Conservatives and a small number of high-profile feminists are unanimous in their assertion that contemporary culture has made desperate sexual victims of all women under thirty. In the UK, the reception of this week's Home Office report into the 'sexualisation of children' has been gleefully priggish, with Conservative leader David Cameron telling the BBC that 'We've all read stories about padded bras and Lolita beds...children are growing up too fast and missing out on childhood.' Oh David, with your nice hair and your nice wife and your house in Knightsbridge, only you can save Broken Britain from the march of the underage slags.
Press rehashings of the Home Office Report and of Natasha Walter's new book, 'Living Dolls', are stuffed with horror stories of young girls' wanton, soulless sexual promiscuity. Pre-teens who should be drinking ginger pop and going on picnics are wearing thongs and listening to Lily Allen. Just one glance at MTV and 54% of working-class teenage girls, according to fabricated Tory statistics, are pregnant. Even toddlers are now born with the Playboy Bunny image tattooed onto their eyeballs. Their fault, the salacious little strumpets, for daring to look at the future.
Walter is a thoughtful and empathic feminist, and her concern for young women is genuine. Her book (to which, in the interests of full disclosure, I contributed) is far more forgiving to young women who blandly objectify themselves or work in the sex trade than several stern, moralising editorials and reviews might lead one to believe. Dr Papadopoulous, likewise, reminds readers of the Home Office report that it is normal for children to experiment with their sexuality. And yet the automatic conflation of all sexual images and ideas with misogyny by media outlets reporting these pieces of research is evidence of a dangerous trend in contemporary thought: the idea that women and girls need to be protected from any and all sexual images and tropes for the good of our moral health. The notion that young women have no sexual agency of their own: we can only ever be 'sexualised'.
Young women and girls are blamed for their concessions to misogynist, 'pornified' sexual culture even as we are told that we're so thick we can't help but be complicit. Apparently, there is no middle ground between being an independent, dynamic young thing who makes joyful millions selling her body and the subsequent book-deal, and a cringing, broken victim of porn culture crying tears of shame into her cleavage. Elements of this binary thinking reinforce a stereotype which is just as damaging to young women as the 'happy hooker' fantasy beloved by bourgeois filmmakers. As the furore over 'raunch culture' escalates, all this baby-boomer moral hand-wringing is beginning to sound less like radicalism and more like priggishness. It's sounding less like genuine concern, and more like good old-fashioned slut-shaming.
I'm not arguing that raunch culture does not hurt young women. It hurts us deeply. It encourages us to lessen, cheapen and diminish ourselves, to think of ourselves as vehicles for the sexual appreciation of men who still hold economic sway over our lives. It makes us understand that what we look like is as important or more important than what we do, whether we're lap-dancers, librarians or lazy-ass freelance journalists like me. It warps our understanding of power, intimacy and desire and urges us to starve and torture our bodies and neglect our intelligence. It sells us a fake, plasticised image of empowerment that, for most of us, is deeply disempowering - as many wealthy and powerful middle-aged men and women have recently observed.
I am not asking for us to pretend that raunch culture is unproblematic, or that it's uncomplicatedly fun to be a Southend lap dancer. I am asking for honesty. I am asking for an analysis that is more rigorous, more grounded in an understanding of the gendered basis of capital, an analysis that is less focused on recalcitrant sexual morality. I am asking for an analysis that addresses itself to young men, who also consume and are affected by the brutally identikit heterosexual consensus. Most importantly, I want a consensus that actually gives a voice to young women, not just those who work as strippers or glamour models, but all young women and girls growing up in a culture steeped in this grinding, monotonous, deodorised sexual dialectic.
Recommendations that sexual images in advertising and music videos should be censored or age-restricted and the associated notion that all sexual messages are inherently damaging to women assume that our current plasticised, heteronormative, restricted social vision of female sexuality is in some way normal. It's far from normal. Our sexual culture isn't the logical conclusion of social libertinism: it's specific, it's deeply weird and it isn't, actually, all that permissive. Commentators, including feminist thinkers, are making the dangerously recalcitrant assumption that any sexually explicit culture is automatically misogynist, and that rather than working to challenge the sexual consensus, we should simply prevent women and children from coming into contact with it.
