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Spare us the virginal and untouched

Running around in a bikini on a beach in front of a film crew is nice. Taking your top off is not, especially if a glamour photographer happens to be present to record the event. That was the lesson learned by Miss UK, 18-year-old Nicola Willoughby, when she was almost barred from last night's Miss World contest after topless photographs of her appeared in a tabloid newspaper. Don't get me wrong: Ms Willoughby wasn't upset on her own behalf, but because of the effect that her exclusion might have on you and me. "I'm so glad to have been given the chance to represent my country," she gushed. "I'm a patriot and I think this is an important thing to do."

To be fair, we all know that saying fatuous things is part of a beauty contestant's job description, along with wanting to help deprived animals and work with children. (Or is it the other way round?) When I was briefly a reporter in a seaside town, I used to cover the weekly heats of a local competition and the best part of the job was talking to the under-fives, who had not yet developed ambitions of any description. Some of them, in fact, were taciturn little boys, who had been forced into it by their mothers. What they were doing in a contest to choose a beauty queen I never fathomed, but it beat asking the winner of the adult section whether she had a boyfriend.

Ms Willoughby is far from being the first Miss World contestant to cause controversy. This year's Miss Bosnia (Miss Bosnia? Don't they have more pressing things to think about?) was forced to withdraw after posing for Playboy. A long-ago Miss World got into trouble when she turned out to be, in the quaint language of the period, an unmarried mother. Last year's winner, Linor Abargil from Israel, revealed she had been raped shortly before capturing the title.

This is not the kind of publicity the organisers of the contest wish to attract. They emphasise how wholesome it is, not about sex at all but the delightful personalities of the contestants instead. Ms Willoughby scraped into last night's final only because the topless shots were taken before she became Miss UK, and because the president of the event, Julia Morley, pronounced her a "lovely person".

She herself announced she had been exploited. "I really regret what I did, I was just young," she sighed. She was and she is, for the topless shoot took place a mere eight months ago. So what exactly is the difference between baring your breasts in photographs which end up in the Sun and parading around in a bikini on TV for an audience of millions? Part of it is tone, because the tabloid has never been able to resist infantile double entendres. But the real distinction is that the contest is prudish and dishonest, feeding fantasies which require the women who take part to appear virginal and untouched. No one really believes that last night's winner - and I neither know nor care who she is, having better things to do on a Saturday evening - was chosen for her intelligence or sparkling eyes.

Miss World is about sanitised sex, a throwback to a period when there were nice girls and the rest. Nice girls might put on a swimming costume, and simper on TV, but they were careful of their reputations. They were - and still are, in this last bastion of unreconstructed chauvinism - proof of the old rule that sex symbols are not allowed to have sex; not without causing shock and disapproval. For further evidence of this you only have to look at our obsession with stories about adult women having lovers, whether it is some posthumous revelation about the Princess of Wales or a snatched photograph of a soap star out with a new boyfriend.

You would hardly think, from the publicity surrounding Miss World, that sex is a natural part of life. So are women's bodies. The real question, which is as relevant now as it was during the first feminist protest against the pageant in 1970, is who controls them.

An elderly friend of mine recently decided to sell a nude portrait of herself painted many years ago by her late husband, a distinguished artist. Another, much younger friend, cheerfully described posing unclothed for a photo session when she was at art school. Neither of them felt awkward about it, any more than I did when a friend of mine occasionally took nude pictures of me in my twenties. At the time, post Germaine Greer, Miss World already seemed hopelessly antiquated. I would never have guessed then that this dismal display of female eunuchs would still be around, even as a post-modernist prank, at the end of the century.