Natasha Walter's Notebook: Is public modesty really what today's women want?

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The Independent Culture
In a book to be published next month, a 23-year-old American writer called Wendy Shalit makes an impassioned case for what she calls A Return to Modesty (Simon & Schuster). She agonises over the relentless sexualisation of contemporary society, the way that soap operas, magazines and school education all appear devoted to making sex so boringly casual and ubiquitous. She laments the way that everyone in her high school -except herself, naturally - felt pushed into sexual conversation and behaviour before they were ready for it.

Although Shalit sets out her stall as if she is taking an opposing position to feminists, in fact this is very similar to what many feminists are saying now. As Katharine Viner, a young British feminist writer, wrote recently and angrily, "According to much of what we read, enjoying sex any time, any place, any way he wants it, is compulsory." And I found myself sympathising with some of Shalit's arguments. Why shouldn't she put a high value on privacy and intimacy? And why shouldn't she see sex as passionate and extraordinary rather than just another social encounter? You don't have to be, as she is, a self-confessed "extreme right-winger", to feel that way. Shalit is compelling in her descriptions of her high school and college culture, where she watched her peers throwing themselves into unemotional relationships, even when they felt ambivalent about them. She sees women as deeply, privately uncomfortable with the sexual pressures they experience, and she even puts problems of anorexia and self-harming down to women wanting to opt out of the sexualised culture around them. On all these counts, she has a point. But even if young women start demanding a wholesale return to modesty, they won't find their problems solved.

How come Wendy Shalit can't see that more modest societies do not make things easier for women? More modest societies may make women seem less sexual in public, but it hardly needs stating that that doesn't mean they are allowed to live their intimate lives freely. For instance, she idealises the Muslim veil, seeing it as a way for women to keep themselves special and in control of their sexuality. Do women in Iran feel that they are not pressured into having sex? On the contrary, they may not be having sex at 14 with their schoolmates, but once they are married they are unable to refuse sex with their husbands, and the extreme value put on modesty means that even rape and domestic violence simply won't be spoken about.

Shalit even idealises Victorian culture, without bothering to confront the ways in which upper-class women's modesty was bought at the expense of lower-class women's prostitution. She seems to think that child abuse, domestic violence and rape appeared after the end of modesty, rather than simply being uncovered by the end of modesty. It would hardly be worth remaking this point if it wasn't for the fact that influential elements of our society - the Daily Mail, above all, and all who go along with it - are also pushing for the idea that we need more public modesty in order to protect young people. In such circles, Shalit's arguments will be eagerly embraced. And this desire for public modesty is having an effect. The new moves by the Government to try to reduce teenage pregnancy have suffered from that influence. They have shied away from making contraception much more easily available to young people, but without this immodest move rates of teenage pregnancy will not be lowered.

We need public immodesty. We need sex education to start early and to confront reality. We need frank discussion of sex and health problems in magazines, on television, in schools. We need contraception to be easily and obviously available. We need to see young women speaking about saying both yes and no to sex. We need immodesty away from the sexual arena, too: we need women to feel that they can be boastful and angry and loud without being criticised for giving up their femininity.

And then we can always embrace a double standard of our own. Then individual young women and men can, if they want, choose a much more modest way of living their private sexual lives. Already, that seems to be happening. Surveys constantly report that people are having much less sex, with far fewer people, than the media would have us believe, and that people in long-term relationships report much greater satisfaction with sex than people in casual relationships.

The 19th century may have been a publicly modest society in which immodesty was kept secret. It looks as though the 21st century could turn out to be the opposite: a publicly immodest society in which many people, in fact, choose to live extremely modestly.

Now that we have government by Daily Mail editorials rather than by law or reason, it's hardly surprising that we are seeing a new surge in deportations, especially of immigrants from Africa. What's particularly frightening is that many of these deportations are of individuals who have been in Britain for many years, who may have married British people or brought up their children as British, who have made a real contribution to British society and who have put down roots here. In its eagerness to get them out, as quickly and brutally as possible, the Home Office is willing to ignore its own guidelines on humanitarian treatment of immigrants.

On Thursday I called the Home Office to hear what its policies were on deporting families with children. This is, word for word, what I was told. "We would not normally deport children who have lived here for seven years. And compassion would be exercised in relation to the parents because we are not, repeat not, in the business of splitting up families."

How, then, can the Home Office explain away the case of Doris and Frank Omoregie and their three children, who are aged eight, six and one? Doris and Frank arrived in Britain from Nigeria in 1989, and Frank began to work as a preacher and Doris as a home carer. They felt that they couldn't travel back to Nigeria because Frank's father was killed by members of a religious cult that Frank had preached against, so they stayed and had their children in Britain, even though their application for asylum failed. That decision may not have been legally correct, but the fact is that their oldest child is now eight and all the children feel British, attend local schools, have British friends and know nothing about Nigeria. The Omoregies' desire to stay in Britain has been supported by their local community, their work colleagues and their MP.

But in October 1998, Frank was deported. To be precise, he says that four policemen came to their house at 2am. Frank answered the door with his four-month son in his arms. One policeman grabbed him by the throat and said: "Give the baby to him, you black bastard." He gave his baby to one officer, while other officers forced him to the ground and stood on his stomach. The first policeman threatened to kill him. He was then taken to Brixton police station, where he lodged a complaint against his treatment, but three days later he was put on an plane to Nigeria.

I talked to Doris Omoregie last week, and she told me: "Every day the children say to me, `where is our father?'. They write cards and letters to send to him and I take them and pretend to send them to him. But I don't know where he is. I don't know when they will see him again. Perhaps never. I don't understand it. I can't take them to Nigeria. They are settled in school here, I have a job here. I have nothing in Nigeria. Every day I feel very scared." Exactly what purpose does it serve to deport such people? And if this government is not, repeat not, in the business of breaking up families, then why have they shattered this one?

The American Film Institute has just put out a list of the 50 greatest screen legends. And at the very top of the list of female stars is not Greta Garbo or Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly, not Ingrid Bergman or Marlene Dietrich, but Katharine Hepburn. It's a strange choice. And it's all the stranger when you think how unlikely it is that Katharine Hepburn could become a star today. She would never be the sort of woman to have breast implants, to weep at award ceremonies, to play the ingenue on a sinking ship, or to behave like a silent mannequin in a Versace dress.

Her greatest films - Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen - starred her as an active heroine who strode through drawing rooms and jungles, her chin lifted and her slightly raucous voice raised in argument.

Even at the time of her greatest success, a lot of men in the business hated her for her androgynous looks, her stroppiness, her independence and her dislike of the fame game. And those qualities made her a lot more modern than most of the young women coming up in Hollywood now. There are a hundred wonderful stories about her, all of which would serve as great templates for young stars today. How about the time John Ford challenged her on set to a game of golf: "And if you lose, you'll agree to come to this studio at least one day dressed like a woman." "And if I win," she bit back, "will you agree to come to the studio at least one day dressed like a gentleman?"

How about the time she spoke out against the House Un-American Activities Committee, dressed for the occasion in a bright red dress? Or how about fact that she didn't even bother to turn up to the Oscar ceremonies on the night that she won the award for Best Actress in 1934? Gwyneth Paltrow, eat your heart out.