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.