Christina Patterson: Sex, and the feminist's new clothes

Perhaps the women who say they are 'new feminists' could understand that everything you wear sends out a message
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The Independent Online

Sex can be very, very, very, very nice. It can also be nasty. It can also be tedious. It can leave you screaming out for more. It can leave you longing for a nice cup of tea. But whether you're Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Mother Teresa, one thing's clear. Sex was here at the start of things, and it's here to stay.

Ever since Eve bit the apple, and discovered that she wasn't even wearing a thong, which was, like, so embarrassing, there's been a lot of fuss about what, in the light of this, women should wear. The author of Deuteronomy said that women "should not wear that which pertains unto a man", which may, or may not, have ruled out a bikini or a boob tube. The apostle Paul said that women should "adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety". He also said that they should cover their heads when they worshipped and avoid displaying "broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array".

For the past 2,000 years, this has been the main dress code in the Middle East. The prophet Muhammad made a few adjustments in the Koran – women "should draw their veils over their bosoms" and "not display their ornaments except to their husbands" – but the general trend remained. If you were a man, you could wear whatever the hell you liked. If you were a woman, you should stick to long and loose.

In Africa, and South America, and Australia, and New Guinea, the rules were different. If you were a man, you wore – well, not very much. If you were a woman, you didn't wear much either. If you were raped, then nobody said you were asking for it, because you were only wearing a loin cloth, because everybody was only wearing a loin cloth. But if you were a woman you might still get raped, because in every culture throughout the world, and throughout history, women have been raped.

In the West, we did things differently. We didn't bother all that much with what men wore. There was a brief fashion for periwigs. There was a brief fashion for codpieces. There was a brief fashion for doublets and hose. But mostly, what men have worn is a tunic, or a jacket, and trousers. What women have worn is dresses with hoops, and crinolines, and petticoats, and bustles, and corsets, and frills, and flowers, and, more recently, maxi dresses, and miniskirts. What women have worn, in other words, is what emphasises the fact that a woman's not a man. What women have worn is what emphasises her value in the sexual market place.

Forty-odd years ago, there was an attempt to redress this. Women, largely Western women, said that they didn't want to be defined by their value in the sexual market place. They didn't want to be defined by the size of their breasts, or the shape of their bottoms, or the length of their legs. So they started wearing clothes – often rather ugly clothes – that made them look more like men. Some of them burnt their bras, which made running quite uncomfortable, but not, as the African women could tell them, once you got used to it, and some of them wore dungarees. And some of them posed naked in magazines. They did this, because they wanted to show that when you were naked in a magazine because you were in control of your body, and in control of who you had sex with, it was different to when you were naked in a magazine because a man wanted to use you to sell something. Though not everyone could tell the difference.

And then something changed. It's not absolutely clear why it changed. It's not clear if it's because the women got bored with dungarees, or if they secretly missed the wolf whistles in the street, or if it's because fashions come and go, and the dungarees were just a fashion, but suddenly the women who had worn the dungarees, or perhaps the daughters of the women who had worn the dungarees, said they were still feminists, but that they were something called "new feminists", and this meant that they still wanted to be treated as equals by men, but that now they could wear very, very short skirts, and very, very low tops, and very, very high heels. They said that they didn't dress this way to please men, but to please themselves, although when they were sitting at home, they didn't dress like this. When they were sitting at home, they wore tracksuit bottoms and trainers.

It must have been quite hard for the men to tell the difference between the women who wore very, very short skirts and very, very low tops and very, very high heels who wanted to meet a footballer, or be on a reality TV show, or in the pages of a magazine, and the "new feminists" who said they just wanted to be taken seriously for their brains. It must have been quite hard for them to tell the difference between the women who were offering sex because they thought it might give them some power, and the women who said they wanted power, but not sexual advances.

It must be quite hard for them, too, to tell the difference between the women who went on a "SlutWalk" in Newcastle on Saturday morning, wearing very, very short skirts and very, very low tops and very, very high heels, and the ones who went to drink a lot of alcohol in nightclubs in Newcastle on Saturday night, and maybe have sex with a stranger. The ones during the day were, it's true, waving signs saying things like "My Clothes Aren't My Consent" and "It Doesn't Matter What I Wear or Where I Go... No Means No". The ones during the evening weren't.

And of course the men should understand that very, very short skirts and very, very low tops and very, very high heels aren't an alternative to consent, that nothing is ever an alternative to consent, and that very, very short skirts, and very, very low tops and very, very high heels, and even very, very large quantities of alcohol, are never an excuse for rape. And that women have as much right to control their sex lives as men. But perhaps the women who say they are "new feminists", or "post- feminists", could also understand that, since human beings (unless they're women over the age of 50) aren't yet invisible, and since we are part of a species that's programmed to want sex, and which seems to have found the technological means to make images of sex available to anyone with a computer, every single thing you wear sends out a message.

They might think that wearing very, very short skirts and very, very low tops and very, very high heels is sending out a message saying that they are very, very keen to become a very, very successful doctor, or lawyer, or politician, and that they are only wearing them because they like to get some fresh air on their legs, or breasts, and because they happen to like the way that high heels push your breasts forward, and your bottom out, but only because they like the way this feels. They might think that men who are talking to you when you're wearing very, very low tops, and very, very short skirts and very, very high heels, shouldn't look at your breasts, or your legs, or at the way your heels make your bottom stick out. They should be thinking about how you'll be a brilliant doctor, or lawyer.

They might also think that the thing to do about "the sexualisation of children" is to commission reports from Christian organisations for mothers run by men. And maybe it is. Maybe it will help. But little girls dress like their mothers, and if their mothers dress like sluts, or even like "sluts", then they're quite likely to be as confused on the subject of sexual equality as the mothers who briefly saw a flicker of progress, and then watched it fade.



c.patterson@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/queenchristina_

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