The dangers of provocation

Women should use their sexual power responsibly instead of trying to have it both ways

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice