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Yes, we do want it both ways: Sarah Benton believes women have a right to self-possession, and to moments of vulnerability

IT IS AS though in recent weeks a sigh has gone up: the nightmare for men is coming to an end. The feminist revolution that began 25 years ago has spluttered to a halt.

For a quarter of a century, feminism has unearthed the violence and abuse that nestles in much family life, the exploitation of female labour on which glittering towers of international finance are built, the smug club of boyishness that purports to be national politics, the grim substratum of depression and abandonment in which many women pass their lives.

Having unearthed it and held it up as the picture of reality, feminists became the seers of our age. Who better to speak about the most sickening malaise of the times, the wretchedness of children, than women with a vision of change? If feminists had seen what was hidden from the law makers, perhaps they knew what was to be done? Men should shut up and listen.

That tentative feminist hold as the voice of a new age has now been overthrown. Today's Conservative moral crusade does not just address lax public spending (and that certainly doesn't mean fiddling your tax returns). It targets the wanton behaviour of women.

John Major has no doubt gained confidence from the events of recent weeks. The Child Support Agency has been 'exposed', found to be a malign force for punishing innocent men. Labour's backbenchers cast out two of their most prominent female leaders. And in the rape trials of Austin Donnellan and Matthew Kydd, a jubilant public response to their acquittals made curious heroes of them.

By pursuing the theme of 'immorality', the Government is saying that while the law and state agencies cannot create a new model of manhood, they can be used to enforce the old model of womanhood: sluts to one side; good, husbanded mothers to the other.

And women themselves have been quick to declare that a line must be drawn between the feminism of 'common sense' and a feminism that has gone too far.

Common-sense feminism deals with injustices for which there is material evidence, such as low wages and bruised bodies. Fanciful feminism deals with the surreal and murky world of sexual signals and jokes. Common-sense feminists said, after the Austin Donnellan case: 'This would not have happened in our day. The girl was foolish.' And even: 'This happened to me, and it never did me any harm.'

Of course, this sort of thing - gropes and pokes with men that turned to unwanted sexual intercourse - did happen in our day. And it did do us harm. It is one of the unspoken reasons why many women became feminists in the first place. But nowadays the simple feminist explanation - men's abuse of their power - is found wanting. What of men's sense of their own frailty? What of women's sexual desire? Simple feminism no longer accords with common sense.

In this muddle, though, one fundamental historical change is being overlooked. Women are saying, 'our bodies are our own, we belong to ourselves'. This right of self-possession is profound. It is the most basic distinction between free men and slaves, between free and subject nations, between citizens and the dispossessed; between men on the one hand, and women and children on the other. It is the right that is suspended in the act of imprisonment and so absolutely negated in the act of torture.

For centuries, opposition to women having civil rights was founded on the idea that women were not their own persons. They belonged to their fathers, husbands, even their children. Free men, on the other hand, belonged either to themselves alone, or were under an obligation to some abstract, higher cause, such as nation, or truth, or public good. Men's loyalty was to that public good, women's to their husband or children. That was why men could be citizens, and women not.

It was for this right of self- possession that feminism spoke. And it was inevitable that in pursuing that goal, the terrain would be confused and contentious. This is not just because in asserting their rights, women restrict the rights of men, or even because new rights carry new obligations for women to behave as though they are in full possession of their wits. It is also because it is a conceit of political theory that full self-possession is possible. It is not, either for men or for women. But it throws up different problems in each case.

The problem feminism cannot resolve is whether unchangeable differences between men and women are significant, and must therefore be recognised in all our social and legal arrangements.

This conflict is at its most acute in sex. Women have said that we, like men, feel desire, we are not just passive objects saying yes or no to men's lust. But from puberty, a girl anticipates menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth, which makes her body pregnant with possibilities that no boy entertains.

In the pre-feminist era, this difference governed the life of women. Then, there used to be something called heavy petting; teenage girls had chants about how far you might go - hand on breast, tongue in mouth - without going too far. Heavy petting allowed a girl to be sexual without losing possession of herself. In theory, this drew the line against unwanted sex.

Feminism, it is said, destroyed the line, and now there are no limits. From hand on breast to full 'possession' is one continuous move. Any girl who cries 'stop]' in the middle is a fool.

The conflict, then, is in part about who controls what actually happens in sex. But it is also about whether it is possible to say that, when it comes to sex, there are different rules for men and women, that in matters of sex women are vulnerable, so they need the status of protected beings, even though elsewhere they are self- possessed citizens.

At first, this seems absurd. It confirms men's most resentful snarl: you want to have it both ways. Yes, we do. But then, so does everyone. No man, however rich and healthy, lives a life of permanent self-possession. Those who have wealth and health are more able to deflect their needs on to others. But all people need protecting at some points in their lives. We all, sometimes, need a nanny, we are all moaning minnies. The wholly independent being is a myth of liberal individualism.

Perhaps the two great contributions of feminism are to have prosecuted women's right to self-possession and to have argued that moments of vulnerability and dependence are an intrinsic part of being human - at work and in politics, as well as in bed.

If John Major really wanted to lead a moral crusade, he could champion paternity leave, shorter working hours and Charter Awards for 'new men'. But as this would hand the future back to the feminists, no doubt he will remain rootling around in the past.

(Photograph omitted)