The dangers of provocation

Women should use their sexual power responsibly instead of trying to have it both ways
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The Independent Culture
KATE IS 25 years old and she is from Croydon. She appears naked in a photograph taken by Nick Knight for Vogue this month. She is considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, and these black-and- white pictures of her are indeed beautiful.

She has inverted nipples, and it is this fact that has prompted the fashion world to wonder why she has exposed herself. She also has several moles on one of her breasts, but they have been touched out. I know this about Kate from the same sources as I know quite a lot of other intimate details about her, for she is a much-interviewed supermodel and her life is constantly reported in the media.

Despite her wealth and her dazzling career, she agreed to be photographed with no clothes on for a magazine that is supposed to be about fashion. I have no idea why she chose to do this, and there was no attempt made to enlighten me in the long interview that accompanied the photographs.

Kirsty is 21 years old and she is from Sheffield. She appeared topless in a photograph taken by Beverley Goodway for The Sun this week. She is an attractive young woman with large, firm breasts. Beyond that intimate detail, I know nothing about Kirsty.

Germaine is 60 years old and she is from Melbourne. As a young woman she appeared naked in a photograph commissioned by herself, for a magazine of which she was co-editor. She posed with her feet behind her head and her genitals fully exposed. At the time she thought she was making a bold statement about female sexuality.

She now believes that her stunt was misguided and that female sexual liberation was no such thing. For this she blames men, and their determination to reduce women to sexual objects. No one could claim that there was no truth in Germaine's passionate rhetoric about women and their place in the world, and many women are strongly in agreement with her view.

Feminists often point to the proliferation of men's glossy magazines to back up the idea that so much female flesh is on display in order to please men. These magazines started launching in the Eighties as rather dignified affairs, with sportsmen or actors on their covers. This all changed with the launch of Loaded magazine, which had pages of naked "totty" and yards of sexist jokes. Such was its success that the others all followed suit. Circulation figures now, with naked or semi-clad women gracing the magazine covers, make sales of the earlier incarnations of the men's general- interest glossy look nothing short of pathetic.

Though James Brown, the launch editor of Loaded, recently departed acrimoniously from his latest job as editor of GQ magazine, his cash-generating influence is still splattered across the pages of all of the men's general-interest publications. But it's splattered across the pages of women's publications as well. Set the current issues of Vogue and GQ side by side, and the similarity between the covers of the two magazines is striking.

But while all this willing flesh is provided by women, they are not the women of feminist myth, pushed into the sex industry by their economic powerlessness, their educational failure and the predatory influence of men. Instead, this is as often as not the flesh of successful, wealthy women, who can only be stripping off for the lads and the lasses because that's the sort of attention they crave, that's the sort of approval they want, and that's the kind of image they wish to project.

Madonna, for example, didn't even wait for the launch of Loaded magazine before she stripped off and posed pornographically. She was "in control" of her photographer and her images. I never did follow her gist when she banged on about how this was empowering, but it certainly spoke to plenty of other women, who ever since then have been leaping out of their gear as if there were no tomorrow.

It's becoming ever more difficult to believe that men are the only people who wish to see women as sexual objects. For plenty of women appear to want to be portrayed in this way themselves. The proliferation of images of female nakedness does tell us much about the sexual mores of men. But it tells us just as much about those of women.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault predicted that sex would end up dominating our social discourse, and would obsess us without liberating us. Exactly that has come to pass, and no one, except for anti-male feminists and right-wing moralists, seems to want to tackle the situation, either in the mainstream or at the outer reaches of sexual imagery.

A few years back, the US lawyer Catherine MacKinnon attempted to introduce statutes in America that would limit the distribution of pornography. Her premiss was that porn is a kind of "hate speech" and discriminates against women. (She rather skirted round the fact that the producers of US porn are increasingly women.) Her attempt failed and, paradoxically, it helped instead to legitimise porn as a subject worthy of academic study in US universities.

In a New Yorker article, James Atlas muses on why higher learning has embraced pornography. He talks to Judith Butler, a leading academic in the field of porn studies, much of whose work is in response to MacKinnon's assertions about the damaging influence of porn. Essentially she asks: "Does pornography have the stature to do all the injurious things that MacKinnon says it does, or is it merely an allegory of masculine wilfulness and feminine submission?"

Is this a question worth asking? I don't think so. It seems to me that the massive explosion in porn is symptomatic of Foucault's prediction about sexual obsession, and that it is not gender-specific at all. Both men and women have become obsessed with sex and neither gender is being liberated by it. More significantly, while both men and women are confused and self-contradictory about the place of sex in their lives, no one suffers the consequences of our obsession more than our children - girls and boys.

I can't prove this, just as people can't prove all kind of links between portrayal of sexuality and sexual behaviour. There may be no proven link between pornography and rape; no proven link between Kate Moss's breasts being retouched and breast surgery; no proven link between topless Kirsty in a family newspaper and 10-year-old girls ringing Childline because they're pregnant; no proven link between Germaine with her feet behind her head and stacks of lone mothers; and no proven link between the general proliferation of sexual imagery and the worldwide boom in prostitution.

Many people do feel, though, that these things are inextricably linked. Who needs proof, when there's so much evidence? I don't agree with Catherine MacKinnon, who believes that state censorship is the answer, any more than I agree with Muslim fundamentalists that covering up women's bodies at all times is the way forward. But I do think that there's every opportunity now for women to start behaving responsibly about their sexual power, instead of trying to have it both ways.

Women can't carry on dressing in wisps of fabric, then stripping them off and boasting about our fabulously desirable, but untouchable bodies, then blaming men when the sexual compact breaks down. Women who want men to desire them, but wish to provoke that desire through the distancing, protective eye of a camera lens, are the ones who are playing a dangerous game, not necessarily with damaging consequences for them personally, but with dangerous consequences for society.

The people who purchase the images and feel the desire are merely consumers, keeping their side of the auto-erotic bargain, and putting the female product to its intended use. Or, to put it more brutally, some women are asking for "it". But while they are happy to keep "it" in the abstract, other women, children and men are paying the price of their sexual narcissism.