There’s an awful lot to like about Zoe Williams. She became a parent a few weeks after I did, for one, and I absolutely relished her column Anti-natal, which rubbished the non-evidence base of so many holier-than-thou pre-natal recommendations in fashion at the time. I also totally agreed with her oblique take on that other supposedly non-controversial good, social mobility. But this piece – it’s not that I disagree, exactly. It’s just that, like virtually all mums of kids the same age as mine, it’s clear she’s from a different generation; of feminist, socialist, journalist and everything else.
Like Zoe, I had occasion to leaf through some early editions of Spare Rib in the British Library some months back. Unlike her, I can actually remember the appearance of the 1980s ones; I even wrote for some of them. And I totally know what she means when she contrasts that early, no-holds-barred, every lugubrious- detail-please approach to sexual and female-biological matters with the later feminists’ defensive, do-not-encroach-upon-my-temple fastidiousness. What’s more, I think I can pinpoint that moment she’s after; when, if you like, sex-positive feminism became sex-negative; when feminists switched, to use the stereotypes, from being Germaine Greer’s sexually “liberated” gorgeous girls about town, to dour, dungareed, humourless lesbian man-haters.
“When Promiscuity Became a Duty”, the title of an early-1980s article in The Leveller magazine by a feminist a decade or so older than me has stuck in my mind down the decades. I believe I read it and thought, ugh, I know what she means; that dreadful period when you had to “Do It” on demand to prove that you were hip and with it and not an old-fashioned square. Being still quite young, and a shy late starter, I had pretty much missed the promiscuity-as-duty phase, though I spent a few years attempting a modest sort of catch-up. In the interests of research, naturally, by an over-sheltered country girl of the opinion that her extreme sexual ignorance was putting her at an extreme disadvantage. And no, not a lot of it was tremendous fun, actually; much of it was embarrassing, uncomfortable and a bit boring. Frankly, a laugh down the pub usually made for a better night out.
But maybe that was just me; “liberated” on the outside, but inside still cramped and inhibited; quite possibly. It was still worth trying, I maintain; I had every right to experiment, and on balance got a lot out of it, including some very good friends. Round about then, too, one started to hear the argument even in radical circles that those benefitting most from the advent of the Pill and the whole gamut of sexual-revolution legislation were not in fact us women but our randy, feckless, commitment-phobe multiple male partners. Which dovetailed neatly with Irish Catholic and other conservative arguments against legalisation of divorce, abortion and other modern horrors. Which in turn, to do us justice, felt extremely uncomfortable to feminists; we didn’t and don’t like the sense that we had common ground with Mary Whitehouse conservatives. But we were insufficiently able to grandstand the distinctions, and became vulnerable to the anti-sex caricature. Which must have put off a lot of younger experimenters, exactly the type of girl I had been.
So, in the end, who’s right? Obviously, once “liberated” by law and free access to contraception, women and men had and still have a load of work to do to work out the best way to use it. I remember a conversation with a woman, again, a few years older than me, at Greenham Common; a mother of two who had just walked out of her marriage. We were talking about rape in marriage, which was still perfectly legal in those days. “I was raped twice a night for six years,” she commented. I wouldn’t want to pass judgement on that, even with the benefit of decades of hindsight. She had two small children, a factor I would have insufficiently registered at the time, but even to me it was clear she was referring, not to violence, but to the routine marital sex she put up with just for the sake of a peaceful night. It’s always easier to succumb than to risk a bad-tempered partner on whom you depend, even if he’s not a brute.
Which is just some context. Clearly this argument – is, in general terms, Lots of Sex with Multiple Partners a Good or Bad Thing for Women? – is no more simply concluded than any other political football. The fact that a woman’s sexuality is still primarily defined as her attractiveness to men is as much a product of barely-ruffled patriarchy as the fact that, once “liberated” from family and religious tradition, women and girls all over the world are still exposed to the most brutal kinds of sexual abuse. But they are, let’s not forget, exposed just as much when left “unliberated” within them, only we hear less about it, just as we once heard less about child abuse. And who does that end up protecting?