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John Walsh

John Walsh: What I learnt at the Playboy Club

The Slutwalk business has had repercussions. Men and women have been squaring up to each other all over the place. At a literary salon on Saturday night, a young woman whom I'd never met before waved her cigarette at me and said: "Why do you wear all those rings? Are you gay or something?" to which I replied, "No, I just like personal adornment."

"But why do it?" she persisted. "Why," I asked, "do you wear your breasts on a shelf like that? They're also adornments, aren't they?" This drew a furious response. Would I prefer it, she demanded to know, if she was covered in a sack? "Absolutely not," I said. "I wanted to make the point that we're both show-offs, and that's why we wear certain stuff and dress a certain way."

We didn't part very good friends, I'm afraid, but it set me thinking about our notions of display. Two incidents last week were about showing off and self-projection. One was the London Slutwalk, the latest in a long line of such walks, on which women paraded in bras, corsets and Bunny costumes to show they cannot be held responsible if they're harassed while wearing sexually provocative clothes. The women wanted, very creditably, to project their own innate sexiness without being criticised – but didn't they run the risk, in the street, of projecting at some people whose attention they wouldn't encourage? Wouldn't they need to apply a caveat, to say, in effect, "Here is my fabulous body on display – but not for you to look at, or you, or you"?

Men of my acquaintance, confronted by this phenomenon, were taken aback. They didn't want to argue with these dames, any more than I wanted to argue with the lady in the literary salon. But some of us remembered we'd had occasion to tell off our daughters for going out looking like French tarts, and having to explain that wearing your underwear as outerwear possibly gave the wrong sign to the wrong people. If only, we said, we could think of a male equivalent, it would make things clearer. What would men wear on a Male Slutwalk?

The other incident was the reopening of the London Playboy Club. Once it was a shrine to shameless sexism, where men came to eat, drink, gamble and look at pretty girls in rabbit-themed bathing costumes. All over Soho, in the Sixties and Seventies, girls were stripping off under the gaze of men in soft-porn clubs like Raymond's Revuebar, but the firepower of feminist protesters was concentrated on the Bunnies. It was evidently thought far less demeaning to be stark naked in front of strangers than dressed as a rabbit with a white pom-pom clamped to your arse.

The reopening of the Playboy Club this month drew fresh platoons of protesters, holding placards saying, "Eff off, Hef"and "Retro-Chic? No, Retro-Creep." The leader of the UK Feminista, Kat Banyard, said: "For two decades the Playboy empire has pornified our society ... and has encouraged male clientele to treat women as sexual objects for Playboy's vast financial gain."

As luck would have it, I was invited to dinner at the Club last Friday by a friend, who was reviewing it for a local newspaper. It was a predictably peculiar place: the bar décor was Sixties black-on-black with orange-cube chairs, the drinks hilariously expensive, the food stunningly uninteresting. The Bunny Girl I spoke to was Croatian, charming and intelligent, and had switched from being a waitress in Brighton for the better pay and conditions of the club. But over dinner, a sight appeared that drove every other thought of personal display from my head.

It was the table for seven beside Joe and myself. One man – young, swarthy, smugly handsome, honkingly rich, possibly a princeling, probably the son of a Qatari or Bahraini dynasty – and six girls. They were all but identical, in their twenties, all blonde, all beautifully dressed and apparently all his. (Did they have special individual powers or capabilities, like the A team? Did they draw straws in the bathroom?)

One girl wore a light blue gown that was seriously backless, down as far as the straying eye could see. When she moved, a small birthmark appeared somewhere around the side of her fifth rib, and when she moved again, it was gone. There was, we agreed, nowhere, in any restaurant, bar, hotel lounge or embassy party where she could have worn that frock without starting a riot.

Right there was the answer to the question: what's the male equivalent of a slut? According to the protesters outside the Playboy Club, it's a "creep", but that didn't seem quite right to describe a man who likes having sex with lots of girls. The right term is, of course, a playboy. How does a playboy dress, so you can recognise one? He wears the harem of six available women with him. Hefner always had six or seven girls on the go, called things like Candy, Brandy, Sandy, Mandy, Andi and Shandy. So does the Marquis of Bath, that uniquely British playboy, whose harem of "wifelets" was in disarray last weekend when one of them lamped another, in a row about who should sleep with the lucky fellow.

After the Slutwalk, can there be a Playboy Walk, for chaps to insist that they shouldn't be held responsible for the way they look or act, if it makes them harassed by women? Look at the princeling and his harem. They're six sparkly rings on his thin, wealthy fingers – jewels he likes to show off. And the girls who sleep with him, or with anyone else who has money, don't dress like hookers at all. They dress like daring supermodels. What the lady from UK Feminista said isn't quite true. It's not the Playboy empire that "has encouraged male clientele to treat women as sexual objects ... for two decades." I'm afraid it's women who have encouraged men to treat women as sexual objects, and for several millennia.