A Choice of Bondage: Our Hypersexual Culture

Share Button
Living Dolls by Natasha Walter Softcover, £12.95 Little, Brown 2010

Living Dolls
by Natasha Walter
Softcover, £12.95
Little, Brown
2010

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth takes a short trip on an omnibus, from Westminster down the Strand toward St. Paul’s Cathedral. She is the only character in the book to embark in this direction (toward London’s business sector), and the passage has been held up as a moment representing female progress and liberation in the novel:

Suddenly Elizabeth stepped forward and most competently boarded the omnibus, in front of everybody. The impetuous creature—a pirate—started forward, sprang away; she had to hold the rail to steady herself, for a pirate it was, reckless, unscrupulous… She was delighted to be free. . . . it was like riding, to be rushing up Whitehall…

Upon boarding the omnibus, Elizabeth Dalloway breaks away from the Westminster life of her parents in a kind of adventure, and the movement “frees” her to contemplate a future career, something that would have been virtually impossible for women of her mother’s generation. The passage continues, however, in language that confuses this image of progress and reveals Elizabeth’s journey to be far more complicated than the way it has traditionally been read by many feminist critics:

…and to each movement of the omnibus the beautiful body in the fawn coloured coat responded freely like a rider, like the figure-head of a ship, for the breeze slightly disarrayed her; the heat gave her cheeks the pallor of white painted wood; and her fine eyes, having no eyes to meet, gazed ahead, blank, bright, with the staring incredible innocence of sculpture.

Elizabeth Dalloway’s bid for freedom may make her feel liberated from the social constraints of her upper-class British family, but in the narrative she is transformed from a competent young woman to a blank sculpture, the figure-head of the raging omnibus. This moment in the novel is remarkable for the ways in which it so accurately identifies the complexities of women’s lives and the ways in which female freedom and liberation have often translated into new, but no less confining, roles for women.

Almost one hundred years after the publication of Woolf’s seminal novel, the circumstances of women’s lives may be different — but, in her new book, noted British feminist Natasha Walter argues that the complexities of female experience still persist, and are perhaps even increasing. Walter, who has claimed in an interview that “no one has ever done feminist polemic better than Virginia Woolf” (The F-Word), has recently published Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, a book that grapples with the phenomenon she calls the hyper-sexualization of contemporary British culture.

The author of 1998’s The New Feminism, Walter is a well-known British feminist and journalist, as well as the founder of the international charity Women for Refugee Women. Her debut book, published while she was an editor at Vogue, was controversial for its assertion that women should move away the issues of their private lives, “how women made love, how they dressed, whom they desired” and focus instead “on achieving political and social and financial equality.” Ten years later, it seems, the political and economic challenges are no less daunting: there are not significantly more women in positions of power in Britain, and the gendered wage gap has only increased. Still, Walter has significantly revised her outlook: she confesses in her introduction, “I believed that we only had to put in place the conditions for equality for the remnants of old-fashioned sexism in our culture to wither away. I am ready to admit that I was entirely wrong.”

In Living Dolls, Walter revisits the state of British feminism by addressing the very issues of sexuality that she eschewed in her earlier work. The book is divided into two sections: “The New Sexism” and “The New Determinism.” The first chronicles the rise of hypersexual culture in Britain—from pole-dancers and prostitutes to pornography and promiscuity—and the ways in which these cultural changes have been couched in the old feminist language of women’s choice and liberation. The second half of the book shifts gears to investigate the simultaneous rise in United Kingdom of a belief in intrinsic differences between the sexes, beliefs that have historically justified the relegation of women to the domains of the home and kitchen. Walter connects the two by arguing that the rise in hypersexual culture embodied and promoted by women is not a sign of feminist progress and increased lifestyle choices for women, but is rather a sign that the deep imbalances of power in British society have only been strengthened and exaggerated. Walter argues that female sexual liberation in the twenty-first century, like Elizabeth’s daring omnibus ride, has actually resulted in the rise of a culture that seeks to degrade, objectify, and limit women and the roles they are permitted to play in British life.

