Deborah Orr: We need to learn why women feel it's good to turn themselves into sexual objects

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The Independent Online

The culture might not be quite as degraded in Britain as that which Ms Levy describes in the States. Not yet anyway. But for those of us distressed by the idea that pole dancing is empowering, big fake knockers are liberating and being a lap dancer is what the clever women are doing, it's something of a call to arms.

Levy is most indignant about the way in which such displays of empty, porny, self-abasement are represented as being somehow a crowning efflorescence of the feminist struggle, the logical conclusion to once-radical demands that women be allowed to enjoy sex instead of being encouraged to deny and distrust their own desire.

The truth is that feminists of the 1970s were just as angry about the sexual objectification of women's bodies as Levy is now. Somehow, the difference feminists sought to emphasise - between being an active individual participant in sexual relationships and making a generalised sexual advertisement of your commodified body - has become subverted.

The things feminism stood against are now paraded as proofs of its mainstream success. Levy's contention is that this sad state of affairs has come about as "a testament to what's still missing from our understanding of human sexuality with all of its complexity and power".

What Levy suggests is correct, I think. But I don't think her analysis is explicit enough. Levy is sophisticated enough to avoid the old argument that this crass, totemic carving up of the female body as a piece of sexual furniture is something entirely inflicted by men on women. How could she fail to notice it is more complex than that, when it is horribly obvious that "feminist icons" such as Madonna are not hauling their leotards round the dancefloor simply to attract male attention, but also to keep their ascendancy over other women.

It is women who police the bodies of women, establishing "benchmarks" and launching lingerie lines to display them to advantage, yelling "too fat!" or "too thin!" in magazines, and deciding what sort of woman's sexual freedom is celebrated - Kate Moss's - and what is condemned - Jodie Marsh's.

Female involvement in the media has not, as predicted, resulted in a less misogynistic, less sexualised media. Instead, the opposite has occurred. It's important for us to start trying to understand why that might be, without necessarily deciding that it's all because of men.

The most ghastly thing is that while the men who persist in believing that the sort of female sexuality served up in Spearmint Rhino are invariably the men who are most scared or ignorantly contemptuous of women, the women who encourage this behaviour, by promoting the parade of stereotyped female sexuality as an admirable lifestyle choice, run them a close second.

The feminist model that portrays men as the problem and women the solution is divisive and unrealistic. It doesn't do men, women or children any favours.

Baseball boots are appropriate

All those who remain fans of the school of journalism dedicated to the undermining of women by other women should make sure they check out Mimi Spencer's masterclass in the form.

Writing last weekend in The Observer's new monthly women's magazine, the 35-year-old fashion writer shared a some of her wisdom about the hell of being a grown-up mother "hurtling towards 40".

At 40, or even at Mimi's dewy young age, readers learned, one must eschew baseball boots and skinny jeans, searching instead for a more "classic" style.

Perhaps it was because I was wearing those very items when I read the piece that it sat so badly with me. Or maybe I simply felt that the practical, helpful message was undermined by these illustrations.

These were four shots of the very lovely Mimi, groomed for the camera, smiling seductively and wearing nothing at all except large heels, a little blanket, and a healthy, honeyed glow.

For me, Mimi, jeans and baseball boots are a much more appropriate and flattering look.

But thanks for your input, girlfriend.

* I'm more than a little confused about the furore around the proposed slackening of rules around the administration of medical abortions.

Some 25,000 abortions are administered each year using pills. The woman takes a tablet at a clinic, then returns 48 hours later to take a second pill that triggers a miscarriage. She is then checked up and sent home. It is suggested that a woman can visit the clinic once, then take the second pill at home. This is "putting woman at risk" and "a cost-cutting exercise". On the contrary, it merely treats women having induced miscarriages in the same way as nature has treated women having natural miscarriages.

The idea that a woman who has chosen to miscarry is in more need of medical supervision than a woman who wakes up to find she is losing her much-wanted child, is specious and silly. Anti-abortion campaigners should avoid trying to construct arguments that pretend to have the women's concerns at their centre. They just don't wash.

Smoking is just an illusion of pleasure

I've never considered myself to be a militant former smoker, even though I often look at smokers and find myself thinking they're awfully anachronistic. Previous, failed, miserable attempts at giving up were characterised by my habit of disguising jealous anger against people still puffing as lip-curling contempt.

My current (two years and still, unfortunately, counting) attempt has been punctuated instead by mild concern or worried pity, which people find a great deal more annoying. The outbreak this week, after the Commons vote to ban smoking in public places, of mutterings about "the human right to smoke" and "an assault on freedom of choice", has inspired in me a huge tsunami of such patronising feelings.

I look at David Hockney, pontificating away about the primacy of his need for oral gratification, and just think - I wish you could experience how nice it is when feeding that little addiction isn't necessary any more. I don't suppose Hockney finds himself at the late-night garage too often, or does much in the way of rifling through ashtrays for long stubs come morning. But God it's real pleasure to live without such sad little rituals.

The most awful thing about smoking - apart, of course, from the health consequences - is what mugs it makes out of people. Smokers shell out a fortune in the mistaken belief that they achieve pleasure by smoking, filling the coffers of unscrupulous businesses with their hard-earned cash.

Hockney is wealthy enough to burn his money and to purchase the best of care when his habit catches up with him. Many of those he speaks for are not so lucky. Smoking, John Reid contended so memorably, was one of the few pleasures a poor man had. What he was really saying was that for the poor the cruel illusion of pleasure was good enough.

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