Not as confident as they look

'Today's young women appear to be in control, affirmed by mothers who themselves have pierced tummy buttons'
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The Independent Online

The general impression, gazing across a gap that spans a quarter of a century, is that young women today have masses more sexual confidence than I, as a teenager, could have dreamed of possessing. The clothes alone amaze me. In the 1970s, any large group of women would have presented itself as a sea of neutral shades, with the sporting of a red jumper the sign of a maverick.

The general impression, gazing across a gap that spans a quarter of a century, is that young women today have masses more sexual confidence than I, as a teenager, could have dreamed of possessing. The clothes alone amaze me. In the 1970s, any large group of women would have presented itself as a sea of neutral shades, with the sporting of a red jumper the sign of a maverick.

Today's young women, en masse, float in a sea of bold and liberated colour. And up close they are yet more seductively arresting, with shoulders, cleavage, thighs and midriffs on display. In my day, we'd find it impossible to leave the house while wearing a T-shirt that might "ride up with wear". Showing one's navel was bracketed in the same league as going to school with no top on. Revealing a cleavage meant sitting around all evening with one's arms folded.

The level of bodily shame was chronic, the degree of self-consciousness absurd. We seemed caught between the values of our parents – children during the war, teenagers just as the demographic was being invented – and those of the time in which we actually lived – post-Sixties, post-sexual revolution, post-pill.

The negotiation of our sexual existences were defined by that clash of cultures. While we took it as read that we would have sexual partners without being married to them, there was still an inordinate amount of fear, worry and shame wrapped up in the still nominally rebellious act of claiming our right to physical pleasure.

Looking at the girls of today, one can be forgiven for assuming that all that has changed. They appear to be so much more in control, affirmed by mothers who themselves have pierced tummy buttons and first-hand experience of notches on bedposts, supported by Sex and the City, chick lit novels for teenage girls, and a general culture of carnal knowledge. They even, if we believe in the story of Britney's virginity, have the total control whereby they can dress exactly as they want but still retain every choice.

Except that it is becoming horribly obvious that this up-front sassiness is no more than skin-deep. Why, for example, would sexually confident, promiscuous, young women need a home-testing kit for chlamydia? Or morning-after pills from Tesco?

Are we to believe that very many young women are risking pregnancy, or even their fertility, because they don't like using condoms so very much? Or can the truth be that they are no more sexually confident than young women ever were – afraid to bring up the subject of using a barrier contraceptive because they are just too embarrassed. That's not sexual liberation, however you cut it. The idea is that these young people are having sex on their own terms. The reality is that there is still no space for young women to start negotiating terms.

A large amount of unprotected sex appears to be happening out there among teenagers and young women who think they are grown-up enough to have intercourse, but who are not grown-up enough to say: "If you want me, then wear a condom." This suggests to me that less has changed than the provocative clothing and knowing posturing might lead us to believe.

I was recently talking to a friend, like myself married with children, who suggested that if she'd had her youth again she would be bolder, more adventurous, and sexually predatory. Like me, she assumed that young women today had more freedom, licence and ability to be in control of any possible consequences.

But within minutes we were both agreeing that many of our youthful sexual encounters came about because we lost control, and boxed ourselves into situations in which having intercourse was simply easier than not having intercourse. This is the sort of stuff that nowadays we are told we should consider to be date rape, or at least a close cousin of date rape. But actually, it's just the sort of stuff that happens when we act as if we're a great deal more sexually confident than we really are, and then get called out on it.

Such an assertion is considered to be anti-feminist, too close for comfort to the nasty old mantra that "a woman was asking for it", which until recently prevailed so broadly. But now, while it seems to be understood that a woman in sexually alluring clothing is not asking for "it", she still does not feel herself to be in a position where she can ask for the necessary precautions around "it" to be taken.

At this point, of course, it must be wearily registered that another thing quite clearly has not changed. It is women, more than ever, who end up paying the price when two people fail to take responsibility for their sexual activities, and women, more than ever, who are thereby compelled to be the ones to initiate precautions.

It is terribly unfair that while men benefit more than women from sexual freedom – or at least are not dicing with their fertility because of it – they still seem so reluctant to take enough responsibility to wear a condom as a matter of course. We could talk forever about the sort of changes we would like to see in male sexual behaviour. But these changes, even in the wake of the Aids crisis, seem no closer to attainment than they were in the short years after the pill and before feminism.

In the end we have to ask whether the right to indulge in just as much sexual bravado as the boys is a right worth fighting for. It is easy for older women to assume that we have fought and won battles that young women are now enjoying the fruits of. Kim Catrall, the actor in Sex and the City who plays the seductively liberated Samantha, says in interviews that her character is "raising the bar" on what is sexually acceptable for women.

But the four ladies we see in the programme are grown-up and made-up (that's fictional rather than covered in slap). They don't sit around having lunch and discussing how on earth you manage to bring up the topic of condom-wearing. Or how you manage to come to terms with the fact that some night or other of bad sex might be the reason why you are now infertile.

They are utterly in control, and while they might see themselves as role models for young girls, the fact is that they conduct their sexual lives in the manner of experienced people. All the facts suggest that while sexual liberation is fine when you're that age, the years spent gaining the experience might not always be such a breeze.

The women from Sex and the City are really, I think, "raising the bar", but only for what is acceptable among women who have already been through the messy, sometimes deeply depressing, business of reaching sexual maturity unscathed. It is comforting for women of that generation to believe that this level of freedom and control has been gained for all women, however young they may be.

But the truth is that what feminism has bequeathed to teenagers is Britney – dressed up to the nines but hedging her bets by publicising her purity. Many a teenager can manage with ease to look like Ms Spears. But in the real world they neither have the option of becoming a professional virgin, nor the confidence to be a sexual deal-maker. In the old days women fulminated that they had to be virgins or tarts. All of our struggles have meant that our daughters must somehow work out how they can be both.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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