Are young women giving up on hard-won freedoms?
It was an odd experience, standing in front of a paying crowd of men and women on the eve of Valentine’s Day this year, as part of a formal debate about whether or not we should be “proud to be promiscuous”. It was never questioned that this referred to women, of course, even by me. Against the grain of the room, I argued that we should be proud, and very relieved, to have a culture that enables, even if it sometimes harmfully encourages, women to be rollicking shaggers if they so choose.
In the first place, as I claimed, the alternatives are universally terrible. This truism used to be felt – as well as understood – in the aftermath of the feminist efflorescence of the 1960s and ’70s. But here I was, making arguments that didn’t need to be made in public – at least, outside of the American bible belt – a generation ago. For example, that it’s worth preserving the freedom to make “bad” sexual choices; that it is better to be free and miserable than unfree and miserable; that the impact on women of universal contraception and abortion (in Britain, anyway) is not some liberal lie, but real, tangible, and good. Lifesaving.
The crowd cheered when I’d finished and they laughed, as they were meant to, at my serious-comic jokes about my friends’ post-9/11 and 7/7 pride in calling ourselves “Western whores”. Yet in the end, the majority voted for the other side. Some young, hip-looking people told me afterwards how they’d wrestled with themselves, but ultimately found they couldn’t make a vote in favour of promiscuity. Women, it seems, ought once again to be chaste – at least according to the views of the young people of both sexes in the room. Women are to guard their honour, they are not to be Western whores. Even if they seem to openly embrace the clothing, such as gyrating in thongs around a pole or donning barely-there pilates gear, they can’t or won’t own the ideological implications.
What should women do and what not? It’s all rather a lot to keep up with. And so, as 8 March, International Women’s Day rolls around again, it is hard not to conclude – especially if one was in that room full of Gen-Zers voting against the legacy of the sexual revolution – that modern Western women have never had it so… confusing.
It is voguish to insist that what fools call “progress” isn’t progress. That we live in a world that has only got worse. But this isn’t true, and I’d argue that, in the West, girls and women are at the centre of any decent notion of progress. We are its emblems – an enormous number of people whose lives have been transformed for the better in the past 60 years. Our 50 per cent of the population now take utterly for granted the educational opportunities previously reserved for males: decent reproductive health; professional choice and, though this is not always the case, freedom in all matters of sex, as well as sexual self-determination.
But history is a tussle between positive change and stasis, or regression. So where are we now? You can take a gloomy position if you want. After all, the oldest, darkest, most sordid obsession with women’s dead bodies – almost always at the hands of men – continues with inexhaustible energy. News outlets bombard us with this fixation, as do our TV screens, which most of us are glued to whenever possible.
The news last month brought the harrowing story of new Epsom College head Emma Pattinson, murdered along with her daughter by her husband. Here we had yet another example of a woman killed by the closest male in her life and yet it wasn’t long until newspapers unearthed a 2016 incident in which she (she!) was alleged to have slapped him during a domestic row. And when Lancashire mortgage adviser Nicola Bulley, an attractive 45-year-old mother of two went missing in January, the police turned – with what struck many onlookers as pathological sexism – to her hormonal difficulties (we all know the menopause makes women do mad things, don’t we?) and her drinking. She had, they said “significant issues with alcohol which were brought on by her ongoing struggles with the menopause. The vague term “perimenopause” – the state most women are in after 40 – was also bandied around, the implication being that all women over 39 are liable to be mad. Women, eh?
Ideally, we are sexy as well as nuts: a missing or deceased young-ish woman with looks is always dramatically more interesting to, well, everyone. It’s tricky to think of an equivalent obsession with a hunky father gone missing; nobody cares what the missing or dead man looks like. Unless, of course, he’s a serial killer – and then, as per the character of Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton) in the BBC’s enduring hit Happy Valley, everyone has licence to perv. Indeed, as a latecomer to Happy Valley, which centres on the consequences of two rapes and numerous women’s deaths, I binge-watched the series while the Emma Pattinson and Nicola Bulley stories dominated the news and it all felt quite relentless: a blurring of global relish at watching or hearing about terrible things happening to women. Netflix’s You, now in its fourth season, also revolves around a man’s murder of the women he’s obsessed with. Then our heads were whipped round to reality again, by the glamourising of a vile female criminal, the former Isis bride Shamima Begum. The distinct impression was: who cares about Begum’s deadly amorality when she’s attractive, thin and young, and can be pictured looking winsome and sexy? Try imagining her male moral equivalents – Jihadi John for instance – posing on the front of a glossy British magazine.
So yes. It’s easy to slide into depression over our society’s sordid fixation with sexual violence against women. But on the global stage, women have surged ahead in the last fifteen years. Some of the most influential, unstinting world leaders over the past decade have been women: Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern, Nicola Sturgeon, Sanna Marin and Kaja Kallas are examples, the latter Estonia’s prime minister, considered a strong leader against Putin in neighbouring Russia. For all her sins, the briefly-serving Liz Truss was bravely hawkish too against Russia, and impressively keen on bolstering Britain’s spending on defence.
It’s easy to slide into depression over our society’s sordid fixation with sexual violence against women
But there’s a long way to go, at least in numbers alone. At the start of 2023, just fifteen out of 193 UN member states were led by women, and there have never been more than seventeen women in the top job in any given year, or less than ten per cent of the number of men. Italy may have its first female PM in Georgia Meloni, but as someone whose party uses fascist iconography, it’s not quite the glory for our sex we might have wished for. Still, there is no reason that women should be better than men – at least, not if we believe the cognitive differences are less of a big deal than the chastity-belt crew would have us think.
Still, it has been bittersweet, in 2023, to see in quick succession the resignations of two of the most fearsome and iconic female world leaders, Ardern of New Zealand and Sturgeon of Scotland. I was no fan of either – particularly the latter, who frankly terrified me – but with their resignations they conveyed a sense of being ground down in ways that simply do not apply to men.
Youth culture also complicates the picture of progress and makes the (perimenopausal) head spin. On the one hand, girls and young women seem far more articulate and confident in the assertion of their emotions, and their rights, than girls in my day. And yet the culture created by, or for, them and refracted by social media, is hollow, sexualising, competitive and totally engulfing.
No wonder many don’t even seem to want to be girls anymore: the number of teenage girls saying they want to be boys has rocketed by 3000 per cent over the past six years. But it’s been a mad few years, not helped by the pandemic. With any luck, the madness will settle down – not just in the frenzied world of teenage girldom, but in all matters of culture and society, from race and gender to uses of history or notions of “psychological safety”. And if you look, you can see green shoots. Last summer, I took up chess at the behest of a sexy young man, and while the adult chess scene is still heavily male-dominated, there are more and more brilliant girls coming through. Paul, my top-rated chum at chess club, told me breathlessly about a game between two seven-year-old girls that he’s been studying. Let’s hope that 2023 is a year in which girls’ raw intelligence makes more inroads. When it comes to battling down the pressure on them to deny the full play of their brains, every little helps.
Zoe Strimpel is a columnist and interviewer for the Sunday Telegraph and a historian of gender in modern Britain