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Jane Shillingford on the female sexuality dilemma

Without doubt female sexuality remains one of the most complex, varied and intriguing aspects of human society.

For a century and a half Britain was happy to buy into a convenient Victorian-born myth that women were confined to the home until about 1890, courtesy of a public middle-class view that sex was some sort of female duty that delicate young girls, wearing multi-layers of petticoats and dresses, were best protected from until they’d hopefully reached the security of marriage and the gateway to their main purpose in life as a homemaker and baby factory.

My own grandmother, born in 1897, delighted in telling her grandchildren that she never received a single word of ‘the facts of life’ from her mother and went to her marriage bed wholly unprepared for her first sight of an erect penis.

We all laugh (well, I do) at occasional outings in the media of classic advertisements from the 1950s – so accurately parodied by humourist Harry Enfield – featuring ‘women, know your place’ type advice on how best to please your husband by keeping your home spotlessly clean, leavened by wall-to-wall digs at women’s supposed inferiority at reversing and parking cars, or taking any key life decision, let alone dealing with an electrical or mechanical appliance.

Alice Keppel, mistress of Edward VII

Alice Keppel, mistress of Edward VII

This view, of course, completely ignored the part played by female sexuality throughout history – cue Cleopatra, Boudicca, Catherine The Great and Lady Hamilton, to name but four hackneyed celebrity examples – plus legions of prostitutes, mistresses, ‘Grande Horizontals’ and countless other lady foot soldiers in the battle of the sexes who plainly enjoyed the company of men in all its multi-faceted forms of bedroom expression.

In France it was perfectly normal and acceptable for prominent men to keep a mistress – this applies today as much as ever. In Britain, even in the 19th and 20th Centuries – let us ignore the resolutely-libertine 17th and 18th – the world of politics and power was littered with sexual affairs and scandals, as hundreds of biographies and histories down the years continue to testify.

Yet somehow the guardians of public morals kept control of the agenda by dividing the female world into those who were ‘good, wholesome and one day would make a good marriage’ – who didn’t have sex – and ‘the fallen’, i.e. those who did ‘do the dirty’ … and thereby immediately fell into a seedy world of vice, abortion, domestic violence, unspeakable hereditary disease, eternal damnation and (worst of all) the marital scrapheap, because no decent man would consider them as a prospective partner.

We might think that this Dark Age is behind us, but my purpose today is to question whether it has really ever left the stage and examine the extent to which women themselves have muddied the waters by their contrary attitudes to female sexuality.

We were sold the supposed sexual revolution of the 1960s (the era of the Pill, ‘the summer of love’ etc.)  as a ground-breaking leap of freedom for our ‘monstrous regiment’. Okay, for some of us it might have been, but with hindsight it can also viewed alternatively as a ground-breaking leap forward for male sexual opportunity.

Now that, thanks to contraception, sex didn’t automatically mean a better-than-even risk of pregnancy, we were all supposed to be ‘doing it’ with everybody that came along. If we didn’t, we were dismissed – both by men and our own girlfriends – as frigid. What worse insult could there possibly be to a young girl on the cusp of adulthood?

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey

Leaping forward fifty years, it seems that me the publicity and controversy prompted by launch of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie trailer this week highlights some of the contradictions.

On the one hand, the book by E.L. James upon which it is based (a huge global best-seller) seemed to tap into a potent line of general female interest and desire. [I should mention here that I haven’t read it – I bow to nobody in my willingness to ‘try anything once’, sexually and otherwise but, when I can find the time, I prefer to read other things].

On the other, as a society, we are still wrestling with issues of domestic violence against women, worryingly-low rape conviction rates, single parenthood, abortions and innumerable examples of casual sexism and misogyny.

One of the problems is the mixed messages we are giving ourselves.

Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus

In 2014 we have Grade A female pop stars like Beyonce, Miley Cyrus and Rhianna exploiting their sexuality to their impressionable young fans – revelling in exposing their flesh, alternatively play-acting assertive and then submissive female sexual behaviour, both openly designed to attract male sexual interest.

Conversely, elsewhere we are also campaigning that unwanted and boorish male attention must be discouraged.

No wonder men are confused.

Many women are as well.

What we seem to be saying to the world is that women are as obsessed with sex in all its many varied forms as men – but only when we feel like it.

When we’re not in ‘sexual’ mode, we wanted to be left alone and treated with respect – and yes, maybe have men rise from a table as we arrive, open a door or two for us and generally act with decorum at all times as if they’re one of the ‘upstairs’ males from Downton Abbey.

I’m not saying it’s not possible to have the best of both worlds, just that perhaps – when you let the genie of ‘female sexuality’ out of the bottle – you cannot put it back in again, still less legislate as to which parts of it are ‘good’ (and therefore acceptable) and which are ‘bad’ (and therefore to be banned).

And anyway, who is to say what is ‘good’?

In this modern world, one girl’s meat can be another’s poison.

Now there’s equality for you!


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About Jane Shillingford

Jane spent the bulk of her career working on women’s magazines. Now retired and living on the south coast, she has no regrets and 'would do it all again'. More Posts