:: Article

In the Company of Men

By Max Dunbar.

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, Natasha Walter, Virago 2010

Lots of commentators like to style themselves as ‘politically incorrect’ but the new taboos generated over the last few decades mean that there is very little material to be ‘politically incorrect’ with. Open racists will be shown the door in most situations, and religion is out now that religious groups are powerfully and sometimes violently oversensitive to criticism.

But some things don’t change. Go into a place where there is men and booze and after a while the conversation will get distinctly nasty. Men will make light of rape, domestic violence and even child abuse if they know their words will go unchallenged. The tone will be the same in a working-class pub in Dagenham, or a Hampstead gastrobar. Men know that to pull they must appear to be sensitive, they must wear wooden necklaces and have had a gap year and talk vaguely of setting up a band: but underneath the FairTrade moisturiser lurks a familiar set of perceptions and priorities.

‘A poor punt indeed! Wouldn’t open her legs to give full penetration. I just drilled her until I finished, cleaned up and left.’ ‘Shite punt. She was not into being fucked hard. Finished with her wanking me as she said I hurt her too much… waste of money.’ ‘Just seemed to go downhill from then, she lay flat on her back, eyes shut, no sound or movement, until I shot my load, then cleaned me up and off she went… Once again another crap Eastern European shag.’ Natasha Walter has taken these excerpts from a website called ‘PunterNet’ where guys can rate or slate prostitutes they’ve been with. She also interviews working prostitutes. Angela from London: ‘Really younger ones want to experiment, they’ve seen stuff on the internet, violence and rape. What was extreme five years ago is commonplace now. I get enquiries about being tied up, being gagged… some of the men get off on the fact that the woman doesn’t want it.’

Testimony from prostitutes is vital in feminist writing because it can give an insight into what the contemporary male will say and do, given the right conditions. However, the darkness is never that well concealed. Walter attends a club night put on by Nuts, one of several magazines aimed at schoolboys and sexual inadequates. Women are encouraged to put on a uniform and thrash around on a bed set up centre stage, to the barely concealed excitement of morons. A few of them will get modelling work out of this – maybe. And modelling and fashion can be a way out for working-class women who would otherwise waste their lives in call centres and on checkouts. But success is elusive. The head of a top agency told Walter that so many girls ‘come down to London on the strength of one shoot, with stars in their eyes, and they end up up to their ears in debt, pulling pints, lap dancing, prostitution, you name it.’

Living Dolls explores the dark side of the sexual revolution. Walter makes the point that the pressure on young women to live up to a shag-happy ideal can alienate more reserved and quietly brilliant females who aren’t that interested in shaking their arse for FHM. Seventeen-year old Carly: ‘There aren’t any other options. You’re a sex object, and then you’re a mother, and that’s it. There is no alternative culture.’

I think Walter could have explored that last statement more. As soon as a woman reaches a certain age (say, about twenty-six) the pressure to down Aftershocks and fall out of nightclubs stops and the pressure to find a man and churn out some babies begins. We have managed to combine the objectification of women with the cult of childbirth. The nuclear family crumbles, divorce rates shoot up, and yet against all sense and evidence we continue to promote the idea that the best thing a woman can be is a mother. Result: an epidemic of teenage pregnancy as young girls learn to associate reproduction with empowerment; generations condemned to poverty, worklessness and violence.

Many liberal writers suffer from an obsession with detail. Walter sometimes reminds us that women have not yet achieved equal pay, that they are under-represented at the high end of most important industries from politics to publishing, and that women still do most domestic chores even though most now work. But that’s all Walter does: she reminds us, before moving on to spend whole sections analysing the horror of Mattel or debunking some report that claims that the colour pink is hardwired into the female brain. The devil isn’t always in the detail; and, to be honest, should we really care whether our daughters play with Bratz or GI Joe?

And yet the first half of Living Dolls, where Walter interviews casualties of the new sexism, can stand as an essential piece of contemporary feminist journalism. The misogyny she encounters has spilled into public life, as the fuming hostility towards successful women like Hilary Clinton and Cherie Blair shows. Walter quotes the Spectator‘s Rod Liddle: ‘So – Harriet Harman, then. Would you? I mean, after a few beers, obviously, not while you were sober… I think you wouldn’t.’ What’s significant about this statement is that the conservative establishment of which Liddle is a part would once have frowned on saying such things in public. It is more and more acceptable to speak of women as if you were comparing cars, to fuck trafficked prostitutes, to make pronouncements of such idiocy and immaturity without fear of what people will think. And that acceptability takes us into a dark place.

The sexual revolution was a good, vital and natural change, but the loss of civility, taboo and male chivalry has been a disaster. There are many things Natasha Walter gets wrong: but she shows us that, more than ever, it’s time to search for a new romance.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 6th, 2010.