Feminism by the numbers

New feminism, you have failed us all, says Charlotte Raven. What is “new feminism”? Something to do with cupcakes, Katie Price, bra tops and nail polish, according to the Graun essay by Raven: it’s not very well-defined, but it seems to cover the same sort of area that was labelled as “post-feminism” and “girl power” in the ’90s. “It isn’t difficult proving that women are more oppressed than ever,” she claims. Ever? Really? I have a bank account, a ballot and a contraceptive implant. I reckon Mary Wollstonecraft would trade eras with me in a heartbeat.

Where has it gone wrong? Again, it’s hard to tell from Raven’s essay exactly what injury has been done to the female population or how “new feminism” caused it, but there’s a vague definition in the opening paragraph: “Women’s belief in specialness and a concomitant sense of entitlement has inflated in line with [Jordan’s] most famous assets.” We’re all just too fierce for our own good, and it would be much better for everyone if women started treating sex as something dangerous and avoidable – or at least containable.

And it’s a problem of the monied and leisured, not one of those actual struggle-for-subsistence problems. “You can’t simply opt for power – power isn’t a fridge or an elliptical training machine,” she says, sagely. You can’t simply “opt” to consume, either, but Raven never notices (or mentions) the independent disposable income she’s assuming here.

Instead, she presents it as a problem afflicting women in general. So how has she diagnosed it? I checked. She cites about 40 sources – the rest of the evidence is spun out of her own anecdotes. (“I wore Chanel’s Night Sky at meetings with editors, aware that much was at stake,” she reveals. Oooh, take that, “new feminism”. Raven wore nail varnish. Pow!) And most of this evidence is from polemic feminist books and novels by journalists. Look, I’m not saying that she didn’t do her research, but she doesn’t seem to have looked much further than her own immediate peers.

Actually, I am saying that she didn’t do her research. And you can really tell when you get to the four bits of statistical information she throws into her theory. (Apparently, four statistics is the minimum threshold for demonstrating universal gender malaise. I think it’s in The Guardian’s style guide.)

The first stat she cites comes from a survey:

In a recent study of 1,000 British girls (admittedly by a mobile entertainment company), quoted in Walter’s book, 60% said glamour modelling was their preferred career.

It’s not recent – it was from 2005. And I’m buggered if I can find any reference to how the survey was actually phrased or conducted. The apologetically-mentioned “mobile entertainment company” doesn’t even exist anymore. (Update Dr Petra Boynton did a takedown on the “girls want to be glamour models” PR survey at the time. Read it here.)

The other figures are about the extent of the sex industry and the number of punters. “There are now an estimated 80,000 women involved in prostitution.” No there aren’t. In 1999, a researcher estimated that there were 80,000 working prostitutes in the UK. Early last year, she spoke to the Radio 4 program More Or Less about how her work had been endorsed and interpreted by the Home Office:

That figure – recently used by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in an interview about the proposed new law – comes from research done 10 years ago by Hilary Kinnell, when she was working for an organisation providing health services to sex workers.

Ms Kinnell contacted 29 projects that provided services for sex workers to ask how many prostitutes they were working with. She had 17 responses. The average number of prostitutes per project was 665. She then multiplied that figure by 120, the total number of projects on her mailing list, to get an estimation of the total number of prostitutes.

“That brought the total up to very close on 80,000, which is still being quoted,” Ms Kinnell says. “And I find that quite bizarre really. The figure was picked up by all kinds of people and quoted with great confidence but I was never myself at all confident about it. I felt it could be higher, but it also could have been lower.”

BBC News, 9 January 2009, “Is the number of trafficked call girls a myth?”

So everything Raven says about the number of prostitutes in the UK is true, except that 80,000 is probably wrong and the figure’s a decade old anyway, meaning it has nothing to do with the influence of Belle De Jour, Girl With A One Track Mind, Katie Price, Nigella Lawson or any of the other “new feminism” villainesses of the noughties on whom Raven is slapping the blame.

Raven’s got a solution to her made-up problem, anyway:

If awareness returned – if modern woman were no longer disassociating from her pain and victimhood – all her decisions would be different. The things that hurt us would never seem “potentially enjoyable”. We wouldn’t wear silly shoes, blog about our sex life, worry that our babies are upstaging us. Most importantly, we’d resist the temptation to caricature ourselves. We’d lose the Nigella-esque pinny, the Price-esque lash extensions; the Belle-esque pose of erotic empowerment would seem inhibiting. We’d recover our desire for the missionary position with the person lying next to us. In every sphere of existence we’d be free to choose normality.

“New-new feminism”, then: hunting out and rejecting the abnormal, accepting essentialist gender roles (don’t you even think about mocking the sacred pain of femininity by camping it up with a cupcake), and absolutely never forgetting that sex is an embarrassing necessity. No post-natal depression – that’s definitely not one of the “normal” things you can “choose”. Oh, and apparently learning to handle statistics reliably is a hopelessly masculinist tendency you’re best off jettisoning for the cause. Welcome to Raven’s new-new sisterhood, same as the old, old misogyny.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010