Laurie Penny: If sex and power are what women want, don't stop them

If it is harmful for an eight year old to engage with a culture that encourages her to look like a porn star, why is it any less harmful at 18 or 28?

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You don't have to be wearing a pair of flopsy ears to feel like we're back in the 1970s. As campaigning groups clamour to protest against the opening of a new Playboy Bunny club in London, women's rights are under attack at the heart of government. Bills are on the table to restrict access to abortion. Female unemployment stands at a 15-year high. Single parents face cuts to their childcare allowances that will force thousands from their homes and prevent others from leaving abusive partners. With all of this going on, it is dispiriting that our national conversation about women's rights is still limited to the narrow issue of "sexualisation".

There has been much talk of a feminist "renaissance" in Britain and America, but the loudest voices appear to be preoccupied with the wrong questions. With female workers facing redundancy across the public sector, feminist campaigners seem more concerned with chanting outside the Playboy club, or asking if the "SlutWalk" marches, in which women and girls assert their right to express themselves sexually without fear of rape, "encourage promiscuity". The word "sexualisation" has become a universal shorthand for a kind of abject whorishness, whereby sex is something imposed on women and girls, who can never be sexual, only "sexualised".

All of this raises the unhappy spectre of the feminist "sex wars" of the 1970s and 1980s, when the movement imploded under the pressure of in-fighting between women who saw pornography and sexual objectification as the root of gender inequality and those who advocated a more "sex-positive" liberation politics. Now, as then, some feminist campaigners have found unlikely ideological bedfellows on the Christian and Conservative right.

The Coalition has enthusiastically taken up the language of "sexualisation", and will soon be launching its "sexualisation review", which seems likely to be rammed with weary family values rhetoric. Meanwhile, the anti-abortion campaigner Nadine Dorries MP recommends that to protect women and girls from this dangerous world of adult sexuality, they should be "told to say no".

This platform is backed by mothers' groups and by the Government, which has drawn up an advisory committee on sexual health consisting entirely of Christian lobbyists promoting abstinence. Men and boys have no place in this consensus, which seems to deem that adult sexuality is something that men enjoy and women merely endure.

In Tanith Carey's new book, Where Has My Little Girl Gone?, the author encourages parents to protect their daughters for as long as possible from the harmful world of "sexualisation" and raunch culture. This is a stunningly defeatist attitude: after all, if it is harmful for an eight-year-old to engage with a culture that encourages her to starve herself and shames her for not looking like a porn star, why is it any less harmful at 18, or 28?

It is always painful to watch a young woman grow up into what the French feminist Virginie Despentes calls "the universal market of the consumable chick". It is no solution, however, to follow Carey's advice and simply prevent those girls from "growing up too soon". The solution is to fight for a world in which girls can grow up with dignity, and it is that basic vision that the current "sexualisation" debate fails to deliver.

There is not a feminist on the planet who believes that the passive, porny, malnourished stereotype of female submission currently saturating advertising, pornography and pop culture is anything but harmful. But that stereotype has really nothing to do with sex – it is a sterile image of conformity that demands women look sexy while punishing us for actually expressing lust. The stereotype has become so ubiquitous that it has created a false consciousness whereby we assume that this is the only kind of female sexuality that can possibly exist.

It is as if we have lived for so long in a world of McDonald's that we have begun to believe that all food is unhealthy and exploitative. We must begin to remember that there are other meals, and that women's hunger for sex is wholesome and legitimate, just like our hunger for food, power and adventure – while admitting that, from time to time, the guilty pleasure of an occasional Happy Meal does little damage.

What our limited feminist conversation lacks is a coherent politics of female desire. The language of "sexualisation" places women, and particularly young women, in a context wherein all desire is dangerous, but in this age of austerity and sexist recrudescence it is vitally important for women of all ages to start talking about what we do want, as well as what we don't. It is not enough for us to resist "objectification" if we are not prepared to assert our right to self-determination – to express our needs and desires and have them satisfied.

Western culture is still terrified of female desire. After all, if we stopped shaming women and girls for being hungry or horny, who knows what else they might start to want? It all comes down to a dirty little word beginning with a C, a word that, in our haste to decry sexual objectification, most of us are too prim to mention. The word is, of course, "class". The Liberal Democrats' campaign for "body confidence", a mitigated effort to ensure that airbrushing in adverts aimed at young girls is clearly marked, is all very well – but hopelessly inadequate when the party is also colluding to slash benefits for tens of thousands of single mothers. Ensuring that more women struggle to survive is a very easy way to shut down resistance to sexism in culture.

This strain of limited, censorious, bourgeois feminism is totally unequal to the challenges affecting women and girls today. Instead of merely objecting to a corrosive culture of objectification, it's time to start asking women and girls what they truly want from life – and not flinching when the answer is more than just "shoes and chocolate". Some of us might want sex, and lots of it. Some of us might want power, and lots of it. And some of us might want to change the whole world. No wonder the forces of reaction are so keen to stop us growing up.

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