'Raunch culture' and the hypersexualisation of youth have exposed women to sex at a younger age, leaving them dissatisfied and insecure. Angela Phillips believes a return to feminist discourse on campus is the way forward
Sally Jones is 21. She has just completed her degree in fine art at Goldsmiths, University of London, and her project is a graphic interpretation of her own sex life. She rates herself as completely comfortable with her body and sexuality. She likes sex and had her first encounter at 14. She has always used contraception, never been pregnant and regularly gets herself checked out for sexually transmitted infections. She has had lots of different partners and says she feels happier being single, although she has had a couple of serious relationships. She thinks it is fine to show off your body and, just to take that to its obvious conclusion, she sent off a picture to Nuts magazine for their "Tits of the week" competition. She got back a friendly e-mail suggesting that she send along a picture of the whole of her body so that the following week they could "reveal the face behind the tits".
Indeed, Jones lives the concept of the "autonomous self", which media studies lecturer Lisa Blackman and sociologist Valerie Walkerdine describe thus in their book Mass Hysteria : "The 'autonomous self' has the positive attributes of independence, autonomy, responsibility, self-control and forward thinking. It is self-reliant and able to account for the choices it makes in relation to its own biography of needs, motives, aspirations and desire for personal fulfilment and development."
But Jones is not sure that she is an "autonomous self". Her project was an attempt to work out whether she is constructing her own sexuality or simply taking it "off the shelf" from lads' magazines. Is she in charge of who she is or is she just playing out a fantasy cooked up by someone else?
What is striking about the graphic interpretations of Jones's sex life is the ratio of bad sex to satisfying sex. Less than one third of her experiences are described as "satisfying". Why does she keep trying in the face of such unsatisfying results?
"I am an optimist, so I am always thinking that it will be good," she says in an e-mail. "I don't expect it to be bad. I also know that sex on a one-night stand won't really be good, as the best sex is with someone you know and are comfortable with. I am not totally sure why I still do it."
If Jones does not know why she does it, then where are her ideas about sexuality coming from? How much is her concept of "self" based on her own desires and how much is it based on her assumption of what other people expect of her? Jones's dilemma is not hers alone. A debate is stirring.
Rippling through campuses and into the world beyond is a renewed interest in feminism, and the reason is unease about what is being described as "raunch culture": the hypersexualisation of youth and in particular female youth culture.
At a conference at Goldsmiths in June, author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach spoke of young women suffering "desperate insecurity and body hatred" in spite of being successful in the world of school and work - beyond their parents' wildest dreams.
Journalist Ariel Levy writes in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs : "We have to ask ourselves why we are so focused on silent girly-girls in G-strings faking lust. This is not a sign of progress. It's a testament to what is still missing."
Reporting on a conference seminar on "third-wave feminism" called by the Compass group of the Labour Party, journalist Natalie Hanman wrote in a Guardian blog: "The anecdotes were incredibly heartening: of local 'Reclaim the Night' marches, of brave individual attempts to challenge sexual stereotypes, of consciousness-raising and, above all, of a genuine desire to find ways to tackle this sexual saturation."
This is not the anti-sex feminism of Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. It is questioning the way in which a particular commodified form of sexuality has been taken up and sold to young women. It is asking uncomfortable questions about the way in which women are themselves colluding in a trade that depends for its success on ratcheting up female anxiety and competitiveness.
At the centre of this debate lies a conundrum. Exposed female bodies are everywhere, binge drinking has become a part of female culture, the average age for first sexual intercourse has dropped from 17 to 16 in a decade, and girls are admitting to early sex in the same numbers as boys. Yet every survey of teenage sexual behaviour suggests that British teenagers are unhappy with sex. They are doing it in greater numbers than ever before, but many report that they wish they had waited, and, according to Wellings 2005 National Sex and Lifestyle Survey , three times as many women as men report that they were the "less willing partner".
These findings are not universal. It is British and US culture that seems best to cultivate unhappy young women whose bodies seem to ask the eternal question: "Am I good enough to be loved?"
Why so much anxiety when so much has already been won? Central to this new-found anxiety, speakers at the Goldsmiths conference suggested, lies the neoliberal agenda that has driven the political change of the past 30 years. To participate in the choice-driven world of new Labour, young women have learnt, literally, to embody the virtues that are its watchwords. To be "good" is to be in control of your body and your life: to defer gratification and complete your studies, and to defer motherhood to establish your career. Those who fail to make the right "choices" become the subject of new Labour rescue attempts, the most recent of which has been the Teenage Pregnancy Unit. The TPU was established in 1999 to reduce the (relatively) high rate of accidental pregnancy among the very young.
This entailed transforming bad girls (those who are not in control, don't defer gratification and don't become economically independent) into good girls (who are independent, economically viable and don't need to depend on a man or the state).
How does raunch culture fit in? Orbach suggests that it allows young women to pursue sexual freedom without ever letting go. The ubiquitous binge drinking that seems to accompany it is, she suggests, a way of "making them seem happy and carefree when they aren't". Similarly, wearing clothes that expose bodies is a way of pretending a desire that isn't felt.
In her study Dilemmas of Desire , Deborah Tolman, director of the Centre for Research on Gender and Sexuality at San Francisco State University, interviewed American teens about their experience of sex and discovered that young women found it almost impossible either to experience or to express their own desires. They saw their sexuality only in terms of what Levy calls "being wanted". To be wanted you must dress provocatively and appear "sexy". That very soon spills into having sex when asked, even if you yourself do not want it because, if you are the sort of girl who is in control of your own life, then you never lose control of your feelings either. You will remain guarded, use contraception, take care of your health and make yourself available. If you are not in control, you will get pregnant. If you get pregnant, then you have failed in the project of self-protection and self-promotion.
Where, in all this display, is the sensuous girl who is free to explore her own desires? Between the demands of the marketplace for a perfectly controlled body and the nagging of the "nanny" state for a perfectly controlled mind, young women are desperately in need of places where they can talk about their own needs. Sadly, the machinations of the nose-holding moralists have held back the development of sex and relationship education in schools where such discussion could take place, so the return, however fragile, of feminist discussion in universities is a very welcome step.
Angela Phillips is a senior lecturer in media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.