Much of the critical attention for Living Dolls has, for obvious reasons, focused on “The New Sexism,” in which Walter recounts interviews with a number of women, including “glamour” model Cara Brett; Anna Span, the most famous and prolific porn director in the United Kingdom; and an 18-year-old girl “Bella,” who boasts 22 sexual partners. This journalistic style is effective. It gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of individuals who are living out this hyper-sexualized culture in a variety of ways. Walter opens her discussion of “Babes” and glamour modeling in British culture with perhaps the book’s most widely-quoted story, about a spring night in the Mayhem Club in London, where a number of young women compete in a “Babes on the Bed” contest for the privilege of being photographed for lad’s magazine Nuts:

The crush around me became intense as the girls got on the bed one by one, accompanied by the constant thump of music. Cara [Brett] began to direct them into more and more suggestive poses. “Why not on all fours?”  “Let’s see your arse in the air!” … One plump young woman in mauve bra and knickers was one of the first to slip off her bra and joggle her breasts at the cameras. As the display became more sexual … the men in the club began to chant, heavily and fast, and to press nearer and nearer to the stage…

The competition continues with “girl-on-girl action,” and the winner, displaying “her sequined thong riding precariously on a shaved crotch,” is crowned. The incident is not an isolated one, and, while some women do express discomfort—“it was a bit degrading, to be honest”—others, such as Cara Brett, defend the activities and the industry they support. Cara’s own glamour modeling career, Walter writes, has been her ticket to success, the means by which she has managed to “fulfill her ambition of being famous without having any obvious talents.” Cara’s friend Helen, a law student at Leeds University, defends Cara’s day job by saying: “Women are now in much more dominant roles in society, and they can say, you know what, I’m doing this for myself. It’s something to be proud of.”

The use of this feminist rhetoric of choice, however, is not a sign that these young women align themselves the movement in general; in the very next paragraph, Cara expresses her frustration with the feminist movement, which ultimately complicates Cara’s career choice. Though she, like many of the young women Walter encounters, takes some of her cues from the women’s movement, the sex industry is really only partially about the kind of choice Helen articulates. It becomes quickly evident that Cara, not as academically inclined as Helen, sees her career as a partially-nude model as her only ticket out of the rural home in the Midlands where she grew up.

It is symptomatic of the cultural shift that inspired Walter to write Living Dolls that Cara’s story is not particularly unusual. A feminist rhetoric of choice, Walter argues, has been seized by Britain’s overly sexualized society and is being used to justify cultural trends that undo years of work by women’s activists. Most of the women in Living Dolls are quick to acknowledge the role of agency in their lifestyles—be it prostitution, modeling, or sexual promiscuity—but Walter argues that the variety of choices presented to young women in Britain has only decreased since the publication of her last book. For women like Cara Brett, Walter argues, sexual culture is increasingly perceived as the only path to fame, wealth, power, and even autonomy.

If women see this kind of sexual commerce and promiscuous behavior as their only option, Walter asks, how accurate is the language of choice and liberation that surrounds these activities? In the case of Cara Brett and others like her, Walter seems to have a fair point. Most of the prostitutes, lap dancers, and strippers who Walter interviews begin with a defense of their work and emphasize their role in choosing this lifestyle, but further conversation almost always reveals less pleasant realities. One young woman “Ellie” moved to London to pursue a career in acting, and fell into lap-dancing when she was having trouble making rent. Ellie initially didn’t feel that she faced any negative stigma upon entering this line of work, since pole dancing and lap-dancing have become increasingly common in British life and popular culture; but, even as she found the realities of her work degrading and humiliating, she had equal difficulty acknowledging those feelings: “I think that people who have done it have something very big invested in pretending that it is all right, because to say anything else is embarrassing. The reality is so not what the perception is. If you say it’s really degrading, and you did that, it says so much about you, or it feels as if it does. But it is degrading.” Today, Ellie acknowledges that there is little difference between lap dancing or pole dancing and prostitution, though the lap dancing clubs that have sprung up across the UK at unprecedented rates make their money at promoting an image that is both more innocent and less degrading than “real” sex work.

These anecdotes are interesting for the windows they provide into the opinions of (select) young British women on issues like pornography, prostitution, and multiple partners. In the cases like that of Ellie, where the women themselves articulate the ways in which an overly sexualized culture compromises their opportunity, autonomy, and sense of self, Living Dolls is particularly compelling. In her anxiousness to demonstrate the pervasiveness of these complex issues, though, Walter sometimes goes too far.

