Whatever happened to the thinking man's crumpet?

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'PHWOOOR] She's really sexy] I'd give her one]' How many times have I, or one of my friends said that over the last 10 years or so? Er, not once, actually. We're not allowed to. We are, of course, allowed to use this or an equivalent expression with a huge, day-glo pair of inverted commas locked on to either end of it, so that people know we're just kidding. (And even now I'm worried that there is someone - a permanently angry woman or a permanently guilty man - who stopped reading this in disgust after the third exclamation mark. Will somebody fetch him or her back here, and explain that I wasn't being serious, and that in fact I'm about to embark on a thoughtful and sober analysis of late-20th-

century male sexuality?)

It is, of course, entirely legitimate to tell the people we have sex with that they are really sexy - as long as we mean it, and there aren't too many of them, and we do it in the proper manner. We cannot, however, tell the people we have sex with that 'we'd give them one'. It is an uncouth sort of phrase, anyway, and the use of the conditional tense is inappropriate (we'd give them one if what?), while the straightforward future simple sounds like a threat - and we know what we think about sex and threat. The expression is only really relevant if the man doesn't know the object of his desire; and if the man doesn't know the object of his desire, he is automatically guilty of being indiscriminately predatory - a horrible, old-guard masculine crime.

I have no real problem with any of this. Men are, on the whole, still so horrible about women in so many different ways (pace all those men who write books saying that feminism has ruined our lives) that the freedom to express an interest in sleeping with Michelle Pfeiffer seems negligible by comparison. And yet the modern woman is allowed to make crude guttural noises whenever she feels like it. 'Phwooor] He's really sexy] I'd give him one]' How many times have I heard that from a woman over the last 10 years? Millions of times, actually, over the last 10 weeks. Hugh Grant. That actor who's in Between the Lines and Drop the Dead Donkey. Ralph Fiennes. Antonio Banderas, the Spanish guy in Philadelphia. Liam Neeson. Jeremy Irons. John Malkovich. Daniel Day-Lewis. Gabriel Byrne. Gary Speed of Leeds United. Gerard Depardieu. Will Carling. Tony Blair, even. I have seen and heard intelligent women dribble and drool over these and many other men in a manner that is open to absolutely no misinterpretation: there is at least one friend who'd be looking for a new co-mortgagee if the guy from Between The Lines turned up late one night in his jim-jams. Gay men, too, are allowed to slaver over Take That (who seem to have been packaged to encourage this kind of slavering), and Hugh Grant, and . . .

And yet who have heterosexual males got, apart from Michelle Pfeiffer? Virginia Bottomley? Do me a favour. (Would anyone ever mention Virginia Bottomley and sex in the same sentence if she didn't work in the House of Commons, workplace of some of the scariest-looking people in Britain?) Kirsty Wark? A pleasant-looking woman, but we're not talking Marilyn Monroe here. The obvious candidates - Madonna, I suppose (it may be OK for Madonna to assert her sexuality by putting out a smutty book, but it is definitely not OK for men to respond to that assertion, which rather defeats the point of the whole thing), Sharon Stone, Kim Basinger, and a few hundred others of that ilk - are so irredeemably tacky that no self-respecting modern male could possibly confess to any sort of interest in any of them. Whatever happened to the thinking man's crumpet?

There used to be any number of beautiful women after whom we could lust without fear of scorn. Debbie Harry, Julie Christie, Diana Rigg, Anna Ford, Charlotte Rampling, Jane Fonda, Valerie Singleton (No? Oh, well) and loads of others all had looks, talent and/or brains. (They are all still around, but they

belong to a previous generation of love

objects.) But ever since a certain type of man became more afraid of making those crude guttural noises, classy sex goddesses have been a bit thin on the ground. Emma Thompson, Glenn Close, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster and the rest of the female Hollywood A-list could act Liam, Hugh, Antonio and the rest under the table, but you can't imagine them reducing too many men to a state of pitiful, incoherent, dribbling longing. In fact, men seem to get much more heated about male sex-symbols than they do about female. Sexual fantasy is now such a fraught area that it seems easier to want to be Hugh Grant than to want to have Sharon Stone: that way you escape ideological censure, you get a lot of subtextual homo-erotic kudos, and you can sleep with about 200 different women in your head, instead of just the one.

So where is all this middle-class testosterone going? A great deal of it is being put into work: you can hear people using the word 'sexy' about all sorts of stuff - power, money, politics, news items (as in 'that's not a very sexy story' - which doesn't mean the story has no nudity in it, just that it's a bit dull). And when men use the word about power and money, they no longer mean that these things help to obtain sex, but that they are replacements for sex. Men now seem to find more or less everything sexy, apart from women.

It is difficult to know whether this is a good or bad thing. It could be that we have thrown the babes out with the bathwater, and that right-on men are now too scared even to procreate, let alone to confess to fancying a film- star. I can't help feeling that the dis-

appearance of the sexy woman and the emergence of the sexy hi-fi system is sad, really. Sexiness should be the preserve of sex, not department stores and The Nine O'Clock News, and there's nothing too wrong with a little idle daydreaming; perhaps men should reclaim the right to worship from afar - in a caring, non-aggressive kind of way, of course. So let's hear it for Harriet Harman, and Naomi Wolf (although she may well be off-limits), and Imogen Stubbs, and um . . . -