Deborah Orr: One woman's sexual freedom is another's sordid one-night stand

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One could be forgiven for believing that modern Britain was happily seething with no-holds-barred sexual activity, that dogging was the new philately, threesomes were the new smooching-in-the-back-row-at-the-movies, and that having all your children with the same man was as hopelessly backward and creepy as marrying your first cousin (or even just marrying, come to think of it).

But apparently this is not the case. New research from the University of Sheffield suggests that British women of all ages are extremely judgemental of other women who have casual sex. Nine out of 10 women questioned believed that it was "wrong", while only 10 per cent admitted to psychologist Dr Sharon Hinchliff that they had a one-night stand themselves.

Even those women tended to excuse their own behaviour, while describing other women in similar situations as "immoral" or "deviant" or suggesting that they were hopelessly drunk or '"trying to be like men". Dr Hinchliff herself has described the findings as "shocking". She adds that "women are meant to have had sexual freedom from the Sixties. Now it seems we must question the degree of sexual freedom we have got."

I wonder if we really must, though. Surely the idea of sexual freedom is more about having choices than about uninhibited stranger-jumping. Some women decided very early on in the sexual revolution that "free love" appeared to be rather more advantageous for men than it was for women. Others continue to promote glamour modelling or lap dancing for the amusement of men as landmark statements of female empowerment. Clearly there is an extremely wide range of opinion on this subject. So it is no great revelation that the extremely uninhibited (and, probably, the extremely inhibited) are part of a small minority.

It's certainly notable that this small minority is so vociferous. The general impression, from reports in the popular newspapers, from the behaviour of contestants on reality television shows, or from the proliferation of weblogs by young women describing their sexual activity, is that highly liberal sexual attitudes are far more widespread than this investigation contends. Again, the less than surprising conclusion has to be that even though sexual exhibitionism is not highly regarded by women, it attracts a great deal of attention.

What's worrying about this, I think, is that it promotes a unsustainable distortion between popular portrayals of female sexuality, and the reality of female sexuality. As the mother of sons, I find it difficult to imagine negotiating my way between the images and portrayals of women that are so readily available to them in newspapers, on television and on the internet, and the kind of respect towards women and their sexual needs that I would like them to adopt as men.

I'm even fairly sure that the gulf between the fantasy of female sexual availability that is peddled by a voraciously sensationalist culture, and the rather more sedate reality, contributes towards the deepening misogyny that fuels the rise in rape cases and also the overwhelming reluctance to prosecute them.

The vast majority of women, this survey suggests, need emotional attachment for sex to be meaningful. The women who champion the "zipless fuck" of Erica Jong's salad days really have to understand that they are in an exotic minority. Most women won't be sexually liberated until this old-fashioned fact is accepted and celebrated.

* Like a lot of people, I assumed that the dramatic failure of the TGN1412 drug trial would lead to a dearth of guinea pigs. Instead, many people have been alerted to the fact that such opportunities for substantial lump sums exist, and have been inquiring about job prospects in unprecedented numbers.

Likewise, one might assume that the undercover documentary showing the estate agency Foxtons in a horribly unflattering light might have dented their business a little. On the contrary, when a cynical friend called wanting to sell her house for the best possible price, she was told that they were phenomenally busy and couldn't fit in a viewing for 10 days.

Sometimes I wonder about the inherent goodness of man, etc.

It's such a struggle to be a man

There's something very sweet about Norah Vincent's account of her 18 months as a man. It's not just her conclusion - hardly shattering - that men are quite nice really. It's more her realisation that none of the men ever caught her out because their own stabs at masculinity were every bit as theatrical as hers were.

Vincent describes the men talking openly about the times that they had done things they knew to be "stupid crap", in order to conform to their self-imposed ideas of dumb masculinity. She explains how this alerted her to the fact that an extra swearword or an exaggerated swagger weren't going to be the things that caught her out. Only by failing to caricature masculinity crudely enough could she blow her cover.

The funny thing is that this worked. It was what made her bond with the men she had met. She saw that they all wore clumsy "armour" and were "naked and insecure" underneath. The really funny thing is that even though women already know this, it feels good to have it affirmed by a woman with beeswax and wool crepe on her chin.

Why learning geography can be a ball

I'm alarmed to hear that the standard of geography teaching has plummeted of late. It must be pretty bad now, because all I can remember from my own school days is vast detail about the intricacies of the Scottish coal and steel industry (which now employs about 14 people).

I managed to leave school knowing nothing at all about the most basic stuff. At the age of about 25, in an attempt to tackle my ignorance, I traced a map of the world and tried to label the landmasses. This was the point at which I learnt that Japan was an island. I can't tell you how many games of Trivial Pursuit have slipped slowly from my grasp, just because the blue piece of pie is so terribly elusive.

At last, though, help for the likes of me is at hand. Visiting a friend's house the other day, I was horrified to find her nine-year-old daughter playing the saxophone, while her five-year-old son examined a globe. Why weren't they watching The Simpsons, you ask. Reader, I have no idea. The boy explained that his globe talked and that we could play a game on it involving finding countries in an allotted time. After several rounds, his best score was 13, while my proudest moment was five. Eventually he accepted that I wasn't patronising him, but actually simply wasn't a suitable partner, and lost interest in playing with me. Most upsetting.

Anyway, Michael Palin has come to the rescue of geography, and is giving a copy of his book, Himalaya, to every school. But what we really need is a talking globe in every primary in the land. I swear I've never seen a more miraculous educational toy. I've even got one myself, in the hope that I can finally explore my own geographical black hole.