Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. A day that calls for roses and romance, for candle-lit dinners à deux, and Hallmark cards with sentimental rhymes.
Not surprising, then, that it's a day I've always had a queasy relationship with. I was brought up to think like a feminist, yet found myself, as a teenager, hoping against hope for a card on the mat. I knew I wasn't meant to care – but I did. It seemed a cruel fate – strung between a politically correct sensibility and a gut desire to be "chosen" and validated – especially as there never was a card on the mat, or only very rarely.
Now I'm married I'm past all that, of course – and Valentine's Day itself seems a bit cheesy and outdated. Surely, today's young women with their raunch culture and their soft-porn sensibilities and their willing participation in "Assess My Breasts" features online ('Girls! Upload your breasts now!') – surely they aren't still wanting soppy old Valentines.
Because these are the days of the New Promiscuity – these are the days of Girls Gone Wild, of internet mating, of call girls having a bit of fun with their secret diaries, of blogs and bestsellers and Big Brother contestants who celebrate promiscuous emotion-free sex.
If you think that's an exaggeration, have a look at Natasha Walter's gripping new book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism. Walter does a wonderful job of bringing into sharp focus a sea change that's been creeping up on us over the past decade. She nails the wave to the sand.
When Walter wrote her previous book, The New Feminism, at the end of the 1990s she argued that feminism was "part of the very air we breathe". New Labour had come to power, bringing many more women MPs into Parliament, doubling maternity pay, introducing paternity pay and creating free nursery places.
Now, however, Walter says her optimism was misplaced. No one had anticipated a backlash that would cunningly harness feminism's own language of empowerment to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification. The sex industry – a business like any other – took advantage of the new liberal atmosphere to move from the margins to the mainstream.
So now we have lap-dancing clubs in every town centre and pole dancing presented as an "empowering choice" for women. ("You know what's the best exercise?" a mum friend said to me the other day. "The best way to lose the baby weight? Pole dancing!") And now we have six-year-old girls buying fashion accessories adorned with the Playboy logo because it's "classy". And who needs seedy old pay-per-view porn when you've got Shakira in a cage on MTV?
It seems quaint to think that there was ever a controversy about Page 3. Page 3 is demure compared with the unapologetic crudity of the new raunch. Take the horrifying description from Walter's book of a "Babes on the Bed" competition run by Nuts magazine in 2007. It was held in nightclubs up and down the country and young women were invited to writhe around topless on a bed in the hope of winning a modelling contract. Walter says: "The crowd chanted heavily, breathily, 'Get your tits out, get your tits out, get your tits out for the lads.' They pressed around the stage, roaring, as the girls rubbed their breasts against each other... One girl, who was a bit too fleshy around the middle and not fleshy enough around the chest, came in for boos rather than cheers. She looked tearful."
Walter's interviews with the women involved in club nights such as this as well as her tales from the front line of lap dancing and prostitution put paid to any idea that this new permissiveness is of any value to women. They consistently report feeling depressed and worthless. Again and again, the women and men who make money from all of this are heard to reference choice and the fact that no women are forced into these situations. But that just ignores the deeply ingrained sexual politics, the class issues and the economics. Being a "glamour model" – that most ironic of euphemisms – is always going to seem better than working nights in a care home. Being a lap dancer can bring in more money in one night than you'd earn in a month at the supermarket checkout.
Yes, Belle de Jour turned out to be a well-to-do research scientist who needed extra income while she was studying for her PhD – but she was an exception. Most sex workers don't write best-selling memoirs. Most sex workers struggle with debt, addiction, violence and low self-esteem.
So – I never thought I'd say this – but today I feel somewhat nostalgic for good old-fashioned Valentine's. I know it has its own toxicity. But if it's a choice between the old romance and the new raunch, I'll reluctantly pick some stupid Cupid.
Supreme talent who only seemed to have it all
When I think of Alexander McQueen I think of glorious dresses full of joie de vivre. I think of Kate Moss and towering millinery and a culture of unapologetic fabulousness, darling. I think of parties and champagne and adulation. I think of bling and wealth and entrenched success.
Then it all ended so suddenly on Thursday morning. His body was found at his Mayfair flat – an apparent suicide. And – yet again – somebody who seemed to have it all is shown to have been right on the edge of darkness, right on the brink. There's a part of me that's always shocked by this. However many books I read (and there have been a lot of them about) that say success, wealth and other external things don't bring happiness, I still can't believe it. I still can't believe that happiness is "an inside job" as they call it in some of the more annoying self-help manuals.
I blame evolution personally. We are over-programmed for self-defence, over-responsive to perceived threat in these comparatively safe and privileged times. The unlucky among us spend far too much time in the reptilian amygdala brain – feeling unnecessarily isolated and fearful – however lucky our circumstances. As an antidote we seek love and acceptance, remembering the love our mothers gave us.
From interviews McQueen gave, it was clear that he was extremely close to his mother, who had died nine days previously. After her death he tweeted, "Now I have to pull myself together." But perhaps he found that the show need not go on after all, especially if you've lost the only audience worth having.
From brutal to heart-warming
The success of the movie Precious has firmly established a triumphant new genre for our times: ghetto porn. For a film to be true ghetto porn it must be both brutally realistic and yet have an improbably heart-warming and uplifting quality.
The trail blazer for ghetto porn was, of course, Slumdog Millionaire. The film won an Oscar for best picture. In Slumdog, the ghetto-dweller suffered torture, no less, before winning a game show and a girl, an ex -ex slave, who – despite all the rapes – was happy to join him cheerfully at the end for an uplifting Bollywood dance number.
The general idea is that we come out of the cinema resigned to the injustice, inequity and pointless violence in the world. We feel there is hope because one unlikely hero or heroine has been brought to redemption. Wow – the neocons must be loving it.
Forget money: now you get paid in chocolate
Five Dials is a new kind of literary magazine for those interested in the writings of Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen and other such lively minds.
Sounds like Granta – but Five Dials is different because it's a purely online exercise. The idea is that you download the PDF, print it out and read it at your leisure. It's beautifully designed, mostly in black and white, and hopes to look good even though it's made on your standard printer.
It's also, almost entirely, a cash-free enterprise. No adverts. You don't pay to subscribe and one of the writers was paid only in bars of "British candy" – that is, Cadbury's fruit and nut chocolate.
Is this the future of magazine publishing? Probably. We'll soon have printers that carry all kinds of different paper types and we'll print our mags at home – or read them on the iPad.
But I worry for us writers. Is free content going to be the death of us? Even if it is death by chocolate.