Bella, for example, the 18-year-old girl with 22 sexual partners, never acknowledges that her actions participate in something that is ultimately degrading to her and other women. Instead, she battles the idea that her promiscuous behavior might be related to some kind of dark past: “She told me about how a male friend had come to see her the previous night and got drunk with her. ‘Somehow we got on to how much sex I had. He was trying to convince me that I had had a traumatic childhood and that was why I had so much sex. I had to keep saying no, I actually am happy. I like having this much sex. I love it.’” This, of course, may be nothing more than a tactic of denial. However, Walter’s insistence that the behavior of young women like Bella contributes to confining roles for women undermines her analysis in several ways. In cases such as Bella, Walter oversteps the bound of her otherwise provocative and relevant work, perhaps in an effort to overcompensate for the revision of her previous arguments in The New Feminism. Many feminists may get behind a movement that questions how much choice women who enter into prostitution or pornography really have; few, I think, would be willing to police women’s personal sexual lives, particularly in cases where those women are safe and open about their level of emotional commitment.

In these passages, Walter’s method seems designed to exaggerate the realities of the given situation. Her chapter “Lovers,” in which Bella’s story appears, quotes the statistics on sexual activity in Britain: “The average number of lifetime partners increased between 1990 and 2000, from 8.6 to 12.7 for men and from 3.7 to 6.5 for women … those under twenty-five reported higher numbers of partners in the past five years, with 14.1 per cent of men and 9.2 per cent of women reporting ten or more.” According to these statistics, Bella’s story still places her in the extreme minority, despite Walter’s disproportionate attention to it. Furthermore, Walter goes to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate a real cultural shift that demarcates the behavior of young girls like Bella from feminists past. She looks at the journals of Mary Wollstonecraft, Emma Goldman, and Anais Nin—all considered fairly promiscuous feminists in their day—to demonstrate a long-standing feminist commitment to emotional intimacy in all sexual relationships. This tactic, though, only serves to render her argument far-fetched, even irrelevant.

The experiences of these historical feminists are hardly representative of the times in which they lived (and, in some cases, represent questionable role models for young women today). If the central issue guiding Walter’s research is a decreased number of real choices for young women, changing notions of how and when a woman can enter into consensual sex should not necessarily be cause for fear, distrust, or judgment. In cases such as this, Walter seems so anxious in Living Dolls to distance herself from the controversies of The New Feminism that she sometimes fails to carry forward the positive messages of that book. Women, and those invested in the women’s movement, should be interested in how we can better regulate industries like prostitution and sex clubs to protect women from the violence and abuse they often encounter in those industries; personal sexual choices, though, remain just that—personal choices—and Walter’s eagerness judge them in relation to the sexual economy undermines the work of generations of feminists to give women freedom and autonomy in their private lives.

Many of these problems are the result of Walter’s journalistic, anecdotal approach to the issues: the subjects she chooses to interview ultimately determine the messages of the first part of Living Dolls. Men make few appearances in the book, and the lack of a male voice is certainly a glaring weakness of the overall analysis. Girls like Bella and her friends lament how “soppy” the men they encounter are, but, later in this section, Walter interviews another young woman, Esther, who is pursuing a career in sex education because her unwillingness to be sexually promiscuously has caused her to be increasingly socially isolated. She says, “I want to be with a man who sees sex as an intense experience, a unity, and people just don’t now—sex has become completely devalued.” Of course, the “soppy” men Bella casts aside may not possess quite the intensity Esther seeks in a sexual and emotional partner, but the general lack of male voices in Walter’s narrative limits what we can possibly know about the male response to this hyper-sexualized culture and the ways in which men’s lives may also be adversely affected.

Where the journalistic approach most seriously compromises Walter’s argument, though, is in the second section, “The New Determinism,” in which she discusses the increased focus, especially in the media, on determinist explanations for gender differences. Few reviewers have paid particular attention to this part of Walter’s project: it is admittedly a slower read, and lacks the controversy of her earlier stories. It is also, though, less familiar territory for Walter, who is a journalist by trade. In this second section, Walter assumes a more structured methodology that still contains a number of interviews with a variety of experts. These forays into science offer interesting perspectives on male and female differences in abilities and intelligence, and chronicle several early childhood and other experiments.