Censorship should never be an alternative to challenging the roots of patriarchy. Instead of slapping a blanket ban on pictures of tits, we need to look harder at the economic basis for sexual exploitation and at the reasons why many women make the choice to comply with raunch culture. Today's young women are neither soulless slags nor tragic victims: we are real people with real desires and real agency, trying to negotiate our personal and sexual identities in a culture whose socio-economic misogyny runs far deeper than conservative commentators would have us believe.
Right, sit down and roll a fag, you guys. I'm going to do some explaining.
Your criticisms have some legitimacy. But it's more than a little unfair to apply them to me. I've worked my butt off for years to get to the not-very-dizzying heights of where I am now, done stints at small magazines and local papers, lived on less than ten grand a year since leaving university, and most of that is because - privileged Oxbridge graduate though I am - I have no personal contacts and no family links with the media.
There's a huge problem with Gogartyism in the media. I'm not part of it: frankly, I really, really wish I were. I own the privilege I do have, and it's my responsibility to try and raise awareness of the fact that it takes money and privilege as well as talent, guts and determination to get anywhere in journalism these days. But actually, my money and privilege are not such that I'm not seriously worried about the future.
I know people from university whose daddies, mummies and uncles work at big papers, who have walked in to jobs at the Times and the Independent. I was unable to afford the place I was offered on the MA in journalism offered by City University - a standard entry-point to the industry, costing 8,000 per year exclusive of living costs, with no time to work and support yourself - so I settled for a shitty little part-time NCTJ course, and that choice has seriously held me back compared to the people I know who could afford City. Booga-booga personal finger-pointing actually obscures many years of hard work, knockbacks and disappointments because I wasn't lucky enough to have a daddy who worked in the media or a massive personal fortune to draw upon.
And that says a great deal, you know. It says a great big deal that someone with my opportunities - middle-class parents, nice school, Oxford - still isn't privileged enough to walk into a feature-writing job without years of being knocked back and getting up again, a process that, let me assure you, is very much ongoing.
The media is riddled with hypocrisy. I'm not going to argue with you there. Making it in the media today is tough. However clever you are, however brilliant, you have to slog and slog and slog to get noticed, whore yourself out promoting your work, write things you don't want to write for no pay or almost no pay, work long, thankless hours at large papers for free and smile every time they tell you to re-organise their filing system because you know you're lucky even to be there, because you know that behind you there are twenty other people dying for the opportunity to be trodden on in the same way.
So you smile. You grit your teeth. You offer to do more, work more; you hone your technique, you try to write better and faster than anyone else, you hold down shitty shop jobs whilst you're waiting for your break, you despair, you want to give up. And every day, you have to watch people who are less clever and less talented than you getting better jobs, more exposure and more money because they're the ones with the contacts, because they're quiet, inoffensive and pretty (if you're a girl), or because they just got lucky.
And then when you do get there, if you get there, you will be dogged at every stage by people writing in comments threads telling you that you don't deserve the little bit of success you've had - because you're [[under 25/a man/a woman/oxbridge-educated/not posh enough/ugly/beautiful/white/black/Jewish/Muslim -check all that apply]]. People who haven't gone through all this, or who aren't as far along, will resent your success and will look for any and every opportunity to tear you down. Meanwhile, the people above you are holding the door to the next stage firmly shut. If you complain about this, you're bitter, or you're not hard enough to make it in journalism. So, you shut your mouth and carry on working, carry on writing, trying all the while not to give up and bow out to the people with real privilege, because whilst you're exhausted, whilst every part of you is screaming for the day off you haven't had since 2007, you don't want the bastards to win.
That's what you need to do to be a journalist these days. That's the minimum. That's the minimum, from a starting point of having an Oxford degree and some savings. And you tell me that my generation has it easy. For shame. I tell you what doesn't help you get a writing career off the ground, though: making snarky, ill-informed personal comments in blog threads. I've wasted hours on it, and it has helped me not one jot. You want to change the world? Stop making personal attacks and start making a difference.