a female generation that ‘compete to look like slags and sluts’. In Britain, the reaction is wearily similar. As Hill noted, ‘pioneering feminists like Rosie Boycott and Fay Weldon are pouncing on Liebau’s book to trash the current generation as irresponsible slags and binge drinkers, only interested in a “grope” and “vomit”’ (2).
Indeed, nothing seems to symbolise all that’s wrong with Western societies these days more than what young women are supposedly getting up to. And when commentators who once championed women’s equality are at the forefront of such shrill disapproval, there’s clearly more going on here than an outburst of traditional misogyny.
Any salacious and prurient tittle-tattle on ‘binge-drinking Britain’ will always be accompanied by pictures of young women in a state of disrepair. Photos of Amy Winehouse with her tats out, cigs in hand and seriously half-cut in Camden have become the signifier for a female generation gone to seed (3). The unsubtle implication is that it’s one thing to expect rowdy lads to get hammered and lairy on a weekend; it’s another thing entirely when young women do the same. Indeed, young women’s ‘loose’ behaviour is increasingly used as an example of how morally malign and tawdry Britain has become. Sunday Times columnist India Knight recently bemoaned the young women who went to Manchester United’s Christmas party in the hope of pulling a footballer or five. ‘What is wrong with these women?’, she wailed (4).
For all the advancements that women have made in society, it’s surprising that a ‘drown-the-witch’ mentality still exists regarding women’s sexual behaviour. A few years back, Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon chose to express his sneering disapproval of reality TV show I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, on which he was a contestant, by venting his rage against the presence of ‘slapper’ glamour model Jordan. Elsewhere, the website Chavscum is more likely to lay into ‘sluttish’ young women than ‘thuggish’ young men from council estates. The imagined sexual behaviour of working-class women seems to outrage the website’s contributors more than, say, the supposed criminality of tattooed blokes in tracksuits.
So, it’s perhaps not a great surprise that, in 2005, wannabe jihadists believed female revellers would be publicly acceptable murder targets because ‘nobody would believe these slags are innocent’ (5); and last year, there was an alleged attempt to blow up a popular London nightclub on ladies’ night. Rather alarmingly, Channel 4 appears to be in nodding agreement with such stupid and Jurassic ideas. Last month, the deeply risible show Make Me a Muslim drafted in a stern imam to try to mend the deviant and debauched ways of the secular volunteers. Top of the list was a homosexual man and, of course, a ‘sluttish’ glamour model. Haven’t these women got any – yawn – shame?
The idea that British women only act like Jodie Marsh in a pole-dancing club is barely a fiftieth of the real story. If girls are outstripping anything, it’s the academic achievement of boys at schools and colleges. More women are in work with better-paid career prospects than ever before. As a consequence, they have far more choices over how they live, who they marry, if they want a divorce and, yes, how many men they have sex with. Women’s equality has become so pervasive that it’s barely even worth commenting on – except when clod-hopping old feminists believe that alcopop swiggin’, boob-tubed young women have ‘gone too far’. It begs the question, though, how come women’s equality is now a cause for concern rather than a cause for celebration?
Leaving aside residual misogynistic sentiments, it’s clear that drunken women out on the pull have become oddly ‘symbolic’ of moral decline. Such reactions are rooted in the fear and loathing that Western societies now have towards personal freedom in general. Until recently, women’s primary role as domestic skivvies meant they were less free than men. Given Western society’s uneasiness with individual freedom, women’s greater freedom is seen as problematic, too – even by avowed feminists. Hence, this freedom has been reduced in the eyes of many commentators to the drunken antics of a pop star or the desire to shag a footballer.
In this context, sneering at fun-seeking women has become code for saying that society is out-of-control and the instillation of order and constraint is required forthwith. In The Fear of Freedom, social psychologist Erick Fromm argued that when modern societies go through periods of social insecurity, ‘a fear of freedom’ accelerates amongst individuals, leading to a ‘fleeing from freedom’ and a quest to find ‘security in an all-powerful leader’ (clearly he wasn’t thinking of Gordon Brown) (6). Demands for order and security, and the eagerness of governments and state authorities to provide these things, have certainly shaped political life in Britain for over a decade.
Recently, though, such security-seeking yearnings have gone a bit further. Sections of the liberal media even fantasise how an Islamic state might provide that ‘security in submission’ that Fromm identified (appropriate as the literal translation of Islam is ‘submission’). When a demand to control personal behaviour becomes the defining cultural script, it’s no surprise that women’s greater individual freedom is denounced rather than celebrated. The fact that many feminists have been at the forefront of such moralising should be no surprise, either. After all, back in the early Eighties, it was feminists who first put the politics of individual behaviour on the political map. Prioritising the issues of domestic violence, rape and sexual harassment, as well as demands for ‘sexist’ language to be curbed, feminists promoted the idea that individual men’s behaviour was problematic and thus needed to be corrected by the state – an invitation that both Conservative and New Labour governments accepted.
Now, many of the radical feminists from the Eighties have simply reacted to changes in British society in exactly the same way as other members of the middle classes. By the early Nineties, the collapse of the postwar consensus, and the consequent weakening of the legitimacy of Britain’s central institutions, contributed to a climate of uncertainty and insecurity in society. As social democratic welfarism appeared ineffectual in tackling social problems and disorder, the professional middle classes – including many feminists – felt particularly vulnerable because their professions seemed devalued. This sense of impotence, combined with a clear lack of consensus in society, led many middle-class radicals to become the most vociferous advocates of establishing order and stability.
The feminist Beatrix Campbell, for instance, argued in her 1993 book Goliath that the nuclear family – long identified by feminists as a bulwark of patriarchal oppression – should be promoted in order to restrain the atavistic behaviour of working-class men on council estates. More recently, the UK communities secretary Hazel Blears has looked to Muslim women and their ‘unique moral authority at the heart of the family’ to turn Muslim men away from Islamic extremism (7). Once the quest for security became the defining motif of the middle classes, previous progressive touchstones such as equality, freedom and liberty were quickly jettisoned. Whereas apologists for capitalism once looked to working-class women in the family to lead men away from trade union action, now former radicals and Blairites look to women to make men ‘behave’ more responsibly.
This is why the idea of young women getting drunk and getting laid has become so troubling for political commentators. First, such debauchery confirms their worst prejudices, namely that ‘too much freedom’ leads inexorably to public order problems. Second, if the traditional pacifiers of ‘brute’ men are also throwing up in city centres and fucking for England, what hope do we have for regaining order and control throughout society?
When women’s independence and greater equality is disgracefully condemned or becomes code for moral decline, it reveals, not how awful young women are becoming, but just how deeply entrenched the ‘fear of freedom’ and ‘the flight from freedom’ has become. Now that’s what I call ‘horrifying’.
Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.
Jennie Bristow suggested that a little bit of bingeing can be good for you. Brendan O’Neill called the debate about binge drinking a licence to bash the masses, while the American free speech activist Wendy Kaminer told him that the Left has become infected with intolerance. Anna Travis noted how drinkers are under increasing surveillance. Or read more at spiked issue Drink and drugs.
(1) Daily Mail, 10 January 2008
(2) What Happened to Solidarity?, Comment Is Free, 15 December 2007
(3) Amy Winehouse: the anti-Diana of 2007, by Emily Hill
(4) A New Profession: Free Prostitutes, India Knight, The Sunday Times, 23 December 2007
(5) Terror Trial hears tapes of plot to blow up night club, Guardian, 26 May 2006
(6) The Fear of Freedom, by Erick Fromm (Routledge) 1984
(7) Muslim Women To Advice Government on Extremism, Department for Communities and Local Government