A gaggle of white fiftysomething women lie on a white sandy beach sucking on a Tequila Sunrise and deciding which hypnotically beautiful black boy to pay for sex.
This is the image from Heading South, the strange new film by French director Laurent Cantet that hangs in your mind like black smoke in a bar. Its central characters are rich American women like the Charlotte Rampling character, who complain that back home, "If you're over 40 and not as dumb as a model, the only men you attract are natural-born losers or men whose wives are cheating on them." They flee these flabby white men for a summer of sex tourism in Haiti.
All through the film, I kept thinking of those old exam questions that begin, "Compare and contrast...". Compare and contrast your reaction to this movie to the way your response to Michel Houellebecq's notorious novel Platform. He also presents sex tourism with sympathy. The only difference is his protagonists are fiftysomething men preying on young yellow-skinned women. His central character, Michel, tells us with a cocky glare, "You have several million westerners who have everything they could want but no longer manage to get sexual satisfaction... On the other hand, you have several billion people who have nothing to sell except their bodies and their unspoiled sexuality." What could be more logical than to put the two together?
If you're like me, you will find the first scenario almost charming - go, girl! - and the second abhorrent. But why? This gender gap in our morality applies to all sorts of situations. When a female teacher has had sex with one of her male students, does anyone feel the same degree of disgust directed at male teachers who sleep with their female pupils? There are only two possible explanations: we are sexist and downplaying the suffering of men, or female sexuality is inherently, and in quite profound ways, different.
I have little sympathy for the Michael Buerk "men are the persecuted ones now" school of moaning. As the great stand-up comedian Natalie Haynes responded, "Yeah, we've hounded and harried you down to paying us 70 per cent for the same work and owning only 90 per cent of the world's wealth." But the alternative explanation contains its own disturbing pitfalls - and implications for our wider culture that most of us would rather look away from.
In the 1970s, feminism forked into two paths - the "equality" school and the "liberation" campaigners. The former believe women and men are inherently the same, and the goal of feminism is to clear out the millennia-old clutter of sexism and misogyny and create a level playing field. The liberationists believe women are inherently different, and as Germaine Greer puts it, "the denial of real difference can be as cruel as forcing different-sized feet into a single-sized shoe".
I usually instinctively back away from the liberationists, fretting that they play unwittingly into the hands of sexists. Look at the writings of the leading liberationist feminist Rosemarie Tong as she tries to define the characteristics of this distinct female nature. They include, she says, "interdependence, community, connection, sharing, emotion, body, trust, absence of hierarchy, joy, peace and life". The characteristics of men, by contrast, are "independence, autonomy, intellect, will, wariness, hierarchy, domination, war and death". Intellect? What greater gift could you hand to misogynists than for feminists to announce en masse that women are emotional creatures, while men are the hard-headed intellectuals?
But the way we react to female sex tourism reveals a crack in our thinking, and leads us on to a liberationist pathway despite ourselves. Julie Bindel is a feminist writer who works rehabilitating female prostitutes. When she went to Jamaica to interview "beach boys" who have sex with Western women for cash, she discovered a totally different dynamic. Whereas men want to have sex with a prostitute and go, female clients want at least the simulacra of what Charlotte Rampling, in the movie, calls "goddam syrupy love". They spend days with the beach boys - with only a small fraction dedicated to sex - and often delude themselves they are in love. The boys, in turn, do not consider themselves gigolos, imagining they are simply "helping" these women and receiving "gifts".
The scientific evidence reinforces these impressions. In 1998, the distinguished social scientist Bruce Ring published a thorough study into the difference between the way teenage girls and boys react to sexual abuse. He found that teenage boys who had been abused by teachers or other adults "reacted much less negatively than women". The wider culture has picked up on this difference. It's why Mrs Robinson is a figure of fun but Humbert Humbert is a deserving bogeyman.
Of course, many feminists argue - as Mary Wollstonecraft put it - that we just don't know if men and women really have different natures, because we have never had a society equal enough to find out. These differences could be the result of the subtle social conditioning that leads us to treat girls differently from the moment they're born. But it's hard to avoid the reality: that male and female bodies are coursing with different drugs. If you take huge amounts of testosterone, you will become more aggressive, paranoid and violent. If you take huge amounts of oestrogen, you will become more calm, nurturing and warm. Is it really credible to deny these drugs have an effect when they occur naturally? If anything, they demonstrate the moral superiority of female biology - something the liberationists have been telling us for years.
Yet we are - understandably - so wary of discussing these differences that last year Larry Summers, the President of Harvard, was sacked for thinking out loud about them at a seminar. It's easy to see the dangerous implications: it will provide easy, glib excuses for the men who still oppose equal pay for equal work and other basic, still-distant rights.
But failing to discuss them is dishonest, and equally dangerous. The academic Tony Sewell recently suggested that many boys are suffering at school because they are being pressed into a consensual, non-competitive environment better-suited to girls.
One of my nephews has just been diagnosed with Attention Deficit and Hyperactive Disorder, when it seems to me he is simply coursing with testosterone. How many of the epidemic ADHD diagnoses in Britain - almost all of boys - are the result of medicalising fairly normal male behaviour? Our response to those middle-aged women browsing for man-flesh from their beach towels reveals an uncomfortable truth - there are some inherent differences between the genders that we will never escape.Reuse content