Recently I happened to see a stand-up routine by the waspish comedian, Simon Evans, who lives in the Brighton and Hove area. Most of his rant concerned the vast numbers of scantily clad ‘hens’ that hit both towns during weekends, leading him to posit that perhaps it would be a good idea if the local prostitutes were to wear badges so that punters could more easily identify the real working girls from the amateurs.
This comment did ultimately raise a laugh, but it was preceded by the sort of collective intake of breath that must have warned Evans that he was perilously close to the precipice, the point at which a triumphant Sunday Night at the London Palladium becomes professional suicide on the stage of the famously tricky Glasgow Empire.
Perhaps I laughed earlier than the rest of the audience, because this observation was one that I had recently made myself, when watching some fly-on-the-wall documentary about the mess that police and paramedics are forced to confront on the streets of Britain’s cities every weekend. Watching one crowd of women staggering along the street, clad in what can only be described as inappropriate attire considering the inclement weather I had thought exactly the same thing myself. Having been absent from my home country since 1982, I started to wonder at which point it became perfectly acceptable for young women to venture out at night in what would have been regarded in the 1970s and 1980s as the classic uniform of a brass.
At this point I would like to state that I have absolutely nothing against prostitutes; these women perform a very useful service and I would love the profession to be legalised, thereby offering them an increased level of protection against pimps who are a bit too handy with their fists and equally violent punters. Without this protection, many prostitutes are forced out onto the streets where they become easy prey for men like Steve Wright, the lorry driver who murdered five women near Ipswich in 2006.
The bald fact is that when you have something to sell – in this case, sex – you have to make sure that the potential customer can see the goods in advance of payment. So, that is the prostitute’s angle; what tempts the ordinary lass out on the town to market herself in exactly the same way?
In the 1990s I started to be aware of the now well-worn phrase, “I’m confident in my sexuality.” This is all very well and would perhaps explain an attitude that might persuade women to put their melons on show: “See these? See how ripe and luscious they are? Well, have a bloody good look, love, because this is the closest you’re ever going to get to them!” That is a dangerous game at the best of times but, coupled with an intention to drink one’s own bodyweight in alcohol, it becomes damn near suicidal.
Recently Joanna Lumley has added her own five cents to the debate by advising young women on ways that they might keep themselves out of harm’s way. “Don’t look like trash, don’t get drunk, don’t be sick down your front, don’t break your heels and stagger about in the wrong clothes at midnight,” she said. Sound advice, I would have thought. Yet delivered in La Lumley’s cut-glass accent, this sensible warning has been construed by The Guardian’s columnist, Tanya Gold as an attack on working class culture.
Speaking as a member of the bourgeoisie I would like to posit that, were I working class, I would deeply resent the implication that a typical night out for me would inevitably involve donning a fanny-flashing dress, downing an industrial-sized quantity of Bacardi Breezers and sitting in a puddle of my own wee.
It is perfectly natural, upon reaching middle age, to imagine that the years of one’s youth were far superior to anything on offer today, but given the evidence that many of Britain’s towns and cities are virtually no-go areas most evenings (and especially on weekends), wouldn’t it be great to return to the days when all generations felt comfortable about hitting the town after dark?
On the odd occasions when my friends and I could talk our way out of Bryntaff, our boarding house, and onto the mean streets of night-time Cardiff (and this always involved a lie about going to the cinema), we inevitably applied make-up and wore our “going out” clothes. We usually ended up in a pub, in conversation with some slightly lairy, but perfectly decent blokes from somewhere exotic like Port Talbot or Neath and probably had a bevvy or two. I am heartened to note that a night on the town for my 25 year-old goddaughter is pretty much the same; having seen photos of her social life I can confirm that she and her friends also prefer the ‘dressing up’ to the ‘dressing down’ option. Probably they have a drink or two, but stop long before they lose control.
The main problem is that, in combination with excessive amounts of booze, wearing a PVC nurse’s uniform that barely covers one’s arse cheeks is an invitation to trouble, whatever Tanya Gold says. When I was a teenager I was advised not to wear cripplingly high heels because, if some man with evil intentions did decide to rape or mug me, it would be more difficult to make my escape. That seemed like sound advice then and it still does now.
There is a vast gulf between offering advice to help women stay out of trouble and stating that, “They asked for it!”
Like many of us who experienced our teenage years in the 1970s I was raised on the old feminist anthem, “Whatever I wear, wherever I go, yes means yes and no means no” but I hadn’t factored in the possibility of living in an era when women would drink so much that they would finish a night out so drunk that they would be unable to withhold sexual consent.
Being too drunk to say no is a massive problem – possibly one of the largest facing young women these days.
It’s for this reason that courts are obliged to hear cases which revolve around “he said, she said” non-consensual sex scenarios and the incidence of STDs like chlamydia are higher than they have been for decades.
In advising girls not to dress like tramps and drink like fish, Tanya Gold accuses Joanna Lumley of colluding with the Taliban. This is clearly complete nonsense, but does expose the current British obsession with not being judgemental.
Maybe it is time that we rediscovered the positive aspects of being judgemental. Maybe it is time that we told young women that to venture out at night in clothes bought at Anne Summers and combine their inappropriate attire with copious amounts of alcohol is a thoroughly bad idea. Maybe it is time that we told them that a little responsibility for their own actions is in itself empowering – and far more celebratory of their sexuality than going commando in a perilously scanty French maid’s uniform.
“Whatever we wear, wherever we go, yes means yes and no means no.” I still believe in that philosophy; any sexual assault is ALWAYS the fault of the rapist. However, when my friends and I chanted this, all we were thinking about was displaying perhaps a centimetre more cleavage than our parents would deem suitable.
If I acquired a Porsche convertible and parked it in an area of high crime and left the keys in the ignition I would anticipate a stern lecture from the local constabulary about my carelessness and lack of common sense, were it stolen.
Of course, it is a big mistake to associate rape with revealing clothing; most sexual attacks on women by men have absolutely no bearing on their choice of outfit, but it certainly is true that a combination of trashy costume and terminal drunkenness is a pretty good guarantee that a night out will end in trouble, whether this involves pregnancy, an STD or finding yourself in bed with a total stranger.
As we seventies feminists have long realised, ending up in bed with some unpromising herbert due to the application of beer goggles does not a rape or serious sexual assault make.
You want equal rights? You’ll just have to butch it out and admit your mistake.
When I was a teen there was a phrase that used to send us all into gales of laughter. It was very popular with Play for Today style dramatists and always involved a scenario where a girl was debating the merits of sleeping with her boyfriend: “Will you still respect me in the morning?” Oh, how we laughed!
Funnily enough, it doesn’t sound quite so amusing these days.