At least Salome held on to her seventh veil

Everywhere we turn, women are baring all. From the pregnant Demi Moore down to TV presenters and Tatler girls, no excuse so flimsy but serves for lingering studies of female nakedness. Famous and unfamous, young and middle-aged alike, they are peeling off for celebrity shots in newspapers and magazines, feeding a demand for nudity so relentless that readers often have to be told who the "celebrity" is.

Everywhere we turn, women are baring all. From the pregnant Demi Moore down to TV presenters and Tatler girls, no excuse so flimsy but serves for lingering studies of female nakedness. Famous and unfamous, young and middle-aged alike, they are peeling off for celebrity shots in newspapers and magazines, feeding a demand for nudity so relentless that readers often have to be told who the "celebrity" is.

It's part of a wider trend towards exposure of every kind, no personal detail too intimate to be revealed. Anthea Turner's account of her marriage breakdown and illicit love affair contains a lengthy description of how she first had sex with her lover in her marital bed. Later, the reader follows her to the kitchen as she breaks the news to her husband and watches him weep. There's more, and worse. In Turner's story, her husband, her lover and his wife all become part of the circus, and it's a real Roman holiday.

What is driving this? Female exhibitionism has been with us since Salome, but she knew the value of the seventh veil. Some of the "new nudies" such as Amanda Foreman may have products to promote, and sales of her book about an obscure 18th-century duchess suffer nothing from Foreman's striptease. But most do it from a furious attention-seeking that screams, "Look at me!" at all costs. That in itself argues a deeper malaise, a life so hollow at the core that any recognition is better than none.

Emotionally defunct males jump off mountains or take up sky-diving, tasting death to make themselves feel more alive. Women throw themselves off emotional cliffs, breaking taboos of taste and privacy for the same inner burn. Madonna is queen of the genre, and for her, it has worked. Most women who fly this route crash, like Paula Yates.

That is not to say that women should not enjoy their bodies and sexual power. A major triumph of 20th-century feminism has been the extension of this basic human right to women. Older women ready to show their bodies on stage, billboard or screen are also a welcome reminder that women's sexuality deepens with experience, something history had always known. Legendary lovers such as Cleopatra remained captivating all their life, and Arthur's queen Guenevere was still the most desirable woman in Britain in old age.

But today's emotionally empty frenzy of self-display argues nothing but a world of sensation-seekers that implicates us all. The sensation of watching the sensation-seekers out-sensationalising themselves is an authentically postmodern experience that leaves us all more alienated. More compromised, too, because we learn things we should not know, details that stick to our souls like the stuff on the sole of your shoe.

It's a game of diminishing returns. We look in vain for some shred of human truth amid the strident stereotypes, clichés and crude sentiment. "I was a golden girl," mourns Anthea, but she broke "the silver thread of marriage" because "we were playing with fire." These are real people, you think. Surely one touch of nature must make the whole world kin.

But only in Shakespeare, it seems. Ever since our frog prince found himself and his Cinderella cast in a fairy-tale romance and wedding, the separation of fact from fiction has had us all in thrall. The pictures and confessionals continue to pour forth and be consumed.

And the women pressing forward, breasts, bosoms and life stories at the ready, why should they stop? Lord Byron once spent a society ball sulking in an archway, refusing to eat or dance. "How long will this go on?" the hostess asked one of his friends. "As long as we go on noticing it," was the reply.

The author's Guenevere novels are published by Simon & Schuster

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