Walter criticizes the media and popular gender writers for cherry-picking scientific perspectives that fit into their predetermined arguments; yet, her own approach and confessed lack of scientific expertise or experience casts equal doubt on the range of perspectives that she presents. Her citation of experiments and scientists is inconsistent throughout, and she regularly revisits the same few scholars and scientists to demonstrate her points. Without being an expert, without much experience in scientific review, it is difficult to weigh in on the actual validity of the experiments and scientific research she cites: this kind of analysis is unquestionably valuable to her project, but the second portion of this book might have been more effectively written by a collaborator—someone with direct scientific experience and a more authoritative voice.

By necessity, Living Dolls could not encompass all aspects of the modern feminist debate and its implications for current British (and, by limited extension, American) culture. In some ways, though, the book suffers from a too-myopic lens. Walter, for example, spends no time discussing the implications of her thesis in regard to bisexual or homosexual women, although these issues clearly influence lifestyle choices for heterosexual women: Bella, it is learned, has slept with equal numbers of men and women—a point on which Walter spends little time. Similarly, her long discussion of the Babes on the Bed contest in the Mayhem Club never acknowledges the role that lesbianism plays in contemporary female sexuality. Those women were not asked to interact with any of the many men who pay to watch. Rather, their sexual appeal is judged by their willingness to take on lesbian behaviors, with no indication that any of these women are interested sexually. The increased appeal of pretend lesbianism for the voyeuristic pleasure of men is an important aspect of the hyper-sexual culture that Walter seeks to discuss in Living Dolls, and analysis on the topic is noticeably absent. The scene in the Mayhem Club speaks not only to objectification, and to a woman’s lack of control over her own perceived sexuality, but also to a deep-seated homophobia among those young men (the removal of male sexuality entirely from the spectacle).

This lack of diversity in Walter’s interview subjects limits the variety and breadth of voices, despite that they are incredibly relevant to the debate and are representative of the sexual lives of British women. By virtue of exclusion, Living Dolls discounts the experiences of lesbian women as well as heterosexual and homosexual men, relegating them to the periphery of this debate when, in fact, a diversity of sexual preferences and experiences are needed at the center. As a result, an opportunity to put forth a truly radical feminism is missed, one that takes Walter’s scientific arguments and uses them to push the very definitions of sex and gender.

Walter is admittedly a journalist and not a cultural theorist, but issues of transexuality and gender-neutrality are becoming increasingly prominent in popular culture, and represent a fundamental and culturally powerful challenge to the sexual culture she describes. In a recent issue of music magazine Q, for instance, the gender-bending pop star Lady Gaga appears topless in glamour-model styling wearing a large black strap-on. The photograph caused one feminist reporter at The Guardian (a former publisher of Walter) to publicly revoke her support for Lady Gaga, claiming that the image “tick[ed] … the boxes that constitute the mainstream image of sexy.” Like the gender-bending of female rapper Nicki Minaj, though, this photograph is indicative of a larger cultural movement that is interested in blurring lines of gender and sexuality and that, in turn, promises to reinvigorate the feminist movement and the struggle for gender equality.

For many young women today, even those who share many of the same ideals and values as a long history of women’s rights activists, “feminism” has become a movement and a stance from which they wish to distance themselves. Though few of the women Walter interviews self-identify as feminist, they have taken on much of that movement’s rhetoric, and their sexual liberation (whether good or bad) has its roots in the work of generations of activists to give women choice and control over their bodies.

Walter’s work is a meaningful, if flawed, contribution to this dialogue. The end of Living Dolls, a chapter appropriately entitled “Choices,” profiles ten individuals and organizations continuing the work for positive change for women across the world. As an activist herself, Walter is a part of this movement, and her challenge to engage this ongoing struggle and debate is one that should be recognized. She writes in this closing chapter: “…it feels to me as though we are at a crossroads. We can see a groundswell in anger and solidarity that may, if enough people join, lead to real cultural and political changes.” In this sense, Living Dolls does not lead us very far from its predecessor, The New Feminism—hopefully, Living Dolls will encourage this kind of positive activism; hopefully the conversations that result will challenge feminists to push further than the omnibus, and demand even more from our society. Living Dolls fails where Walter seems too interested in removing herself from her claim that women should be more interested in enacting real social, economic, and political change; if the feminist movement is to continue to have relevance for the young women Walter interviews here, it must tackle both the changes Walter once demanded in The New Feminism and the complicated issues of choice and sexuality that face women today.

Share Button

About Katherine Evans Pritchard

Katherine Evans Pritchard is a contributing editor and PhD candidate in American Studies at Boston University.