Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Sexism is wrong. But are we women our own worst enemy?

Male chauvinists carry on because the victims of their contempt let them. Women slink away from confrontations when they need to create a stink

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I picked up the magazine Allure in the dental surgery and flicked through the dreary beauty advice and other junk designed to keep their readers chasing after chimeras, addicts who spend and spend and never find release from inner disquiet and self-doubts, even those who seemingly have it all.

Jennifer Aniston is spread all over this month's issue. In one picture she is dressed in pyjamas, with the top undone, so her pert boobs invite you in, like a beckoning finger behind a curtain. In another she holds a teddy bear next to her bare skin, eyes wide open and childlike. How pathetic, how sad, this yearning she apparently has to turn back the clock, to turn herself into Lolita at the age of 41, a woman you might think would know her own worth.

If super-successful women readily objectify themselves, and powerful women recycle misogynist images and reinforce prejudices, why should men behave any better?

Last week Andy Gray and Richard Keys were shown the red card by Sky TV bosses, for their coarse banter about females. Many of us grizzled old feminists were mightily cheered by the penalty faced by the loutish lads – who never grew up – and the general public approval that followed. The usually anti-PC papers did not add coy quotation marks around the word "sexist". The Sun savaged the two men, who must have felt they had died and gone to hell.

But even on that day, as ever, semi-naked bait appeared on page three of the suddenly righteous paper. "And why not?" would be the tabloid's defence. Millions of chaps get cheap pleasure from the daily bosoms proffered to them in colour. How are they sexist? They adore women, the younger and fuller the better. If interviewed about men like Gray and Keys, these bimbos would probably say "I dunno". And, probed further, perhaps, "it's just a laugh innit?", or like Keys's wife, "boys will be boys", and they like my tits. Aniston must think that too.

Modern feminists like Catherine Redfern (co-author of Reclaiming the F Word), Nina Power (author of One Dimensional Woman) and Ariel Levy (who wrote Female Chauvinist Pigs) ask some tough and important questions: how come the stereotypes of female sexuality that feminism once endeavoured to break are now presented as empowerment? Instead of trying to beat sexism, women today are enthusiastically joining in with their own debasement.

Look on the web and you see self-abuse, anorexia, alcoholism, shopping and love of chocolate repackaged as hip, fun feminism. Middle-class whoring (made popular by the Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which this week returns to our screens), pole dancing and promiscuity have become signs of liberation. Surveys show that large numbers of teenage girls would rather be WAGs than professionals; they want to marry rich guys and stay at home.

Meanwhile, rape conviction rates, which were 33 per cent in the 1970s (when British feminism was loud and confident) are down to 6 per cent today. Never before have we had such levels of domestic violence and murders, trafficking and sexual exploitation. And the recession is punishing many more females than males. Drowning in a bowl of soapy dishwater sometimes feels more appealing than living through these times.

Some of the forces rising against these disheartening trends are also reactionary and will do the cause of gender equality no good: veiling, authoritarian child-rearing regimes, anti-feminism ideologies which promote ruthless individualism, ambition and feminine guile. So go up the ladder, fillies, wearing skirts and thongs and high, high heels, and you will never look back. Until they tire of you and have you pushed off – often by another woman, like Jay Hunt, who when controller of BBC1 did just that to Miriam O'Reilly, a popular BBC presenter.

If we are to beat, or at least stem, the virus of sexism, more women – particularly younger women – will need to wake up and shape up, and no, I don't mean go on a diet. Too many are choosing to keep shut, to accept insults, join in with mortifying jokes, play the game and even tolerate discrimination for a quiet life, or maybe for the rewards that come to those who do not rock boats or talk back. Male chauvinists carry on because the victims of their contempt let them. Gray and Keys were infamously nasty and crude towards female colleagues. So why did the women say or do nothing about it? By banding together for strength and safety they could have stopped this a long time ago.

The same applies to the amazingly gutsy women breaking into male sports. I would love to know what Sian Massey, the female referee who was so crudely referred to by Gray and Keys, thinks about what happened, but she stays silent. She was withdrawn from her next match and a statement from the referee association says: "She is a professional... [and] only wants to be notable for her performance as an assistant referee and is keen to go back to normal (my italics)."

Normal is what we don't want, lady. Women slink away from confrontations, when they need to create a stink and take some flak. It is a big ask but there is no other way. As for wives and lovers who stand by boorish men, I have no words to describe my sense of despair and revulsion. These molls of the enemy need to be sent off to feminist boot camps.

Hope lies with brave lasses who don't sell out, like those previously in the inner circle of the Scottish Socialist party who stood up to their married, swaggering, perjuring leader Tommy Sheridan, just sent down for three years. A newspaper exposed his energetic activities in a swinger's club; he took the paper to court for libel and is alleged to have tried to force female colleagues to lie for him under oath. They were said to have been ostracised by former colleagues, and even by Sheridan's loyal wife, but did not waver.

Tough, young, ballsy feminists use the net brilliantly to stir up activism. Look at The Feminist Wire, for example, or Object – two excellent websites. However, it is women within businesses and institutions who can make the biggest fuss, the biggest difference. Most do nothing. And that is why creeps like Gray and Keys can carry on the way they do. Women must take some blame for the horribly sexist culture – a bitter truth we must now acknowledge.


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