Let’s look at the system, not what we do in bed

IN A new book, A Return to Modesty, 23-year-old American Wendy Shalit argues that women’s problems spring from their lack of modesty – or, to put it more crudely, their inability to keep their knickers above their knees.

Weighing in on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, Shalit concludes that the core social problem exposed by Lewinsky’s behavior in the White House is young women’s lack of sexual and moral inhibitions. I thought it was their seeming belief that the surest route into the Oval Office is still on their knees.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Shalit and other twenty-something women, weaned on Reagan and Thatcherite notions of personal responsibility, look to women themselves as the source of their own misery. As the Gen X women in Kathy Bail’s DIY Feminism note, blaming patriarchal society for female problems makes a girl guilty of “self-pity and the worst kind of passivity”.

If Bail is right, many Gen X women see the sourcing of female unhappiness in social causes (or the naming of the personal as the political) as an unacceptable mimicry of the approach of the previous generations (“the mothers”). In the eyes of “the daughters”, such identification prohibits the separation necessary for young women to create their own generational approach to problems and change.

The advantage of the individual-responsibility approach to women’s problems is that in claiming our lives are the result of our “choices”, we emphasise female agency and control.

But allocating agency and control to women’s lives when little exists leaves us unable to name the political difficulties that are making our personal lives hell. And if we cannot source a problem back to its origins in social beliefs and organisation, then we cannot alter the ideas or institutions that have caused it. We remain stuck, blaming and hating ourselves for problems for which we actually bear little responsibility.

And this is only one of the problems with an analysis that places female sexual conduct at the heart of all that ails women. The second is the re-activation of the sexual double standard, a re-activation that in the Abbott and Costello libel case led to the awarding of one of the biggest defamation payouts in ACT history. A double standard that judges women’s behavior, and their moral virtue, differently to men’s. A double-standard that says that while men’s reputations are rightly based on moral virtues like honesty and integrity, women’s justly revolve around what they do or don’t do in bed: on whether they are good girls, or sluts.

The past 30 years have provided women with greater opportunities to live a life as varied and full as that lived by men. To be able to be not only parents and partners, but employees as well. Along with this freedom has come sexual freedom, important less because it gives women greater licence in bed, but because it helped vanquish the notion that what women get up to in the sack matters in any assessment of their characters.

To a large extent, however, employment opportunities for women have been opened up without the necessary guarantees and supports. Women have been allowed to work (at roughly three-quarters of the male wage) as long as they continued to uphold their previous responsibilities as wives and mothers.

It’s an impossible task, but through the ’80s working women – their capes flying behind them – tried hard to make it work. When they were forced to confess defeat at the start of the ’90s, they largely blamed themselves (lack of organisation, stamina and honesty about the difficulties were common themes). But the burial of the supermum myth has not been accompanied by structural solutions to women’s predicament. To the contrary, structurally and socially, things have become more difficult, with childcare costs and unpredictable working hours both on the rise.

My research on young childless women shows that working mothers are not the only ones feeling confused and unsupported by these changes. Gen X women, for whom working is an assumption not a debate, are increasingly worried about their capacity to make a reality all parts of their imagined futures as employees, partners and mothers.

This, rather than how often they have sex, and with what number of partners, is the cause of any female malaise. For both women and men, sex is a small though important part of our lives: a part that has little to do with defining our characters or dictating our happiness.

The real problem young women face is twofold. Firstly, that the lives we have and the lives we want contain too much responsibility and not enough social support. Secondly, that the analytical tools needed to source responsibility for both the problem and the solution have been thrown out, in an understandable but damaging attempt to find solutions unique to our generation.