Promiscuity. A new war cry for Labour?

Janet Anderson, Labour's minister-for-women-in-waiting, told an interviewer this week that women would be "more promiscuous" under a Labour government. Then she said she was joking. So what did she mean? Ruth Picardie translates

Try as the sketch-writers might, conference season soundbites are about as palate-tickling as a BR cheese and pickle on white. "John Major is going to stand as John Bull," announced Robin Cook this week. "He may not have much beef in his manifesto but there will certainly be a lot of bull." Boom boom! "New Clarke, new honesty," sparkled Gordon Brown. "I'm not a `lady in red', I'm a woman in banana," rebuked a slightly pithier member of the Lib Dems.

On Tuesday, however, even the speech-writers stopped ploughing through their dictionaries of alliteration when Janet Anderson, Labour MP for Rossendale and Darwen, gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph's Petronella Wyatt. In the course of a lengthy discussion about women and Labour (Anderson is shadow Minister for Women) a stunning epigram was delivered. "Under Labour," said Anderson, "women will become more promiscuous. That's an election promise."

What could she mean? Was it a feminist threat? A metaphor about new Labour vigour? A bit of come hither for the excitable matrons of the Tory shires? Or simply malicious selective reporting by a right-wing journalist? "Petronella Wyatt has plucked a few light-hearted comments, meant totally as a joke, from a 90-minute political interview," said Anderson. "She has reported none of the rest and has utterly failed to report the tone and content of the interview, and to recognise a joke."

A modern, fully spin-doctored politician who cries foul at the media is always a little hard to take seriously. And jokes - as Bernard Manning was recently reminded - always have a serious side. Janet Anderson's extraordinary claim couldn't be written off so easily. I lobbied other experts on women and sex.

"I feel sorry for her," says agony aunt Claire Rayner. "She made a joke in the middle of a long discussion." So there's nothing to it? "All she was saying was that women are entitled to the same chances as men."

Virginia Ironside, the Independent's agony aunt, disagrees. "What on earth does she mean? Promiscuity is not something anyone in their right mind would wish on a daughter. Lives taken over by erections go hand in hand with unhappiness and lack of self-respect. On that promise, I don't think I would vote Labour." Then she adds: "It's old hat. Where was she in the Seventies? Women have had the same sexual choices as men for decades."

Another veteran of the sexual revolution, co-founder of Spare Rib and editor of Esquire magazine, is Rosie Boycott. "I assume she's implying that women are going to have more fun," says Boycott. "But the concept will clearly delight Tory blokes who love the idea of Labour women getting laid. If anything, women are less promiscuous now than 20 years ago, when men in the underground press had the posh jobs and the women were supposed to sleep with them. Now women are smarter - they no longer have to trade sex for favours, and they know that sleeping with someone doesn't make them love you."

Mandi Norwood, 32-year-old editor of Cosmopolitan takes yet another view. "I believe it was a joke taken out of context. But it doesn't matter whether the government is Tory, Labour or Monster Raving Loony, there are a lot of young women who love sex. Promiscuous is an old-fashioned, nasty word. Women's increasing courage and self-esteem means they are now able to live life the way they want to. Thank goodness, it's acceptable for women to experiment sexually and emotionally and have better relationships as a result. I prefer to call it window-shopping."

So there we have it in splurging, undigested glory: women and promiscuity is a joke; promiscuity is a metaphor for social and economic liberation; promiscuity is bad; women have been sexually liberated since the Sixties; promiscuity was a form of oppression in the Sixties; social and economic liberation has nothing to do with sex; women are more sexually liberated than ever. The lack of consensus (which is partly a function of age) at least meets the first dictionary definition of the word promiscuous: "confusedly or indiscriminately mixed; collected together without order".

No one is more aware of this than the vote-hungry minister for the group widely believed to have lost Labour the last three elections. "The women's vote will decide the election," says Anderson elsewhere in her interview. "Women have tended to vote Tory in the past." As a result, Janet Anderson has to try to juggle at least three contradictory agendas.

On one hand, the modern new Labour woman is an assertively promiscuous, post-feminist, Wonderbra-sporting, just-as-good-as-the-lads sex beast. This is new Labour for Cosmo readers, Minister for Women as Jackie Collins heroine, with a 25-year-old male assistant called Steve. "Her hair is blonde and sleek," reports the Telegraph, "and her lips are painted a slippery red. Beside her desk is a basin covered in expensive-looking scent bottles. There is champagne on a sideboard."

"Women are just as open about sex now as men," says Anderson herself. "You can tell that by reading women's magazines, in which they talk about men's bums and how good they are at it. Men and women now behave similarly ... Women like seeing men as sex objects ... I would be tempted to see a male strip show. If women are sex objects, men must, too. Male bodies are just as aesthetically pleasing as women's." Promiscuity is good! Labour stands for promiscuity!

But at the same time, new Labour must win over middle-class ladies like Wyatt, who believes feminists have "contours like a battle-ship and eyes with the steeliness of a hitman", that women who watch male strippers are "a few delayed adolescents and a psychopathic old maid or two" and that men are "biologically more promiscuous" than women. Addressing this constituency, she says, "A man will talk about himself, but a woman will talk about other people ... Women are so much more caring ... I will assure families of their financial security." Knitting good! (See recent Cherie Booth-edited issue of Prima.) Promiscuity bad!

Finally, new Labour must win over the ordinary, tired Middle Englander who would, actually, like to be a bit more promiscuous - it's just so hard to keep fancying your husband. As Anderson says of her own: "Vince is very supportive and a good friend." Undying passion? "Marriage is a contract. Oh dear. That is not very sexy, is it?" Promiscuity good! If only we could get some!

Why, given the difficulty of meeting the hopes of such different women, did Anderson even joke about women becoming more promiscuous under Labour? Perhaps she hoped her comment would sit nicely on the new Labour, new Britain bandwagon, as an all-purpose metaphor for freedom and equal opportunity. Under Blair everything is going to be much, much better: smaller classes, more doctors and less patriarchy!

Unhappily for Anderson, new Labour is looking increasingly like old Tory - not so much a party that looks beyond the sexual revolution as one that harks back to the Fifties, when families gathered round the radio and mother served tea. For the sake of her career within the party, Anderson might be better off making "jokes" not about sex but about handbags and frozen peas - those most lasting political soundbites of recent years.

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